Category Archives: CIE Lit Poems 2013 Revision

“The Cockroach” by Kevin Halligan

Right. A film to contextualise “The Cockroach”: Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, 1948. Epic stuff.

Brief summary: Hamlet’s family implodes (Hamlet’s uncle kills Hamlet’s dad and marries Hamlet’s mother – messy) and leaves Hamlet torn between mighty vengeance and suicidal despair. He achieves both come the end, and in killing his murderous uncle, is slain himself by a poison-tipped sword and dies in the arms of his friend, Horatio, who ushers him to heaven with words of beauty befitting the angst-ridden prince: “Now cracks a noble heart.—Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” In short, Horatio represents Hamlet’s life as a heroic one, who lived and died righteously. Many critics don’t believe this, least of all Olivier, who begins his film of Hamlet showing us the dead body of Hamlet – we know the outcome straightaway: no last-ditch heroics here. Worse still, the pallbearers who carry Hamlet’s corpse, go up the castle, up, up, up until they reach the highest rampart – and then stop. They have nowhere else to go. Wrong turn? It is an inestimably pointless journey that begins, progresses and ends at nowhere, nothing, indecision, uncertainty. Turn around? Hang about? Stay there? No one knows. Hamlet’s death, Olivier suggests, was equally pointless – he was a victim in a senseless, stupid world. (if you want to see it, visit here: what I’m referencing happens at around the 2½ minute mark. Obviously, Olivier’s original version didn’t have Spanish subtitles).

Do you see the similarity? The pointless journey of Hamlet’s funeral cortege parallels the indecision of the cockroach, who journeys along the wainscote, falters as he starts repeating himself “circling” round the table leg, and ultimately arrives nowhere at the top of an “open shelf… uncertain where to go.” Both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Halligan’s cockroach take as their primary subject the uncertainty of human existence and questions the point of our lives. All these terrible things happen to Hamlet, and he can’t work out what he’s meant to do – satisfy his personal desires to kill himself? Fulfil the vengeful expectations of a wronged son? Do what is religiously expected of him and turn the other cheek? Whatever he does, he’s screwed – death awaits regardless. Similarly, “The Cockroach”: there is “a path” through life that we can tread, along “the wainscote” to “the door” (some sort of symbol for the end?). Is that all that life is, this one path? Is there any other route for us? Perhaps there is, suggests Halligan – though perhaps it’s equally pointless (“jog in crooked rings”). Maybe we should all just give up (“flipping right over to scratch its wings”). After all, what options are open to us? We can do something funky like climb Everest, escape the horizontal plain of existence and go vertical  and flip life on its head (“he climbed an open shelf”) but frankly, you might as well not have bothered for all the good it’s done you – still, you’ve “stopped”; still, you are “uncertain where to go”.

“The Cockroach” is a helpful poem given the crossovers this one poem has to multiple themes. Obviously, it ties into “nature and the natural world” – what Hughes does for Pike, Muir for Horses, Wright for Snakes, Rossetti for Woodspurges, Halligan does for Cockroaches, and there is a stackload to analyse in terms of language used to develop a sense of the cockroach’s perspective, the way it moves, its attitude. But just as “nature” could mean pastoral countryside, rural idylls, animals and plants, “nature” could also refer to human nature – human character and characteristics, how we approach problems, thoughts, how we think about life. As such, this poem can also be considered from a philosophical, metaphysical perspective: and so what Curnow and Brewster do for identity and subjectivity, and what Maccaig does for metaphysical idealism, Halligan does for existentialism, reincarnation and Jung. Everything I’ve just touched on in the paragraph above is, in a nutshell, the existentialist dilemma. An existentialist is someone who believes that they are inherently free to what they want in the world: they have free will, they have freedom of choice, and they have autonomy to do what they want. As such, they can, like the cockroach, travel as they see fit – between the “wainscot and the door”, round the “rusty table leg”, up to the “open shelf”, and indeed, even nowhere (“flipping right over”, “stopped”). The counterbalance to this freedom, the existentialist believes, is a certain pointlessness – the universe in which we live is sometimes cruel, sometimes mean, always inexplicable. Hence, the lack of any defined journey for the cockroach, and the fact the climax and big finale of the cockroach’s voyage is, essentially, a damp squib, ending as it does in total uncertainty, is emblematic of the cruel purposelessness of the world. The intention in The Cockroach, therefore, could be to emphasise the futility of human existence, and so the poem is redolent with feelings of depair, tedium and uncertainty. Add to all of this, the irony of the unquestioned longevity of the cockroach (in operation in largely the same form for 280 million years) and you get the sense that life really is a pointless waste of time: they’ve lived all this time, plagued by all these feelings of uncertainty, living their lives to no defined end. Halligan doesn’t even let the Cockroach end on death – it just stops, confused.

(As an interesting aside, this existentialist trajectory follows the pattern of all Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes. The point of the Shakespearean tragic hero is neither that they die at the end, nor that they fall from great social height, though both are intrinsic. The point of the Shakespearean tragic hero is that when they inevitably die, their death is received with awe: these are the people who question what is expected of them; these are the people whose abilities, views and choices in life blow apart the narrow and lame strictures of social, personal, moral expectations; these are the people who, in death, actually lived far better and far more meaningfully than anyone else, as they lived for themselves, according to their own belief systems, independently according to what they thought best.)

And for good measure, to underline its philosophical credentials, Halligan at the end lobs in a philosophical rhetorical question centred around the concept of reincarnation and blame (“Was this due payment for some vicious crime / A former life had led to?” smacks of the causal concepts of reincarnation of Jainism, in which the actions of your past influence the quality of the reincarnated being you will have in the future – be nice, be a human; be bad, come back as a lower life form). And the final line intensifies the themes of identity of the poem – “I don’t know / Except I thought I recognised myself.” Perhaps the uncertainty of the cockroach actually chimes into a very recognisable aspect of the human condition: what am I doing here? What good am I meant to do? What’s the purpose of life? After all, what distinguishes us from animals is precisely this reflective, contextualising ability: we do not exist to solely eat, drink, reproduce, die – there must be more to life than that, surely? Perhaps, couched in all of this philosophical conjecturing, is something simpler, something more common, something more rooted in the fears and worries of us all, though we probably know it better as a “mid-life crisis”. What am I here to do? You don’t have to be 40 and balding to face these existentialist dilemmas. We all want to know what we are here to do, what our 75 odd years on this planet will amount to, how we can make a difference and stand out from the other 7 billion people that share our passage of time. What is that we can do to give our lives meaning? Perhaps Halligan’s exploration of “The Cockroach” isn’t quite as depressing after all – or at least, maybe that’s not its end point. Maybe in drawing our attention to the possible futility of life, he is implicitly urging us to drive forward, get purpose and be valued. IE, don’t just be a cockroach – seize the opportunity to be more than a cockroach. Maybe what this poem is, is kind of like an insect-inspired carpe diem.

Some helpful materials:

Explore how language is used in The Cockroach in order to create effect on the reader.


“Summer Farm” by Norman Maccaig

There are two ways of using Maccaig’s “Summer Farm” in the exam (poem accessed here). The first is to run, almost exclusively with the first two stanzas, and interpret Maccaig’s poem as a reflection on nature. The images he uses are brilliant and really original – I really like the representation of the straw as tame lightning; I really, really like the use of the springing grasshopper, suddenly aware than in leaping he is defying gravity and is suspended in space (quite a freaky realisation, mid-jump); but I love the representation of the diving swallow. All these are beautiful and demand unpacking and analysing. Stanza 1, 2, and the latter two lines of stanza 3 absolutely give you all the material you need to explore the representation of an idyllic nature (ie, a “summer farm”) that could complement very nicely Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” or Rossetti’s “A Birthday”, that could link into Brewster’s “Where I Come From” or Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge”, or that could utterly contrast the representation of nature in the poems that explore the city – notably Cheng and Atwood’s meditations on urban planning at the expense of the natural space.

I don’t think this is a cop out and would heartily recommend such an approach. However, you should know that doing this is to ignore the complex metaphysical intentions of the poem, which align it to Brewster and Curnow and Halligan from a philosophical standpoint. The first half of the poem largely interrogates nature; the second half of the poem interrogates the writer’s thoughts and perceptions of the nature around him, and follows him chasing down the thoughts and ideas that come to him as he lays in the grass. So this same poem can be interpreted from a very different, and much more complicated, metaphysical philosophical perspective. This is a poem about nature, yes, but this is also about the individual; our identity; the idea of an original, independent identity; and our place in the world. This idea of identity is particularly important, as Maccaig muses upon whether such a sense of individuality is actually possible, or whether we are simply copies, facsimiles of our parents, our parents’ parents (think of how often people say, you have your father’s eyes, your mother’s chin, you’re the spit of your Aunt Zelda. We as humans strive for independence and originality, yet there’s no escaping the genetic ties that link us in, chained to our past. So to an extent, we never really can be original or new)

Last year, I read for the first time and subsequently taught a brilliant book to my IGCSE set: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. It’s about a farmer called Ethan Frome, who lives a barren, austere life on a sterile farm in a village called Starkfield (hello unsubtle symbolism), utterly devoid of attainment, emotion and satisfaction with his harridan, sickly wife Zenobia. Ethan is in love with his wife’s cousin Mattie, who lives with them and looks after the house – and the novel is all about the tension between some kind of personal attainment (the fruition of his relationship with Mattie) vs. the social obligations he has to his wife and to society as a whole, regardless of how devoid of any satisfaction that may bear. This book is utterly without hope – darkness throughout, starkness from start to finish – depressing (brilliant) stuff.

In Chapter 4, the impossibility of Frome ever breaking free from this claustrophobic sense of duty and obligation is crystallised when he passes by a tombstone in the nearby graveyard.

He passed by the graves on the knoll and turned his head to glance at one of the older headstones, which had interested him deeply as a boy because it bore his name.
He used to think that fifty years sounded like a long time to live together, but now it seemed to him that they might pass in a flash. Then, with a sudden dart of irony, he wondered if, when their turn came, the same epitaph would be written over him and Zeena.

It’s a brutal realisation: his grandfather, who shared his name, was another Frome who endured life (not lived it; not enjoyed it – endured it, tolerated it, suffered it, bore it). When Ethan sees this tombstone, he sees his grandfather, yes, but more than that – he sees himself. He is another Frome called Ethan; he is another man living on this barren farm; he is another man locked into an unfulfilling marriage; he is another man destined to never break free. Ethan’s family tree and lineage is generationally locked into the same despairing cycle: born, grow up, marry, eke out a living on a farm, have children to help man it, struggle for decades, die – and as you die, your children take your place, an infinitum, ad nauseam.

This idea, I think, is the easiest way for me to grasp the metaphysical complexity of the second half of Maccaig’s “Summer Farm”, and particular the image of selves threaded upon selves, farm upon farm. Maccaig sees our lives as part of a continuum – we are one link in a long chain of generations before and generations after – my great grandfather, my grandfather, my father, me, my son, my grandson, all linked to “Summer Farm”, it being passed down from one to the next. Similarly, the image of the farm being “continued” is very logical given the fact that even when you, for example, buy a house, it will in all likelihood, outlive you: someone else will buy it and own it after you die. As such, you don’t really own it – you’re merely a custodian of it, temporarily taking care of it. So while the farm to Maccaig at this time means something particular (perhaps alluding back to that idyllic natural world of the first couple of stanzas), philosophically, we don’t know if that will last or even if it really exists. After all, the same farm might mean something very different to Maccaig’s son or daughter, for example; the same farm can be very different again for that son or daughter’s son or daughter 40 years from now.

Maccaig’s philosophical conclusion seems to be subjective – all we can be certain about is the “now” the things we see, the feelings we feel, at this precise moment in time. There may well be an “I” that existed a second ago, in the same way that there may well be an “I” that will exist a second from now. However, those essentially aren’t real: you can’t prove their existence. All that is real is now, this moment – in which I see crazy weird things like one eyed chickens or agile swallows. And maybe that explains the positivity of the nature imagery: of now is all we can be certain of (and note Maccaig doesn’t particularly want to entertain the idea that this may not even be right – for he is “afraid of where a thought might take me”), then we should look at the beauty of the world and its goodness rather than its potential destructiveness (ie, look at the aesthetics of the “tame” lightning with appreciation rather than with fear at its devastating potential).

Some helpful sites:

 Explore how language is used in Summer Farm in order to create effect on the reader.

“Continuum” by Allen Curnow

  I said that one of the things I most liked about Brewster’s poem “Where I Come From” was its simplicity: “It’s a beautiful example of a poet doing exactly what a poet should do: realising something quite profound, and sharing that idea with us in a beautiful, accessible, thought-provoking way.” That’s what the best poetry is to me. It doesn’t have to be simple (though simple is beautiful: read Wendy Cope), and it doesn’t necessarily have to be immediately accessible (“immediate accessibility” isn’t a criteria for the lovers of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins or Shakespeare), but for the more complex poems, there has to be that chink of approachability, that glimmer of light, that is the opening for you to “get into” the text. And for i-love-it-i-hate-itme personally, there has to be emotion behind it: explicit, implicit, whatever – poetry needs to make me feel. And that’s why I don’t really like Curnow’s poem. I don’t find it approachable in any way, and when I do struggle into it, I don’t find it makes me feel anything in particular. I like the images in themselves, I vaguely see a narrative shape, but ultimately, from my perspective, it doesn’t move me. It’s not Brewster, or Hopkins, or Hughes, or Muir.

It’s always nice, actually, finding a poem you don’t really like. I think studying these poems, and really giving yourself time to think about them, makes youuntitled aware of what you like in poetry: what moves you, what challenges you, what totally turns you off, what totally turns you on. Its such a wide and disparate collection that there are some poems you are bound not to like. And this is something I hear a lot in the classroom – and sometimes from me – “I just don’t like this poem/play/novel at all.” And that’s fine. The worst thing any writer wants you to feel is nothing: responding with feelings of happiness and joy are great, but feelings of frustration and annoyance are infinitely more preferable to an apathetic “meh” and a shrug of your shoulders.

How you harness your emotional response in an exam answer is always tricky: you can’t just say “I hate this poem a lot” and expect to be rewarded well for it. I find that the teacherly response (or at least, my teacherly response) to such a negative emotional reaction differs according to the year group and point in the academic year of that year group. For example, this poem: in 4th form, at initial study, when everyone says that they don’t like the poem, I’d be very happy to explore it, explore those feelings, and try to get students to empathise with the work, see it from different points of view. All idealism vanishes, as ever, in the face of the exam – now, from the vantage point of some 4 weeks from the exam itself, the attitude is forced to be more utilitarian, less aesthetic, more purpose-oriented, more like “I don’t care if you don’t like the poem: put emotions to one side and get clear on how you analyse the poem, be clear on how you write about it.” Don’t forget: sometimes it’s better to write about work you don’t necessarily feel anything about – the practice of analysis is dissection, far more like science than people give it credit for, and your response could benefit from limiting rapturous subjective waffle and giving instead a dispassionate, even-handed, incisive approach to words, shades, textures, intentions, the feasibility of different interpretations.

You don’t have to like a poem, or a text, to write well about it. You don’t have to like a poem, or a text, to appreciate the skill with which it is crafted; to appreciate the poet’s intentions, their successes, and how others may really gain something emotionally from it even when you don’t. Obviously, the best responses, I think, are the ones who can write both passionately and analytically about the text in hand. Which is why this posting on Curnow’s “Continuum” (poem accessed here) is written entirely from a person who can do precisely that: be passionate and analytical about a poem in a way that I simply couldn’t. I take no credit for this whatsoever – this is all the work of Imogen. I have learned an enormous amount from this essay, and as such, were I to be sitting the exam, this posting may well be enough to convince you that “Continuum” may well be a poem that you could write about under exam conditions, so effective and helpful are her interpretations. Leave comments as per usual, adding and developing the ideas that you have read: don’t lazily plagiarise please.

Thank you to Imogen for both writing such a brilliant essay, and for agreeing to share it with you all on this site.

Continuum by Allen Curnow

To me, this poem has several different levels. It is packed with metaphorical and symbolic ideas, and many different interpretations can be given to it. It’s most obvious interpretation is that of insomnia due to ‘writers block’, however beyond this idea it explores ideas of religion and the metaphysical, influenced by Curnow’s religious upbringing and his training to become a priest in the Anglican Ministry. It also looks at nature, and the rational versus the irrational, as well as seeming discretely sardonic about the nature of writing poetry.


“The moon rolls over the roof and falls behind…”

The clearest subject of this poem is that of ‘writers block’, a state of mind that most writers find themselves in at some stage, where they fail to find inspiration to write. Curnow uses specific language and structure to reflect this mental state. For example, ‘the moon rolls over the roof and falls behind’. This is representative of his mind: it’s rolling and falling all over the place, without any apparent consequence or significance. Furthermore, ‘moon’ has connotations of orbiting, which suggest that his mind and train of though is going round and round in circles. Also, ‘roll’ is a verb which has immediate implications of continuation, indicating the never-ending nature of his struggle to write. Moreover, ‘fall’ has negative associations, of failure and deterioration, suggesting his poetic skills are diminishing. Additionally, Curnow implements some very simplistic and almost casual language, for example, ‘or something’, to finish a stanza. This vague, offhand ending gives a sense of Curnow giving up, as if he can’t be bothered to finish his stanza perfectly. This failure to finish a verse well could be representative of his incapability to finish a poem well: his writers block. There are no capital letters at the beginning of most of the stanzas, which further emphasises the continuation of his psychological state. Furthermore, the stanzas are all regular and of an even, equal length of three lines, and all follow a similar pattern of line length. These uniform stanzas indicate boredom and monotony, suggesting how he can see no sign of change or improvement in the foreseeable future; no solution to his suffering or way to overcome his ‘writers block’. Moreover, there is no rhyme, which could represent his failure to produce effective work, or failure to product the work expected of him, (as poetry is typically expected to rhyme, and perhaps his ideas are not typical; perhaps they are irrational beyond general acceptance?) Also, the enjambment reflects the wandering train of thought of the narrator; thoughts without a known order or sequence. Furthermore, there is a definite lyrical poetic flow of the first two lines of the poem; however the following line literally halts this flow almost as soon as it’s begun. This could be representing how his creative ideas are always ruined as soon as they’ve begun, forming an image of a frustrated poet scrunching up a fiftieth sheet of paper with a few senseless scrawls on, and hurling it at a trashcan. Curnow uses extremely confusing, jumbled and nonsensical writing throughout the poem, which symbolises the chaos and disarray of his mind; his inability to form his thoughts into anything coherent, understanding or rational.


“The night sky empties all its contents down on me…”

Though not overtly satirical by any means, hints of mocking can be detected in Curnow’s tone at several points in the poem, for example, in the first stanza, ‘I’m talking about myself’. By saying this, he destroys the expressiveness of the two previous lines. He’s saying what he means instead of describing himself through a complicated metaphor: It’s as though he is being blunt and sarcastic about the way that poets write so elaborately, perhaps pretentiously. Also, ‘the night sky empties all its contents down on me’, as if the sky is truly showering him with inspiration. This could perhaps be perceived as slightly sarcastic about the melodramatic manner in which creative types stereotypically become inspired in a sudden moment of imagination or brilliant idea. Furthermore, when he says ‘it’s not possible to get off to sleep or the subject or the planet’, he is describing things which literally are impossible to do – one cannot physically get off to sleep. Perhaps he is being humorously critical of the way in which poets never simply say what they mean; they instead employ clichés and metaphors to make things sound more profound.

Curnow is also trying to illustrate how the power of nature is needed in order to be able to write poetry. He suggests that the concepts of poetry, creation and imagination are all inexplicably linked with nature. For example, in the second/third stanza, he decides he ‘better barefoot it out the front door’, which indicates how poets look towards the outdoors and the natural world for inspiration. ‘Barefoot’ also has connotations of freedom, suggesting how freedom of thought, thought without constraints, is key to writing poetry. Both this poem and ‘Sonnet: Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth are written during the hours when most people are asleep, shops and businesses are closed: humanity is almost paused. This shows the restraints that the rational world impose upon poetry: the freedom from the civilised world during the night/dawn provide creative power to write. Wordsworth may not have found the inspiration had he attempted to write a sonnet like that one during the rest of the day, when, as during the industrial revolution, a connection with nature would have practically impossible to find. Nature has traditionally always been a source of inspiration for poets, and it plays a key role in the universal balance of things, (for example when the albatross is killed in The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, and weird things start to happen – this poem also signified the beginning of Romantic poetry in Britain, and thus Wordsworth’s poem followed, and we can see how harmony with nature has been long been central to poetry). The authorial intention behind this is to demonstrate how nature must not be absent nor interfered with, in order for poets to be able to write, and how imperative its presence is.


Curnow explores the notion of the rational and the irrational world, for example, restraining boundaries of the equal, regular stanzas and line length could represent the restrictive and constraining boundaries of the rational world upon poets. Also, the unordered and chaotic writing within this rigid structure represents the creative ideas and imagination trapped within the boundaries of rational thought. Moreover, as he goes outside in stanza three, the writing becomes less clearly structured, for example the stanzas no longer end with completed sentences and full stops, and instead they overflow into the next verse. This structure represents the irrationality that nature and the outdoors provides. Furthermore, the blank verse used could represent the freedom of irrational thought. The phrase ‘lean from the porch’ is interesting as he isn’t actually stepping off the porch, as if he cannot escape the limitations of the rational world. ‘Porch’, ‘privets’ and ‘palms’ are all symbolic of the suburban, with connotations of uniformity and compartmentalisation. They are symbols of the restraints of the rational world. The word ‘porch’ signifies an extra boundary between the house and the outdoors; a boundary between the house and freedom of thought. ‘Privets’ denote hedges, and hedges are yet another boundary, of separation, and to limit our space, constricting us to one specifically measured area. ‘Palms’ give the image of large, wealthy suburban houses surrounded by imported palm trees that don’t belong in western neighbourhoods, thus suggesting the way that humanity yearns for the tropical and exotic, the wonder and mystery of the unknown. The plosives help to link all three together as one idea: that suburbia is not wonderful or irrational, but it is shadowing his mind and restricting his imagination. It is indeed ‘a dark place’ as he says in the final line of the stanza.

The final key idea I can see in this poem is that of metaphysics and religion, which helps to explain some of its more obscure lines. There seems to be the idea of two personas: one being the author and the other being the human. For example, he says ‘may depend on the wind’. Only the author can control the weather and thus write away the wind. Also, ‘the author…paces me back to bed’. This shows how the author has total control over the other persona. The author of a story creates and dictates the life of his character. This correlates with how religious Curnow was. He was raised in a religious family, remained devoutly religious throughout his life, after leaving his training in the church. Perhaps he is suggesting that God is the ultimate storyteller, the playwright of our scripts, the poet of out emotions and the author of our actions. It is he who has control over our lives in the end, no matter how in control we believe we are. Also, in the line ‘the night sky empties the whole of its contents down’, ‘sky’ connotes the heavens, thus linking to the notion that God provides his inspiration, that this is where Curnow’s inspiration, creativity and imagination come from – his faith? (Furthermore the idea of God writing our lives could support the sardonicism of the whole pretentious nature of writing poetry – as if poets believe they have the equal extent of creative genius as God.) Moreover, there are seven stanzas in this poem – one for each day and night of the creation of the universe. They could represent the six days and nights it took for the ‘demiurge’ (God) to create the universe, with the seventh day as a day for rest. ‘And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.’ Genesis 1:31. ‘And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. (Genesis 2:1,2) In the final stanza the ‘demiurge’ goes ‘back to bed’, just like God taking the final day (final stanza) for rest. Furthermore, the line ‘close the door behind on the author, cringing demiurge’ could perhaps be representative of Curnow shutting the door on being a priest, thus ‘closing the dOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAoor’ on God, ‘the author’. ‘Demiurge’ literally denotes the creator of the universe, so here is one moment where Curnow may actually be literal. ‘Cringing’ could suggest how the author/God believes Curnow made the wrong choice (in not being a priest?), maybe Curnow feels he disappointed God? Alternatively, ‘close the door behind’ could be describing how he closes the door on the outdoors and nature, thus closing the door on his deep, irrational and poetic self, because of the limitations of the human, rational world. The limitations of time, (he has to go back to bed before morning, we are all locked into a system of time by which the entire world operates – a literal restraint of the rational world), temperature, (‘the chill’ he is cold, he has to go back in) and the human instinct for sleep. These all result in him losing his creative power. It’s the conflict between two conflicting personas which we see here: One is the imaginative inspired ‘author’ who’s driven by a creative urge. The other is that of man, driven by the animal urge to sleep, to go inside. The conflicting urges could represent the limitations of the rational world.

In conclusion, this poem can be seen as obscure, and even slightly self-indulgent, as other than the patronising third line, ‘I’m talking about myself’, he doesn’t attempt to make the poem easy to understand. But I think this intentional obscurity serves a purpose in reflecting how the ideas within the poem are not easy to understand either. The confusing style of writing seems over-exaggerated in order to slightly mock the nature of poets, himself included. It could mean many different things to people. It’s about the irrational, and therefore it must be irrational, and the simplicity of that concept is for me is where the beauty of this poem lies. The underlying wonder in this poem is hidden within layers of metaphors and nonsensical combinations of words – you have to spend time on it in order to understand it and see its significance. In a way, this is another parallel to religion, which is so heavily influential in much of Curnow’s writing. When you spend time on it becomes clearer and fills you with clarity and perspective. However only people who are willing to spend time and give themselves fully to this poem/religion will understand the beauty and power of its messages.

Explore how language is used in Continuum in order to create effect on the reader.

“Where I Come From” by Elizabeth Brewster

God, this is a good poem. Read it here: go to slide 2. It’s a beautiful example of a poet doing exactly what a poet should do: realising something quite profound, and sharing that idea with us in a beautiful, accessible, thought-provoking way.gumber-farm-medium

This poem is about all of us: about human identity, belongings, origins, beginnings and who we are. As such, you can lumber it with some pretty hefty philosophical labels:

  • it is a profoundly metaphysical poem (metaphysics concerns itself with the first principles of things: the fundamental, foundational questions of existence and the world, like questions of identity, cause, being, knowing, selfhood);
  • similarly, it is a profoundly ontological poem (ontology is a branch of metaphysics, concerned specifically with questions of the nature of existence).

Some people might get freaked out at this point with these over complex, polysyllabic pseudo labels – but why should you? They’re just words you didn’t know before: I’ve given you the definitions and you know them now: happy days. And any rate, metaphysically ontological or not, Brewster’s poem is simple to grasp, beautifully structured and gives you lots of material for you to attack and analyse in exam situations, oriented as it is around several of the key themes of the collection, such as metaphysics, nature, cities and personal reflections.

Nice and simple it is. Lines 1-3 in stanza 1 introduces Brewster’s basic idea, and her authorial intention: to communicate to us that a person’s character is formed by the places they come from, the places in which they have lived. These places mark a person indelibly: they carry that place around them like a distinguishing feature. It’s a part of who they are, regardless of where life might take them.

IPhoto-0003t’s totally true. I’m in Yorkshire, and everything about me screams the fact that I am not from this part of the world, from my Southern vowels to my inability to gauge when a Yorkshire person’s gruff is intended to be funny, sarcastic or hostile. Who I am is formed by where I have been, where I am from. I was brought up in the rush of urban Hong Kong and London: I find the pace of rural countryside life a complete anathema to my own personal rhythms – I seem to work, think, talk, move around school quicker than I should! I have been marked indelibly by my studenthood at Winchester: it afforded me not “cool eyes” or “tropic grace”, but it did give me a very cultured sense of serenity, and a demanding sense of curiosity. I remember quads and cloisters, echoes of footsteps and voices, walls and floor panels inscribed with words, Greek, Latin and English, haughty busts eyeing you, demanding in their curiosity and impenetrability. There was (is) challenge everywhere.

Lines 3-11 of stanza 1 give an example of what it would be like if you came from a city: what kind of atmosphere “drops” from you. Brewster speculates here, I think. How would growing up in a city influence you? What images, settings, places, objects would affect you and how would these shape your character? It’s full of great images for you to unpack. Some people look at Brewster denigrating the city and prioritising tcrowded subwayshe rural, but I don’t get that. Sure, you can talk about coolness and superficiality with “chromium-plated”, but you also get connotations of technology, progress and strength. I think Brewster’s emotional response is more balanced, more appreciative: she seems to understand the uniqueness of your identity that your history has shaped for you. There is something exceptional and of worth whether you come from jungles or mountains, tropics or the sea, countryside or cities.

Stanza 2 talks about the place that forms Brewster’s own character: the countryside and the rural life (redolent, we presume, of her own childhood in the lumber town of Chipman, New Brunswick, Canada). Again, stacks to analyse in terms of nature imagery: it seems a tired, rundown place but there is a real beauty amid that austerity that, for me, is the thing you need to be on the lookout for.

blueberry bushStructurally, the third, very short stanza is the unexpected addition and you should prepare an interpretation for what Brewster is doing here. It visually looks like a PS, an addition: the half line that ends of stanza 1 and long indent/half line start of stanza 2 seem to lock both these stanzas together like jigsaw pieces (it’s this complementarity of two oppositions – the urban in stanza 1, the rural in stanza 2 – that convinces me of Brewster’s impartial, even handed view, in which she doesn’t prioritise one over the other). The third stanza is unexpected, and I think, for me, that is exactly the point. The emotional intention behind the third stanza is one of surprise: just when you least expect it – you may be working your day, you could be standing at a bus stop, you could be shopping at the supermarket, you could be staring gormlessly through a window in one of my lessons – suddenly, BAM. Your past hits you – déjà vu? Sudden insight? The fizzing sharpness of a sudden memory? Whatever it may be, the past that shapes you remains within you, vivid, forceful, present – “the door” behind which it resides “blows open” – and suddenly, whether you are in an office, under a bus-stop awning, in Sainsburys, in Room 7, you’re home again. Home may be where the heart is, but for Brewster in this poem, your heart is where your home is. You carry these formative places and spaces within you, and that gives me certainly, a very profound sense of peace and rootedness amid the craziness of days.

Loads of decent resources for this poem around the web, which I’m sure you’ve already tracked down. As ever, for these, the rule applies that you take what you need, but you never use an idea or observation like a parrot. Don’t memorise and regurgitate back someone else’s ideas: at any rate, I have prepared you with the analytical skills and approach you need to be successful – trust that, and trust yourselves. Read these and then go back to the poem and analyse the text yourselves.

Explore how language is used in Where I Come From in order to create effect on the reader.

“A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti

I have long loved Christina Rossetti’s poetry, and very clearly remember bringing books of her poetry (along with the work of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman) with me to read on trains when visting friends’ houses during the holidays in my 6th form. She wrote the words of my favourite Christmas carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”; she wrote the words of one my favourite poems, “Remember” – a poem that you should keep yourself for those times that will come when you need comfort the most. She was a serious, devout woman, known among her contemporaries for being rather drab and dour – but her poetry is anything but: it is intense, potent and quite beautiful.

Her religious zeal is fair reason enough for her spinning in her grave in response to the analogy I offer you in terms of getting a handle on this poem – the key idea in “Birthday” (poem accessed here) can be found in a lyric from Bruno Mars’ song “Locked Out of Heaven”. It’s a good tune, though frankly Rossetti spanks Mars in terms of quality of lyric (if you wrote down the first words of Mars’ song, I think it would be rendered: “One, two, one, two, three… Oh, yeah, yeah, Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, Ooh!” Now, it is entirely your prerogative to consider poetry to be sad and naff if you so wish, but compare what you study with that and perhaps you’ll realise that these people you have the good fortune to read, study and think about might have a great deal more to say than such lyrics of bewildering erudition that pour from Mars’ mouth…)


The key lyric in Mars that links into Rossetti is in the first verse, 38 seconds into the video: “Never had much faith in love or miracles – Ooh! Never wanna put my heart on the line – Ooh! But swimming in your water is something spiritual [I mean, what is this – this is the daftest metaphor ever]- Ooh! I’m born again every time you spend the night – Ooh!” All Mars is doing here is repackaging the cliché of love: anything along the lines of “since meeting you, I have been born again”; “since meeting you, I’ve felt truly alive”; “you make me feel like a natural born woman”, etc. The idea is that for this person, the love of their life has made them feel reborn – that life begins anew, life begins properly now that they’re in it.

“I’m born again every time you spend the night”, notwithstanding the overt sexualisation that Rossetti’s poem definitely doesn’t carry, may help you understand the poem a little better. That line links into the last lines of the poem that clarify what Rossetti means by “birthday” – “the birthday of my life / Is come, my love is come to me.” Since “my love” has finally come to Rossetti, it feels like “the birthday of my love” has similarly arrived – she has literally emerged from darkness: her love’s arrival heralds her rebirth, her entry into the world, the first breath, the glorious image of discovery and presence and life. We can apply this to our own lives, the headiness of falling in love and its impossibility to capture in words (hence our reliance on bad cliché to communicate those feelings). An alternative interpretation is that this love is Rossetti’s religious love – her rebirth sparked by her love of Christ, which is equally possible. The sites included below give an interesting insight into the religious nature of some of the images that she uses, though remember, these should be additional, alternative interpretations to your own individual, independent analysis of the text.

tumblr_lg9ymxZCUi1qbslwlo1_400So with that in mind (for the idea of “birthday” can send some people down the wrong path), perhaps you’ll see how this is actually quite a lovely, beautiful poem, replete with natural imagery and stuffed to the brim with love. It’s quite a compliment really, this poem, centralising as it does on the idea of the sheer power that her love, or lover, brings to her. Her intention is to share this joy with us, to give us an insight into the happiness she feels, how marvellously uncaptureable (new word) it is, how the feeling goes beyond words and can only be appreciated through joyous experience, and how she wants to show her appreciation and value it by surrounding it with beautiful things. Stanza 1 uses so many beautiful images that, despite their beauty, simply don’t do justice to her happiness (for “my heart is gladder than all” those things – it’s a lovely idea for the poet, whose desperate simile-search just isn’t successful enough: no words exist to capture her joy). The beautiful setting she wants to use to show off her love, celebrate it, absolutely emphasises the value she accords to it. Her feelings of love are thrilling, giddy, exciting and powerful. With luck, we will all find someone who makes us feel this way. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, ooh.

Explore how language is used in A Birthday in order to create effect on the reader.

Some useful sites:

“A Different History” by Sujata Bhatt

Your first step in approaching this quite awkward poem is to check out a different poem of hers, the poem that has made her famous in 16 year old circles around the country for generations. This poem, “Search for my Tongue”, has been on the AQA GCSE syllabus for ages, and it’s a wonderful poem – all about identity, language and the struggle between conforming to your new culture as an immigrant and remaining true to your past and your history: in her imagistic parlance, the clash between the mother and foreign tongues. (Clicking on the slightly blurry picture below gives you a clearer image – but even at this first, slightly eye-watering glance, you can see how Bhatt directly confronts this issue of language and identity…)

Search for my tongue

It’s a great poem. The same idea is at the core of “A Different History” but the poem (perhaps purposefully) feels less coherent. Bhatt focuses on the dilemma of identity and belonging in “ADH”: however, where the issue is microcosmic and personal in “Search for My Tongue” (relevant to the issues of language for a very specific first-generation immigrant), “ADH” looks at the issue from a more macrocosmic, conceptual, historical perspective (the place of language in literature, history and in the face of colonisation – when one race forcibly occupies another and institutes their own alien culture over the one that previously existed: ie, British Empire colonising India) . If “Search…” was close up, “ADH” is wide angle panoramic.

The two stanzas of the poem are relatively coherent in and of themselves. Stanza 1 begins by transplanting the Greek god of Nature, Pan, to India. It could be a purposeful choice of God by linking the god of nature and fauna to the animalistic polytheism of Hinduism, or a sly pun linking Pan to Pantheism (ie God all around us) and making this literal in the world and beliefs of Hinduism. At any rate, the fundamental idea 1142sarasvatiandpeacockin Stanza 1 is an appreciation of language and literature and how in some cultures, it is appreciated to the point of veneration and adoration. The Indian example Bhatt gives suggests that part of the reason of this respect for language comes through a belief that language is linked to everything around it: the words of language are written on paper, which came from trees, which links to Pan; the words of language written on paper are considered as art, which is deified through Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of the arts. Words are not just words: words are religious; words are linked indelibly to the world around us; we do not treat words (and in the poem, symbolised through books) with due care and reverence. Words are important; literature is important. Be more mindful and caring, believes Bhatt. The tone is gently chastising – some might consider slightly mocking to her own culture, but I don’t think I agree – I like the respect that she describes so I tend to err to the side of appreciation rather than cynicism.

indiaThe second stanza is more of an awkward rupture, and seems to implicitly take issue with language not as art but as a weapon – and thinking about the British colonising India, there is a real bitterness compared to stanza 1 about how the language that seemed to emblematise everything negative – the language of their oppressors, these alien invaders, taking over everything – has come to be accepted and, worse still, loved. Culturally, we see this not just through art (think about the number of very famous Indian writers who are famous for writing in English, not their Indian dialects: Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai) but also through areas such as sport (hello the Indian cricket team). The key image in the centre of this stanza (which needs unpacking by someone please) absolutely emphasises the negativity at the heart of this stanza, compared to the seeming positivity at the heart of the first: that language can be used to undo, destroy and potentially deceive new generations of others.

So. Language can be artistic and can be something that should be cared for and respected (stanza 1), or language can be something brutal, oppressive and deceitful (stanza 2). Or is it? The positivity of language in stanza 1 could be undermined by the nature of “sin” and its heavy handed and repressive judgement on how we treat language (you won’t get much freedom of speech or freedom of the press if every bit of language has to be treated with a religious reverence). The negativity of language in stanza 2 could be undermined by the provocative rhetorical questions in the first two sentences. Hasn’t every language, historically, been the language of the oppressor at some stage? Is it really words that have this brutalising effect on people, or is it really something else?


What is the point of this poem? There are, as ever, loads of completely feasible alternative interpretations. To me, however, Bhatt is drawing our attention to the ironies of language. My interpretation of this poem is that it is political, and it is angry. The first stanza to me could be interpreted to be the equivalent of the “mother tongue” – the ancient Hindu texts (referenced by Sarasvati, etc). The language of her origins is treated with reverence and respect. In comes the British with their colonialist oppression in the second stanza. The ferociousness of the imagery reflects the aggression of their enforced colonialism and the sadness at its unshakeable deep rootedness – even generations later, the “wrong”/foreign/alien language will not only be present still but, worse yet, “loved” by her grandchildren. There is a terrible irony that the writing of the poem itself is in English – Bhatt is one of those grandchildren, communicating in the “wrong” language. Amid the changes and dynamism of language, and how the language itself changes identity (from unacceptable language of the oppressors to accepted language of the youth), the nature of one’s identity starts slipping away. Who are we? Are we our words, our language, our dialect; our histories, our religions, our beliefs? These ontological questions (ontology is the philosophical branch dealing with the nature of being and existence) are the complex foundations, I think, of this poem, and so key in to the more metaphysical poems of Brewster, Maccaig and (bleurgh) Curnow….

Explore how language is used in A Different History in order to create effect on the reader.

“Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” by William Wordsworth

o29190_8 “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” So sayeth Samuel Johnson in 1777, and the multifarious throngs of young 20-somethings who leave University and head to the capital for some London life (myself included: maybe you in time) simply prove Johnson right over two centuries later. London has a life and vibrancy and energy like no other place, and this fundamentally is what Wordsworth is driving at in this poem: the beauty of the city – the beauty of London. Even at its most quiet and peaceful, Wordsworth says, the city possesses a beauty, a life, an energy like nothing else – grand beyond all things.

This poem could easily be the counterweight to Atwood and Cheng’s critiques of the urban spaces. These city planners, both lament, ruin the world: they destroy nature and originality and individuality and uniqueness (that Hopkins so revered) with their artificial, repetitive, same-high-street-in-every-city-of-every-country-of-the-known-universe approach to urbanisation. Cheng bows his head and submits to the urbanised onslaught – Atwood clenches her fists and threatens vengeance. Wordsworth is the Michael Winner figure: “Calm down dear: it’s only a city”.

westminsterbridgeAnd what a city, in Wordsworth’s eyes. If the poem’s central idea is the beauty of the city, its majestic power and life, the glorious spirit that resides within it; and if Wordsworth’s central authorial intention is to communicate this appreciation of the beauty of London to the onlooker, that there is nothing more beautiful in the world than this city (an especially daring belief to his Romantic peers, who set the value of nature – as both an innocent, idyllic, bucolic space as well as a space in which God was most evident and tangible to us, his created beings – as the highest of all things) then the feelings that underpin such sentiments are on a Hopkinsian scale of reverence and awe. Wordsworth is unashamedly hyperbolic in his description, rich and lush in his figurative choice, imagistic and precise in creating the city through language. Founded on personification ,this poem attempts to bring to life not just the beauty of the city, but the city itself as a living phenomenon – no easy feat considering the pace of the poem is essentially the opposite of Hopkins in many ways. Where Hopkins was almost manically excited, here Wordsworth has a very measured, almost stately pace. He doesn’t always keep control and there are one or two moments where the thrill of his feelings threaten to overspill boundaries, but generally it is calmer, more peaceful: excited yes, but a controlled excitement, which is impressively managed by Wordsworth.

Poem accessed here; helpful analytical overview here (but as ever, be reliant on your own analytical abilities and the work we have done together – trust that far more than your ability to parrot back “research” and pretend its your own thoughts…)

Explore how language is used in Composed Upon Westminster Bridge in order to create effect on the reader.