Okay, so if you are a teacher coming to this post, thinking about using a section of poems from the anthology, perhaps you may be unsure as to which one to teach to your students. I would not blame you in the least. Or you are a student already started on one section of these poems and wondering just why your teacher decided on such a group of poets and their works. Hopefully, this little blog will put you at ease and assist you in your thinking.
So, which one would I choose, with over twenty years of experience behind me, 16 of them teaching GCSE? The answer needs to come after we view the three sections.
Here they are… in no particular order either.
The conflict poems are arguably some of the juiciest to have a go at under normal times and practicalities. Blake, Byron, Hardy, Clarke, Heaney; all exceptional at their craft, not to mention my favourite, Wilfred Owen. If Dulce Et Decorum Est was in here, the other two sections would not get a second glance. I find I can get more out of a poem with conflict in it than I can about love, or relationships, youth or age because conflict is the one fact of life that unites us all. To me, a good poem like Anthem For Doomed Youth cries out, like the cries from Flanders Field itself, to be studied. It should be studied and never ignored, so as to continue the themes of Lest We Forget in our modern society. For our futures, people put themselves in harm’s way.
The Hardy poem, is perhaps the best one in there as well. It is sublime in its brilliance [and I am not a huge fan of Hardy’s work, having had it rammed down my neck at University]. So perhaps, a male teacher like myself, a former soldier in the TA [see Bayonet Charge], sees a section like this and sees the chance for the boys in the class to engage better than usual. You know the types. We call them “The Mafia” who usually sit at the back in each corner leering at you until something interesting comes along. Perhaps, choosing such as this will help more than just the usual few?
Could the Mafioso at the back deal with themes of love and relationships for example? To some of them I have taught, the ideas of love and relationships are alien to them, or they have a very skewed sense of what a truly loving relationship is. Mum and Dad have separated, or bitterly divorced. The family has broken. Damage has been caused and then you trot along, as a new teacher, all happy and upbeat about the idea of teaching them about love and relationships. Yeah, right, sure! So sorry for being cynical here, but these themes can be an instant turn off [just as much as conflict, I know].
I have recently written a review/analysis of the first poem, called “Song,” by Helen Maria Williams and it was not an easy task. It would be harder for me to teach that poem and more importantly to teach the students how to formulate a written response to it. Bronte and Browning will no doubt be the same. But when it comes to the admirable Carol Ann Duffy, there I would be in my element, so the heady mix of what we teachers used to call “pre-1914 lit” in each of these sections balances out the more modern. I adore Philip Larkin and Arundel Tomb, for example, having taught it to Year 9 before now, but also because of the ‘religious’ aspect [in another guise I am a preacher as well]. So this section would not phase me, but it might the students. A one gender school maybe, will flatten this section, but the gender would have to be the right one to fully grasp the emotional and almost spiritual aspects of some of these poems.
And then we get the strangely titled “Youth and Age.” Now what on earth is going on there? It is like one of those titles you get on Pop Master on Radio 2 in a morning where you think Oh that sounds good and then he asks you the questions and you think or maybe not!
To a young audience, the idea of youth and what it is to be young, would appeal. I wonder what the 55 year old teacher would do with this though? Is the idea to balance the differences between youth and age in this section? Is that what they are trying to achieve by putting this lot together?
To an adult GCSE group, like I taught last, they would be prime movers for such as this because they have done the former and are well into the latter, some of them more than others. Once again, the balance has to be right. As a teacher, you need to select, thinking not so much what is the easiest to teach [for me, Conflict] but more about the group/s you have. What is their social and demographic make-up? What are their attitudes to life, to each other, to the pressures we face as humans?
Just have a look at the poems in the section now…
Clarke and Frost are fine poets with equally good poems; easily understandable. But some of the others, like Plath, need to be researched well, for only then will any student understand them completely in the context of a historical and social standpoint. You need to teach the life, lifestyle, beliefs, practices, moral ideas and views of the poet to be able to allow the student to then see the reason why someone like Plath is writing as she is. You need to be aware of the things happening in the world at that time. If I am thinking for example, about my own mortality [having near enough died in 2010 in a major car crash myself] and I write a poem about ageing and the afterlife, then what am I saying? In my case, the message I am more than likely going to share is do not worry about death [been there once and the experience was sublime!]. For the student, you need to learn EVERYTHING you can about each poet, about their life. about beliefs, marriages, separations, everything you can. You may see something in the poem then where you stop and think hey now, hang on a minute here, s/he is writing this because…….
That moment will be an epiphany of information coming together to make perfect sense!
Now, you students reading this, here is where you do not need to worry. If you do not like the choice your teacher has made and you want to do another one, here is my challenge for you. When it comes to the exam, there will be a page with questions on for each section. So three pages at least, but more like six. Your teacher may teach you the Love and Relationships section, but that does not mean you cannot, on your own, before the exam, study the other two [for fun – yes, for fun – English Lit is total fun]. What you do in your own time is your domain, but more importantly, just imagine this; your teacher has done the section and you open the test paper and see the question. If at that moment the acronym of W.T. F suddenly hits you and your eyes widen alarmingly, look to the other two sections to see what questions they have before planning an answer.
And above all, do not panic!
You may find that the alternate section has a better, more answerable question. In my finals for my degree, I did this and got the 2:1 so there is your proof that a shift over to another section works, when needed.There is no rule saying you cannot do the other section question but do not answer a question from more than one section. That bit is important. Believe it or not, I have seen that done and known they would either fail, or not get their C grade.
So, whatever poem you teach, or study, how to answer a question depends on your approach. Try going to the search bar on this site and typing in UNLOCKING A POEM. Then copy and paste it into a word processor on your computer and choose one poem after the next [as I will endeavour to do here over the coming months – year more like] and write an analysis of your own. The more you do it, the more you will understand and the more your chances of a high pass come closer. But above all else, find out about the poet first – do some research on each one. Write a half page bio if needs be for notes.