On nettles, war photographers, and getting things wrong

There’s an opposition that students frequently draw between English and Maths. In Maths, you’re either right or wrong. In English, it’s less clear-cut. Maths is straightforward, unambiguous. English is all airy-fairy. For many students, this means two things. The first is that if you get a disappointing mark in English, it’s because your teacher either doesn’t agree with you or doesn’t like you. This seems to persist no matter how much work you do with mark schemes and peer assessment, no matter how many worked examples you show them or how much time you put in scaffolding their responses and helping them to improve. If they don’t do as well as they thought they should, it’s not because they didn’t refer to the text or forgot to comment on the effects of the writer’s use of language, it’s because you once told them off for talking too much during a cover lesson in Year Seven and three years on, you still hold a grudge.

The second thing that students take from this opposition is that in English, there’s no such thing as a wrong answer. Of course you can get spellings wrong, and make factual errors like mixing up Duncan and Donalbain and claiming that Jane Austen was a great example of a Victorian novelist, but apart from that you can say anything you like in English. Poems can mean whatever you want them to mean, as long as you can argue your case. Simple, yes?

Well, no. The truth is, you can make mistakes. I’d be the last person to say that a poem has only one single meaning: ambiguity is one of the things that makes studying literature so intriguing, and reducing poetry to a simple act of decoding – trying to prise out a single, ‘correct’ meaning from between the lines, as if you’re trying to second-guess what the poet wanted to say – is one way of killing it stone dead. But there are ways of getting it wrong, or at least, of getting it not quite right.

There are hundreds of examples I could give of readings that are in some way flawed or mistaken. I recently came across an interpretation of Vernon Scannell’s poem ‘Nettles’ that saw the relationship between the narrator and his son as distant and hostile, claiming that the military language in the poem hinted that the two were constantly at war with each other. Absolutely not: Scannell applies this language to the nettles (a ‘fierce parade’, ‘tall recruits’) that have hurt the narrator’s son, not to the relationship between them. But the example I’m going to look at in detail is a bit more complex. It concerns Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘War Photographer’, originally published in 1985, and one of the big hitters in the AQA Power and Conflict anthology. It’s a fantastic poem, addressing themes of trauma and the importance of bearing witness, and many of my students say it’s one of their favourites. In the first stanza, the war photographer is at home, developing his photographs:

In his dark room he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

Because students nowadays are so accustomed to digital photography, I introduce the poem by showing images of a darkroom, including an enlarger, trays of developer and fixer, a series of prints hanging up to dry, and reels of film. We talk about the dark, and the sense of relief in being ‘finally alone’. The students want to know about the list of place names, and the conflicts that happened there. We find the cities on a map. We note that the names might be different if the poem had been written more recently, but that the point Duffy is making would remain the same: that conflicts happen everywhere. I show a picture of a Catholic priest consecrating the Host during Mass, and we think about the idea of transubstantiation, of capturing light and turning it into an image. Sometimes, somebody will make an observation – a bit hesitantly, just trying it out – about the photographer’s duty being just as sacred and important as the priest’s. They might even add something about the idea of ritual, drawing out the analogy by referring to a set of steps carried out in a precise order. If they do, I will nod enthusiastically, because it’ll be one of those moments that warms my English-teacher heart and makes me remember that I do actually love my job. We need those moments, every now and then.

From the 2001 Swiss documentary ‘War Photographer’, by Christian Frei and James Nachtwey. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So far, so good. But there’s a problem, and it’s there in the second line. It’s those pesky spools. In class, we talk about the fact that it is comforting, after experiencing something difficult, to organise and tidy, and that the ‘spools of suffering set out in ordered rows’ reflect the photographer’s need to process his experiences and impose an order on them, just as he’s processing his rolls of film. But then the students go home, and because they are mostly diligent students, they go on the Internet and see what else they can find out about the poem. And what they find, almost invariably, is one of several websites assuring them that the ‘spools of suffering set out in ordered rows’ are not reels of film in the darkroom waiting to be processed, but a reference to the white rows of war graves in military cemeteries.

Well. Rows of graves are certainly ordered, and they definitely represent suffering. But they’re not ‘spools’, and they’re not there in the darkroom with the photographer. And actually, there’s no reference in the poem to the idea of the war photographer visiting any military cemeteries. Instead, it’s quite the opposite: the people he has photographed are civilians caught up in conflict, ‘running children in a nightmare heat’ – a reference, perhaps, to Nick Ut’s famous image of nine-year old Kim Phuc – and a dying man and his wife.

These troublesome war graves represent, for me, something that students often do when faced with poetry. They think that poems must be difficult, and that meanings must be hidden. Everything a poet says must refer to something outside the poem entirely. So the ‘spools of suffering’ can’t possibly be rolls of film, because that’s too obvious, too logical and un-poetic. They have to be something else – and because the poem is about war, they must be gravestones.

Why can’t they be gravestones? This is where it gets tricky, because this is where students have to learn how to cope with tentativeness and hesitancy, qualities that aren’t necessarily prized elsewhere in the curriculum. If a student wants the spools of suffering to be gravestones, because someone on the internet has said that they are, I’ll get them to read the first few lines again, and remind themselves of what’s actually going on: the photographer is in his darkroom, preparing to develop the photographs he’s taken at scenes of conflict. I’ll then ask them why his spools of film need to be set out in ordered rows, and how that might help him. We’ll look at the neat and tidy structure of the poem, with its six-line stanzas and regular rhyming pattern. And yes, the line might well carry echoes of war graves, but they are just echoes rather than a direct reference, and the more important and subtle point to make is the one about organisation and order. I might go on to model some sentence starters for them, so they can see how it’s possible to show that you’re playing around with potential interpretations, making your thought processes explicit.

All of this requires a lot of care. Students need to read closely, and understanding this particular line takes a certain amount of empathy and imaginative projection. They need to be able to evaluate these two potential interpretations and decide which one is more convincing. With some poems, they might also need to know something about context: with others, this might not actually help. They can’t apply a formula or work through an algorithm; they need to develop a feel for poetry and how it works. What they also need to realise is that just because something is on a revision website, it’s not necessarily right. There are so many resources available these days, so many knowledge organisers and YouTube videos, that set texts can easily become reduced to a package of easily-digested ‘facts’, learned and parroted without needing to think about them.

The critic Valentine Cunningham has written about the quality of tact in reading. Cunningham has his detractors (John Kerrigan described him in the London Review of Books as ‘one of the least tactful persons on the planet’) but I think this is a really helpful concept. It conveys the need for sensitivity, for the application of judgement. Significantly, tact is also a quality that takes time to develop. Because of this, it can be allied with what Maryanne Wolf describes in her 2018 book Reader, Come Home as ‘cognitive patience’, something that is eminently neither rapid nor whizzy, but that is nevertheless hugely important. We perhaps don’t build enough time into the curriculum for this kind of skill, and this is something we need to put right.

Several years ago, one of my GCSE students stayed behind to talk to me at the end of our final lesson. He was a bright lad, and could have done English at A level if he’d wanted to, but his heart had always been set on a career in science. He still wanted to thank me, though. ‘I’ve really enjoyed doing English,’ he told me. ‘I know I won’t be doing it next year, but it’s taught me how to look at things really carefully.’ It’s one of the best things any of my students has ever said about studying English. If we can teach young people to look at things carefully, to be tactful and patient and to read with a critical eye, that’s an enormous contribution to society.

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