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FAQs and FEGs – Frequently Asked Questions and Frequently Expressed Gripes

When students 'don't get it'; Personal response; Simile or Metaphor - does it matter?; Enjambment, Alliteration and all that...   Oh, and OFSTED on poetry.

What does it MEAN?   'Miss, Miss, what does it MEAN?'   Here are some thoughts about Meaning.   Don't rush for Meaning. Slow down, breathe deeply. Take a look here, it might help.   

Personal Response

What kind of 'personal response' is useful?  Some thoughts on how to guide students.

I DON’T GET IT!

"I don’t understand these lines!"

Words can be looked up in a dictionary or a thesaurus. Lines or sentences can’t. So while you might know all the words, when they are put together you can’t discover the meaning. Everyone has this problem at some time or another.

It can seem a more common problem in poetry for various reasons:

  • poetry is usually compact. Writers try to say what they have to say in a small number of words. Writers of stories and plays can use as many words as they like and frequently use too many.
  • writers are often trying to say something which in itself is quite complicated
  • poets often write in a very personal way. Sometimes as if they didn’t care if the reader understood or not. This can make some poetry hard to understand
  • a lot of the poetry we are asked to read by exam boards and teachers was written a long time ago – hundreds and hundreds of years sometimes. That means the words used are sometimes unfamiliar (though perhaps we should be more surprised how much we do understand) or have (and this seems really unfair) changed their meaning.
  • word order is often unusual in poetry, especially pre-20th C poetry when precise forms of verse such as sonnets required a regular rhyme and/or rhythm. To achieve this, word order was often altered: e.g.
  • imagery – the use of imagery (see above) can help us to see things much more clearly; it can make abstract things concrete; it can startle us and make us see things in a new way. Sometimes, though, an image can be a cause of confusion, too. This might not be your fault. The poet might be using an image which has a lot of meaning for him or her but a limited or unclear one for the reader. Or (similar to word usage) the image may no longer be clear to an modern reader. It is also possible that the poet’s use of imagery is not successful in this instance.

I STILL DON’T GET IT!!

Poetry is not about techniques it is about meaning.

The poet will try to communicate something to you. If he or she is successful in making you see his meaning, then you might want to see how it is achieved, what techniques have been used.

A poem is not a Rubik Cube to be solved. But those who say there is no key to unlock a poem are not necessarily correct. Sometimes I have missed something important and when it’s pointed out to me, I can see the poem much more clearly. Sometimes there are some references which I just don’t get. When I look them up or have them explained, I do get it. But, mostly (and there are some big name poets who I won’t name who are guilty here) writers don’t want to hide their meaning. They want you to get it, to read and go Ah! Yes, that’s right.

Only pretentious writers want to hide their meaning. Perhaps they are afraid that if they make it clear we’ll see that they didn’t have much to say to begin with. However, some writing (poetry included) is difficult because what’s being said is difficult. Some things are easy to explain, to discuss, to express – some things are hard. That’s’ life. The trick is to be able to see what’s difficult and try to understand it, because it’s worth it- and what’s complicated because the writer didn’t want make it understandable or wasn’t a good enough writer to be able to make it clear.

And then there are poets who are just a bit mad.

The Poet Didn't Even Know!!

It can be wonderful to hear the poet read his or her work.  It can be really helpful to listen to them talk about how it came to be written and what it means to them. Equally, it can be disorienting for a student to hear a poet say, 'Well, I'm not sure what it means...' or 'I've changed my mind about this poem. I used to think... Now I tend to feel that it...  But I'm not sure.'

Help! screams the student. If you don't know, how am I supposed to?  Or, more to the point, how am I supposed to write an exam answer?

This kind of thing is not uncommon and the student(s) need reassurance. Firstly, it's clear that the poem has more than one possible interpetation. The other side of the coin is, surely, 'If you don't know, then my interpretation is likely to be as good as anyone's!'  As always, individual ideas are welcomed by examiners as long as (a) they are relevant to the question and (b) they are backed up by some logical argument and/or quotation.

Secondly, the point needs to be made that meanings can change. This is difficult for students to grasp but if we take examples from long ago, it becomes clearer.  Something written by Shakespeare will have had a particular meaning for his audience in the theatre. When the text became written down and published, his readers may have felt slightly differently about it - and he wasn't around to argue.  In the subsequent centuries, his words have been interpreted in many ways and we frequently find that they acquire particular relevance in new historical situations. Some of the heroics take on a dreadful irony in the context of modern views on war; some of the chicanery of a villain like Richard III can suddeny seem newly apposite when put into the mouth of a contemporary politician.

All of this is simply to say, readers bring their own contexts and create their own meanings. The thoughts of the writer comprise just one aspect.  'Never trust the teller, trust the tale' is still a very helpful adage.

NEGATIVE FEELINGS

I was thanked for my forthrightness regarding 'Afflictions of Margaret' and 'Song of the Old Mother' but the teacher also wanted to know how to help less able students express negative feelings in a positive way - if you see what I mean. In other words, how to use that personal judgement to accrue marks!   My first thought is to encourage the use of words like 'but', 'although' and 'however' as well, of course, as 'because'.  Ask students to imagine that the poem in question has been written by someone they like - their boy or girl friend, mother, aunt or grandparent. They have to explain to the writer that there are some good things about the poem but...  'It begins well by getting our sympathy for the mother, but I find that...'; 'Our attention is drawn to the mother's pain through, for instance, the exclamations and questions. However, after the first few verses, I feel that...'

A comparison carries even more weight. Depending on the question, it may be possible to criticise one poem by contrasting it with another. 'Wordsworth's many words in fact make less impact than the dozen lines of Ben Jonson...' 


ALLITERATION

This is one of the easiest things in the world, isn't it?  Kids in Infant class can do this, and enjoy it even if they don't know the words for it. (Ten to one someone has written it in large letters on some classroom wall, though.) Like other devices, one does have to ask - so what? - when we come across it.  Sometimes it's obvious. All those mmm sounds in the first verse of 'To Autumn' giving us the feeling of the fullness of the autumnal fruits and the still balmy atmosphere. (The question of why mmm evokes that response and nnn a very different one is harder to answer but most of us are prepared to take it on trust for the time being.)

What, though, is the point of the alliteration in, say, 'Inversnaid'?  'Degged with dew, dappled with dew' for instance? Is there something about a 'd' sound which I'm missing here?  Maybe. However, there are many moments in writing when the repeated sound is simply more sonorous, more melodious to the ear, without there being a 'meaning' to it.  Hopkins loved the richness of words and the sounds they made. Probably one of the few pleasures left to him - and which he felt guilty about, as I recall. Poor chap. 

Anyway, the point is, that not all alliteration can be said to be significant in a specific way. This doesn't mean it shouldn't be mentioned but that students might have to accept that it is a general effect in the same way that rhyme is. The rhyme doesn't have a meaning, it is just part of how the poem expresses itself as a poem.


IMAGE METAPHOR SIMILE

What’s this?

My cat is as vain as a film star or a queen like Cleopatra.

It's an image – specifically a comparison, something extremely common in writing but especially in poetry.

Let’s look in today’s papers and see what we can find…

Or on the web – in sports writing an commentating –

Even more specifically it’s a simile. It uses as and/or like. Those words make the fact that it’s a comparison really obvious. If the writer said My cat is a Queen or My cat is a film star the term would be metaphor. Most of the time it’s pretty clear that my cat isn’t really a Queen so the use of as or like is up to you as a writer, whether you want to use them.

Lots of teachers make a big thing of the difference between similes and metaphors but I can’t see the point of that. The important thing is that they create a way of looking at something. If you were commenting on this extract – she’s a tightrope walker on padded paws – the important thing to say is that the writer creates an images of the cat (or presents the cat, or sees the cat) as a tightrope walker, a creature of great dexterity and skill in this case the ability to walk along narrow objects. Whether it’s a simile or a metaphor really doesn’t matter. The cat is also seen as having padded paws – soft and rather large. This is a contrast to the image of the tightrope walker who you might expect to have small and – shoes (rather than big fluffy slippers). Does that work well or not? Don’t always assume that the poet (or any writer) is perfect. Don’t assume they’ve got it right. They might have written something which doesn’t work all that well, or which contains a contradiction or which simply doesn’t make sense!

ENJAMBMENT - RUN ON LINES

What’s this?

Enjambment I think this must be one of the favourite words of those who write about poetry – and a word most poets would never themselves use. It means a line which doesn’t pause at the end of a line but carries on to the next line. Examples are so plentiful that it’s hardly worth drawing attention to.

EXAMPLE

Another word for enjambment is a run on line. The opposite is an end-stopped line, though this is a bit misleading as the line does have to stop. It could merely pause, like this, and then resume.

There is a grey area where you could argue whether a line runs on or not…


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch eves run…


Line 3 definitely runs on to line 4 – but what about 1 to 2 or 2 to 3?

A lot of late 20th and 21st C poetry is written in a conversational style, or a style which makes it hard to distinguish from prose if heard read aloud. We’ll come back to this issue at another time. But what such a way of writing does lead to is, yes, a lot of enjambment.

It seems to me that at one extreme run on lines are a feature of poetry which is very nearly prose and at the other extreme, poetry which is full of end-stopped lines and has no run-on lines is likely to be poor quality.

How can I say that? Well, very regular poetry which pauses at the end of every line tends to sound comical or mechanical or both. I’ll go and see if I can find examples which prove me wrong. And you can do the same.

Later.... I turned again to the Song of the Old Mother and The Affliction of Margaret. I think the prevalence of end-stopped lines add to the general feeling of something mechanical.


OFSTED: Teachers not well versed

So says the TES reporting on what Ofsted says...   How do you come to that conclusion when in two-thirds of the schools it surveyed, poetry teaching was rated good or better?   

Then there is the criticism that teachers are 'teaching the same small number of poems, many of which were lightweight.'  Oh heaven forbid that we should share words just because they're fun!   And don't forget, Mr/Ms Ofsted, that a poem may be old hat to you but fresh as a snowdrop to the child hearing it for the first time.

Moreover, I'm not sure that 'The Highwayman', 'The Listeners', 'The Magic Box' are lightweight at all. In fact, I'd recommend that all secondary teachers share them with their classes.  Certainly my very able Y9 class in a top international school appreciated 'The Highwayman' and found it an inspiration for their own writing.

What is important is that these much read poems are treated in an open and creative way. Quite right, Bethan Marshall, for saying 'It is a pity that poetry is not assessed more through coursework. That would give schools a chance to do more interesting, exploratory work'.   Or not assessed at all, perhaps!  But no - then it would never get taught, would it?


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