Author logo Education, Education, Education - Anthology study guide

Noises from the School
The Play Way
A Snowy Day in School
Schoolroom on a Wet Afternoon
Seminar: Felicity and Mr. Frost
Them & [uz]
The Lesson
In Which the Ancient History I Learn Is Not My Own
Head of English
Re Your Poem and Recent Visit
Introduction to the Anthology
Guide to Section 2
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Section 1 - Introduction

This guide is written for students and teachers who are preparing for GCE AS exams in English language and literature. It contains detailed studies of the poems in Section 1 of the AQA Anthology, which is a set text for Unit 1 of the AQA's GCE Specification B for English and English Literature, from the 2003 exam onwards.

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Text 1: Noises from the School; Patricia Beer

This poem explores cultural knowledge and experience: the author infers all sorts of things she cannot see, by interpreting sounds against what she already knows (or thinks she knows). So at one point she hears a noise that sounds (to her) something like a “guinea fowl”. She performs an inner mental check, decides that this is most unlikely, and reasons that the child making this sound intends it to resemble a “machine gun”. As readers, we may assent to this view - it does seem unlikely that a child would make a guinea fowl sound. But on the other hand, most British children are more likely to have heard (live) the sound of the fowl than that of the weapon; they will have heard the latter, if anywhere, in representations on film and TV - or even, conventionally, in playground games. (That is, the child knows the way he or she is meant to make or simulate a machine gun noise.) So why do we think we know that the poet's inference is right? (If we do think this.)

The poem derives its structure from ideas of time and place. Time appears as a series of points in the daily cycle, while space exists both as contrast between town and country, and as distance between the listening writer and the children whom she hears. We suppose that this is a one-way process: the children will not think that somewhere they are providing a poet with inspiration. The poet also makes quite explicit the distinction between the objective event of hearing, and the subjective appeal to past experience in her guessing what it means. She notes that she “cannot see” the school - so “packed” is either a reasonable assumption (schools always are full at half-past nine), or means that she saw the children on their way. Yet the school would be equally silent at a weekend, when there are no children in it.

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The singing of a harvest hymn strikes the poet as odd - it preserves a sense of social history, but the children who are singing may have never seen ploughing, while sowing seed has long been mechanized. So they may have no authentic sense at all of what scattering “the good seed on the land” means. The poet suggests that God has continued “living in fields” while the singers have moved to the towns. But she does so whimsically. We do not suppose the speaker necessarily even to believe in God, and we certainly suppose her not really to think that God lives only in the country. The interest for the reader comes in the suggestion that God could live anywhere in a localized sense. (In its own terms her objection is silly, since people in towns can, of course, be grateful to eat food grown in fields.)

At eleven o'clock a different kind of noise tells the poet that it is playtime. There is only a slight attempt to suggest the acoustic properties of these sounds (in the onomatopoeia of “howl” and “skitter” ). Why? Because the poet is relying on the reader's already having a sense of what children in a school playground sound like. Something similar happens at noon and lasts through the lunch period. Does the writer hear a bell at a quarter to four? Or does she infer its ringing from the sound of the children going from school to their homes?

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This is one of many poems in which the writer sees children as an undifferentiated mass or collective - though there is here at least a reason why the children will not appear as individuals. Perhaps the poem challenges us with a sense of our own attitudes to the sounds of our culture. Do we make any sense of these disembodied noises? Is this poem essentially different from the device of novelists who try to suggest atmosphere by writing “somewhere, far off, a dog barked”? What brings these sounds together is not an account of the children's experiences or mental processes - but a very slight idea of coincidence and a subjective viewpoint - really the only common factor is that the poet hears and notices these things.

The poem may be a kind of therapy for writers' block. In considering the writer's meaning, you might think whether reading the poem gives you anything more, or better, than you would have by listening directly to the school noises for just over six hours. And these six hours produce a poem you can read in a few minutes - we see how much time goes into the arrangement and choice of expression. Most of this is accounted for by the very clear structure of timings, and the formal quatrains with true or half-rhyme in an ABBA pattern. Patricia Beer uses the common lexicon - there is nothing here that might not occur in spontaneous conversation. The poem is plausibly naturalistic - but does verisimilitude justify the poet in showing us this slice of her experience? Does the poem show us the whole of her day, or has she missed out most of the rich and varied thoughts that might occur? In choosing to offer the reader this selection, Patricia Beer supposes that we will be interested in the noises.

This poem belongs in a tradition of verse in which the writer reflects, not on an external subject, so much as the act of writing in itself - Sir Philip Sidney's first sonnet in Astrophel and Stella, George Herbert's Jordan I, W.B. Yeats's The Circus Animal's Desertion, Thom Gunn's My Sad Captains or Ted Hughes's The Thought Fox.

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Text 2: Comprehensive; Carol Ann Duffy

The title of the poem is ambiguous - for many readers “Comprehensive” may suggest a non-selective state school; but here Duffy recovers its original meaning (derived from a Latin verb that means to “grasp” or “seize” ) of a school that holds or includes all comers. Today we express this idea with the adjective “inclusive”. The poem is rather schematic in its range of ethnic types and characters.

In this poem Carol Ann Duffy attempts to speak with the voices of the children - the text is largely a conventional representation of naturalistic speech, in disjointed phrases. The lexicon is authentic, but the comments are implausibly direct. The structures are different from those of natural speech. Spontaneous spoken utterances are rarely as purposeful and organized, unless the speaker is a professional communicator. (Compare this, for example, with the real recordings of children, in texts 13, 30, 32 and 33). The colloquialism here is an invented naturalistic or dramatic variety - of which we see another version in the extract from Willy Russell's Our Day Out. The characters in the poem break their monologues into simple or compound sentences, each of which is self-contained and grammatically whole. Natural speech, of adults and children alike, is marked by incompleteness, changes of direction, repetition and incoherence of syntax.

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The poem uses stereotyping and clichés or topical references - as in Wayne, the racist Arsenal fan who likes I Spit on Your Grave. (This was one of the infamous video-nasties of the 1980s - films released straight to VHS, at a time, before the multiplexes arrived, when cinemas were closing; this film was often named, along with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Driller Killer, as an example of supposed cinematic degeneracy). Even in 1985 Arsenal would not have been the team of choice for a budding National Front member - as the team had many black players and its fans included many thousands of north London Greeks and Cypriots. (The National Front and British National Party have recruited more successfully at Chelsea, West Ham and Millwall).

The poem gives a sense of diversity but no school or class community - none of the speakers seems to understand or have much connection to the others. Ejaz makes friends but only within his own ethnic group. The poet shows no sense of what school is about other than a collection of diverse people with their own concerns. None of the speakers (even those with positive attitudes) appears to place any value on education in the school.

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The British characters appear in more negative terms than those from ethnic groups - these British pupils are directly or inadvertently racist and have low expectations. The immigrant children seem more ambitious and positive in outlook.

Carol Ann Duffy offers a serious and rather pessimistic view of Britain as a home for various isolated groups. Today her anxiety seems to have been misplaced - while racism persists, there are many schools (especially in London) where children of all backgrounds mix freely. Most state schools cater for the diets of religious groups. And the army is no longer such a popular choice for the failed student.

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The poet uses a rich and varied lexicon. You might comment on:

  • Proper nouns - people's names, places, cultural references (Masjid, nan, Mecca, Moghul; Arsenal, I Spit on Your Grave, Safeways, Madness)
  • Slang, swearing and racist terms - “Paki” , “dead good” and “piss”

Carol Ann Duffy also uses pronouns skilfully to suggest divisions - look out for use of “they” and “I”.

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Text 3: The Play Way; Seamus Heaney

This poem presents a lesson in which children listen to classical music and write without any other direction. There is no sense of direct or didactic instruction from the teacher (no “writing frames” or “literacy strategy”). There is also no sense of judgement - or “assessment”. At the time of its publication (1966), the poem may have seemed to capture the spirit of the times - it is optimistic and positive, trusting the child to find his or her own truths and medium of expression. It also makes a daring connection between the sensual (but not primarily rational or intelligible) pleasure of listening to classical music and the more considered and reflective activity of writing. The teacher's “notes” (what today would be the lesson plan) describe the activity, but without any mention of “aims” or “targets”.

The poem is ambiguous: the poet sees that the children are unsure what to do, yet sees that something has happened - there are “new looks”. The teacher is comfortable with the idea that the children “have forgotten” him. The last line seems to apply both to the notes in the concerto and to the children.

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Over the time since Heaney wrote the poem, this liberal and humane approach to learning first became almost the mainstream practice, only to be attacked and rejected for a more explicitly didactic and systematic approach, driven by concerns (or fears?) about attainment and “targets”.

We note that the poet is present as the teacher - we will find this in other poems, such as Lawrence's A Snowy Day at School. (Seamus Heaney, like Lawrence, really did work as a teacher for a while.) He writes himself into the scene. Like many of the poets, he writes of the children generally. (In this small selection there seems to be a gender difference here - it is the women who name names and write of individuals. Is this typical of anything more widespread? Or is it merely a quirk of the selection of poems?)

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The poet uses no special lexis - though one contemporary neologism quickly passed out of the common register, and now helps us fix the date of the poem. This is the final verb in the question: “Can we jive?” Heaney writes as if he shares a common culture with his readers - so, for example, he refers to “Beethoven's Concerto Number Five”. He can suppose that, at the very least, they will know that Beethoven is one of the very greatest of composers. Perhaps he expects them to know, too, that the piece in question is the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Opus 73, known as the Emperor Concerto. Some of them may even know what this concerto sounds like.

There is a more obscure reference in “mixing memory and desire”. Heaney may be using it comically - it comes from the bleak opening of T.S. Eliot's modernist poetic manifesto, The Waste Land. But the phrase “with chalk dust” is incongruous and fairly bathetic - not a very reverent use of this highly serious (but perhaps self-important and grandiose) line.

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Heaney expects the reader to share an interest in what fascinates him - the way these young learners and writers struggle to express themselves. He does not seem to seek credit for what nonetheless may appear admirable to many readers - his patience in not intervening, but allowing the children (in a safe and familiar environment) to work out their own solutions. In today's system preoccupied with levels, grades and targets, such confidence might be impossible. The title of the poem seems gently to mock this liberal approach - but it is ambiguous, and a trap for our prejudices. We may assume that “play” is somehow inferior to real study. But Heaney perhaps also thinks here of the old proverb about how all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy - and “dull” in the proverb carries its original sense of lacking intelligence. (We preserve this sense in its opposites “bright” and “brilliant”.) Any hint of mockery in the title is not sustained in the poem that follows.

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The poem, on closer inspection contains details that the poet sees as familiar to contemporary readers - but which now read like evidence for social history. “Milk-tops” are the tin-foil seals for the glass bottles (a third of a pint in capacity) filled with milk that were issued, at the expense of the British government, to schoolchildren. The “drinking straws” would be passed through a hole or tear in the foil top. The “record” is the vinyl disc - still a familiar sight in clubs, but increasingly rare in domestic music-playing systems. And the “pens” were perhaps still of the kind the writer would dip into an inkwell - these were in common use up to 1970. (The writer of this guide was using them in the year when Heaney published this poem.) The reference to “snares” may strike us now as archaic and bucolic - Heaney came from the country, and the children in the class would have seen snares, and probably set them. Today we may know that they are some kind of animal trap, but we maybe cannot visualize how they work.

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Text 4: A Snowy Day in School; D.H. Lawrence

At the heart of this poem are three related ideas

  • the natural enthusiasm and curiosity of the young,
  • the beauty and power of nature, and
  • the dryness and tedium of the school curriculum.

Lawrence writes from personal experience (he served as a teacher) but expresses a sense almost of guilt for what he has to do. Lawrence uses contrast and juxtaposition to show how these things go together - so we see the impressive spectacle of the “shaggy snowball” of “huge” size, as evidence of the boys' playtime fun, followed by the unpleasant schoolwork - “a bitter rood”.

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There may be a pun here - “rood” is an Old English word for the cross on which Christ was crucified, but is related to the modern word “rod” , which in Lawrence's day would carry a suggestion of corporal punishment (as in the saying “spare the rod, and spoil the child” ) - so the “rood” may also suggest the cane with which the teacher must threaten miscreants.

Lawrence explores his relationship with the pupils with a sense that the reader may share his ideas - seeing the boys as being mysterious, unawakened, full of potential but hard to reach. The image of stars suggests their remoteness; that of flowers suggests their fragility, while the froth on the shore in the moon suggests something elusive and unapproachable. Lawrence sees his task as almost impossible - while his sense of duty frightens him. He shows this in a series of questions, while the verse becomes disjointed - a series of clauses separated by dashes.

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The references to stars and the moon place the natural images in a cosmic or universal context. The oath, “My God” , would seem quite strong in 1909, when Lawrence wrote this poem. Much of the lexicon is drawn from nature - the weather, the universe, flowers and a rook. Against these familiar and elemental things comes the dryness and insubstantiality of “a statement about an abstract noun” - as if Lawrence knows that his teaching is less real than the things that distract him and the pupils.

Although Lawrence claims to see his boys as the source of “strange, dark beams” - he also sees them collectively, and does not distinguish any individuals: they are merely “the boys”. This may not be wholly in Lawrence's attitude; if there really are “a hundred eyes” , then we suppose that there are fifty pupils in the class, and that Lawrence must teach them collectively - delivering explanations and firing out questions so dull even he forgets what he has asked (” What was my question?” ).

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The poem is unbalanced in the information Lawrence chooses to give. We have repeated and detailed accounts of the sight and sound of the snow, of the way it makes the teacher and pupils tentative or half-hearted (” We have pattered the lessons ceaselessly...” ), of the way that Lawrence sees the boys as stars, flowers and froth on a shore of the moon, of the giant snowball in the playground. But all we know of the lesson is a reference to an “abstract noun” - so it is a lesson in grammar, perhaps English, perhaps a foreign language.

The form of the poem is rather strange - it appears as a double sonnet, as if two octaves (four quatrains in total) and two sestets (or four triplets) have been put together. Lawrence uses sound effects - especially the sibilant “s” and “sh” sounds, to suggest the sound of falling snow.

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Text 5: Schoolroom on a Wet Afternoon; Vernon Scannell

This poem follows a conventional pattern for lyric verse - we open with a description of the curriculum, move to an observation of nature and the potential of children, and end with a nasty surprise: some of these children will grow up as criminals, violent and even murderous.

The opening stanza uses the special esoteric lexicon of the academic subjects the children study - but reduces each complex subject to a series of images or even clichés:

  • history is “severed heads” and “York and Lancaster” ;
  • geography is “ Africa”,
  • maths is “simple interest”, and
  • the schoolroom is characterized by “inkwells” and “sticks of chalk”. (Why tell us here that they are brittle?)

The poet uses lists at various points.

The second stanza introduces the pathetic fallacy in the familiar notion of rain as tears - though Scannell takes three lines to make the point three times: “bereaved”, “grief” and “lachrymose”, and adds a fourth (” weeps” ) in the last line of the stanza. The poet prefers the obscure Latin adjective to the more familiar “tearful” (more or less synonymous). An extravagant metaphor makes the children's uncertain futures appear as “unmapped forests” - we don't know where they are going or what will happen; but they may be in wild places beyond civilization. Scannell perhaps intends to allude to Thomas Gray's Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College when he refers to the pupils' “doomed innocence”.

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In the final stanza we see the contrasting descriptions of how the children appear as they sit quietly at their desks, seemingly absorbed in work and “disciplined” - and what they hide under the desk lid: a very simple metaphor for the hidden workings of the individual mind or conscience.

The poem is rather patronizing: Scannell begins with the claim that the lessons are a series of “unrelated paragraphs”, forgotten as soon as heard, that the children are helpless victims, and some of them will certainly become criminals. Yet the poem lacks the sense of compassion in Gray's Ode - it is mechanical and schematic. And the reader is not fooled - the disclosure of the last line would be impressive if the poet knew which children the future killers were. But he doesn't - and for all he knows, there may be no child in this class who later turned to violence. The poet is distressingly fatalistic in his prediction - the children are all doomed, and he has no remedy to offer. Lawrence (in A Snowy Day in School) at least recognizes his own inadequacy, and has a sense of a responsibility he is somehow neglecting. But Scannell is curiously detached from the children whose shocking futures he anticipates. The condescension also comes from the poet's attempt to share with the readers a sense of complicity that we, like him, are educated types who know about British history, word geography and calculating interest - but that this will be over the heads of the students in the school. How can he be so sure? And if the curriculum is so inappropriate, why is this an occasion to look at the children's incomprehension?

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The rain is not weeping for anyone, and the dead metaphor does not suggest that the poet cares really, either. We do not, as with U.A. Fanthorpe (Felicity and Mr. Frost), Lawrence (A Snowy Day in School) or Heaney (The Play Way), even have a clear sense that the poet was ever in this classroom or one like it; and if he had been, we would not be sure what he was doing there. If he is the teacher (like Lawrence) then he is abdicating responsibility; if he is merely an observer, then he may not have convinced us that he knows enough about these children for us to trust him. He is wholly detached from the pupils who are not at all individually distinguished - the reverse of what Fanthorpe does with her quirky account of a very specific lesson, and very clearly depicted people (a dead poet, a child, her mother). She sees what happens; Scannell sees or invents what he has already decided to find.

There is occasional slick wordplay - as in the apparent paradox of “complexities of simple interest” - that is, it is called “simple” as opposed to “compound interest”, but for many pupils it is not simple (as in easy) but hard to calculate. There may also be a pun on the other sense of “interest” (opposite of boredom), which the children seem to lack.

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The poem is well controlled - Scannell writes in the iambic pentameter line, with some rhyme effects. Occasionally these become jingling and repetitious (” concentration, supplication, resignation” ). Vernon Scannell tries to be lyrical and profound - “...desires/Pains and ecstasies surf-ride each singing wave” of blood, breaking (the wave) “in darkness on the mental shores”. But what does this mean? Perhaps something really rather bathetic - that children have strong feelings and don't understand them. The poem may be helpful as a corrective of sentimental pieces depicting all children as little angels - but it may not deliver convincingly what, in places, it seems to aspire to.

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Text 6: Reports; U.A. Fanthorpe

Shakespeare writes (or one of his characters says) that all the world's a stage. U.A. Fanthorpe has a similar analogy in “School is the world”. And just as school reports challenge the teacher - we are unsure what we mean, or how far we are able to tell the truth - so it is hard to know how (if, when, why) we should pass judgements on people.

U.A. Fanthorpe uses the lexicon of reports - assuming that her readers will have seen these terms on their own or their friends' reports (or, as we now say, “records of achievement”). The poem praises vagueness and generalities ironically, suggesting that readers will try to find a meaning, and, if they succeed, may take offence. The teacher is obliged to say something, but unable to tell the truth without risk. Fanthorpe writes explicitly about connotation - how one version shows the teacher as the cause of the pupils' failure (” unmanageable” implies that the teacher is not able to manage), while another gives the teacher credit for helping the child overcome his or her natural limitations.

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The poet begins as if giving counsel to teachers - identifying others (later shown as the “unholy trinity” of parent, child and head) as “them”, seen as a natural enemy. She addresses this imaginary staff-room directly, with “Don't give them anything/To take hold of”, “don't bother” and “set them no riddles”. Why are pronouns “dangerous” - Perhaps because they are alternatives to nouns - and not to use the child's name at every point may imply that the report writer does not know it, or fails to value him or her as an individual. (An attitude expressed in the common objection to the pronoun “she”, identified with “the cat's mother”.)

The last “instructor” is the gravestone - its message is not in the “indicative” mood (like statements about the subject of the report). Instead it is an imperative - a command or exhortation, to “rest in peace”. We may see this as good advice, or as a cynical acknowledgement that we will not really be able to choose to do otherwise.

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U.A. Fanthorpe indulges in word-play at various points, as in the apparent truism “Satisfactory/should satisfy them”. It is not really a truism, since it does not mean that something which is satisfactory should satisfy (a logical necessity) but that parents should be satisfied to read that their child has been judged satisfactory (to the school or teacher) - so the parents should be satisfied with the report, because the report writer is satisfied with their child. But at no point do we learn what it is that has satisfied the teacher, nor what might be a benchmark for being “satisfactory”.

The most serious part of the poem is the two final stanzas - U.A. Fanthorpe moves from a sense of amusement at her analogy of school and life, to a general account of how we fail to fulfil early promise, and discover too late that we “could have done better”. But it is not clear that this is true of people in general, or anyone in particular. And even if it is true of many people, as readers we are free, unless we are very fatalistic, to do otherwise - perhaps we will be among those who do “better” than others, or simply do our best.

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At a more philosophical level, by querying the lexicon of evaluation, U.A. Fanthorpe challenges us to think of the realities (if they are) or mistaken ideas that these epithets seek to express. Are we able honestly and consistently to make judgements about personal qualities and achievements? In this respect, the poet takes us back to the perennial questions of classical ethics - what is the good? We note, however, that Fanthorpe does not allow anything better than “quite good” into the poem. There are some terms that are conspicuous by their absence (” good”, “very good” and “excellent”, for example).

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Text 7: Seminar: Felicity and Mr Frost, U.A. Fanthorpe

How much help should the lyric poet give the reader? Is it acceptable to include private references? And what knowledge of other things - like the canon of literature - can the poet expect the reader to have? This poem may be a puzzle to many readers - we will certainly not understand it, unless we know about some other things that are not in the text of the poem. But a poem is not necessarily written to inform the reader immediately - or perhaps ever - of what can be understood in simple prose.

This poem, like many, relies on reference (or allusion) to other works of culture. Some poets (Thomas Gray or T.S. Eliot, for instance) are happy to quote or refer to other texts, but to assimilate them into their own work, so that even if we miss the source we can understand the present text of which they are part. U.A. Fanthorpe identifies her source by name - Mr. Frost. The presence of a child in the poem and a description of snow might mislead us about who or what is intended. The reference is to the American poet, Robert Frost (1874-1963). But how can the reader tell? Fanthorpe may expect that her readers will at least have heard his name and may know lines from two much-quoted poems, Mending Wall and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. She includes direct quotation and indirect reference to these. At the same time she also makes use of direct quotation from the child, Felicity. And this leads to effects of contrast or juxtaposition (putting things together in ways that make them more interesting than they are when seen separately.) A good example of this would be the weather outside the place where the seminar happens, contrasted with the weather described by Robert Frost.

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The poet in fact provides her own comment or introduction to what she is about to write - in the opening stanza where she presents the reader with “two truth-tellers”. The description is ambiguous - in one case, the truth is that of the child who sees things with a directness that grown-ups may have lost, that is, she does not have a sense of how she is expected to react, and is not much influenced by her culture and education. In the other case, the truth is the deeper truth or insight of the poet. Fanthorpe teases us briefly with a sense of a real person's arriving “Mr. Frost, who is dead, comes in black...” (which might suggest some person in black clothes, entering as a ghost or zombie). But if we follow the punctuation (without pausing for the line break), we read “in black on white” - and we realize that this is a book containing his writing.

The poem exploits pragmatics very fully - that is Ms. Fanthorpe's awareness of the reader's not being sure which things are immediately present in the scene the poet recalls, and which are at a further remove - either because they are in Felicity's experience and imagination, or because they are in Frost's poems. It is usual in a commentary (like this) to begin with a short statement of what the poem is about. But doing this does not mirror the experience of the reader - who can only arrive at such an idea (if ever), after several readings of the poem from start to finish. For example, we may, if we know Frost's poems, miss U.A. Fanthorpe's first reference to them, and the next. But the last one: “And miles to go” is identical to the ending of Stopping by Woods - if we don't spot the reference now, we are not likely ever to spot it (because we have reached the end of Fanthorpe's poem, and because it is explicit word-for-word quotation).

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So what is the poem about? Someone is leading a seminar (we are not told explicitly who this is, but it appears to be Felicity's mother, since she smiles “at the students” - a construction that suggests that she is not one of them). The subject of the seminar appears to be (at least in part) the poems of Robert Frost. Felicity, a three-year old, has come with her mother, who appears to be leading the seminar. We infer that the reason is that her house is cold or unsafe, but the explanation appears to be in the exact words told to (or by) Felicity - an adult might expect more information than simply “because of a hole in the roof”. (What roof? Where? What kind of hole? Why can a child not be in a house with a hole in the roof? and so on.)

Fanthorpe explores ambiguity again in “Both try hard” - the child, because she has more limited abilities, and Frost, because, as a poet, he is attempting to say “something” (wise, profound and clever), within the strictures of the poetic form. U.A. Fanthorpe notes odd similarities - the hole in the roof (of which we learn no more), the holes in the wall (described by Frost in Mending Wall) and the simile of a hole that describes Felicity's yawn. Although we do not here have the detail of Frost's poem, Fanthorpe is aware that we may know it already and/or can go and read it again or for the first time.

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This poem, is itself cryptic, yet Fanthorpe explores the contrast between the clear statements of a child's speaking truth and the opaque quality of poetic truths. Felicity says that she “didn't understand the story” (Mending Wall has a narrative of sorts), but this may not be an option for the students in the seminar - who are expected to reach some understanding. Meanwhile we may not understand this poem (Ms. Fanthorpe's).

The preposition “in” suggests that “Mr. Frost” is identical with the book of his verse or even the place described in the next poem - Stopping by Woods. Describing the poem by its size (” very short” ) seems more the way a child would see it. (In fact, Stopping by Woods has four stanzas, each of four lines, with four iambic feet.) Fanthorpe explores the gulf between adult irony and childish earnestness as the mother tells the students, “Don't ever have children.” This illustrates a pragmatic distinction - the remark is made to the students, as a kind of apology for Felicity's intrusion on their class. Felicity has no sense of irony and interprets the statement literally and with alarm - it causes her to leave (” cancel” ) her secret world and think about the real world. The students, meanwhile, have seen the effect on the child and show concern, so the mother must explain: “I didn't mean it”. This leaves hanging in the air, for Felicity, what she did mean - which may have been an expression of her unease or embarrassment at Felicity's behaviour, and an apology for her inability to keep the child silent and inconspicuous.

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Two contrasting ideas lurk unspoken here - the familiar view that children should be seen and not heard, and Jesus' comment, in St. Matthew's gospel, about wisdom coming out of the mouths of babes and infants. U.A. Fanthorpe clearly takes the second of these views. How do we know? Because she quotes Felicity repeatedly, without any attempt at mockery. This poem is far removed from amusement at the cuteness of children, but accepts that their views are serious and interesting. She quotes “jimmy” - a noun from Felicity's private lexicon - without attempting to gloss it, or use italics or inverted commas (as I have done above) to show that it is not a real word. Moreover, she writes not that Felicity says this, but directly states that Felicity “has found a jimmy” - that is, she accepts the child's discovery as a truth. A more conventional adult account would be: “This child is pretending that she has seen an imaginary unspecified thing that she calls a jimmy.” U.A. Fanthorpe does not qualify Felicity's “truth” in this way.

The form of the poem is worthy of comment. U.A. Fanthorpe uses four-line stanzas, which loosely copy the metre of Stopping by Woods. More important is the shortness of many sentences, and the naivety of the style - rather like that of William Blake or the book of Genesis, where sentences frequently start with “And”. The sun, anthropomorphically “walks round the room”. In terms of syntax there are many sentences that are simple in form (they have a single clause) - such as: “Both try hard” or “Mr. Frost's world is secret, too”. The poem may be hard to interpret, but this is not because of the poet's lexicon, which is very accessible. With the possible exceptions of “opaque” and “preoccupied”, the poem contains no words that Felicity might not say (including “jimmy”, which she understands and the reader doesn't). Fanthorpe does not make use of a special style of lexis (diction) for this poem - she relies on the common register.

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The poem is subversive - it belongs in a tradition with Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, with Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality and with Coleridge's Frost at Midnight, in celebrating the natural curiosity of children as against official or prescribed modes of education. How can we tell? Because we learn nothing here of the seminar proper - the teacher's and the students' interpretation of Frost. Instead we find out some of the details in two of the poems, and the response of the child who draws quietly, goes under a table, speaks out, yawns, touches the poetry book and observes that it has a jimmy in it, stands on a chair and becomes worried when her mother says something cruel. We do not know whether the poet has witnessed the scene or heard it from the child's mother - but it is clear that she is interested in Frost's poems and the child's behaviour in the seminar, far more than in the interpretation of Frost.

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Text 8: Them & [uz]; Tony Harrison

This poem (in two parts) is miles away from the sentimental but ultimately despairing attitudes of Our Day Out or the inarticulate divisions of Comprehensive. Tony Harrison sets out to redress a historical and cultural wrong - the success of the establishment in identifying itself with great artists, throughout history, who really came from the common stock and spoke a demotic, vernacular language. In the title “them” (from their own viewpoint “[ʌs]” ) are the powerful, while [uz] are the common people - as we can tell from the phonetic transcription, giving the northern speech sound, rather than Received Pronunciation [ʌs]. The poet sees his action as political defiance - “we'll occupy/Your lousy leasehold”. (” Leasehold” suggests the house properties in London where owners can only rent the land, which belongs to a few wealthy landowners; but it also suggests that the person who claims the property does not really own it outright, as a freeholder does.)

T.W. is the poet - his first book (Earthworks, 1964) was published under his full name of T.W. Harrison. In Them and [uz] Harrison records how his teacher called him “T.W.”, a naming convention he associates with the middle classes and repudiates, in reclaiming his given name, Tony - though he notes how this did not survive a reference in the Times where it became “Anthony” (of which, usually, Tony is a short form). In the second part of the poem, Harrison tells us that he “dropped the initials I'd been harried as”.

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Harrison records how, as a pupil, he was given the comic role of the Porter in Macbeth, because he lacked the “nicely spoken” accent his teachers wrongly attributed to the authors of high culture (the nobles in the play are all Scots). Yet Harrison knows that Demosthenes - a great orator, notable for the persuasive elegance and beauty of his speeches - nevertheless had a speech impediment. In spite of his “gob full of pebbles”, he could be heard “outshouting seas”. Similarly, Harrison recalls his beginning to read aloud Keats' Ode to a Nightingale - only to be silenced after four words by a teacher objecting to his barbarian speech. The teacher seems not to know that Keats spoke with a Cockney accent. Later in the poem, Harrison shows how Wordsworth (perhaps of all poets the one most frequently claimed by the heritage industry) spoke with an accent that rhymed “matter” with “water” (also sounded with a hard [æ] vowel). Those readers who use modern RP here, and suppose that Wordsworth used only half-rhyme, are mistaken.

The poem is highly allusive - and challenges the reader. Harrison expects us to know, to discover, or to work out who is who. But there are some traps for us, as in the sub-title of the poem. Seeing Richard Hoggart's name, I supposed that Leon Cortez was a cultural commentator of similar standing. In reality, Hoggart seems to be one of “Them” and Cortez, one of “[uz].” Richard Hoggart is a cultural historian and commentator - the author of The Uses of Literacy, and a real professor (appointed by a university to a specific professorial chair). Leon Cortez (whom I found ony after searching on the Web) is a British radio comic - Harrison awards him an honorary professorship. (Some time after Harrison wrote the poem, Leon Cortez appeared in an episode of Dad's Army.) Is this ironic? Maybe not - perhaps Tony Harrison really does see Leon Cortez as a more informed authority on demotic speech and popular culture than the university professor. And who is “dozing Daniel Jones” ? He is a linguist, a phonetician who in1956 made a recording of the so-called cardinal vowels for reference (you can find them in digital form on the Web site of the University of Utrecht).

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The poem is full of puns and wordplay - “chewed up litterchewer”, is a visual and auditory verbal gag, but also records a non-standard common pronunciation of “literature”. In “ending sentences with by, with, from”, Harrison perhaps alludes to a story (for which there is no documented evidence) that Winston Churchill ridiculed the supposed rule against ending sentences with prepositions by saying, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” But authority and common usage are both on Harrison's side. The Oxford Guide to the English Language (Oxford; 1984) states that “the alleged rule that forbids the placing of the preposition at the end of a clause or sentence should be disregarded.” There is simpler verbal humour in “RIP RP”. The poem delights in simple rhyme - mostly in couplets, though there is a flourish of sophistication in the ABAB pattern of the last four lines.

Tony Harrison not only exemplifies the difference between Received Pronunciation and vernacular speech - but he introduces technical details from linguistics: phonetic transcription, special lexis (” RP”, “flat”, “glottals” ) and naming of the supposed authority, Daniel Jones.

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Text 9: The Lesson; Roger McGough

This poem appears in print, but is a text written perhaps for oral performance - it has a mildly humorous dramatic quality, but McGough's use of demotic English (a mix of standard forms in the common lexicon, of colloquialism and slang) may not bear close scrutiny in reading on the page. The poem is written in a forceful metre but at points it does not scan conventionally - it relies on the reader to supply the prosodic pattern. At several points, McGough uses stilted passive verb forms to sustain the rhyme - “homework will be set” and “a din was being made”.

The poem is superficially an extended joke in bad taste (or black humour). It exploits a Malapropism that many adults make at one time or another (or pretend to) of confusing two familiar collocations “capital punishment” and “corporal punishment”. The more serious point it makes is that the behaviour of some pupils may, at times, drive teachers to feel like responding, or to respond really, with violence. It reflects a common view in a liberal society that some people deserve harsh retribution for their contempt of civilized values. In this respect, this text falls firmly into the category of those that endorse a sense of education as something that adult experts do to or for young people who should show respect for this process.

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If we study McGough's meaning, however, we see a profound problem. Does he really believe that such acts of slaughter would be an appropriate response to disrespectful students? “Of course not”, we say - he is being ironic - that is, saying something of which the literal meaning differs from the intended meaning. So what does the poet wish us really to infer from this performance? The poem neither offers any serious solution nor even the beginnings of an understanding of the problem the teacher is trying to solve. Moreover the fantasy of violence reflects badly on the teacher - who emerges as someone too weak to establish any kind of civilized rapport with the class. The students it dismisses as beyond redemption - though all we learn of their offence is that they are making a loud noise.

The poem has a second joke at the end - a weak pun on two meanings of “lesson” (a period or set activity in a school; and a morally edifying experience). It does not work well, however, since there is no one left to profit from the lesson - they are all dead or dying.

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The poem is flippant about violence. Where someone guns down real children (as at Dunblane and Columbine) this objection may become clearer. Is it relevant that these events happened after McGough wrote the poem? At various points the poet indulges in wordplay - so we get puns on “Head” and “head”, “first come first severed” (instead of “served” ) and “garrotte” and “grotty”. But the last of these brings problems - first, one of meaning. As a description of hair, “grotty” tells us nothing beyond a vague sense of the poet's distaste. But more alarmingly, the offence of the girl lies in having unattractive hair - a judgement which smacks of the Nazi tendency to judge people's worth by their appearance (which proves their racial “purity” or “degeneracy” ).

The poem also has a kind of cartoon logic - so the teacher first uses his hands, then finds a garrotte, after which he produces a sword and a shotgun from thin air. The Head teacher, even more bizarrely, has a grenade. Roger McGough perhaps assumes that his readers share his own understanding of how these weapons work. If the Head teacher's grenade were to explode in a classroom, it is unlikely that the class teacher would be standing a little while later. And firing one barrel of a shotgun would not kill all the people on a row. We read that “the ammo was well spent” - yet garrottes and swords do not have ammunition. Such objections look like pedantry - but other comic poets can produce humorous or fantastic scenarios while attending to detail. The poem almost requires the reader to be slightly ignorant and to imagine the scene vaguely and with no sense of continuity, or the real effects of weapons and explosives.

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There is some incongruity in the poem - near the end, there is an eloquent personification which would not be out of place in a serious work: “Silence shuffled forward/With its hands up in the air”. Does this belong in the same poem as “the one with grotty hair” ?

Most of these criticisms arise from approaching the poem as a text for adults to read. If we accept that it was written for children, and that they would usually meet it in a reading made by their own teacher (or hearing a recording of the poet), then this may change the experience radically - there is a context in which the young listener can be reassured, and the narrative reduced to the level of ritualised fantasy violence, as in a cartoon or video game. But even this requires the reader or listener to side with the avenging teacher against the alleged “hooligans”. The poem makes the case for the educator to get a hearing, and sweeps aside the feelings of those who are to receive the lesson.

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Text 10: In Which the Ancient History I Learn is not my Own; Eavan Boland

This poem is relatively straightforward - in that it presents a familiar opposition between an official or traditional interpretation of British history, as taught in most English schools in 1952, and an individual's sense of a different place, thought of as home.

How does Eavan Boland do this?

  • She describes the place where she learned these things,
  • refers to the ideas at the heart of the teaching and
  • several times quotes the words of her teacher.

There is detail in a lexicon

  • of colours (” red, underwater coral, blue-green” ),
  • of sounds (” tapped” ) and
  • smells (” scent” of the lilac tree).

Another special kind of lexis appears in the nouns and adjectives of place - “Kashmir, Kent, English, Irish, London, Roman, Delphic, Wicklow, Kilruddery, Dublin”. The writer may assume that these have an emotional charge or set of connotations, independent of the poem, and on which she can draw.

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She recalls how she almost came to recognize “God's grace in history”, but also the way in which the teacher would contrast modern British culture with the ancient religion of Greece (the priestesses of the oracle at Delphi ).

Lastly, Eavan Boland tells us of her sense of rebellion - her wish to blot out the teacher's version of events, and to assert her own identity, by recalling the house she left behind in Ireland. The ending of the poem is skilful. After telling us the questions she wanted to ask (where her house is), the poet recalls the teacher's account of how people in ancient Greece would travel to Delphi to ask questions of the oracle - but rarely left with “more/than an ambiguous answer”. There is an implication here that Eavan Boland had no more “than an ambiguous answer” to her own question about the place from which she has come.

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The poem has a clear structure - it is a lyric, which moves from recollection and description to reflection and a kind of resolution. In each stanza we find simple repetitions - sequences of lines starting with “the”, “I”, “its” and “they”.

Are there deliberate clues in the details? “Linen” (in the map) is a product of Ireland - in the 1950s any linen in England would probably have come from there. This is made explicit later in the poem, where Eavan Boland refers to “the weave of my own country”. “Cotton” also has historical associations discreditable to England, being linked to the slave trade. And the date is significant, too - 1952 was the year Elizabeth II came to the throne (the coronation service was in 1953). The fading of the red colour for the British Empire on the map suggests that, in 1952, the imperial age was coming to an end.

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Is the poem accurate? According to Anne Devlin's 1987 TV drama Naming the Names, reciting local place names was a device used by Irish Republicans in the Troubles for resisting interrogation - when asked a question by an intelligence officer, a Republican would name places (such as the Catholic streets of Belfast or Derry). Does Eavan Boland recall a real wish to name places or does she embellish the account of her own childhood with another writer's idea? An account of what she did in childhood may be plausible; an account, at forty years' remove, of what she thought may be less so.

The title of the poem, and its conclusion makes it appear as a protest against the indoctrination of the child into British imperialist ideology. (The form of the title is mildly comic - it recalls the chapter headings of many novels that begin “In which” - a device A.A. Milne uses in Winnie the Pooh) And in 1994, many readers will approach it with a sympathy for all things Irish and a distrust of British imperialism. But the poet's protest is odd, really.

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We can imagine that the child might have found her education somehow alien to her, but the adult writing in 1994 can hardly be surprised that the teacher did not, in 1952, ignore the official syllabus, in order to celebrate the subjective personal experience of a single child. The teacher brings a longer historical view and information that otherwise the child would not know. Arguably, Ms. Boland makes a mountain out of a molehill. The teacher gives a traditional view of the world, and the poet wrongly supposes it is an assault on her heritage. She notices (perhaps objects to) the teacher's “London accent” - but this seems unreasonable, since “this was London”. (Though today the teacher in London is just as likely to have an Australian accent.) Many of us recall harsh moments from schooldays, but the poet may be guilty of hyperbole in dressing this up as political oppression.

As a writer does she presume too much on the reader's probable sympathy for Ireland? How would the poem read to someone with little awareness of Britain's relations with Ireland?

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Text 11: Head of English; Carol Ann Duffy

What is the purpose of ridicule? Years ago, brave poets used satire to mock the powerful or vainglorious, especially where direct criticism might not be possible or effective. Here Carol Ann Duffy pokes fun at a teacher. As readers we might ask: is this a portrait of a real individual, albeit with some distortions, or is it a composite and representative figure? In either case, one wonders why the poet wrote it. Perhaps she believes that the reader will recognize this stereotype and share her disdain. But Ms. Duffy chooses to make a living from teaching and public readings. There is also something rather self-regarding or disdainful about her mockery of the teacher who has dared to connect her own writing with that of the visiting expert. Some of my correspondents (reading a draft of this guide) have defended this poem - one of them by writing that he has known teachers like the one in the poem, and that it was such a visit by an active writer that inspired him to love literature. Clearly some audiences do enjoy reading or hearing things that lampoon silly people. (In modern Britain Schadenfreude is alive and well in popular culture.) And the artist, driven by a sense of something to say, may feel more or less obliged to publish and be damned. If we allow that an artist may ridicule the pompous teacher who abuse her job to advertise herself, then we can judge this poem on how well Ms. Duffy skewers her victim. How well we know other exponents of this black art - whether our yardstick is a popular broadcaster, say, or a literary satirist like Dryden, Swift or Pope - may also inform our response to the poem. As Carol Ann Duffy is among the most well regarded of poets writing in English today, it should be fair enough to apply such a test. How does this poem compare, say, with Robert Browning's satirical monologues like Mr. Sludge the Medium?

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The poem is a monologue, in which Ms. Duffy caricatures the teacher's style of speech - a string of clichés from “hot off the press”, past a reference to “the Muse” (patron spirit of the arts - here meaning poetry), and “write reams” to “I have to dash”. There may be a serious point here about the gulf between the creative faculty of the real artist and the unoriginal platitudes of the pedagogue - a hint here of G.B. Shaw's dictum (in Man and Superman: Maxims for Revolutionists): “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches”.

The teacher's comments also suggest her approach to teaching - the attention to a single feature of technique (she refers to a “lesson on assonance” ), her disapproval of unrhymed verse (this poem has irregular and occasional rhymes) and her teaching of Kipling - a technically brilliant poet, sometimes disapproved for his supposed imperialism. (Even if there were some problem with Kipling, we need not suppose that the writer is chosen by the teacher - for all the visiting poet knows, Kipling's work may be set by an exam board.)

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The teacher's lack of original thought appears in a habit of allusion or quotation. Sometimes this is intended but limited “season of mists and so on and so forth” (in place of Keats' “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” ). Elsewhere it seems automatic and irrelevant. After asking someone to open a window, the teacher says (presumably the window is open too wide), “We don't/want winds of change about the place”. She speaks of literal winds, but the “winds of change” are (or were) metaphorical - an image Harold McMillan used in 1960 to explain political change in Africa. Andrew Mayne's reply to the poem (Re Your Poem and Recent Visit), interprets Ms. Duffy's allusion to the classics and to formal technique as evidence of disdain for the traditional canon of classic literature - but we do not really know why the poet should include the teaching of Kipling among the things she recalls about the teacher.

At points the teacher's speech seems impossibly archaic for 1985 (when the poem was published). For example, one class is “the Lower Fourth” - apparently the stream or group for the less able students in what English schools now call Year 10 (and Bedford and Radley call the “Remove” ). She addresses her class as “girls”, but “run along now girls” seems patronizing and out of place in a secondary school. The choice of the name “Tracey” suggests that the poet is having a cheap laugh at the connotations of vulgarity that this given name unfairly arouses.

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The poet seems to object to the mention of her fee (” we're paying forty pounds” ) and the offer of a school “lunch in the hall”, but more so, perhaps, to the teacher's evident failure to appreciate her abilities - after the comment on unrhymed verse, comes the request to the poet to impress: “Convince us that there's something we don't know”. She notes how the teacher calls her “this person”, rather than by name - and damns the teacher with faint praise in her clumsy tongue-twisting claim that the reading “gave us an insight to an outside view”, while having to tell the girls when to clap (” applause will do” ).

Different people have different speech styles but the Anthology contains a real transcript of a teacher speaking to her class - and we see that Carol Ann Duffy's monologue is stylized and artificial. The poet uses supposed first-person quotation to express her attitude - that the subject of the poem is somehow silly or contemptible. The title of the poem, however, suggests that this character is somehow typical or representative of all heads of English - and Ms. Duffy may thereby slur a whole professional group.

But maybe she is more charitable - perhaps the ghastly teacher here is presented as the characters in cautionary tales, like those of Hilaire Belloc, so that any teachers reading the poem are given due warning of how not to behave.

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Text 12: Re Your Poem and Recent Visit; Andrew Mayne

One problem of having this text together with Ms. Duffy's poem is that you may see it as a definitive critique of the earlier piece. But it is more ambitious than that - it gives a contrary view from what purports to be a real teacher (as the author is). In this case the speaker is another imagined character - but a more plausible one than in the first poem. Behind this, lies a suggestion that Ms. Duffy's satire is weak because she has not observed her subject very acutely, and instead filled in the gaps with details from her “own schooldays”. There is a further suggestion that someone who appears not to like schools or understand those who work in them, should not venture to comment adversely.

Ms. Duffy's teacher alludes to Keats, refers to “the Muse” and names Kipling. Does this make her a supporter of the classic canon or the “dead-white-European-male” view of literature? Not necessarily, but Andrew Mayne attempts to defend this view. He suggests that Ms. Duffy's disdain only reinforces the prejudices and limitations of the pupils - they wish to write, but have no idea of objective viewpoints, control of feeling and structure. He seizes on the “window” (meant literally by the Head of English) as a metaphor - since it admits clarity and knowledge (” light and air” ).

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There is also an explanation for the teacher's seeming haste (as reported in Ms. Duffy's poem) - a desire not to impose too much on the poet, and a wish to sort out some of the school's other pressing duties.

The poem resembles Duffy's as a representation of speech - no more naturalistic, but more plausible because it omits the clichés of the first poem. It is more measured and thoughtful.

Andrew Mayne wrote the poem as a reply - it is in this sense derivative, and dependent on the earlier piece. And it is not as widely published. On the other hand, there is some precedent in literature, for a writer to publish a poem by way of a riposte to an earlier piece.

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This perhaps raises a question about the reader - or several questions. Whether we like to see foolish people ridiculed or not is largely a matter of taste (which perhaps arises from our attitude to our fellow men and women). How far this is a legitimate pursuit for a serious artist is similarly a matter of taste. When this happens, do we rise above it, or try to rebut the slur? It is as if Carol Ann Duffy has done something that Andrew Mayne sees as picking a fight with English teachers, and he accepts the challenge. However, the poem is a genuine “reply” in that it defends or justifies the teacher in the earlier poem (and teachers generally). It does not respond with much direct criticism of the poet.

Rather artfully, what criticism there is, Andrew Mayne puts in the mouths of the pupils. He chivalrously defends the honour of every Tracy by crediting his student of this name with a perceptive comment on the sources of Ms. Duffy's poem - so this Tracy appears thoughtful and acute. He stands up for Kipling by naming two of his best poems - highly traditional in form - while also questioning the credentials of the ubiquitous The Color Purple, not so much as a work in its own right, but as a model for young writers.

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