Author logo The NEAB/AQA English Anthology

Introduction
English and English Literature
What's in the Anthology?
Taking exams
How many poems should you study?
Can you replace your anthology?
Annotating your Anthology
Writing about poetry for GCSE English
What about poems in the lit section?
How to answer exam questions
Poets in the English literary heritage
Simon Armitage
Carol Ann Duffy
Ted Hughes
Poems from other cultures and traditions
Revision notes: Carol Ann Duffy
Revision notes: other cultures and traditions
Maximize this page

Introduction

The English Anthology is a collection of prose and poetry texts which supports your work for GCSE exams in English and English Literature. For some parts of each exam, you will write about at least some of these texts. For other parts (such as written or spoken coursework) your teacher may use the Anthology or other texts. The current Anthology (red-orange colour) is the second one - it was first used for exams in 2000 and will continue in use for exams until 2003. A new Anthology has been published in 2002, for use with groups studying for exams in 2004 and beyond. The new Anthology is designed to support new syllabuses - I hope to publish new guides for its contents.

Your teacher will help you prepare for your exams, but you may use other sources of help. A good published guide (which is written by GCSE examiners and approved by the exam board) is Working with the English Anthology by Imelda Pilgrim, Lindsey McNab and Paul Osman. This is published by Heinemann: ISBN-0-435-10129-3. If you wish to buy a copy click on the link below.

Both the BBC and Channel 4 broadcast programmes to support study of the Anthology. You will find notes on these on their respective Web sites.

Your Anthology is a very important book. Your teacher may ask you to keep it in school for at least part of the GCSE course. You will certainly need it for your exams which will normally be in June or possibly May. (Most students take a two-year course and are assessed at the end of Year 11, but it is possible to take either exam in an earlier year. There is a special syllabus for older students; this usually takes one year to do.)

Back to top

For GCSE English, you need your Anthology for the first half of the second exam paper (Section A: Reading). First, you have to answer one question on a poet of your choice - there are three to choose from, and your teacher may want you to study just one, two or even all three, but you only do one question on one named poet. Next, you answer one of the questions (usually there are two to choose from) on Poems from Other Cultures and Traditions.

Put simply, this means you will write answers to two different questions - one on your chosen poet, and one from Poems from Other Cultures and Traditions. Each question should take you about half an hour. If you go over this time, you may have to rush the second half of the paper (Section B: Writing). This is not a good idea generally. However your teacher may advise you to spend a little more time in a given section if he or she knows that you can pick up extra marks at one point without too much risk of losing lots of marks elsewhere. Of course, if you finish the Writing section early, you can always go back to your work on the Anthology in Section A: Reading. Below you will find guidance on how to use your answer booklet to leave space for this.

For GCSE English Literature, use of the Anthology is optional (you may use it but you don't have to). In the exam (for which there is only one paper) you have to write on set texts. These are divided into two sections, 20th century Prose (Section A) and 20th or pre-20th century Poetry (Section B) In each case there are suitable texts in the Anthology. There will be questions on these (although finding the right question can be tough, as the exam paper is very long). The texts in the Anthology are mostly shorter than the other set texts, especially the prose texts. If you find a lot of reading hard or can't cope with lots of books, studying the Anthology may be best for you. On this site you will find separate guides to some of the prose texts in the literature section, but I have not yet written guides for the poetry in the literature part of the Anthology(though I hope to do so for the new Anthology).

Back to top

English and English Literature

You may be studying both of these or just English. (English is a core subject of the National Curriculum, so you have to do it in most of the UK.) When you are examined in English, the examiners are looking for particular skills. When you are examined in English literature, the skills required are rather different, although there is a lot of overlap. Don't be frightened by this, but it may help you if you know what the examiners are looking for. You will find guidance about this below. This means that you may use the Anthology in very different ways for each subject.

English is generally considered more important than most other subjects. This is because it is (like maths and science) a core subject of the National Curriculum. If you wish to apply to university some time in the future, you will be required (normally) to have GCSE passes in both English and maths at grade C or above. For some courses, such as teacher training, the required grade may be higher.

English literature is an optional subject. You don't have to take it by law, although it may be compulsory in your school. In many schools this is done by teaching English and English literature together. Click on the links below to find out more about exams and assessment in English and English literature.

Back to top

What's in the Anthology?

The Anthology is clearly divided into four parts, two (Parts 1 and 2) for English and two (parts 3 and 4) for English literature. These are the four parts:

  1. English Part 1: Poets in the English Literary Heritage. There are three poets to choose from: Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, and Ted Hughes.
  2. English Part 2: Poems from Other Cultures and Traditions.
  3. English Literature: Prose
  4. English Literature: Poetry.

Below you will find detailed guidance on how to answer questions about the first two of these. You will also find information about other places where you can find help - whether in print, broadcast or online.

Back to top

Taking exams

Most teachers will ensure that you have lots of practice, so you get it right on the day. At the moment you normally have to take exams at the end of the course. For all GCSE exam boards the maximum amount of marks for coursework is 40% in English and 30% in English literature. All the rest of the marks come from the terminal (= “at the end”) exam. For AQA/NEAB there are two papers for English and one for English literature.

You are expected to provide your own writing implement. Amazingly many students use pens which make it hard for them to write clearly and harder for examiners to read it. Please make sure you have a good supply of suitable pens before the exam.

Being easy to read is more important than being neat. Exam boards do not penalize you (give less marks) for crossing stuff out - just put a line through it, and keep writing. Do not use correction fluid. Don't write in red - examiners use this colour to mark your work. Or green - senior examiners use this colour. Keep to blue, dark blue or black. Ballpoint pens are allowed but don't use too fine a point or a faint colour. Rolling ball pens and gel pens are OK, too, as are traditional fountain pens, if you can write at speed.

Speed is more important than neatness. You may need to change your handwriting from the beautiful style you develop for coursework - a large, round open hand is best. A fast writer can easily cover four to six pages of an answer booklet per hour. But don't write too much - especially in the Writing sections of the English exams.

Back to top

The exam board provides you with an answer book. Sadly this is a book in which you write - not one with the answers already in. There are sections where you fill in details about yourself and the questions you have answered. Whoever is supervising the exam will tell you how to do this. The Centre Name is the name of your school (not your own middle name, if you have one). Most of the book is for you to write your answers in. Expect to have a book of 8 or 12 pages. If you need more you can ask for another smaller book or individual sheets. If you need more than 12 pages for English you may be writing too much.

It's your book - don't try to save paper. Start each answer on a new page - always leave room for more at the end of an answer. If you finish your last question and want to go back to expand an earlier one, this is allowed. In the Writing sections, you may complete a task in such a way that you should not add to it. But this won't be the case with the Reading section - here you may think of extra points to make about a text you have studied.

Always write the question number (and letter if there are alternatives). You don't have to write out the question: the examiner knows what it is. This may comfort you but just consumes time. Of course, if you have nothing to say, you may have plenty of time to use up.

Write a plan. This should take a few minutes at the most - the plan should remind you of the things you want to write about. If you don't do all of them, the examiner can give a mark for something on the plan. If you think of things to add to it, you may do.

Use paragraphs and spaces to show the structure of your work (or create an impression of structure even if there is none).

Back to top

How many poems should you study?

Although you will have to answer questions on one of the Poets in the English Literary Heritage and on Poems from Other Cultures and Traditions, there is no set number of poems which you must prepare. The absolute minimum number you will have to write on will be two for each question. If you prepare more poems you have more chance of studying poems which will help you answer the exam questions. For your named poet it is probably best to study all five poems, though you may prepare your favourites more thoroughly.

There are ten Poems from Other Cultures and Traditions. You may find it hard to prepare all ten very fully. Rather than do all ten superficially (and badly), it is better, perhaps, to prepare some of them (five or six) very well - it is likely that at least one question will be fairly open and allow you to choose the poems about which you write. Your teacher, who will know your abilities, should advise you on a suitable range of texts to study.

Back to top

Annotating your Anthology

On the very first page of the Anthology is a warning, which tells you what you may and may not do - read this and do as it says. Simply, you may write single key words but not whole sentences (or paragraphs or essays). You may (and should) use underlining, highlighting and your own symbols and colour-coding to help you recall your ideas.

If you break the exam board's rules you may be found out at two points. First, officials of the board go to selected schools to check that all rules are being followed. Second, an examiner may see that two or more students have more or less identical answers because they have copied out prepared extended comments. Candidates who break these rules may have their grade lowered or may not even be awarded a grade. Teachers should not allow or encourage this attempt at cheating. Examiners do not like to award high marks when lots of students write answers which are very similar to each other.

Back to top

Writing about poetry for GCSE English

Below you will find more detailed comment on particular texts. This guidance will help you write about poetry generally.

Poems do not write themselves: be aware of the poet. Don't write: “It says that”. Do write: “The poet writes/claims/argues/states that”. Refer to “the poet ” or “the author” or identify him or her by name (but use standard spelling).

If the poem is about a person, decide if this person is meant to be the poet (literally), someone a bit like him or her, or someone wholly different. Avoid writing “he” or “her” as these are confusing. Instead write “the man in the poem” or “the poet's friend” or whoever.

Understand about grammatical person. This refers to pronouns:

  • First person: singular = I/me; plural = we/us
  • Second person: singular = you [and archaic thou/thee]; plural = you
  • Third person: singular = he,/she,it/him,her;, plural = they/them

Note also the difference of subject and object. In the examples above the first word in a pair is the subject [the “do-er” or agent], the second the object [the “done-to” or recipient] of a verb).

Back to top

A text may be written in the first person if the author writes “I” and “me”. In this case decide if the “I” is really the poet or some other person. If the words “I” or “me” are within speech marks, the whole poem may not be in the first person, just the speech which is quoted.

A text may be written in the second person. This may seem odd, but it is quite usual for poets to use the second person when speaking to someone. Love poems and religious poems (and prayers) often speak to the beloved or to God in the words “you” or “thou”. Carol Ann Duffy's In Mrs. Tilscher's Class is largely written in the second person.

A text may be written in the third person if the author refers to someone by a name or description or a third-person pronoun such as "she" or "them". This is quite common. Sometimes, though it may seem odd, a writer will write about himself or herself in the third person - usually this has a distancing effect.

When you write about your chosen poems you are quite likely to find that the poet's use of first or third person is important in creating a particular effect. Thinking about this may also help you not to confuse the poet with the people he or she writes about.

Back to top

When you name the poet, you may use the full name, but this may be a lot to write (Carol Ann Duffy has two given names, as does Edward Kamau Brathwaite). It is quite acceptable (and saves you time) to use the surname only (in some cultures this is the first name). Do not use a given name on its own, unless you are a personal friend of the poet (unlikely but possible - someone has to live next door to Simon Armitage, and it isn't me).

You may find these basic questions (from Channel 4's Web page on the Anthology) helpful:

  • What makes a poem?
  • What is poetic language?
  • How is a poem different from prose?
  • What is a poem for?
  • What is the nature of the poet's craft?
  • How does a poem work?
  • How does a poet work?

Back to top

Can you replace your Anthology?

I often get messages from students and sometimes parents, who want to know where they can buy a replacement for the Anthology. The short answer is that you can't, so please don't ask me how. The book is not offered for sale to the general public, probably because of the copyright restrictions on the many texts it contains - in UK and US law, material prepared for examinations in exempt from many parts of copyright. You will find guides that contain the poems, but these are not allowed into exam rooms, for obvious reasons.

In the first place, this means you should look after your Anthology - don't lose it and don't overdo the notes on it. (If you are a parent, think how to help your son or daughter to look after it.) But supposing that you have a disaster, and as the exam draws near, you don't have one at all, or don't have one that you can take into the exam, what do you do?

  • Speak to your teacher or head of English - or any English teacher at a school or college that enters students for the exam. Many teachers will keep used copies from previous years - it should be easy enough to rub out the previous owner's annotations. (Do not think of relying on them - they are not your own notes and are unlikely to make sense for you.
  • Get photocopies of the pages you need, ideally using a clean copy from a teacher - there is no reason why you should not do this. You will only be taking into the exam the texts you are permitted to have with you (minus all the bits you are not using).
Back to top

What about the poems in the literature section?

I wrote this guide for students taking GCSE English - work of the Poets in the English literary heritage and poems from other cultures and traditions are compulsory texts for this. Virtually all students who do any GCSEs will take English. But English literature is an option - and I have not tried to cover all the poems set for exams in this subject. For the new Anthology, to be used in exams from 2004, there are fewer poems, and I expect to have a guide to cover all of these.

Back to top

How to answer the exam questions

You will probably be asked to write about two (or “at least two”) poems for any question you are set. You will have half an hour in which to do this, so each poem (if you do two) has fifteen minutes, and if you do three, only ten - you must make this time count.

For each poem, make sure that you comment on the particular features which the examiners ask for (such as the poet's attitude to love, or to time and change). Start by stating what the poem is about both obviously or on the surface and at a deeper level:

“This poem (Stealing) seems on the surface to be about a man who has stolen a snowman. At a deeper level Carol Ann Duffy explores the difference between law-abiding ordinary people like herself (and her readers) and the anti-social criminal depicted in the poem...”

Make sure you refer to interesting or relevant points of detail - very general answers are unlikely to get a mark higher than that which corresponds to grade E. It is not enough to point things out and “translate” them - make sure you explain how they work. Look at the following statement:

“Ms. Duffy compares the tadpoles first to commas then exclamation marks to show how they grow and change shape. The image is appropriate because children would really learn about punctuation marks from Mrs. Tilscher.”

The first sentence would earn you some marks, but the second would please an examiner much more.

Back to top

Where possible, make comparisons within and between poems. For example, show how the end contrasts with what goes before it, or show how a similar theme receives different treatment in two poems. Do not waste time on pointing out the very obvious (such as that poems are different because one is spoken by a retired servant emigrating to the New World while the other is a funny version of a news broadcast in a Glaswegian accent).

On the other hand, you could usefully compare these two poems (do you know which they are?) by stating that they each criticize the English class system. Then you could contrast them by showing how one has a historical subject (emigration in the 19th century) while the other is contemporary in its reference to TV news.

Always end with a brief statement about whether you like each poem and why. Often (but not always) the examiners will invite you to do this anyway. A clear personal response earns some marks for you.

Quote briefly - use a single word or phrase - to support your comments. You may refer to a whole stanza or longer section but should not copy this out: there are no marks for copying the text in the Anthology. Show you are quoting by using inverted commas. If you quote a whole line or more (if you really must) you should start on a new line, and indent. Whenever you quote, always explain in your own words what the quotation means (unless it is really self-evident) and comment on its effect. Merely repeating the poet's words is no use, as you have not shown the examiner that you have understood.

Back to top

A good pattern or model to use (in this case based on Arun Kolatkar's An Old Woman) might be as follows:

  • Make a statement: The tourist is defeated by the old woman's persistence and strength.
  • Quote evidence: The visitor (“you” in the poem) is “reduced/to small change”.
  • Explain this evidence: “Small change” is a metaphor for something of little value.
  • Comment on its effect: It is appropriate, because the supposedly weak old woman has got the better of the wary tourist, and because “small change” (literally) recalls the “fifty paise coin” for which the old woman asks at the start of the poem.
Back to top

Poets in the English Literary Heritage

Simon Armitage | Carol Ann Duffy | Ted Hughes

Introduction

In the Anthology, poets in the English literary heritage are contrasted with those from other cultures and traditions. Those in the first group are all British and write in more or less conventional poetic forms. All three began writing in the 20th century. Ted Hughes died in 1998, but Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy are active writers.

Back to top


Untitled | Poem | It Ain't What You Do... | Cataract Operation | About His Person

Simon Armitage

The guide to Simon Armitage has been written by my colleague Sue Justice, of South Hunsley School.

About the author

Simon Armitage was born in Marsden, West Yorkshire in 1963. He studied Geography at Portsmouth, and Psychology at Manchester, qualified as a social worker and worked for six years as a probation officer. He has also worked as a shelf stacker, disc jockey and lathe operator. He is now a freelance writer and broadcaster. His work includes song lyrics, plays and scripts for TV and radio.

Armitage's first collection, Zoom, was published by Bloodaxe in 1989. Subsequent poetry books, all published by Faber, include Kid (1992), Book of Matches (1993), The Dead Sea Poems (1995), Moon Country (1996) and Cloud Cuckoo Land (1997).

Untitled Poem: “I am very bothered when I think...”

This poem comes from Book of Matches, 1993. It appears to be based on memories of Armitage's schooldays. He says that:

"most poetry has to come from personal experience of one kind or another."

The first two lines actually come from a probation service questionnaire, but Armitage has chosen to use them in a different context. Here he tells the story of a science lab prank that went wrong.

The person in the poem heated up a pair of tongs and then handed them to another person, presumably a girl. This girl innocently slipped them onto her fingers and was badly burnt. The doctor said that she would be “marked for eternity” by the ring-shaped scars. The narrator claims now that he was using this as a way of attracting her attention:

“that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,
of asking you if you would marry me.”

Back to top

The language in stanza two emphasises this idea of a marriage proposal with words such as “rings”, “branded” and “marked for eternity”.

Stanza two also departs from the more colloquial style of the rest of the poem by launching into a rather deliberate, self-conscious poetic style:

“O the unrivalled stench of branded skin”

This language is strong and vivid, and seems to imitate the style of earlier romantic poetry.

“Butterfingered” in line 13 is apt because of the clumsiness of the boy's attention seeking behaviour, but also because people used to put butter on burns to soothe the pain.

How seriously we take the narrator's feelings of guilt depends on the tone in which the first line of each stanza is read. “I am very bothered ” is not a particularly strong expression, and one that could be read in a variety of ways. The first line of stanza two is almost laughing at itself because of the exaggerated style.

The speaker also seems to want to distance himself from his feelings by saying, in stanza three, “Don't believe me, please”. This could be part of the awkwardness of a lad who feels he has to play a trick on a girl to get her attention, or it could be the shame or embarrassment of someone looking back on what he was like when he was younger.

Back to top

The structure of the poem is important. It is written in fourteen lines and can be classed as a sonnet, which is a traditional form for love poetry. In one way this could be considered as making fun of this form because it is not a very romantic idea, but on the other hand it is about one person's attempt to attract another.

“Marked” and “at thirteen” are both separated from the rest of the lines by punctuation, thus giving more emphasis to them. The effect of the prank on the girl will be permanent, and yet the fact that the boy was only young might excuse what he did.

In the first stanza, “name” and “flame” are positioned under each other. These make an internal rhyme and link the girl's name to a flame, perhaps suggesting a metaphorical flame of love.

The poem is addressed directly to the girl who was hurt. We have to decide how the narrator feels about her now. Is this a love poem?

Back to top
Poem

This poem comes from Kid, 1992. It is all written in the past tense as though the poet is looking back on this man's life and assessing it.

He appeared to have two very different sides to him. He was a good neighbour, a loving father, a thoughtful husband and a dutiful son. However, as soon as he is shown in one of these roles, the image is destroyed by a glimpse of a darker side to him. He was violent to his daughter and his wife, and twice he stole from his mother.

Stanza one shows him as a neighbour shovelling snow from his drive, and as a loving father who “always” tucked his daughter up at night. Then the last line tells us that he “slippered” her when she lied. Stanza two shows him as a husband who automatically gave up half of his wages each week for housekeeping. Anything that he didn't spend, he would save. After “every meal” he praised his wife. This all sounds very good until “once” when he punched her because she laughed.

Stanza three shows him in his role as a son who hired a private nurse for his mother, regularly drove her to church, and cried when her condition worsened. Then we hear that twice he stole from her.

Back to top

The final couplet finishes off the poem in a fairly casual way, as if "they" were not particularly interested in judging him and his life. The title “Poem” is also fairly casual, as if Simon Armitage was not particularly interested or involved.

Simon Armitage asks:

“How can you judge this person? Here's somebody who for three-quarters of his life, or for three lines in every quatrain, did something good and then he did something bad and in one case, something that would be seen as unforgivable; so how do we judge him in the end? I'm declaring the right not to answer that question, just to ask it. ”

The form of the poem is an imperfect sonnet. It has fourteen lines, which are divided up into three quatrains (four line verses), followed by a couplet. However, it does not have a strict rhyme scheme but instead uses assonance. Each stanza has a distinct vowel sound that is deliberately repeated for effect.

Back to top

The rhymes are imperfect, the sonnet is imperfect (because it fails to rhyme and perhaps also because it is not a traditional love poem), and this helps us to see that this man is not perfect either.

Out of the fourteen lines, we also notice that eleven of them begin with “and”. This breaks a traditional rule of grammar and creates repetition. Perhaps this makes us consider the repetitive nature of the man's life. He seems to have been a creature of habit, always doing the same thing, week after week -except for when he did the bad things.

You may think about how the form and structure affect the meaning of the poem.

The language is probably that of the man himself. Most of it is colloquial in style, using everyday terms such as the verbs “slippered”, “blubbed”, and “lifted”. The words are short and simple and there are no metaphors at all. In lots of ways, it is not very (conventionally) “poetic”. Again, perhaps this reflects the man himself?

Back to top
It Ain't What You Do
It's What It Does To You

This poem comes from Zoom, 1989. The title plays on the words of an old song called, It Ain't What You Do, It's the Way That You Do It. The poem seems to be saying that it doesn't matter what you do, whether you have ordinary or exotic experiences. It's the way that these experiences make you feel that really matters.

Armitage believes that you do not need to travel or do exciting things in order to be able to write poetry. He writes about his own experiences:

“ Black Moss is a very lonely place, on the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire. It's on top of a hill and all you can see is the sky and the water. The boy at the day centre was part of my work. Through looking closely at detail, you can go on to elaborate about the world, the universe, the cosmos. This poem is about the sheer enjoyment of being alive.”

Simon Armitage tells us of three things that he has not done: bumming across America, padding through the Taj Mahal and parachuting.

Back to top

He repeats the words “I have not”, which make it sound positive and assertive. He then goes on to explain his own experiences which are not as exciting, and yet there are parallels to be drawn between them. He has “lived with thieves in Manchester” which was surely dangerous and a sort of “living on the edge” equivalent to “bumming across America”. Skimming stones across Black Moss gave him a similar silence and tranquillity to that in the Taj Mahal. Dealing with disabled children can be every bit as scary as getting ready to jump out of a plane, but in a different way.

Structure: The poem is divided up into five regular four line stanzas. However, there is no full stop between stanzas two and three, and the sense runs on. In stanza two there is a slight gap between the end of one line and the beginning of the next, even though the meaning runs on:

"listening to the space between
each footfall picking up and putting down
its print against the marble floor."

This is called enjambement (French for spanning). We can hear/imagine the pause between each footstep. This is an example of form helping us to understand the meaning of the poem.

Back to top

Language: Much of the poem is written in colloquial language: “bummed” and “busted”, as Armitage tries to explain in real language what the experiences were like. In the first stanza he brings to life the thrill of surviving in America with virtually no resources except a Bowie knife. Then he helps us imagine the absolute silence of the Taj Mahal, and the movement of the stones he skims across the water at Black Moss. Finally we see the “wobbly head” of the boy, and hear how Armitage “stroked his fat hands”; details which help us visualise this scene.

The soft “s” sounds of stanza three help us imagine the stone skimming over the water. It first bounces across the surface and then sinks.(This technique is called onomatopoeia.)

The last stanza struggles to put into words the message of the poem. It is hard to describe feelings in words, so Armitage has been using experiences as metaphors to help us understand what he is trying to say. He describes the “tightness in the throat” and the “tiny cascading sensation” as “that sense of something else”. When he finishes by saying, “That feeling, I mean,” he is drawing us into the poem and siding with us. He wants us to understand what he means.

Note: If you are a teacher, be prepared for Armitage's saying that he has “not bummed across America”. You might alert pupils to it before you read it, to avoid the predictable sniggers. The verb derives from the US English sense of “bum”, meaning a tramp or person who does things for free - nothing to do with “bum” in the sense of “backside” or “buttocks”.

Back to top
Cataract Operation

This poem comes from Book of Matches, 1993. It does not really tell a story but instead describes what the poet can see out of his window. Everything is described in terms of similes or metaphors. Nothing is as it seems to be.

Simon Armitage seems to be using this poem to think about writing poetry. He asks,

“Is it cleverness or is it just showing off? You can bedazzle yourself to the point where you stop seeing the world, and poetry for me is a way of seeing the world. It's a way of making sense of the world and connecting with it.”

He continues,

“in the end I 'drop the blind'; I stop being silly; I stop showing off...if I stop blinding myself with all these ridiculous images, I can go back to writing the poems I really want to write.”
Back to top

The title of the poem is itself a metaphor. We have no reason to believe that Armitage has actually undergone this operation himself. A cataract is a film that gradually grows across an eye and hardens until it makes it difficult to see. It can be removed by surgery, thus restoring the sight. There are two possibilities here:

  • that Armitage is “removing a film” from his eyes and seeing things more clearly (i.e. using clever metaphors), or
  • that Armitage needs some sort of treatment in order to make him stop seeing the world through a film of metaphors until he can see the real world clearly again.

Another possibility could be in the double meaning of the title, since “cataract” can also refer to a waterfall. His clever ideas come tumbling out and cannot be stopped .

Back to top

What Armitage really sees through his window is a washing line full of damp clothes that are being moved by the breeze. After the first simile describing the sun as a head coming through “last night's turtleneck” he chooses to describe the items in terms of entertainment. This perhaps makes us think again about “showing off” or “performing”, which is what he is doing in this poem.

The pigeon seems to offer a card like a magician doing a card trick. We have a “pantomime” of washing. The towel's shape and colour reminds him of a bull fighter, and the ra ra skirt suggests the cancan. The shirt is hanging by one sleeve like a monkey, perhaps in a zoo, and in the final image the company of hens is described as “strutting”.

Back to top

Although not perhaps performing, the handkerchief seems to be waving a farewell in a dramatic way. Because all the items are blowing in the breeze, all the images involve movements. For example, the “olé” of the crimson towel suggests it is being swished backwards and forwards. Another example is the hens at the end who appear to be looking “for a contact lens”. This suggests a short sighted peering at the ground, when really the hens are pecking at anything they see, hoping it's edible.

The language of the poems is relatively natural in style, but is packed with double meanings, as in About His Person:

  • cataract is the cloudy film and also the waterfall;
  • operation could be the medical procedure, the working action or the movement;
  • turns tail is the pigeon's turning round and showing off its feathers, but can also carry the meaning of turning your back on someone deliberately, or even running away;
  • monkey business usually suggests mischievous behaviour of some sort.

These ideas could be applied to what Armitage is doing in this poem.

Back to top

When the blind is dropped in line 15, is Armitage literally shutting out the world and trying to stop seeing things that will tempt him to write in this fanciful way, or is he stopping the pretence?

The poem is written in ten pairs of lines which do not rhyme. However, there is an internal rhyme in “yard” and “card”, and there are some rhymes that do not happen within a pair, such as “skirt” and “shirt” and then in “hens” and “lens”. There is also assonance in “breeze” and “sleeve”.

Alliteration is used in From “pillar to post, a pantomime” which picks up a cliché that means to look everywhere for something. The “p” sounds perhaps could suggest the slight noises made by wet washing flapping about on the washing line.

Back to top

“Pantomime” might also be there because in pantomime, things are not always what they seem.

A rhythm seems to be established in the middle with “the cancan of a ra ra skirt/the monkey business of a shirt”, and then is broken again. “I drop the blind” is a definite break or pause, but Armitage cannot resist temptation and launches into his last metaphor of the hens which ends with a final rhyme.

The poem as a whole can be read in a light hearted tone, and does not have to taken seriously. You can compare this poem with It Ain't What You Do... to write about Armitage's views about making poetry.

Back to top
About His Person

This poem comes from Kid, 1992. The title is a police phrase used when they list all the items found on a body. This, and the fact that this is all written in the past tense, tells us that someone has died. There may have to be some investigation into the cause of death.

Simon Armitage says,

"Part of the point of the poem is that we are constructing somebody from the things which they carried with them."

He also says that the poem is

“entirely substantiated with puns; nearly every word has a double meaning.”

The language of the poem is interesting. Some of the words are used as metaphors for death or violence. For example, the library card is “on its date of expiry”, the diary has been “slashed”, the watch has “stopped” and the shopping list has been “beheaded”.

Back to top

Other words suggest love or marriage, such as the “brace” of keys, the “spray carnation”, the “photograph”, the “keepsake banked in the heart of a locket” and especially the “ring of white unweathered skin” that tells us that this man has worn a ring (perhaps a wedding ring) for a considerable time.

There are several intriguing mysteries:

  • Where is that ring now?
  • Why is he no longer wearing it?
  • Why was the postcard sent to him without any writing on it?
  • Who sent it?
  • Why were those dates crossed out so violently in his diary?
  • What was the final demand?
  • What did the note of explanation say?

Back to top

From all these details we can guess what might have happened, but we cannot know for certain. But this does not matter: it's the thought processes involved that are more important.

The structure of the poem is a series of rhyming couplets, although some of them are not complete rhymes. The opening couplet sets up a steady, regular rhythm. This is orderly and satisfying and perhaps suggests the “regularity of police methods”. The longer lines have four beats and the shorter ones have two beats, until the last two lines, where the regular rhythm seems to break down. “That was everything” is ambiguous: it could mean that the list has finished, or it could mean that the ring is the item that was most important. It finishes off the poem.

Back to top


Work and Play | The Warm and the Cold | The Tractor | Wind | Hawk Roosting

Ted Hughes

The guide to Ted Hughes has been written by my colleague Sue Justice, of South Hunsley School. It is meant to be suitable for students working towards assessment at Foundation Level.

About the author

Ted Hughes was born in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire in 1930. After doing National Service in the RAF, he went to Pembroke College, Cambridge to study English. There he met Sylvia Plath, an American poet, whom he married in 1956. (Later they separated, and she committed suicide in 1963.) He married a second time, to Carol Orchard, with whom he lived in Devon, writing and working as a farmer.

In 1957, Hughes published his first book of poetry, The Hawk in the Rain. He has published many books for children, of which the most famous is probably The Iron Man, which has been made into an animated feature film. His books for adults include:

  • Lupercal, 1960
  • Wodwo, 1967
  • Crow, 1970
  • Season Songs, 1976
  • The Birthday Letters, 1998

Ted Hughes became Poet Laureate in 1984. He died in 1998.

Back to top
Work and Play

The swallow is drinking in a pond or catching insects. The people go to the beach on their day off. To start off, the people are very happy. The swallow is happy because she/he enjoys what he does. Then later on the people are not happy because they are too hot, they get headaches, sand gets everywhere, and they are being bitten by insects.

  • Stanza 1: The people are going to the coast. They are making the most of a day off. They are determined to have a good day. There is a traffic jam.
  • Stanza 2: People are arriving at the beach. There is a scamper of colours as lots of children run onto the beach. They are dressed in bright colours. The people get sun burned. They look like tomatoes because they go red, and also because they are fat and round. The sand is a nuisance, getting into places where it makes the people uncomfortable. When the big waves roll up and splash and perhaps go over their heads they are very cold. It makes the people screech.
  • Stanza 3: The holiday people are laid out on the beach. They look like wounded people waiting to be seen by a doctor, perhaps after a battle. It is as if they have been put on baking trays to be cooked in the oven. "faces of torment" does not make it seem as if they are enjoying themselves. The sounds are screams, which are not nice sounds. The flies are biting as if they are jabbing needles into the people.
  • Stanza 4: When it says "headache it homewards" it means the people are going home with headaches. In the car it is horrible: sticky, sweaty and boring. The children are fighting. Even the flowers seem spoilt by the cars that give off fumes. These people are not having much fun. They now just want to go home.
Back to top
Language

In Stanza 1

  • “Toils“ means working hard.
  • “Glittering voltage“ suggests power, electricity.
  • “Whiplash swimmer“ and “a fish of the air“ both tell us that the swallow moves as quickly and easily through the air as a fish does in the water.

In Stanza 2

  • “barbed harpoon“ suggests the shape of the swallow's tail and perhaps also the speed of the bird, like a weapon flying through the air.
  • “flings from the furnace“ and “dips her glow in the pond“ suggest images from steel works or factories.

In Stanza 3

  • the swallow is described as “the seamstress of summer“ which uses alliteration to make soft sounds, perhaps like the movement of fabric. All the words here seem to suggest the swallow is skilfully making things, sewing things: (“seamstress“, “scissors“, “sews“ “draws a long thread and she knots it“.)

These three stanzas all describe the swallow in ways that suggest he/she is working very hard and making things. In the last stanza, the swallow goes back to its nest. It cartwheels as it flies, making it sound as if it is having fun. The “honey-slow river“ makes it seem peaceful and quiet. The swallow returning to its nest is like a boomerang because it knows exactly where to go, and it comes back rejoicing. The “hand stretched from under the eaves“ is just a way of suggesting that the swallow is welcomed back to its nest.

Ted Hughes also uses conversion so words appear in "wrong" (non-standard) ways. He uses the verb "scamper" as a collective noun in “a scamper of colours“, strongly suggesting the movement of the children inside the brightly coloured clothes. When the people “headache it homewards“, 'headache' is being used very effectively as a verb instead of a noun. Using words in an unusual way perhaps makes us notice them a little more.

Back to top
Structure

The lines about the swallow are longer and more complicated. Each stanza begins with three long lines about the swallow and then has shorter lines about the people: five in stanza one, seven in stanza two, and ten lines in stanza three. The lines about the people get longer as the poem goes on, suggesting boredom.

In the last stanza, the pattern of lines has been changed. This time we get just one long line and then eight shorter lines about the people. Then the last four lines are long and flowing again, as the poem finishes with lines about the swallow. Words about the swallow are beautiful. Words about the people are ugly. The poem finishes on a positive note because it finishes with the swallow. There is a strong rhythm to this poem, but Ted Hughes uses a different style of rhythm for the people and the swallow. This helps to emphasise the differences between the two.

Whose side do you think Ted Hughes is on? Who does he sympathise with?

Back to top
The Warm and the Cold
What is the poem about?

This poem is about really cold weather at night time. In contrast to this, all the creatures are described as going deeper, hiding away or finding somewhere safe and warm to hide.

In Stanza 1 the freezing weather is being described as being like a trap of steel. But:

  • The carp is deep down in the water.
  • The badger is warm in his bed.
  • The butterfly is in its cocoon.
  • The owl is warm inside its own feathers.

In Stanza 2 the cold has got worse, with everything freezing up, like a nut being tightened up as far as it will go. The night is rather like an aeroplane, soaring up to the stars. But:

  • The trout is in its deep hole of water.
  • The hare is straying down the road, like a root going ever deeper underground.
  • The snail is hibernating and dry in the outhouse.

In Stanza 3 the cold is now like a steel vice, and the world has been frozen up like a mammoth trapped within a block of ice. But:

  • The cod is safely within the water.
  • The deer are on the hill.
  • The flies have hidden away in the house, behind the plaster.
  • The sparrows are nesting in the ivy.
Back to top

All three stanzas follow the same pattern. There are four lines that are about the cold and the tight grip it has on the world. Then there are eight lines about the creatures which manage to hide away from the cold. Since they have twice as many lines, this may suggest that the warmth is stronger than the cold: that the warmth somehow wins.

Then the pattern changes. The poet seems to suggest that it so cold that the moon is driven mad by it. The moon is being personified here. Finally, there is the image of “sweating farmers“ so hot in their beds that they turn over “like oxen on spits“. They are certainly warm enough, but it isn't an attractive image!

Back to top
Language

There are two sets of images. The cold is described as a steel trap, a tightly screwed nut, and a steel vice. All of these are industrial images, which suggest a tight grip of cold on the world. There is also the idea of a mammoth's being frozen solid into a block of ice. This is hyperbole (exaggeration) as it suggests the return of the Ice Age.

In contrast, the creatures are all described as hiding away and sheltering somewhere warm and cosy. The badger is “like a loaf in the oven“ and the trout is “like a chuckle in a sleeper“ which suggests quiet, private laughter and is a happy image.

In another contrast, in the last few lines, the farmers are also inside and warm, but are likened to roasting meat turning on spits, which gives an unfavourable impression. The animals are happy because when they sleep they have no cares. But the farmers are unable to sleep because of their worries.

Most of these ideas are expressed as similes, with something being “like“ something else, eg “like money in a pig“. The sparrows are sheltering in the ivy to keep warm, but there is also the idea of their being kept as safe as money being saved in a piggy bank.

Back to top
Structure

This poem has a regular form.

  • It has three stanzas of twelve lines.
  • Then there are seven lines left. They are arranged in three lines, one line, three lines.

It has a regular rhyme scheme: abcbdefeghih

It also has a regular rhythm:

“On trees and roads and hills and all
That can no longer feel

This perhaps suggests that everything in Nature is very well organised and tidy. Everything has its place, and the creatures all adapt to the weather conditions. It also suggests the regular pattern of the seasons. This means that the form of the poem adds something to the meaning.

Back to top
The Tractor
What is the poem about?
  • Stanza 1: The tractor is frozen solid and will not start. There is snow inside it. It is still snowing.
  • Stanza 2: The tractor will not start. The farmer/poet is very cold and his hands and feet hurt. It is quite gloomy, with not very much light. He describes the scene. It is getting even colder.
  • Stanza 3: The farmer tries to start the tractor with a starting lever, but it does not work. The farmer's bottom feels as if it is frozen to the seat and the tractor itself seems to be frozen to the ground.
  • Stanza 4: The farmer uses “sure-fire” in an attempt to start the motor. It still does not start so the farmer thinks it is laughing at him. He tries turning it over and the engine hammers as it does. It feels like it will be broken into pieces. The tractor seems to have mixed feelings, and then finally it starts.
  • Stanza 5: The tractor stands there with its engine running, like a demon. It suddenly lurches forwards as if it wants to know where it has to go.
  • Stanza 6: The tractor has to be fastened to another machine, the power lift. It is a struggle to get the pins into place.
  • Stanza 7: The driver's fingers are at risk of the dangerous machinery.
  • Stanza 8: The driver's eyes water - is it the cold, the exhaust fumes or something else which causes this?.
  • Stanza 9: The tractor is ready to go. It is raging and yet rejoicing. It streams with “sweat” - perhaps this is vapour condensing, or the exhaust fumes which look like sweat.

The poet seems to have mixed feelings about this machine. When he wries, “snow packed its open entrails”, the man is feeling sorry for it. All the time the tractor is sinking, he is still feeling sorry for it. Then when he says, “it ridicules me”, and “a trap of open stupidity”, the man is angry. When it is “shouting Where? Where?” the tractor seems excited.

Back to top
Language

The poet uses personification to describe the tractor and the setting. He makes them seem alive because of this. For example: The tractor has “open entrails”. It “defies flesh” when it won't start. It “coughs” when the man uses sure-fire, and “ridicules” him. It finally “jabbers laughing pain-crying mockingly /into happy life”. It is “like a demon” and starts “shouting Where Where?” Right at the end it is “raging and trembling and rejoicing”. As for the setting, “the copse hisses” which makes it seem like an animal, and the light “flees”.

Back to top
Imagery

The first stanza uses ideas and images from steel works to suggest the intensity of the cold: “a spill of molten ice” and “smoking snow” pour “into its steel” and the poet writes about “white heat” and “ground-level fieriness”. In stanza two, the pain caused by the cold is described: “hands are like wounds already” and the man's feet feel “as if the toe -nails were all just torn off.”

In stanza six, there seems to be various words and images that might be linked with the idea of torture: “worse iron is waiting”, “imprisoned”, “shackle pins” and “The blind and vibrating condemned obedience/Of iron to the cruelty of iron” and finally “wheels screeched out of their night locks”. This appears to be a very painful process for the tractor, and links back to the man's pain in stanza two. Stanza seven continues these ideas with “tormented tonnage” and “burning of iron”.

In stanza two the starlings are described as “A dirtier sleetier snow” and in stanza three the battery is like “ a lamb trying to nudge its solid-frozen mother” - an image of something impossible or pointless. These are both images from nature.

Back to top
Structure

The poem is about three things:

  • the tractor,
  • the setting (the freezing landscape),
  • and the man.

There is no regular structure or rhyme scheme to this poem, although there are various deliberate sound patterns.

Alliteration is used to make sound patterns in “A dirtier sleetier snow, blow smokily”, “hammering and hammering”, “the fleeing, failing light“ and “cast-iron cow-shit“. The “s” sounds are soft, whereas the “c” sounds are shorter and harder sounds.

Another sound effect is created when the starting lever “Cracks its action, like a snapping knuckle”. The word “crack” suggests the actual sound it makes. The poet makes a pattern with the sounds that follow: “cracks...action..snapping”. This sounds like the noises of the engine as it attempts to fire up. The idea of a “snapping knuckle” helps with this, too.

Back to top
Wind

Ted Hughes used to live in a house up in the Pennines “where the horizontal rain would be driven against the walls so hard . that the rain would come bubbling through the wallpaper on the inside. This poem is about weather like that!

What is the poem about?
  • Stanza 1: This describes the effect of the wind on the house. It is as if it has been “out at sea“ all night because the house is very wet and looks as if it has been battered by the wind, like a ship that has been out in a storm. The other lines seem to suggest that the wind is also like stampeding horses.
  • Stanza 2: Once dawn breaks, everywhere looks different. The wind seems to be wielding light like a weapon.
  • Stanza 3: At noon (mid day) the poet went as far as the coal house, but because the wind was so strong, he “scaled along“ the walls of the house. This means he held onto the walls of the house so he would not get blown away. He looked up, and the force of the wind hurt his eyes and “dented“ them. He looked at the hills and saw that their shapes made them look like tents that were pulling and straining at their guy ropes, trying to get away.
  • Stanza 4:The fields were “quivering“, perhaps because of the movement of the grass, and the skyline itself seemed to be moving. This is like the idea of a tent again, because it could “bang and vanish with a flap“ at “any second“. He then describes the birds. A magpie is “flung away“ and a gull looks like an “iron bar“ that is being bent, because of the shape it makes in the sky.
  • Stanza 5: The wind is so strong that it is causing the whole house to make a noise. It reminds the poet of the noise that causes glass to break. He is perhaps worried that the house will be damaged by the wind. He is now with someone else, sitting in front of the fire, unable to concentrate on anything apart from the wind.
  • Stanza 6: They look at the fire, feeling the house's “roots“ move, or in other words feeling some movement and imagining that the house has roots. The windows are also moving, and it is as if they are like people who want to be allowed in to shelter. Even the stones themselves seem to cry out because the wind is so strong. (This powerful image of stones crying out comes from the Bible. In Luke's gospel, Chapter 19, verse 40, Jesus is told to stop his disciples from speaking aloud. He replies that if they kept quiet “the stones would immediately cry out”.)
Back to top
Language

Lots of words suggest the strength of the wind: crashing, booming, stampeding, floundering, blinding, wielded, dented, drummed, strained, bang, flung, bent, shatter. The poem contains some strong images (words that help you to imagine what it looks like).

Some of the words in stanza 1 suggest that the house is like a ship out at sea in a storm, being pounded by the wind and waves. Others suggest that the wind is like galloping, stampeding horses.

The hills are like tents because the shape is the same and they look as if they might be blown away any minute. The flat back gull is flying and the wind catches its wing. The bird's wing folds upwards as if it is bending. The house is like a green goblet because the wind is making a very high pitched sound like a finger running round a glass. High notes can shatter glass.

Back to top
Structure

This poem has a regular structure. It has six stanzas, each with four lines. There are no real rhymes, apart from 'sky' and 'eye' in stanza two, although there are some interesting sound patterns. It is written in six sentences, although these six sentences do not fit neatly into the pattern of stanzas. The poem is about a huge, uncontrollable force, but the poem itself is much tidier and more organised. Ted Hughes is perhaps trying to control the wind by writing about it in this way. He is trying to impose some order.

Back to top
Hawk Roosting
What is the poem about?
  • The hawk is looking down on its prey from a tall tree. It likes killing, and dreams of perfect kills.
  • It thinks that everything has been arranged for its own convenience and advantage.
  • This hawk feels that it is such a splendid bird that it took all Creation to produce it. In other words, the hawk seems to consider that it is perfect.
  • It kills where it pleases. It needs to kill for food, and does this without making any excuses or granting any mercy.
  • The hawk chooses who is to die, and then swoops down to make an instant kill.
  • The hawk likes things just the way they are, and intends to keep it that way. It really seems to believe that it's in control.
Back to top

The poem is written (and spoken) in the first person. It uses “me” and “mine” and “I”. It is told from the hawk's point of view. This poem is anthropomorphic (or uses personification). Ted Hughes is giving the hawk thoughts. The hawk is not really a person and cannot think like this.

The hawk speaks in a very formal, important and sophisticated way: “the earth faces upwards for my inspection”. It is very self-centred. It is putting on airs and graces, trying to sound even more important than it really is. “I kill where I please” and “My eye has permitted no change”.

The poem is all written (or spoken by the hawk) in the present tense. This makes it all sound very immediate, as if it is happening now.

There are six stanzas of four lines. This poem is written in a neat, organised way. The poet is controlling the poem just as the hawk believes it is controlling everything.

Back to top

War Photographer | Valentine | Stealing | Before You Were Mine | In Mrs. Tilscher's Class

Carol Ann Duffy

About the author

Carol Ann Duffy was born in 1955, in Glasgow, Scotland's largest city. All of her poems in the Anthology are based on real events and people (even Stealing). You will find biographical details in Working with the English Anthology on pages 20-21, or on Channel 4 Education's page for these poems.

All of Ms. Duffy's poems in the Anthology focus on people and relationships. She says of them that they "come from my everyday experience, my past/memory and my imagination. People and characters are fascinating to me".

Back to top
War Photographer

This poem is the only one by Ms. Duffy (in this selection) which is written in the third person. It is about a person who is clearly not the poet. The surface subject of the poem is the war photographer of the title but at a deeper level the poem explores the difference between "Rural England" and places where wars are fought (Northern Ireland, the Lebanon and Cambodia), between the comfort or indifference of the newspaper editor and its readers and the suffering of the people in the photographs. War Photographer (from Standing Female Nude, 1985) comes from Duffy's friendship with Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths, two very well-respected stills photographers who specialised in war photography. But the photographer in the poem is anonymous: he could be any of those who record scenes of war. He is not so much a particular individual as, like the poet, an observer and recorder of others' lives. He is an outsider ("alone/With spools of suffering") who moves between two worlds but is comfortable in neither. The "ordered rows" of film spools may suggest how the photographer tries to bring order to what he records, to interpret or make sense of it.

The simile which compares him to a priest shows how seriously he takes his job, and how (by photographing them) he stands up for those who cannot help themselves. His darkroom resembles a church in which his red light is like a coloured lantern (quite common in Catholic and some Anglican churches). The image is also appropriate because, like a priest, he teaches how fragile we are and how short life is. ("All flesh is grass" is a quotation from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Isaiah contrasts the shortness of human life with eternal religious truths - "the Word of the Lord" which "abides forever"). In the poem, the sentence follows a list of names. These are places where life is even briefer than normal, because of wars.

The second stanza contrasts the photographer's calmness when taking pictures with his attitude as he develops them. If his hands shake when he takes pictures, they won't be any good, but in the darkroom he can allow his hands to tremble. "Solutions" refers literally to the developing fluid in the trays, but also suggests the idea of solving the political problems which cause war - "solutions" which he does not have, of course. Duffy contrasts the fields in England with those abroad - as if the photographer thinks English fields unusual for not being minefields. The image is shocking, because he thinks of land mines as exploding not under soldiers but under "the feet of running children".

Back to top

What "is happening" in the third stanza is that an image is gradually appearing as a photo develops. "Ghost" is ambiguous (it has more than one meaning). It suggests the faint emerging image, but also that the man in the photo is dead (which is why the picture was taken). The photographer recalls both the reaction of the wife on seeing her husband die. He is not able to ask for permission to take the picture (either there is no time or he does not speak the language or both) but he seeks "approval without words". It is as if the wife needs to approve of his recording the event while the blood stains "into foreign dust".

"In black and white" is ambiguous: it suggests the monochrome photographs but also the ideas of telling the truth and of the simple contrast of good and evil. The photographer has recorded some hundred images which are only a small sample of what has happened, yet only a handful will ever appear in print. Although the reader may be moved, to tears even, this sympathy is short-lived, between bathing and a drink before lunch. Duffy imagines the photographer finally looking down, from an aeroplane, on England (either coming or going). This is the country which pays his wages ("where/he earns his living") but where people "do not care" about the events he records.

In writing about the poem try to focus on some of these details. Look also at the poem's form. This form is quite traditional - the rhyme scheme and metre are the same in each stanza (there are rhyming couplets on the second and third lines and on the last two lines; each line is a pentameter, which will be familiar to you from Shakespeare's plays).

Finally, make a judgement: Duffy obviously feels something in common with her subject - she uses his experience to voice her own criticism of how comfortable Britons look at pictures of suffering, but do not know the reality. She sees the photographer (far removed from the paparazzi of the tabloids) as both priest and journalist. The reader's response to the Sunday newspaper is almost like going to church - for a while we are reminded of our neighbour's suffering, but by lunchtime we have forgotten what we learned.

Back to top
Valentine

This poem is written in the first person. The speaker appears to be the poet, addressing her lover as "you". In fact, Carol Ann Duffy wrote Valentine after a radio producer asked her to write an original poem for St. Valentine's Day.(Valentine was published in 1993, in the collection Mean Time.) But the poem is universal: it could be from any lover to any beloved (for example, there is no indication of the sex of either the "I" or the "you"). The poem, on the surface, is about the giving of an unusual present for St. Valentine's Day, but really is an exploration of love between two people. This is a good text to write about, because it has a single central image, which is developed throughout the poem: the onion is an extended metaphor for love.

The form of the poem supports its argument (the ideas in it) as Duffy uses single isolated lines to show why she rejects the conventional Valentines: "Not a red rose or a satin heart...Not a cute card or a kissogram." Why not? Because each has long ceased to be original and has been sent millions of times. The symbolism of roses and hearts is often overlooked, while cards and kissograms may be expensive but mean little. As an artist, Ms. Duffy should be able to think of something more distinctive, and she does.

Duffy in effect lists reasons why the onion is an appropriate symbol of love. First, the conventional romantic symbol of the moon is concealed in it. The moon is supposed to govern women's passions. The brown skin is like a paper bag, and the shiny pale onion within is like the moon. The "light" which it promises may be both its literal brightness and metaphorical understanding (of love) or enlightenment. The removing of the papery outer layers suggests the "undressing" of those who prepare to make love. There may also be a pun (play on words here) as "dressing" (such as French dressing or salad dressing) is often found with onions in the kitchen.

Back to top

The onion is like a lover because it makes one cry. The verb "blind" may also suggest the traditional idea of love's (or Cupid's) being blind. And the onion reflects a distorted image of anyone who looks at it, as if this reflection were a "wobbling photo" - an image which won't keep still, as the onion takes time to settle on a surface. The flavour of the onion is persistent, so this taste is like a kiss which lasts, which introduces the idea of faithfulness which will match that of the lovers ("possessive and faithful...for as long as we are").

One visitor to this site (Cathy Savage) suggests an alternative reading here:

I have a different idea about “It will make your reflection/a wobbling photo of grief”. which, when I consulted my class, seems to sum up the female view of the lines, although the boys couldn't see it straight off. When women cry, for some reason, they often go to the mirror - so, as far as the female contingent in my class and I can see, the lover is blinded with tears and staring in the mirror (believe me, your reflection is a wobbling photo of grief in these cases!).
Back to top

The onion is a series of concentric rings, each smaller than the other until one finds a ring the size of a wedding ring ("platinum", because of the colour). But note the phrase "if you like": the lover is given the choice. Thus the poem, like a traditional Valentine, contains a proposal of marriage. There is also a hint of a threat in the suggestion that the onion is lethal, as its scent clings "to your knife". The poet shows how the knife which cuts the onion is marked with its scent, as if ready to punish any betrayal.

Note the form of this poem: Duffy writes colloquially (as if speaking) so single words or phrases work as sentences: "Here...Take it...Lethal". The ends of lines mark pauses, and most of them have a punctuation mark to show this. The stanza breaks mark longer pauses, so that we see how the poem is to be read aloud. The poem appeals to the senses especially of sight (striking visual images of light, shape and colour), touch (the "fierce kiss") and smell (the "scent" clinging "to your fingers" and "knife"). The poem uses conventional Valentines as a starting point, before showing how the onion is much more true to the nature of love. The poem seems at first to be rather comical (an onion as a Valentine is surely bizarre) but in fact is a very serious analysis of love.

Back to top
Stealing

This poem (based on a real event) is written in the first person. The speaker in it is very obviously not the poet. Carol Ann Duffy writes sympathetically in that she tries to understand this anti-social character, but he is not at all likeable. What she shows is not so much an intelligent criminal but someone for whom theft is just a response to boredom. Throughout the poem are hints at constructive pursuits (making a snowman) and artistic objects (a guitar, a bust of Shakespeare). The thief steals and destroys but cannot make anything.

The speaker is apparently relating his various thefts, perhaps to a police officer, perhaps to a social worker or probation officer. He realizes at the end of the poem that the person he is speaking to (like the poet and the reader of the poem, perhaps) cannot understand his outlook: "You don't understand a word I'm saying" doesn't refer to his words literally, so much as the ideas he expresses. The poem is rather bleak, as if anti-social behaviour is almost inevitable. The speaker sees the consequences of his actions but has no compassion for his victims.

The thief begins as if repeating a question someone has asked him, to identify the "most unusual" things he has stolen. The poet's admiration of the snowman is the closest he comes to affection, but he cares more for this inanimate object than the real children who have made it. And he wants what has already been made - he cannot see for himself how to make his own snowman. The thief is morally confused - he sees "not taking what you want" as "giving in", as if you might as well be dead as accept conventional morality. But he alienates us by saying that he enjoyed taking the snowman because he knew that the theft would upset the children. "Life's tough" is said as if to justify this. The sequel comes when the thief tries to reassemble the snowman. Not surprisingly (snow is not a permanent material) "he didn't look the same", so the thief attacks him. All he is left with is "lumps of snow". This could almost be a metaphor for the self-defeating nature of his thefts.

Back to top

The thief tells us boastfully he "sometimes" steals things he doesn't need, yet it seems that he always steals what he does not need and cannot use. He breaks in out of curiosity, "to have a look" but does not understand what he sees. He is pathetic, as he seems anxious to make a mark of some kind, whether leaving "a mess" or steaming up mirrors with his breath. He casually mentions how he might "pinch" a camera - it is worth little to him, but much to those whose memories it has recorded.

The final stanza seems more honest. The bravado has gone and the thief's real motivation emerges - boredom, which comes from his inability to make or do anything which gives pleasure. The theft of the guitar is typically self-deceiving. He thinks he "might/learn to play" but the reader knows this will not happen - it takes time and patience. Stealing the "bust of Shakespeare" also seems ironic to the reader. The thief takes an image of perhaps the greatest creative talent the world has ever seen - but without any sense of what it stands for, or of the riches of Shakespeare's drama. The final line, which recalls the poem's conversational opening, is very apt: it as if the speaker has sensed not just that the person he is speaking to is disturbed by his confession but also that the reader of the poem doesn't "understand" him.

Like Valentine this poem is colloquial but the speaking voice here is very different. Sometimes the speaker uses striking images ("a mucky ghost") and some unlikely vocabulary ("he looked magnificent") but he also uses clichés ("Life's tough"). As in Valentine single words are written as sentences ("Mirrors...Again...Boredom"). The metre of the poem is loose but some lines are true pentameters ("He didn't look the same. I took a run..."). Mostly the lines are not end-stopped: the breaks for punctuation are in the middles of lines, to create the effect of improvised natural speech. The speaker is trying to explain his actions, but condemns himself out of his own mouth.

Back to top
Before You Were Mine

This poem is quite difficult for two reasons. First, it moves very freely between the present and different times in the past, which is frequently referred to in the present tense. Second, because the title suggests romantic love but the poem is about mother and daughter. The poem is written as if spoken by Carol Ann Duffy to her mother, whose name is Marilyn. Like Valentine, it comes from Mean Time (1993). On first reading, you might think that the "I" in the poem is a lover, but various details in the third and fourth stanzas identify the speaker as the poet. Younger readers (which include most GCSE students) may be puzzled by the way in which, once her child is born, the mother no longer goes out dancing with her friends. In 1950s Glasgow this would not have been remotely possible. Even if she could have afforded it (which is doubtful) a woman with children was expected to stay at home and look after them. Going out would be a rare luxury, no longer a regular occurrence. Motherhood was seen as a serious duty, especially among Roman Catholics.

"I'm ten years away" is confusing (does "away" mean before this or yet to come?) but the second stanza's "I'm not here yet" shows us that the scene at the start of the poem comes before the birth of the poet. Duffy imagines a scene she can only know from her mother's or other people's accounts of it. Marilyn, Carol Ann Duffy's mother, stands laughing with her friends on a Glasgow street corner. Thinking of the wind on the street and her mother's name suggests to Duffy the image of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blown up by an air vent (a famous scene in the film The Seven Year Itch). She recalls her mother as young and similarly glamorous, the "polka-dot dress" locating this scene in the past.

Back to top

Duffy contrasts the young woman's romantic fantasies with the reality of motherhood which will come ten years later: "The thought of me doesn't occur/in...the fizzy, movie tomorrows/ the right walk home could bring..."

In the third stanza Duffy suggests that her birth and her "loud, possessive yell" marked the end of her mother's happiest times. There is some poignancy as she recalls her child's fascination with her mother's "high-heeled red shoes", putting her hands in them. The shoes are "relics" because they are no longer worn for going out. The "ghost" suggests that her mother is now dead, but may just indicate that the younger Marilyn is only seen in the imagination, as she "clatters...over George Square". The verb here tells us that she is wearing her high-heeled shoes. The image recalls her mother's courting days. Duffy addresses her as if she is her mother's parent, asking whose are the love bites on her neck, and calling her "sweetheart". The question and the endearment suggest a parent speaking to a child - a reversal of what we might expect. "I see you, clear as scent" deliberately mixes the senses (the technical name for this is synaesthesia), to show how a familiar smell can trigger a most vivid recollection.

Back to top

In the last stanza Duffy recalls another touching memory - the mother who no longer dances teaching the dance steps to her child, on their "way home from Mass" - as if having fun after fulfilling her religious duties with her daughter. The dance (the Cha cha cha!) places this in the past: it seems glamorous again now but would have been deeply unfashionable when the poet was in her teens. "Stamping stars" suggests a contrast between the child's or her mother's ("sensible") walking shoes, with hobnails that strike sparks and the delicate but impractical red high heels. And why is it the "wrong pavement"? Presumably the wrong one for her mother to dance on - she should be "winking in Portobello" or in the centre of Glasgow, where she would go to dance as a young woman.

This is an unusual and very generous poem. Carol Ann Duffy recognizes the sacrifice her mother made in bringing her up, and celebrates her brief period of glamour and hope and possibility. It also touches on the universal theme of the brevity (shortness) of happiness. (This is sometimes expressed by the Latin phrase carpe diem - "seize the day"). The form of the poem is conventional: blank verse (unrhymed pentameters) stanzas, all of five lines. A few lines run on, but most end with a pause at a punctuation mark. Note the frequent switches from past to present both in chronology and in the tenses of verbs - the confusion here seems to be intended, as if for the poet past and present are equally real and vivid. The language is very tender: the poet addresses her mother like a lover or her own child: "Marilyn...sweetheart...before you were mine" (repeated) and "I wanted the bold girl". What is most striking is what is missing: there is no direct reference to Marilyn as the poet's mother.

Back to top
In Mrs. Tilscher's Class

This poem, like Before You Were Mine, is autobiographical, but more obviously so. Mrs. Tilscher is a real person, who taught Carol Ann Duffy in her last year at junior school. The poem is about rites of passage, the transition (move or change) from childhood to adolescence and the things we learn at school, from our teachers and from our peers. Duffy also associates the oppressive feeling we have in humid weather with the physical changes of puberty. Leaving primary school for the last time is like an escape we are eager to make but which takes us from safety into a dangerous unknown. Throughout the poem Duffy refers to "you". She means herself as she was in Mrs. Tilscher's class in the 1960s. But by writing in the second person she invites us to share her experience. Most readers will have had experiences like those Carol Ann Duffy depicts in this poem.

The first stanza has no real hint of what is to come: Duffy shows us a typical day in Mrs. Tilscher's class. While the children trace the route with their fingers on a map, the teacher tells them the names of places on the Blue Nile. After an hour comes playtime and a bottle of milk (a tradition abolished by Mrs. Thatcher when she was Secretary of State for Education). Other familiar images from school are the window-pole and the handbell. "The laugh of a bell swung by a running child" may be what is known as a transferred epithet - it is this child (or others, but not the bell) who will be laughing at the end of the lesson. Alternatively, "laughing" may be a metaphor for the vigorous ringing of the bell.

"Better than home" may seem odd (especially to readers from welcoming homes with lots to do).But Duffy means that there was more to do and to satisfy an intelligent child's imagination than in her home. The bright colours would be more exciting than home decoration. Although Ian Brady and Myra Hindley (the so-called "Moors Murderers" of the 1960s) have become notorious for their child murders, real children at the time were not necessarilyvery aware, and probably not afraid, of them. And in school any fears would disappear. Duffy likens this fading of fear to the fading of a faint smudge where one corrects a mistake written in pencil. The children think that their teacher loves them, and see a "good gold star" on their work as proof of this.

Back to top

In the first half of the poem there is no sense of time passing. This comes in the second half. The growth of the tadpoles is explained in terms of punctuation marks, about which the children would have learned in Mrs. Tilscher's class. The action of the dunce, in letting the frogs out, hints at trouble to come: the children are amused, not concerned for the animals. (Today this might be less likely. And no child would be identified as a "dunce", a word which places the poem in the 1960s.) But the real catalyst for change is the revelation from "a rough boy" about sexual reproduction. He is kicked for his pains but the poet, as a child, suspects he is speaking the truth. This is confirmed by Mrs. Tilscher's evasion when she is asked about childbirth - and the teacher's smile is a confirmation that it is time to move on.

At the end of the poem is another transferred epithet ("feverish July" - it is the child, not the month, who is feverish, in July - unless we read "feverish" as a metaphor for the heat and humidity of the month). The electrical storm, about to break, is felt as "a tangible alarm" ("tangible" means felt by touch). It makes the child feel uncomfortable and irritable ("fractious"). When the "reports were handed out" it is as if these are reports on childhood which has officially ended. The breaking thunderstorm is an apt metaphor for adolescence - a deluge of feelings, hormones and changed attitudes.

This poem has a conventional structure: two stanzas of eight lines and two of seven lines, more or less in unrhymed pentameters. There is a very effective contrast between the first half of the poem and the last two stanzas, as one moves from childhood security to dangerous growing up. This is matched by a movement from images of the classroom and school to natural phenomena (tadpoles, frogs, weather) outside the security of Mrs. Tilscher's classroom. The poem gives specific details from the poet's childhood, but it records an almost universal experience.

Back to top


Sujata Bhatt: from Search for my Tongue | Tom Leonard from Unrelated Incidents | John Agard: Half-Caste | Imtiaz Dharker: Blessing | Moniza Alvi: Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan | Edward Kamau Brathwaite: Ogun | Fiona Farrell: Charlotte O'Neil's Song | Arun Kolatkar: An Old Woman | Grace Nichols: Hurricane Hits England | Tatamkhulu Afrika: Nothing's Changed

Poems from Other Cultures and Traditions

Introduction

In the Anthology, poets from other cultures and traditions are contrasted with those in the English literary heritage. The writers in this section may live in the UK as members of ethnic minority groups or may live overseas. All the poems in this section are written largely or wholly in English, but in several you will find non-standard varieties of English, while several make use of other languages. One even has text in Gujarati.

Sujata Bhatt: from Search for My Tongue

This poem (or rather extract from a long poem) explores a familiar ambiguity in English - "tongue" refers both to the physical organ we use for speech, and the language we speak with it. (Saying "tongue" for "speech" is an example of metonymy). In the poem Sujata Bhatt writes about the "tongue" in both ways at once. To lose your tongue normally means not knowing what to say, but Ms. Bhatt suggests that one can lose one's tongue in another sense. The speaker in this poem is obviously the poet herself, but she speaks for many who fear they may have lost their ability to speak for themselves and their culture.

She explains this with the image of two tongues - a mother tongue (one's first language) and a second tongue (the language of the place where you live). She argues that you cannot use both together. She suggests, further, that if you live in a place where you must "speak a foreign tongue" then the mother tongue will "rot and die in your mouth".

As if to demonstrate how this works, Ms. Bhatt rewrites lines 15 and 16 in Gujarati, followed by more Gujarati lines, which are given in English as the final section of the poem. For readers who do not know the Gujarati script, there is also a phonetic transcript using approximate English spelling to indicate the sounds.

The final section of the poem is the writer's dream - in which her mother tongue grows back and "pushes the other tongue aside". She ends triumphantly asserting that "Everytime I think I've forgotten,/I think I've lost the mother tongue,/it blossoms out of my mouth."

Back to top

Clearly this poem is about personal and cultural identity. The familiar metaphor of the tongue is used in a novel way to show that losing one's language (and culture) is like losing part of one's body. The poet's dream may be something she has really dreamt "overnight" but is clearly also a "dream" in the sense of something she wants to happen - in dreams, if not in reality, it is possible for the body to regenerate. For this reason the poem's ending is ambiguous - perhaps it is only in her dream that the poet can find her "mother tongue". On the other hand, she may be arguing that even when she thinks she has lost it, it can be found again. At the end of the poem there is a striking extended metaphor in which the regenerating tongue is likened to a plant cut back to a stump, which grows and eventually buds, to become the flower which "blossoms out of" the poet's mouth. It is as if her mother tongue is exotic, spectacular or fragrant, as a flower might be.

The poem's form is well suited to its subject. The flower is a metaphor for the tongue, which itself has earlier been used as a (conventional) metaphor, for speech. The poet demonstrates her problem by showing both "mother tongue" (Gujarati) and "foreign tongue" (English), knowing that for most readers these will be the other way around, while some, like her, will understand both. The poem will speak differently to different generations - for parents, Gujarati may also be the "mother tongue", while their children, born in the UK, may speak English as their first language. The poem is written both for the page, where we see the (possibly exotic) effect of the Gujarati text and for reading aloud, as we have a guide for speaking the Gujarati lines.

Back to top

“Gujarati” or “Gujerati”? This word is of course not English originally. When it is written down in English letters (“transliterated”) either form may be used. In the official guide Working with the English Anthology 2000/2001, notes on this poem (on page 61) use the spelling “Gujerati” But Professor David Crystal, in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language uses the form “Gujarati”. And a search on Google at www.google.com gives over 100,000 Web pages for “Gujarati”. For “Gujerati”, it shows just over 3,000, and displays a note: “Do you mean Gujarati?” So on the Web, the preferred form, by a majority of some 30 to 1, is “Gujarati”. The form used by the OCR exam board for its GCSE exam is also “Gujarati”. Thanks to Tejesh Kotecha of Claremont High School for raising the question.

Back to top
Tom Leonard: from Unrelated Incidents

This poem uses non-standard English to explore notions of class, education and nationality. The poem is a phonetic transcript which shows how a Glaswegian Scot might speak. The poet imagines the BBC newsreader smugly explaining why he does not talk "lik/wanna you/scruff" - though in this version, of course, he is doing just this. The writer takes on the persona of a less educated or "ordinary" Glaswegian, with whom he clearly identifies.

The poem is set out in lines of two, three or four syllables, but these are not end-stopped. The effect is almost certainly meant to be of the Autocue used by newsreaders (the text scrolls down the screen a few words at a time).

The poem seems puzzling on the page, but when read out aloud makes better sense. A Scot may find it easier to follow than a reader from London, say.

Back to top

The most important idea in the poem is that of truth - a word which appears (as "trooth") three times, as well as one "troo". The speaker in the poem (with whom the poet seems to sympathize) suggests that listeners or viewers trust a speaker with an RP (Received Pronunciation) or "BBC" accent. He claims that viewers would be mistrustful of a newsreader with a regional accent, especially one like Glaswegian Scots, which has working-class or even (unfairly) criminal associations in the minds of some people.

The poem is humorous and challenges our prejudices. Leonard may be a little naïve in his argument, however: RP gives credibility to people in authority or to newsreaders, because it shows them not to favour one area or region - it is meant to be neutral. The RP speaker appears educated because he or she is aware of, and has dropped, distinctive local or regional peculiarities. And though RP is not widely-spoken, it is widely understood, much more so than any regional accent in the UK. Tom Leonard's Glasgow accent would confuse many listeners, as would any marked regional voice. RP has the merit of clarity.

Back to top
John Agard: Half-Caste

This poem develops a simple idea which is found in a familiar, if outdated phrase. Half-caste as a term for mixed race is now rare. Caste comes from India, where people are rigidly divided into groups which are not allowed to mix, and where the lowest caste is considered untouchable. In the poem John Agard pokes fun at the idea. He does this with an ironic suggestion of things only being "half" present, by puns and by looking at the work of artists who mix things. It is not clear whether Agard speaks as himself here, or speaks for others.

The poem opens with a joke - as if "half-caste" means only half made (reading the verb as cast rather than caste), so the speaker stands on one leg as if the other is not there. Agard ridicules the term by showing how the greatest artists mix things - Picasso mixes the colours, and Tchaikovsky use the black and white keys in his piano symphonies, yet to call their art "half-caste" seems silly. (The image of the black and white keys on the piano was used in a similar way by Stevie Wonder in the song Ebony and Ivory: "Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony/Side by side on my piano keyboard /Oh, Lord, why can't we?")

Agard playfully points out how England's weather is always a mix of light and shadow - leading to a very weak pun on "half-caste" and "overcast" (clouded over). The joke about one leg is recalled later in the poem, this time by suggesting that the "half-caste" uses only half of ear and eye, and offers half a hand to shake, leading to the absurdities of dreaming half a dream and casting half a shadow. The poem, like a good joke, has a punchline - the poet invites his hearer to "come back tomorrow" and use the whole of eye, ear and mind. Then, says Agard, he will tell "de other half/of my story".

Back to top

Though the term "half-caste" is rarely heard today, Agard is perhaps right to attack the idea behind it - that mixed race people have something missing. Also, they often suffer hostility from the racial or ethnic communities of both parents. Though the poem is light-hearted in tone, the argument of the last six lines is very serious, and has a universal application: we need to give people our full attention and respect, if we are to deserve to hear their whole "story".

The form of the poem is related to its subject, as Agard uses non-standard English, in the form of Afro-Caribbean patois. This shows how he stands outside mainstream British culture. There is no formal rhyme-scheme or metre, but the poem contains rhymes ("wha yu mean...mix red an green"). A formal device which Agard favours is repetition: "Explain yuself/wha yu mean", for example. The poem is colloquial, written as if spoken to someone with imperatives (commands) like "Explain yuself" and questions like "wha yu mean". The punctuation is non-standard using the hyphen (-) and slash (/) but no comma nor full stop, not even at the end. The spelling uses both standard and non-standard forms - the latter to show pronunciation. The patois is most marked in its grammar, where verbs are missed out ("Ah listening" for "I am listening" or "I half-caste human being" for "I am half-caste").

When you write about the poem you should not use the term "half-caste" except to discuss how Agard presents it. If you need to, use a term like "mixed race". For older readers, especially those aware of the (now scientifically discredited) racial theories of the Nazis, this poem seems powerful and relevant. And in Britain today, resistance to mixed-race couples (who may have mixed-race children) is as likely to come from an Asian or Afro-Caribbean parent as from a white Anglo-Saxon family. (In some ethnic groups, there is enormous family pressure to marry within the community.) Some younger readers, especially those in cosmopolitan communities, may wonder what the fuss is about.

Back to top
Imtiaz Dharker: Blessing

This poem is about water: in a hot country, where the supply is inadequate, the poet sees water as a gift from a god. When a pipe bursts, the flood which follows is like a miracle, but the "blessing" is ambiguous - it is such accidents which at other times cause the supply to be so little.

The opening lines of the poem compare human skin to a seedpod, drying out till it cracks. Why? Because there is "never enough water". Ms. Dharker asks the reader to imagine it dripping slowly into a cup. When the "municipal pipe" (the main pipe supplying a town) bursts, it is seen as unexpected good luck (a "sudden rush of fortune"), and everyone rushes to help themselves. But the end of the poem reminds us of the sun, which causes skin to crack "like a pod" - today's blessing is tomorrow's drought. The poet celebrates the joyous sense with which the people, especially the children, come to life when there is, for once, more than "enough water".

The poem has a single central metaphor - the giving of water as a "blessing" from a "kindly god". The religious metaphor is repeated, as the bursting of the pipe becomes a "rush of fortune", and the people who come to claim the water are described as a "congregation" (people gathering for worship).

The water is a source of other metaphors - fortune is seen as a "rush" (like water rushing out of the burst pipe), and the sound of the flow is matched by that of the people who seek it - their tongues are a "roar", like the gushing water. Most tellingly of all, water is likened to "silver" which "crashes to the ground". In India (where Ms. Dharker lives), in Pakistan (from where she comes) and in other Asian countries, it is common for wealthy people to throw silver coins to the ground, for the poor to pick up. The water from the burst pipe is like this - a short-lived "blessing for a few". But there is no regular supply of "silver". And finally, the light from the sun is seen as "liquid" - yet the sun aggravates the problems of drought.

Back to top

The poem is written in unrhymed lines, mostly brief, some of which run on, while others are end-stopped, creating an effect of natural speech. The poet writes lists for the people ("man woman/child") and the vessels they bring ("...with pots/brass, copper, aluminium,/plastic buckets"). The poem appeals to the reader's senses, with references to the dripping noise of water (as if the hearer is waiting for there to be enough to drink) and the flashing sunlight.

We have a clear sense of the writer's world - in her culture water is valued, as life depends upon the supply: in the west, we take it for granted. This is a culture in which belief in "a kindly god" is seen as natural, but the poet does not express this in terms of any established religion (note the lower-case g on "god"). She suggests a vague and general religious belief, or superstition. The poem ends with a picture of children - "naked" and "screaming". The sense of their beauty ("highlights polished to perfection") is balanced by the idea of their fragility, as the "blessing sings/over their small bones".

Back to top
Moniza Alvi: Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan

This poem can be compared usefully with the extracts from Search for My Tongue and from Unrelated Incidents, as well as with Half-Caste and Ogun - all of which look at ideas of race and identity. Where Sujatta Bhatt, Tom Leonard and John Agard find this in language, Moniza Alvi and Edward Kamau Brathwaite associate it with material things. The poem is written in the first person, and is obviously autobiographical - the speaking voice here is really that of the poet.

Moniza Alvi contrasts the exotic garments and furnishings sent to her by her aunts with what she saw around her in her school, and with the things they asked for in return. Moniza Alvi also shows a paradox (apparent contradiction), as she admired the presents, but felt they were too exquisite for her, and lacked street credibility. Finally, the presents form a link to an alternative way of life (remote in place and time) which Ms. Alvi does not much approve: her aunts "screened from male visitors" and the "beggars" and "sweeper-girls" in 1950s Lahore.

Back to top

The bright colours of the salwar kameez suggest the familiar notion of exotic clothes worn by Asian women, but the glass bangle which snaps and draws blood is almost a symbol of how her tradition harms the poet - it is not practical for the active life of a young woman in the west. In a striking simile the writer suggests that the clothes showed her own lack of beauty: “I could never be as lovely/as those clothes”. The bright colours suggest the clothes are burning: “I was aflame/I couldn't rise up out of its fire”, a powerful metaphor for the discomfort felt by the poet, who “longed/for denim and corduroy”, plainer but comfortable and inconspicuous. Also she notes that where her Pakistani Aunt Jamila can “rise up out of its fire” - that is, “look lovely” in the bright clothes - she (the poet) felt unable to do so, because she was “half-English”. This may be meant literally (she has an English grandmother) or metaphorically, because she is educated in England. This sense of being between two cultures is shown when the “schoolfriend” asks to see Moniza Alvi's “weekend clothes” and is not impressed. The schoolfriend's reaction also suggests that she has little idea of what Moniza - as a young Pakistani woman - is, and is not, allowed to do at weekends, despite living in Britain.

The idea of living in two cultures is seen in the voyage, from Pakistan to England, which the poet made as a child and which she dimly recalls. This is often a symbol of moving from one kind of life to another (it appears in Charlotte O'Neil's Song).

Back to top
Edward Kamau Brathwaite: Ogun

In this poem Brathwaite depicts his uncle, a skilled woodworker who could make anything, but who was poor because "the world preferred" mass-produced furniture. Brathwaite shows how on Sunday, when he would not do paid work, his uncle worked out his anger and explored his West African roots, in carving an image of a tribal god. The title of the poem is not explained or repeated elsewhere - so we suppose that this is a clue to the identity of the figure that the uncle carved.

The form of the poem is very clear - it is set out as couplets on the page. If you read it aloud, many of the lines will run on. Sometimes a line ends halfway through a word ("sil-/vered") or a hyphenated compound ("flat-/footed") - but you would not pause long, if at all, in reading this out. Another striking feature is the rich variety of nouns in the poem. Many of these are lists of objects like the uncle's tools or the furniture he makes - some of the terms being quite specialized. A more exotic vocabulary describes the "forests" which the uncle seems to imagine or remember as he works. Brathwaite chooses many words for their sound quality, especially the vigorous verbs ("hit, hurt", "slapped", "tapped", "cut" and so on). Many of these words are onomatopoeic - their sound matches their meaning. Look at "clip-clop sandals", "tapped rat tat tat", "creak" and "stomping". The effect of these is often reinforced by alliteration (repeating the same initial consonant), as in "bird bones...beds, stretched not on boards but blue high-tensioned cables").

Back to top

Although there is no regular pattern in the poem's metre, Brathwaite often drops into the iambic pentameter (this is the line you know from Shakespeare's blank verse - ten syllables with a stress [usually] on the second of a pair), as in:

"its contoured grain still tuned to roots and water.
And as he cut, he heard the creak of forests..."

This poem has a clear sense of the poet's (and his uncle's) world. He (like Grace Nichols in Hurricane Hits England) has (or his ancestors have) gone from West Africa to the Caribbean. There is an interesting contradiction in the poem: he carves an African tribal god, but is evidently a Christian, as he does not work (for money) in his shop on Sunday, but carves his "block of wood". In his response to his customers' preference for mass-produced goods of poor quality, he not only shows his craft, but he also (like the poet) produces a work of art. His furniture is well made but designed for use - and yet people do not want it. But his Sunday carving has no such utility (unless the image really draws on the power of the god it represents). The western reader, too, can appreciate the contrast between the craftsmanship no-one values and the popular taste, which prefers inferior goods.

Back to top
Fiona Farrell: from Passengers - Charlotte O'Neil's Song

In this poem, Fiona Farrell writes as if she is Charlotte O'Neil, speaking to her former employer. It is appropriate that her origin is "unknown" because she speaks for all domestic servants. The poem looks at ideas familiar from Victorian novels like Jane Eyre and Great Expectations which explore social class and its relation to personal value. The poem in fact quotes Mrs. C.F. Alexander's hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, in lines 13 and 14.

The poem has a tight but not completely regular stanza form, loosely a ballad with strong rhymes at the ends of lines. This form is well-suited to the speaker. Note that the poet has put into the mouth of her character only familiar everyday words which the real Charlotte could have said - the poem is authentic, in this sense.

The poem works by obvious contrast, which is set out as antithesis, between the life of the servant and of her employer: "You dined at eight/and slept till late./I emptied your chamber pot." Fiona Farrell also uses the rhetorical (persuasive) device of lists (usually of three): "I've cleaned your plate/and I've cleaned your house/and I've cleaned the clothes you wore". She makes this pattern clearer by repeating the verb "cleaned".

Back to top

The poem is a criticism of the English class-system in the 19th century. Fiona Farrell finds fault with those who cannot do simple things like opening their own doors. At a more serious level she attacks the injustice of the system, ridiculing the claim that people deserve their status in life. Today this might be fairer (in the west, many people can change their lives by determination and effort) but it was not so in the 19th century. Lines 13 and 14 refer to All Things Bright and Beautiful, a popular children's hymn (written in 1848 but still sung today), where we find this: "The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them high or lowly/And ordered their estate". The writer claims that our position in life is fixed by God and we should accept it - an idea with which few readers today could agree. In Charlotte O'Neil's Song the servant recalls her employers saying this. Note the verb "earns" - we associate this with hard work, deserving reward, but the rich man will in most cases have inherited his castle. (In the 19th century there were, of course, some men who had become rich through their work, but these were still quite rare). The argument that the poor deserve to have little breaks down, when they find a way to earn more - by emigrating to Canada, Australia or New Zealand, where hard work can lead to prosperity, and where society is far more egalitarian.

The poem tells us little about Charlotte and nothing of her new life. But we learn about her attitude and her employers. We find both "Sir" and "ma'am" in the poem, but the line "you're on your own, my dear" refers to just one. The servant's familiarity with things the employer said suggests that it is her mistress to whom she speaks. "You" and "I" in the poem represent the massive gulf in social class between them. The poet, a New Zealander, may also suggest that the current prosperity of the New Commonwealth is a reward for the hard work of the early settlers like Charlotte O'Neil, so the poem attacks England, at least as it used to be.

Back to top
Arun Kolatkar: An Old Woman

This poem shows the difference between the cultures of east and west, in the meeting of a tourist and the old woman of the poem's title. The poem contains a simple narrative: a beggar woman asks a tourist for money, offering to show him a local shrine in return. The tourist thinks he (or she - it need not be the poet) can resist, but finds he is unable to do so after all.

One of the poem's themes is how the woman is rooted in the place where she lives - she is identified with the sky and hills, and seems to draw power from them. Another idea is that of contrast, or things not being what they seem. At first the tourist sees the beggar as an irritation, yet supposes he can easily be rid of her, facing her "with an air of finality" to "end the farce". But he finds that the woman has a different kind of strength - by the end of the poem he is "small change/in her hand".

The poem has a very clear formal structure in triplets (three-line stanzas). There are occasional half rhymes ("coin"/ "shrine", "on"/ "skin") and a full rhyme to mark a pause: ("crone"/ "alone"). The lines are short, of varying length but always with a pattern of two stressed syllables, apart from the final line, where the single stress brings the poem to a full stop. The poet's vocabulary is spare and vigorous - most words are monosyllables, while some words have two syllables, and only "finality" has more.

Back to top

The poem refers to the old woman with the third-person pronoun "she" and the tourist in the second-person pronoun, "you". This makes the poem read like an anecdote or an account of a real experience, and puts the reader in the place of the tourist - which seems apt, as we are given the westerner's viewpoint. The immediacy of the poem comes from the forceful monosyllabic verbs, and the use of present tense, as well as colloquial ("grabs", "tags"), or everyday register: "wants", "says", "turn", "hear" and "look". Another device which gives the poem the quality of speech is the placing of "And" at the start of both lines and sentences: "And as you look on..." or "And the hills crack./And the temples crack./And the sky falls..."

The little ("fifty paise") coin, which the old woman begs at the start of the poem, gives the ending its enduring image. The tourist's weakness is suggested in the metaphor of "small change", while "in her hand" indicates that the woman has power over him. Her power is also suggested by details of her physical appearance - her eyes are "bullet holes", as if they are dark spaces with nothing behind. The "cracks" (lines) in her face turn into cracks in the sky, in the hills and in the temples, while the old woman remains invulnerable ("shatter-proof"). "Crone" suggests the magical power of some ancient or supernatural being, who draws her strength from her surroundings.

The meeting of different cultures is very clear in this poem: the tourist comes from the modern world, and at first supposes himself to be able to dispose of this irritating beggar. She seems frail as she "hobbles", and the tourist, while noting that the woman is persistent ("like a burr" - a sticky, hairy seed, which clings to clothes) thinks he knows "how old women are". But he doesn't really know. When she speaks it is as if she casts a spell, and shows him who really controls whom.

Back to top
Grace Nichols: Hurricane Hits England

The central image in this poem is not the poet's invention but drawn from her (and other people's) experience. The hurricanes that sometimes strike England as destructive storms really do bring the Caribbean to Britain - they retrace the poet's own journey from the west, and remind her of her own origins.

The poem begins in the third person (note the pronouns "her" and "she") but changes in the second stanza to a first-person view as the poet speaks of herself, and addresses the tropical winds. The speaker here could be anyone who has made this journey, but Grace Nichols is probably speaking for herself in the poem. The poem is written mostly as free verse - there is no rhyme-scheme, stanzas vary in length, as do the lines, though the first line of the poem is a perfect pentameter.

The poem is interesting for its range of vocabulary. Ms. Nichols uses the patois form "Huracan" and names the gods ("Oya" and "Shango") of the Yoruba tribe, who were taken as slaves to the Caribbean in times past. She connects this to the modern world, as she names the notorious Hurricane Hattie. There is interesting word play in "reaping havoc" - a pun on the familiar phrase "wreaking (= making) havoc". The poem also brings together the four elements of earth, air (wind), fire (lightning) and water.

But the most striking things in this poem are the images and symbols from the natural world, which explain the poet's relationship to the Caribbean and to England. The wind is called a "howling ship" - "howling" we expect to find with "wind", not "ship". But it is like a ship in having travelled across the ocean. This nautical image is echoed later by the comparison of felled trees to "whales". The reference to an "ancestral spectre" calls to mind the worship of the spirits of ancestors, a practise the slaves took from Africa to the West Indies. Here the ghost of the ancestor is perhaps rebuking the poet for leaving the Caribbean.

Back to top

In the fourth stanza, Ms. Nichols contrasts the massive power of the natural electricity of lightning with the electricity generated by man. The electrical storm cuts off the mains electricity, plunging us into "further darkness". This may be the literal darkness of England in winter, or a metaphor for the poet's dismay at leaving her homeland.

The fallen trees (which lie around in England after a tropical storm) are seen by the poet as like herself, uprooted from her home. The wind brings warmth to "break (the ice of) the frozen lake" in her - as if the English weather has caused her to lose touch with her emotions. (Associating one's mood with the prevailing weather is a well-established poetic convention, sometimes known as the pathetic fallacy. Here pathetic means to do with feelings [Greek pathos]. It is a fallacy [mistaken belief] because the weather is not literally affected by our moods, or vice versa - it just sometimes seems that way!)

Perhaps the most powerful image, from a Caribbean writer, is that which has its own line, where Grace Nichols asks: "O why is my heart unchained?" In expressing her sense of joy, after the storm has hit England, she recalls the image of freed slaves being released from the chains in which they have been held. Here she shows awareness of her historical culture. Finally, the sense that England and the Caribbean are all part of the same planet is spelled out in the poem's last line. This reads like a tautology (look it up) but expresses Ms. Nichols' sense that the reader needs to know the essential nature of the earth.

Back to top
Tatamkhulu Afrika: Nothing's Changed

This poem depicts a society where rich and poor are divided. In the apartheid era of racial segregation in South Africa, where the poem is set, laws, enforced by the police, kept apart black and white people. The poet looks at attempts to change this system, and shows how they are ineffective, making no real difference.

"District Six" is the name of a poor area of Cape Town (South Africa's capital city). It was bulldozed as a slum in 1966, but never properly rebuilt. Although there is no sign there, the poet can feel that this is where he is: "...my feet know/and my hands."

Similarly the "up-market" inn ("brash with glass") and the bright sign which shows its name is meant for white customers only. There is no sign to show this (as there would have been under apartheid) but black and coloured people, being poor, will not be allowed past the "guard at the gatepost". The "whites only inn" is elegant, with linen tablecloths and a "single rose" on each table. It is contrasted with the fast-food "working man's cafe" which sells the local snack ("bunny chows"). There is no table cloth, just a plastic top, and there is nowhere to wash one's hands after eating: "wipe your fingers on your jeans". In the third stanza the sense of contrast is most clear: the smart inn "squats" amid "grass and weeds".

Back to top

Perhaps the most important image in the poem is that of the "glass" which shuts out the speaker in the poem. It is a symbol of the divisions of colour, and class - often the same thing in South Africa. As he backs away from it at the end of the poem, Afrika sees himself as a "boy again", who has left the imprint of his "small, mean mouth" on the glass. He wants "a stone, a bomb" to break the glass - he may wish literally to break the window of this inn, but this is clearly meant in a symbolic sense. He wants to break down the system, which separates white and black, rich and poor, in South Africa.

The title of the poem suggests not just that things have not changed, but a disappointment that an expected change has not happened. The poem uses the technique of contrast to explore the theme of inequality. It has a clear structure of eight-line stanzas. The lines are short, of varying length, but usually with two stressed syllables. The poet assumes that the reader knows South Africa, referring to places, plants and local food. The poem is obviously about the unfairness of a country where "Nothing's changed". But this protest could also apply to other countries where those in power resist progress and deny justice to the common people.

Back to top

© Andrew Moore and Sue Justice, 2000 and 2001; universalteacher@bigfoot.com

Search Now:
In Association with Amazon.com
  • Use the search box on the left or the link below to go to Amazon.com for books, video tapes, DVDs and much more.
  • Go to Amazon.com Home Page
Search Now:
In Association with Amazon.co.uk
  • Purchase in the UK: use the search box on the left or the link below to go to Amazon.co.uk for books, video tapes, DVDs and much more.
  • Go to Amazon.co.uk Home Page