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.

Teacher Feature: Mrs Tilscher

It’s 1984, and I’m in my final year of primary school. Our teacher is Mrs McGrath and she is like no other teacher we’ve ever had before. She’s tall, dark-haired and exacting, and probably – at least, to our eleven-year old eyes – somewhere in her forties. She sets high standards. She’s precise and exacting: one scruffy piece of work, one desk left untidied, and you know about it. She doesn’t raise her voice, because she doesn’t need to. We respect her and we have an appropriate level of fear for her, too. She introduces us to things that we need to know about, even if we’d prefer not to, like the effects of smoking and what would happen if there was a nuclear attack. It’s classic Haunted Generation stuff, a classroom counterpoint to the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water. More than one person has nightmares because of what Mrs McGrath teaches us, but they’re necessary nightmares, preparing us for a world where things are more complicated than we’d ever realised.

We do fun things in Mrs McGrath’s class as well. We make sweets – fudge and coconut ice and peppermint creams – and decorate chocolate eggs at Easter. We paint, and make models from clay. We have a disco. Frankie is telling us to relax; Nena sings of ninety-nine red balloons, floating in the summer sky. The Los Angeles Olympics loom and beyond them, secondary school. We know that this is the end of something, an important time. Mrs McGrath is steering us as far as she can. At some point, we’ll be on our own.

An apple, for Mrs Tilscher? (Source: Creative Commons)

This transition from those last few months of primary school to the start of secondary, from childhood to adolescence, is captured in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’. Fittingly, the poem starts with a journey, but it’s an entirely imaginary one, a voyage up the Blue Nile with Mrs Tilscher chanting the place names. There’s a brilliant evocation of the atmosphere of the primary classroom. Mrs Tilscher’s room is ‘better than home’: it glows ‘like a sweetshop’ and is filled with ‘enthralling books’, brightly-coloured resources and jars of frogspawn. Duffy fills the poem with smells and sounds you’d almost forgotten: ‘the scent of a pencil, slowly, carefully shaved’, ‘the laugh of a bell’, ‘a xylophone’s nonsense heard from another form’. For all its excitement, though, Mrs Tilscher’s room is also a safe place, where ‘Brady and Hindley / faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake’. Mrs Tilscher loves you, and some mornings she’s left a gold star by your name. You’re secure, in Mrs Tilscher’s class.

Except that everything’s about to change. Over Easter, the tadpoles grow, and so too do the children. A ‘rough boy’ tells you how you are born, and you’re appalled. The knowledge you’re gaining isn’t just about physical journeys, now: it’s about those metaphorical ones, the ones that involve something less comfortable and much more troubling than a list of place names on a map. School becomes restless. Reading the poem’s final stanza, you can feel what it would be like to be in that classroom during the last weeks of term: fidgety, full of new curiosities, ready to move on and be somewhere else. Duffy’s description of the atmosphere here is a wonderful example of pathetic fallacy:

That feverish July, the air tasted of electricity.
A tangible alarm made you always untidy, hot,
fractious under the heavy, sexy sky.

And Mrs Tilscher can’t help you any more. ‘You asked her / how you were born and Mrs Tilscher smiled, / then turned away.’ She’s ready to move on, too, to a new class. She’s done her job.

A few of us said we’d go back and visit, when we got to the end of primary school, but we never did. There are some things that you have to leave behind. I don’t think Mrs Tilscher’s students would be going back, either. That turning-away at the end is an odd gesture. Is it an abdication of responsibility, a refusal to face up to her students’ inquisitiveness? Is that smile patronising, telling the narrator that she doesn’t need to know about those things? Whatever it is, it’s definitely final. It’s up to somebody else, now.

I don’t remember my own last day of primary school, but I do remember my son’s, five years ago. There were tears at his final assembly and when we said goodbye to his lovely teacher, who did so much to build his confidence. I am always in awe of primary school teachers, because there is no way I could do what they do, and I am especially in awe of Year Six teachers, who see their students through that final year and get them ready to fly. If any of you are reading this: thank you. I hope you know what an important job you do, and how much of a difference you make.

Teaching poetry: teaching from the microcosm

Poetry is scary. Lots of students find poetry hard, because it seems to demand a different kind of reading to other types of text. The very fact of being arranged differently on the page – with shorter lines, sometimes in groups, sometimes with rhyming words at the end – means that it clamours for a certain kind of attention. Consequently, poetry in the classroom is often surrounded by a haze of mysteriousness, a sense that it needs to be decoded using a certain set of operations performed in a certain order, the English equivalent of quadratic equations. Some people even advocate using acronyms to teach students how to analyse poetry, like SMILE (structure, meaning, imagery, language, effect) or FLIRT (form, language, imagery, rhyme, themes). But poetry is not mathematics, and you don’t have to apply some kind of literary BIDMAS in order to find something to say about a poem.

There are hundreds of ways of approaching poetry in the classroom, and these will vary from class to class, from teacher to teacher, and from poem to poem. English-teacher geek that I am, I enjoy the process of working out how to introduce a particular poem. Sometimes, I might use a word cloud to get students to explore patterns of vocabulary. Sometimes, I use an image or series of images (my first lesson on Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘War Photographer’, for instance, begins with images of photographs being developed in a darkroom, a process that students in our digital age often know very little about). Sometimes, I read the poem out loud, and then ask the students to read it out loud too, so they can focus on the sounds and their effects before they start to think about meaning. (Try this with William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, and – if you’re feeling brave – get them to stamp out the rhythm.) And sometimes, I choose just one line, and focus on that. It’s an approach that I once heard described as ‘teaching from the microcosm’, and that seems as good a name as any.

Here’s an example. It’s the opening line of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Exposure’:

I put it on the board, and ask students to spend a few minutes jotting down their thoughts. Which words and phrases seem to be particularly important, and why? Do they notice anything about how the words sound? (I read the line aloud several times while they’re thinking.) Who might be speaking, and why? I’ll then ask students to share their ideas with a partner: this helps them to test out their initial thoughts and gives them some reassurance that they’re not going to say something completely off-track. Then I open the discussion to the whole class.

It’s often the kind of discussion that takes far longer than you’d expect, because there are lots of things that you can say about this line. The first thing that students often pick up on is the alliteration, all those ‘s’ sounds: two of them in ‘merciless,’ one in ‘iced’, one in ‘east’, one in ‘winds’ and one in ‘us’. Say the line out loud and it’s a bit of a tongue-twister. But it’s easy to pick out alliteration, I tell the students: you have to be able to explore the effect it creates. The clue is in the sharpness of the sibilant sounds, which mimic the relentlessness of the wind. (Some students think sibilants are always soft and gentle, but try that interpretation with this line and you’ll come unstuck.) Then there’s the personification of those winds. They’re ‘merciless’, they ‘knive us’. What kind of action does ‘knive’ suggest? The students talk about stealth and malevolence, a sense of intent. Who are they kniving? Is it one person, or a collective? It’s a collective: the pronouns are first-person plurals, ‘our’ and ‘us’. Everyone’s in the same situation. And it’s a miserable one. Look at those long vowel sounds in ‘brains’ and ‘ache’, drawn-out and weary. ‘A brain ache sounds worse than a headache’, a student commented once. ‘It’s deeper. It’s right in your core.’ And then there’s that ellipsis at the end, those three dots that trail off and leave us hanging. All that, from just twelve words.

Once you’ve discussed all this, the rest of the poem presents few challenges. It’s about the feelings of a group of men in a trench in the First World War, freezing cold, waiting for something to happen. It’s a miserable existence. It’s night-time, and the men struggle to stay awake. Bullets, when they come, are ‘less deadly than the air.’ There’s Owen’s characteristic use of half-rhyme, creating a feeling of unrest, and the lines all seem a little bit too long. Except, that is, for the refrain at the end of each stanza, and the repeated line: ‘But nothing happens.’

There are things you can say about the title, too. I get the students to find out what ‘exposure’ could potentials mean. There’s being exposed to the elements, of course, and the medical condition that can result from this. But there’s also ‘exposure’ as in revealing the truth, bringing to light something that might otherwise go unnoticed, and students might be able to make a link between this meaning of the word and Owen’s desire to challenge the view of war as noble and heroic.  

See? Lots of thoughtful, close reading; lots of scope for engagement. And not an acronym in sight.

Top reads on the teaching of poetry: Barbara Bleiman’s chapter on poetry in her brilliant book What Matters in English Teaching (English and Media Centre, 2019), Sue Dymoke’s chapter on poetry in Teaching English Texts 11-18 (Continuum, 2009) and Andrew McCallum’s Creativity and Learning in Secondary English (Routledge, 2012). If you want to get creative, Kate Clanchy’s How To Grow Your Own Poem (Picador, 2020) and, of course, England: Poems from a School (Picador, 2018) are fantastic. Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog (Bloomsbury, 2002) offers a different perspective on what poetry can do for students, and I really need to write a Teacher Feature on Miss Stretchberry at some point. You also need to read anything at all by Julie Blake, especially on the importance of reading poetry out loud and learning by heart.