Unseen poetry, sonnets, and important knowledge

Oooh, sonnets. I do love a sonnet. Partly it’s their compression, the tightness imposed by fourteen lines and the need to make every word earn its right to be included. When students say – as they do – ‘but did the poet mean it to be like that?’, the sonnet is the perfect riposte. Nobody writes a fourteen-line poem, in iambic pentameter and with a regular rhyming pattern, by accident: you don’t sit down one day and watch it flowing spontaneously from the end of your pen. But the main thing I love about sonnets – ironically, perhaps, for a form with such a strict underlying structure – is their flexibility. For me, the most interesting sonnets aren’t the ones that stick to convention. They’re the ones that play around with it, that bend the rules and do their own thing, with just enough of a nod to tradition that you can see exactly what they’re doing. This latter point is vital. We’ve got to have that little acknowledgement, the gesture that says yes, I know what I’m supposed to be doing, but I’m doing to do it like this instead. That conscious flouting, that archness, that audacity. It’s lovely.

My students have a number of encounters with sonnets over the years. The first is the Prologue in Romeo and Juliet, in Year Nine, when I introduce the idea of the sonnet as a poetic form. I do this not by frontloading information, but by examining the Prologue, getting students to count lines and syllables and work out the rhyming pattern, and then telling them that there is a type of poem called a sonnet that – in its most conventional form – has fourteen lines, a regular rhyming pattern and regular metre, and is about love. Students then have a homework task to find out five further pieces of information about sonnets, and we start the next lesson by sharing what they’ve discovered.

In this discussion, I focus much more on the purpose of the sonnet than on the different forms the sonnet can take. Students are apt to get bogged down in the differences between Petrarchan and Shakespearean, Spenserian and Miltonic, and want to know if they need to learn all the different rhyming patterns. But this is where I think we need to think about what kind of knowledge is genuinely useful to students at this stage. To me, one of the most important things that students need to know about sonnets is that they’re a form of poetic showing-off. Yes, they’re about expressing your love and praising the object of your affection, but they’re also about the manner in which you do this. You use an intricate rhyming pattern, an elaborate extended metaphor, an artful twist at the volta. A sonnet is as much about the describer as the described. It’s a strut, a peacock flaunting its tail. Imagine David Attenborough doing a commentary on some kind of courtship ritual, and you’ve got it.

Shake your poetic tail feather. (Photo: Paul Brennan, publicdomainpictures.net)

All of this means that students are primed for their next encounter with a sonnet, the one formed by Romeo and Juliet’s lines when they first meet. They can make some thoughtful points about the hint that this is going to be a relationship of equals, not the wooer and the wooed. In Year Ten, when we study ‘Ozymandias’, they can interpret Shelley’s use of an unconventional rhyming pattern as evidence of his dislike of authority, and can also see his use of the sonnet form as an ironic comment on Ozymandias’ self-love (although it’s worth remembering the circumstances in which the poem was composed: Shelley and his friends were in the habit of challenging each other to write sonnets on particular topics, and ‘Ozymandias’ was written in response to one of these challenges). And so last week, when Year Eleven looked at Simon Armitage’s sonnet ‘I am very bothered’ as part of their work on unseen poetry, they were ready.

A little bit about methodology. Students are often spooked by unseen poetry, so I like to give them a clear routine to work through. We do AQA, and it’s worth remembering that in a normal year, the unseen poetry questions come right at the end of the longest exam that students will sit in any subject, the last 45 minutes of a two-and-a-quarter-hour marathon. They’ll be tired and they need a bit of breathing space. So I want them to use ten minutes to read the first poem. They do this in two stages. First, they read to try to get a sense of the poem as a whole. What’s it about? What happens? Who is speaking? Then they read it again. What do they notice about language? Are there any significant images? Is the poem divided into stanzas, and does it have a particular rhyming pattern? And, most importantly, what does all of this contribute to the meaning of the poem? We do a lot of work with What How Why, and therefore the students have developed a range of questions that they can ask as they are reading. Then, in class, the students share their ideas with a partner before we discuss the poem in more detail. What we definitely don’t do is work through a mnemonic like SMILE or AFOREST or any of their variations, because this kind of approach encourages feature-spotting, and it’s only a short step from there to banal comments like ‘the alliteration makes you want to read on’ or ‘the similes help the poem flow’. Students need to work with meaning, and for this they need to be able to respond flexibly rather than imposing a framework.

‘I am very bothered’ is a brilliant poem for getting students to read closely. The basic story is simple, if nasty: the speaker is looking back at his 13-year-old self, heating a pair of scissors in the flame of a Bunsen burner in a science lesson, and then handing them over to a girl who is consequently scarred for life. At first, it seems like an apology. My students picked up on the feeling of regret introduced by the opening words, the fact that the speaker is addressing the person he hurt. But then they noticed the sense of enjoyment. One of them commented on the way the speaker dwells on the process of ‘playing’ the handles in the ‘naked lilac flame’ of the Bunsen burner, drawing out the description as if luxuriating in it. They explored the exclamatory ‘O’ at the beginning of the second stanza, and the note of relish in ‘the unrivalled stench of branded skin’, heightened by the poem’s only use of end-rhyme. We talked about the connotations of ownership in ‘branded’, the implications of being ‘marked … for eternity’. There’s a lot of scope to link the poem to ‘My Last Duchess’, to themes of male violence and the way some men try to brand women with their ownership.

The ending of the poem needs careful untangling. What seems to be an apology actually isn’t. The final lines seem to be presenting this act as ‘just my butterfingered way / Of asking you if you would marry me’. Except they’re not. The speaker is very clear about this: ‘Don’t believe me, please, if I say …’ I’m glad he does, because otherwise the poem would seem like a trite request for forgiveness, just one more I was only trying to get your attention-type excuse. As it is, it’s a snapshot of twistedness.

I’d be careful about what kind of group I used this poem with, and would definitely be aware of individual experiences and reasons why some students might find the content difficult. I know that there are some students who would see the speaker of the poem as a lad, a total legend. But my current Year Elevens knew exactly how he should be viewed. They didn’t spot the use of the sonnet form until right at the end, but when they did, they commented that it made the speaker seem even more horrible. Knowing about the sonnet tradition – not only the idea of praise, but also that of showing off – added an extra dimension to their interpretation of the poem. Because this sonnet isn’t about the object of the speaker’s affections at all. It’s all about him, and his male ego.

We didn’t get round to writing about this poem before the end of term, but we have been using _codexterous’s model introductions in our work on unseen poetry, and this has given students a real sense of security. They’re using their opening sentences to establish a sense of the big picture before looking at how this is created, and their writing is really gaining confidence.

Sonnets are where this blog’s going to be at for a little while. Next up: Tony Harrison.

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