This guide is written for students and teachers who are preparing for GCSE exams in English literature. It contains detailed studies of the poems from Different Cultures in the AQA Anthology, which is a set text for the AQA's GCSE syllabuses for English and English Literature Specification A, from the 2004 exam onwards.
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.
The guide gives detailed readings of poems from Different Cultures, with ideas for study. For a general introduction to poetry in the Anthology with extensive guidance for students and teachers, then please see the Introduction to the Anthology by clicking on the link below.
On this page I use red type for emphasis. Brown type is used where italics would appear in print (in this screen font, italic looks like this, and is unkind on most readers). Headings have their own hierarchical logic, too:
Main section headings look like this
Sub-section headings look like this
Minor headings within sub-sections look like this
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Edward Kamau Brathwaite: Limbo
This poem tells the story of slavery in a rhyming, rhythmic dance. It is ambitious and complex. There are two narratives running in parallel:
- the actions of the dance, and
- the history of a people which is being enacted.
Going down and under the limbo stick is likened to the slaves' going down into the hold of the ship, which carries them into slavery. In Roman Catholic tradition, limbo is a place to which the souls of people go, if they are not good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell, between which limbo lies; it has come to mean any unpleasant place, or a state (of mind or body) from which it is difficult to escape. The story of slavery told in the poem is very easy to follow, yet full of vivid detail and lively action.
The poem has a very strong beat, suggesting the dance it describes: where the word limbo appears as a complete line, it should be spoken slowly, the first syllable extended and both syllables stressed: Lím-bó. While the italics give the refrain (or chorus) which reminds us of the dance, the rest of the poem tells the story enacted in the dance: these lines are beautifully rhythmic, and almost every syllable is stressed, until the very last line, where the rhythm is broken, suggesting the completion of the dance, and the end of the narrative.
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This poem is suited to dramatic performance - there is the dancing under the limbo pole (difficult for most Europeans) and the acting out of the voyage into slavery. The poem can be chanted or sung, with a rhythmic accompaniment to bring out the drama in it (percussion, generally, is appropriate but drums, specifically, are ideal: in fact, the text refers to the drummer and the music).
What do you find interesting in
- the way the poem appears on the page
- sound effects in the poem
- repetition in the poem
- the way the limbo dance tells the story of slavery
Is this a serious or comic poem? Is it optimistic or pessimistic?
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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. Jackie Fielding writes:
I had always assumed that the poem was written post-apartheid and reflected the bitterness that knowing one's place in society is so deeply ingrained that the I-persona can't bring himself to accept his new-found freedom under Mandela. I also find it interesting that the poet is not South African and not black.
District Six is the name of a poor area of Cape Town (one of South Africa's two capital cities; the other is Pretoria). This area 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.
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Similarly the up-market inn (brash with glass and the bright sign ,flaring like a flag, 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 tablecloth, 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.
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.
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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.
- What does the poet think about change in his home country?
- How does the poem contrast the rich and the poor in South Africa?
- Why does the poet write about two places where people buy food?
- Comment on the image of the plate-glass window to show how poor people are shut out of things in South Africa. What does the poet want to do to change this?
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Grace Nichols: Island Man
The subtitle really explains this simple poem - it tells of a man from the Caribbean, who lives in London but always thinks of his home.
The poem opens with daybreak, as the island man seems to hear the sound of surf - and perhaps to imagine he sees it, since we are told the colour. This is followed by simple images:
- the fishermen pushing their boat out,
- the sun climbing in the sky,
- the island, emerald green.
The island man always returns to the island, in his mind, but in thinking of it he must always come back literally to his immediate surroundings - hearing the traffic on London's North Circular Road.
Grace Nichols ends the poem with the image of coming up out of the sea - but the reality is the bed, and the waves are only the folds of a crumpled pillow. The last line of the poem is presented as the harsh reality.
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Many Afro-Caribbeans in Britain live a split existence. They may yearn for the warmth and simple pleasures of the islands they think of as home, yet they find themselves, with friends and family, in a cold northern climate. This poem neatly captures this division - between a fantasy of the simple life and the working daily reality. But perhaps it is not really a serious choice - if one were to stay on the island, then one would bring one's problems there, too. In fact, this man is like most other British people - he does not relish work, but faces up to it.
After reading the whole poem, one sees that it is ambiguous - the island is both in the Caribbean and Great Britain.
Grace Nichols also challenges us to think about where home really lies. Is it
- the place we dream about,
- the place where we, our friends and family live, or
- the place where we do our work?
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The poem is written as free verse - it is a quite loose sequence of vivid images. The poet relies on effects of sound - contrasting the breaking of the surf with the roar of traffic. There are a few rhymes and repetitions. Grace Nichols also refers to colour - blue for surf (surely an error - the surf is the white foam of the blue sea), emerald (green) for the island and grey for the traffic.
- Is this poem about the Caribbean or London?
- Why does the title have more than one meaning?
- Is this poem about a real wish for sun and surf or just an escapist fantasy?
- What do you find interesting in the images of this poem?
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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).
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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.
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.
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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.
- How does this poem present water as the source of life?
- There is never enough water - do readers in the west take water too much for granted?
- Why does Imtiaz Dharker call the poem Blessing?
- Why might the poet end by mentioning the small bones of the children?
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Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes
The poem's title alerts us to the simple contrast that is its subject. Beautiful people is perhaps written with a mild sense of irony - as this phrase was originally coined by the hippie movement in 1967 (maybe earlier) to refer to the flower children who shared the counter-culture ideals of peace and love. The couple in the poem are not beautiful people in this sense but wealthy and elegant.
The poem is deceptively simple - in places it is written as if in bright primary colours, so we read of the yellow garbage truck and the red plastic blazers, we get exact details of time and place, and we see the precise position of the four people: all waiting at a stoplight and the garbage collectors looking down (literally but not metaphorically) into the elegant open Mercedes and the matching couple in it. The details of their dress and hair could be directions for a film-maker.
Ferlinghetti contrasts the people in various ways. The wealthy couple are on their way to the man's place of work, while the scavengers are coming home, having worked through the early hours.
The couple in the Mercedes are clean and cool; the scavengers are dirty. But while one scavenger is old, hunched and with grey hair, the other is about the same age as the Mercedes driver and, like him, has long hair and sunglasses. The older man is depicted as the opposite of beautiful - he is compared both to a gargoyle (an ugly grotesque caricature used to decorate mediaeval churches, and ward off evil spirits) and to Quasimodo (the name means almost human) the main character in Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
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The poem moves to an ambiguous conclusion. The two scavengers see the young couple, not as real people, but as characters in a TV ad/in which everything is always possible - as if, that is, with determination and effort, the scavengers could change their own lifestyle for the better. But the adjective odorless suggests that this is a fantasy - and their smelly truck is the reality.
The poem also considers the fundamental American belief that all men are created equal - and the red light is democratic, because it stops everyone. It holds them together as if anything at all were possible/between them. They are separated by a small gulf and the gulf is in the high seas of democracy - which suggests that, with courage and effort, anyone can cross it. But the poet started this statement with as if - and we do not know if this is an illusion or a real possibility.
The form of the poem is striking on the page - Ferlinghetti begins a new line with a capital letter, but splits most lines to mark pauses, while he omits punctuation other than hyphens in compound-words, full stops in abbreviations and occasional ampersands (the & symbol).
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The poem challenges the reader - are we like the cool couple or the scavengers? And which is better to be? Of which couple does the poet seem to approve more? TV ads may be odorless but without garbage collectors, we would be overwhelmed by unpleasant smells - especially in the heat of San Francisco. The garbage truck and the Mercedes in a way become symbols for public service and for private enterprise.
- How does this poem show the gap between rich and poor?
- Does the poet really think everything is always possible, or is this an illusion?
- Why does the poet call the couple in the Mercedes beautiful people? How does he use this phrase in a different sense from what it originally meant? Does the poet approve more of the scavengers or the beautiful people?
- What do you think of how the poem looks on the page? Does this help you as you read it?
- Perhaps a modern society needs both architects and street-cleaners. But is it right that we should pay them so unequally? Which would you miss the most if they stopped working?
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Nissim Ezekiel: Night of the Scorpion
In this poem Nissim Ezekiel recalls the night his mother was stung by a scorpion. The poem is not really about the scorpion or its sting, but contrasts the reactions of family, neighbours and his father, with the mother's dignity and courage. The scorpion (sympathetically) is shown as sheltering from ten hours of rain, but so fearful of people that it risk(s) the rain again after stinging the poet's mother.
What follows is an account of various superstitious reactions:
- the peasants' efforts to paralyse the Evil One
(the devil, who is identified with the scorpion);
- the peasants' belief that the creature's movements make the poison move in his victim's blood;
- their hope that this suffering may be a cleansing from some sin in the past (your previous birth) or still to come (your next birth).
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The poison is even seen as making the poet's mother better through her suffering: May the poison purify your flesh/of desire and the spirit of ambition/they said. The poet's father normally does not share such superstitions (he is sceptic, rationalist - a doubter of superstition and a believer in scientific reason). But he is now worse than the other peasants, as he tries every curse and blessing as well as every possible antidote of which he can think. The holy man performs rites (religious ritual actions) but the only effective relief comes with time: After twenty hours it lost its sting.
The conclusion of the poem is its most effective part: where everyone else has been concerned for the mother, who has been in too much pain to talk (she twisted...groaning on a mat) she thinks of her children, and thanks God the scorpion has spared them (the sting might be fatal to a smaller person; certainly a child would be less able to bear the pain).
Ezekiel's poetic technique is quite simple here. The most obvious point to make is the contrast between the very long first section, detailing the frantic responses of everyone but the mother, and the simple, brief, understated account of her selfless courage in the second section. The lines are of irregular length and unrhymed but there is a loose pattern of two stresses in each line; the lines are not end-stopped but run on (this is sometimes known as enjambement).
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Instead of metaphor or simile the images are of what was literally present (the candles and the lanterns and the shadows on the walls). The poem is in the form of a short narrative. One final interesting feature to note is the repeated use of reported (indirect) speech - we are told what people said, but not necessarily in their exact words, and never enclosed in speech marks. The poem may surprise us in the insight it gives into another culture: compare Ezekiel's account with what would happen if your mother were stung by a scorpion (or, if this seems a bit unlikely, bitten by an adder, say).
Some comments about Nissim Ezekiel that you might find helpful in relation to Night of the Scorpion are these: he writes in a free style and colloquial manner (like ordinary speech); he makes direct statements and employs few images.
- The title of the poem seems more fitting almost to an old horror film - do you think it is a suitable title for the poem that follows?
- How do the people try to make sense of the scorpion's attack, or even see it as a good thing?
- Are scorpions really evil? Does the poet share the peasants' view of a diabolic animal?
- How does the attack bring out different qualities in the father and the mother?
- What does the poem teach us about the beliefs of people in the poet's home culture?
- In what way is this a poem rather than a short story broken into lines?
- How does the poet make use of what people said, to bring the poem to life?
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Chinua Achebe: Vultures
This is one of the most challenging poems in the anthology. The vultures of the title are real birds of prey but (like William Blake's Tyger) more important, perhaps, for what they represent - people of a certain kind. Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian writer, but has a traditional English-speaking liberal education: the poem is written in a highly literate manner with a close eye for detail.
The poem introduces us to the vultures and their unpleasant diet; in spite of this, they appear to care for each other. From this Achebe goes on to note how even the worst of human beings show some touches of humanity - the concentration camp commandant, having spent the day burning human corpses, buys chocolate for his tender offspring (child or children). This leads to an ambiguous conclusion:
- on the one hand, Achebe tells us to praise bounteous providence that even the worst of creatures has a little goodness, a tiny glow-worm tenderness;
- on the other hand, he concludes in despair, it is the little bit of kindred love (love of one's own kind or relations) which permits the perpetuity of evil (allows it to survive, because the evil person can think himself to be not completely depraved).
We are reminded, perhaps, by the words about the Commandant at Belsen, that Adolf Hitler was said to love children and animals.
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The poem is in the form of free verse, in short lines which are not end-stopped and have no pattern of stress or metre. Achebe moves from
- images of things which are actually present,
- to the imagined scene of the commandant picking up chocolate for his children,
- to the final section of the poem in which appears the conventional metaphor of the glow-worm tenderness in the icy caverns of a cruel heart.
In studying this poem, you should spend a lot of time in making sure you understand all of the unfamiliar vocabulary. Look out, also, for familiar words which are used in surprising ways, because of their context. For example, we read of the commandant going home...with fumes of human roast clinging rebelliously to his hairy nostrils - it is as if he wants to get rid of the smell (put it out of nose and mind) but the smell refuses to go away, rebelling against his authority: something he cannot command.
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As you think or write about the first part of the poem, you should try to describe in your own words the different things on which the vultures feed, while looking for the evidence of the birds' love for each other. Like William Blake's Tyger, the vulture is a creature about which we will have ideas before we read; because it feasts on corpses, it has come to symbolize anyone or anything that benefits by another's suffering. (The vultures here are shown far less sympathetically, for example, than the scorpion in Nissim Ezekiel's poem.)
- Is this poem really about vultures at all or does the poet use them only to make comments on some kinds of people?
- How does the poet try to make the reader feel disgust towards the vultures? Is this fair?
- The ending of this poem is highly ambiguous - the poet recommends both praise for providence and then despair (because the little bit of goodness in otherwise evil things allows them to keep going, in perpetuity). Which of these conclusions do you think the poet feels more strongly, if either?
- Chinua Achebe refers to Belsen, the Nazi death camp - do you think this is a powerful way of suggesting evil, or might readers now and in the future not know what Belsen is or what happened there? (Some younger readers may know of it mainly because Anne Frank died there, at the age of 15.)
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Denise Levertov: What Were They Like?
This is a famous poem, written in 1971, as a protest against the Vietnamese War (1954-1975. This was originally a civil war between communist North and capitalist South Vietnam; the south received support from western countries, notably the USA. In 1973 President Nixon withdrew the US forces, in 1975 the armies of North Vietnam were victorious, and the country was reunited the following year. More recently, Vietnam has adopted democratic government and opened itself up to visitors from the west.) Denise Levertov protested in public against the war, and spent time in jail. In the poem, inspired by the violence of the US bombing campaign, she imagines a future in which the people have been destroyed and there is no record or memory of their culture. (In the light of the Nazis' genocide of European Jews, this was not an unreasonable fear.) In fact, the people and culture of Vietnam are thriving today but attempted genocide (now we call it ethnic cleansing) has devastated Cambodia, Ruanda and Burundi and the former Yugoslavia.
The poem is in the form of a series of questions, as a future visitor might pose them to a cultural historian. The questions are mostly straightforward, but the answers are quite subversive. Together they create a sympathetic portrait of a gentle, simple peasant people, living a dignified if humble life amid the paddy fields. This contrasts with the violent effects of war, as children are killed, bones are charred and people scream as bombs smash the paddy fields. The final lines of the poem show how utterly the people have been forgotten - the report of their singing (of which there is no record) is hopelessly vague - it resembled, supposedly, the flight of moths in moonlight - but no one knows, since it is silent now. Happily the reader today can readily find examples of Vietnamese song, and we can satisfy ourselves that it is nothing like the flight of moths in moonlight.
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The poem shows the Vietnamese as rather childlike, innocent and vulnerable - a way of seeing them that seemed to be confirmed by some events in the war, lie the destruction of the forests with napalm, and by the notorious photographic image of a naked burning child running from her devastated village. But the people of Vietnam eventually proved more resilient than in this well-meaning but rather patronising western view. On the other hand, it was protests like that in the poem that changed US public opinion, so that President Nixon withdrew their forces from combat - which helped the Northern Communist forces win the war, and reunite Vietnam by force.
- This poem became very well-known when it was first published - but the poet's fears for Vietnam have not come true (though things that are perhaps just as bad have happened in Cambodia, Ruanda-Burundi and the former Yugoslavia). Does it still have anything to say to us or has history made it irrelevant?
- What do you think of the question and answer format in the poem?
- Do you think that Vietnamese people would like to be depicted as gentle peasants who know only rice and bamboo? You may have some Vietnamese friends - so you could ask them. Is it ever a good idea for people from one culture to try to describe another, or is there a risk of stereotyping and patronizing?
- How might singing be like the flight of moths in moonlight? Does this mean anything or is it pretentious and misleading? You might check this by finding out what traditional Vietnamese music is really like.
- This poem is not about individuals but about big political events. What do you think of the way the poet presents history and politics here?
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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.
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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.
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.
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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.
- What is the effect of using Gujarati script and an English transliteration in the poem?
- Does the way you read this depend on whether or not you know Gujarati as well as English?
- Many writers of classic English poetry often quote in Latin, French or other languages - is this a modern equivalent, or is Sujata Bhatt doing something different?
- How does the poem present the argument that our speech and ourselves are intimately connected? Do people not have to search for their own tongue - or authentic voice - even if they have not had to move from one language to another?
- What does the last sentence of the poem mean?
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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.
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.
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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 spoken by everyone, 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.
- How does this poem work on the page and when read aloud? Do we need both to see it and hear it to get a full understanding?
- How does the poem challenge social attitudes and prejudices about language?
- Is this poem serious or funny or both at once? Say why.
- How does the poet explore the relationship between accent, public speaking and truth?
- What is the point of the last two words in the poem?
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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. The term comes from India, where people are rigidly divided into groups (called castes) 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 Paul McCartney 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?
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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 joke, has a punchline - the poet invites his hearer to come back tomorrow and use the whole of eye, ear and mind. Then he will tell de other half/of my story.
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.
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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 perhaps 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.)
Younger readers, especially in cosmopolitan communities, may wonder what the fuss is about.
- How important is it for the poet to write in non-standard English?
- The poem makes a serious point but uses humour to do so. What kinds of humour do you find here and how well do they work?
- How does John Agard explore the meanings of half and whole in this poem?
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Derek Walcott: Love after Love
This poem is about self-discovery. Walcott suggests that we spend years assuming an identity, but eventually discover who we really are - and this is like two different people meeting and making friends and sharing a meal together. Walcott presents this in terms of the love feast or Eucharist of the Christian church - Eat...Give wine. Give bread. And it is not clear whether this other person is merely human or in some way divine.
The poem begins with the forecast of the time when this recognition will occur - a moment of great happiness (elation) as you...greet yourself and each will smile at the other's welcome.
The second stanza suggests that one has to fit in with others' ideas or accommodate oneself to the world, and so become a stranger to oneself - but in time one will see who the stranger really is, and welcome him or her home. Our everyday life is seen, therefore, as a kind of temporary disloyalty, in which one ignores oneself for another - but all along it is the true self, the stranger who has loved you and who knows you by heart.
And when this time comes, then one can recall and review one's life - look at the record of love-letters, photographs and notes, and what one sees in the mirror - and sit and feast on one's life.
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The poem is written in the second person - as if the poet addresses the reader directly. It is full of imperative verbs (commands) sit, give, eat, take and feast. The poet repeats words or variants of them - give, love, stranger and life. The verse form is irregular but most lines are loosely iambic and some (the 8th and 13th, for example) are quite regular tetrameters.
This is a very happy poem, especially in its view of the later years of life, not as a time of loss but of fulfilment and recovery.
- What do you think this poem means? Why does the poet imagine someone as being like two different people at the same time?
- How important is it for us to recognize what we are really like and accept ourselves for this?
- Why is the poem written to you rather than about me? Is the poet giving advice to everyone?
- Why does the poem use images of feasting?
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Imtiaz Dharker: This Room
This is a quite puzzling poem, if we try to find an explicit and exact interpretation - but its general meaning is clear enough: Imtiaz Dharker sees rooms and furniture as possibly limiting or imprisoning one, but when change comes, it as if the room is breaking out of itself. She presents this rather literally, with a bizarre or surreal vision of room, bed and chairs breaking out of the house and rising up - the chairs crashing through clouds. The crockery, meanwhile, crashes together noisily in celebration. And why is no one looking for the door? Presumably, because there are now so many different ways of leaving the room, without using the conventional route.
One's sense of self is also confused - we say sometimes that we are all over the place, and Ms. Dharker depicts this literally, as well - she cannot find her feet (a common metaphor for gaining a sense of purpose or certainty) and realizes that her hands are not even in the same room - and have taken on a life of their own, applauding from somewhere else.
We do not know the cause of this joyful explosion, but it seems to be bound up with personal happiness and fulfilment - it might be romantic love, but it could be other things: maternity, a new job, artistic achievement, almost anything that is genuinely and profoundly life-changing.
The central idea in this poem is like that in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar of a tide...that taken at its flood leads on to greatness - that is, that opportunities come our way, and we need to recognize them and react in the right way, when the...furniture of our lives/stirs and the improbable arrives.
The poem works very much like an animated film - the excited pots and pans suggest the episode in Disney's Fantasia of the Sorcerer's Apprentice. It is a succession of vivid and exuberant images, full of joy and excitement. (Even if one does not enjoy the poem, the reader might like to know what made the poet feel like this - and perhaps give it a try.)
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In the poem our homes and possessions symbolize our lives and ambitions in a limiting sense, while change and new opportunities are likened to space, light and empty air, where there is an opportunity to move and grow. Like Walcott's Love After Love it is about change and personal growth - but at an earlier point, or perhaps at repeated points in one's life.
- What do you think the poet means by imagining a room breaking out of itself?
- How does the poet suggest ideas of change and opportunity?
- This is a very happy poem - how does Imtiaz Dharker suggest her joy in it?
- Does the poem give us any clues as to why this upheaval is going on, or is the cause unimportant? What do you think might have caused it?
- What is the effect of the images in the poem - of rooms, furniture and crockery bursting into life?
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Niyi Osundare: Not My Business
This poem is about shared responsibility and the way that tyranny grows if no one opposes it. It is composed, simply, of three stories about victims of the oppressors, followed by the experience of the speaker in the poem. The poet is Nigerian but the situation in the poem could be from many countries. It echoes, in its four parts, a statement by Pastor Martin Niemöller, who opposed the Nazis. Speaking later to many audiences he would conclude with these words, more or less:
First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
The oppressors are not specified, only identified by the pronoun they - but we suppose them to be the agents of the state, perhaps soldiers or police officers. The first story is Akanni's - he is seized in the morning, beaten then taken away in a jeep. We do not know if he ever returned.
The second victim is Danladi - whose family is awoken at night. Danladi is away for a long time (though there is a hint that this person eventually comes back). Last comes Chinwe, who has been an exemplary worker (she has a stainless record) but finds that she has been given the sack without any warning or reason.
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After each of these three accounts, the speaker in the poem asks what business it is of his (or hers) - with the implication that these people's experiences are not connected to him. The speaker's only concern is for the next meal (the yam in my savouring mouth).
The poem ends with a knock on the door, and the oppressors' jeep parked outside. There seems some justice in the timing of the appearance of the jeep: As I sat down to eat my yam.
The poet makes it clear that the oppressors thrive when their victims act only for themselves - if they organize, then they can be stronger. Niyi Osundare also criticizes the character in the poem for thinking only of food - or perhaps understands that, in a poor country, hunger is a powerful weapon of the tyrant.
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It is easy to take for granted the freedoms some of us enjoy in liberal democracies. But these are not found everywhere. There are housing estates, places of work and even schools where these basic liberties may be lost for some reason - anywhere where bullies find that their victims do not stand up for themselves or resist their power. Osundare makes it clear that it is always our business.
The poem has a very clear structure - we are told the time of each of the episodes and what happened, followed by the refrain: What business of mine is it...? Except for the last occasion - because it is obvious now that it (the state terror) is everyone's business. And now it is more obviously the speaker's business. We do not yet know what they have in store for this next victim, but we do not suppose it to be pleasant. And it turns out that merely to keep quiet and try not to be noticed is no guarantee of safety. Why not? Because the oppressors are not reasonable people who pick only on the troublemakers - they sustain a reign of terror by the randomness of their persecution of harmless or innocent people.
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The names and the reference to the yam tell us that the poem has an African setting but apart from these details the scenes could happen in any place where the people suffer under tyranny.
- How does the poet show that we are always wrong to say that bad things are not our business, so long as they happen to other people?
- Do you think that the speaker in this poem is meant to be the poet? Give reasons for your answer.
- In the west it may be easy to take our freedom for granted. Does this poem make you think more seriously about it?
- How does the poet use the chorus in the first three verses to make his point?
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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 - all of which look at ideas of race and identity. Where Sujatta Bhatt, Tom Leonard and John Agard find this in language, Moniza Alvi associates 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, 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.
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.
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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.
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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.
- How well does this poem present the idea of living in (or between) two cultures? Do British Asians suffer from a loss of identity or get the best of both worlds?
- How does the poet use metaphors of clothes and jewellery to explain differences in culture?
- This poem brings together the salwar kameez and Marks & Spencer cardigans - what is the effect of this on the reader? In the 21st century can we say that one of these is any more British than the other?
- How does Moniza Alvi make use of colour and light in the poem?
- How far does our identity come from the things we own - presents and possessions? How far does it come from the way we have to live?
- What does Moniza Alvi think of the way of life she has left behind in Lahore - both that of her relations (well-off but confined to their house and screened from male visitors) and that of the poor beggar and sweeper girls?
- How does the poem's last line suggest the idea that Moniza Alvi did not belong in Pakistan?
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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 (or its weather) to Britain - they retrace the poet's journey from the west, and recall 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 (of October 1961). There is interesting word play in reaping havoc - a pun on the familiar phrase wreaking (making or causing) 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. (Technically, this is a transferred epithet.) But the wind 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 practice the slaves took from Africa to the West Indies. Here the ghost of the ancestor is perhaps rebuking the poet for leaving the Caribbean.
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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 our moods do not literally control the weather (unless we have special magical powers), though often the weather does influence our moods!)
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.
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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. It may be an imitation of a line by the comic writer Gertrude Stein, who wrote, in Sacred Emily, that Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
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- How does the poem (and the hurricane) connect England and the Caribbean?
- Comment on the way that Grace Nichols uses the names of the tribal gods and the hurricanes in this poem.
- How does Grace Nichols use images of weather and nature to explore human emotions?
- What is the effect of the last line of the poem?
Can I print this guide and photocopy it?
This guide is free for individual users - for example, teachers or students working from home - in any part of the world. You can print out the guide, but it is not ideal for printing and photocopying, and may run to many more pages than you expect.
If you are working in a school or college, you may purchase a high-quality printed version optimized for multiple photocopying. The cost of the printed version includes permission for unlimited reproduction within your institution - if you expect to make multiple copies, this will probably save on your bulk photocopying and printing costs. To obtain the printed guide, contact:
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