Unit 4 – ELLB4 Text Transformation: AQA English Language and Literature B, A Level

Whilst there is much that I loved about teaching, there is little that I miss. Two specific and repeated teaching moments each year, in my latter years, did however always please me, and these I do fondly recall. One was GCSE Original Writing for coursework where I always taught/enabled students to write poetry using my ‘copycat’ approach [and it invariably produced excellent results – and yes in terms of grades but that was the bonus rather than focus – once students had made that leap into the unknown of metaphor, or as I put it, not having to make literal sense but making grammatical sense]; the other was A Level Text Transformation for the AQA English Language and Literature syllabus where students took literary texts and transformed into other genres/styles [and it invariably produced outstanding, publishable results, and yes yada yada yada].

As far as I can work out, this option still exists in the revised syllabus being taught from 2014. It did change a little whilst I was teaching, altering from a single transformation into a double one [if interested, check out the Specification], and one of these major changes became the compulsion to select a ‘literary’ text from a prescribed list of authors. Whilst it didn’t happen whilst I was teaching this Spec., I was pleased to see the addition of two authors I had recommended, Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver in the Poetry category, but I do wonder if any schools had availed themselves of this choice since their inclusion. It is interesting also to discover the inclusion of Billy Collins.

Both of these annual teaching events were special because they focused on creative writing, and for me this was as pure as one could be in teaching English. Indeed, in troubled target and other terrible times, this is a focus that sustained me, especially and obviously, I trust, because of the student responses.

This is by way of introducing two work suggestions I found recently but don’t believe were used by students, certainly not the Seamus Heaney one. Firstly, however, the Jane Austen idea wasn’t one I recall many students following, though I remember one superb response, and I think I only suggested it once in my last year of teaching this unit. The Seamus Heaney isn’t an idea I ever presented: whilst a brilliant and challenging poet, I was always concerned that students would chose him because of GCSE familiarity, and whilst this isn’t necessarily wrong, I always felt at A level students should be exploring beyond their previous experience. That said, and recognising that many might opt for that familiarity, and perhaps perceived ‘easier’ option, I wrote for such a choice a model for the beginnings of a transformation [rather than as with the Austen, a work outline]. If I were to present it to students today, I would want them to challenge the views I give Heaney in his imaginary narrative: but that of course would be the whole point. Indeed, my model could be pursued very much to be the exact representation of an obtuse, unlikely viewpoint [which the accompanying critical commentaries could find a meaty source for analysis].

To the two ideas:

Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice is the story of Mr and Mrs Bennet and their differing views on, and the consequences of, trying to marry off their daughters. Those daughters too become the focus of the narrative – obviously – as do their suitors and subsequent spouses, but the other major focus is the satirical if at times caustic portrait of this whole social context provided by Austen in her inimitable style.

Opening chapter:

IT is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

“What is his name?”


“Is he married or single?”

“Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”

“How so? how can it affect them?”

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”

“Is that his design in settling here?”

“Design! nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”

“I see no occasion for that. You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves, which perhaps will be still better; for, as you are as handsome as any of them, Mr. Bingley might like you the best of the party.”

“My dear, you flatter me. I certainly have had my share of beauty, but I do not pretend to be any thing extraordinary now. When a woman has five grown up daughters, she ought to give over thinking of her own beauty.”

“In such cases, a woman has not often much beauty to think of.”

“But, my dear, you must indeed go and see Mr. Bingley when he comes into the neighbourhood.”

Jane Austen as author:

Essentially a satirist, she would mock the behaviour, attitudes and values of the wealthy and small social world that she herself knew and experienced. This gave her an insight and sharpness that has rarely been matched. She is particularly satirical about attitudes to love and wealth and the way women often behaved in the pursuit of both.

Possible transformations:


You could modernise the marital preoccupation: think of WAGs and so on! This could be done as a script or a monologue, exploring how things have and haven’t changed. It could be done as a newspaper article, either a tabloid expose or a broadsheet analysis of how ‘footballers’ wives’ are a reflection of greed and shallowness in our modern culture.


From ‘left field’, and not a fully realised idea, but I’m being adventurous: link to poems by U.A. Fanthorpe. From her ‘Selected Poems’ there is a range of poems looking at women with mental illnesses and/or hospital contexts and their narratives [monologues] could focus on wanting to find a man and be married….

Or, link to the work of Caryl Churchill who would have a much more feminist attitude to women who seek marriage just because it is expected [though you would always need to remain aware that Austen did not approve of, and rather satirised, this preoccupation, so there are some interesting complexities to develop here].

Seamus Heaney transformation

I’ve used the pen as a gun, without question. I laid my father to rest in that one clever line where I was more concerned how the enjambment would strike rather than the horror of those final words. I was a wise arse, that’s for sure. I wrote about bogs too but never considered the real muck I was stirring.

All those fine words – those guttural nouns and adjectives and the archaic names I researched and used – they’re all gone now. The muse came and went, drowned like unwanted ‘wee scraggy shites’. I could narrow the poetic stanza to perfection as expertly as the father I honoured in that poem and then tore to pieces in brutal bloody bathos. That one collection burnt me out. All autobiography and then nothing else. Now all I have is this prosaic urge to retell and redefine. So here goes.

I’ll do the obvious first: all that digging and ploughing was a joke. He was brilliant alright, but that meant there wasn’t much time for me. I wasn’t always upstairs writing either, but I heard him tell mother about the ‘precious’ poet he had for a son. That hurt. I got my own back – well all know that – but I could have done so much more damage. All that crap about frogs and farting and the loss of innocence! Generations of schoolkids get taught that poem and about how growing up is the rite of passage that takes us from innocence to experience. Mammy and Daddy frogs and then Slime Kings! Just how melodramatic is that? I caught him in the barn that one night when I got home late from the school play. His grunting and groaning was more coarse than any fornicating frog and that woman he was with was no better. But I shaped it all into a neat metaphorical story that won plaudits from all the amateur child psychologists out there….


I was finishing with the business of a morning ablution
when the doorbell rang and expecting a delivery I
quickly finished, pulled on my tracksuit bottoms and
ran down the stairs where sure enough it was the postie
who handed me my stuff, and at that very point I may have
felt it once on my calf but a small item appeared out of my
right leg and rolled onto the carpet where she saw it
immediately and although if I were in her shoes I would
have pretended to ignore out of politeness she said without
pause you seem to have dropped a parcel so on the one
hand I thought that was rude if clever considering her job
but on the other was brave, and I also thought how good it
would be if politicians could be as candid yet honest and
even funny when going on and on about their own shit.

Balls Up

This posting is a confession of sorts and will cover: making a mistake; experiencing a sudden cold chill [or whatever the actual/psychosomatic reality of that feeling is called]; poetic interpretation, and anything else that crops up along the way of its overall delineation.

First: ‘cold chill’. I am talking about that sudden realisation you have made a mistake, but it is some time after the mistake was made, so it is that apocalyptic moment of discovery when the blood drains from your body/butterflies completely occupy the pit of the stomach/your blood pressure reaches the stratosphere/you experience that immediate cold chill – or whatever the expression is [I looked for a definition on the internet but only found something in Spanish which translated loosely to feeling ‘embarrassed’, and whilst this is a part of it, that gets no-where near the near-deathness of whatever it is you feel].

Here’s an example of what I mean, but a circumspect illustration so I don’t reveal details I still need to keep private – though I am tempted to be candid: some years ago a person in an apparent position of authority emailed me and offered to help review some data concerning an educational matter affecting my Department and me as Head of English. I didn’t care at all about that educational matter nor the professional advice being offered by the person in question, as genuine as that offer of help was. I emailed another figure of authority within my school to explain my feelings about being offered that help, and amongst other fairly ripe expressions of my complete disinterest I said that I would rather poke my eyes out with a javelin.

But I didn’t email who I thought I was emailing. I emailed the person who had made the offer. I remember exactly the moment of realising what I had done: I was teaching a year 12 lesson and students were completing some group tasks or similar so I was catching up on emails [as one had to….]. As well as an immediate, sudden cold chill of horrified discovery, I must have made a noise – an exasperation or similar incoherent brief expulsion of angst – as the students all looked up at me in their own instant horror and concern. Without explaining to them exactly what I had done, I do recall soberly telling how I had just sent an email I shouldn’t have, and sharing this really as a means of self-recovery from what I was feeling and needing to articulate whatever I could at that point. You get the scene. But I will never forget that feeling. And it wasn’t the last time.

I should just point out that as confident and resolute and fiercely opinionated as I can be I would never purposefully and intentionally be as rude as I was directly to the person in question [*]. Long story short, I immediately apologised [by email] about what I had done – and I had to be honest: no point trying to squirm out of such a blatant error – and this person, to their credit, took it all very graciously.

I should just also point out that some years later that person behaved despicably and unprofessionally and destructively and my instinct about that person had always been correct [* so I would justifiably now, yet this moment is not the time nor place]. As a final observation in this preliminary illustration I will say that when I first typed ‘graciously’ immediately above, I misspelt it and when spellchecking/correcting it came up as ‘greasily’. How unbelievably intuitive is that?!

Una larga introducción: at least this Spanish has an exact relevance! So to the main subject of this posting – for my 1999 Longmans text Poems in your Pocket, which was about teaching poems and poetry for the GCSE English examinations, I am particularly proud of the amount and wide range of poems I included. These were selected primarily to engage student readers, but a significant focus had to be the skills for studying and writing about poems in an examination. For one of the book’s three T sections Types [I thought it would be a useful learning tool to provide the alliterative frameworking of Tones, Techniques and Types] I included examples of conventional forms, like the sonnet, but also more experimental and free-flowing presentations poets used. I was particularly pleased to use a poem about football to be illustrative of a modern ‘concrete’ format, both as a direct appeal to boys [stereotyped but real] and to exemplify an experimental approach. Here is the poem ‘pass’:


What a great poem for its adventurous use of structure and willingness to tackle [excuse the pun] this subject matter. The problem? It wasn’t one I discovered until sometime after the book’s publication – and apparently to this date, not by anyone else to my knowledge – and again I can recall the precise moment of apocalyptic shudder and shock [as I continue to search for apt description beyond ‘cold chill’] when reading the poem quite casually and I think proudly as I reviewed my significant published work, and it hit me: this isn’t a poem about football at all. It is about foreplay and orgasm – in fact, a rather glorious metaphoric description of ejaculation – the only subject of footie being the general playing with feet occasionally, it seems, but including at least one toe-poke of a man’s testicles. Or balls. Yes, those balls. Not footballs.

I quote look at how he uses a particular structure to mimic a game of football. Can you feel it? No, not that. It’s that cold chill.

And I know you want to ask: did you not see and read the lines come my darling/come gentle/here?

I guess I didn’t. I was focusing on the line movements, thinking of the Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem Two Scavengers in a Truck in the AQA Anthology and how this had similar structural shifts.

So much for poetic interpretation. So much for close reading and external editing. So much for my intentions. I suppose one could argue that this poem really would appeal to boys……


We didn’t argue over whether it was resin or sap, and
readily agreed it was the juice in mowed grass that wafted
its aroma through the open car like that of those cut trees.
Perhaps when there is less language rearing its myriad
heads, resolution articulates itself with ease. Is that a lesson
in diplomacy: driving arguments around with the top down,
letting the breeze wrap it all up in a shared olfactory embrace,
limiting the words to two or only the one with which
like-minded people have the capacity to agree? Of course not.
Some pedant will tell you all about green leaf volatiles and
ruin even that moment of casual linguistic harmony. And once
this genie is out, we will have war over hydrocarbon secretion
rather than poetic solutions like the amber glob or sappy jewel
and worse, wait for the science of curt abbreviations like GLVs.

David Meltzer – When I Was a Poet: a brief appreciation

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Enjoying David Meltzer’s When I Was a Poet from The Pocket Poets Series. I should know him so much better, but don’t, and actually have a copy from the early 70s of The New American Poetry 1945-1960 when I will have read him but sadly didn’t continue.

I was reminded of him and to buy this book as I was listening to and reviewing a song from his band The Serpent Power anthologised in the current Vanguard retrospective of late 60s/early 70s music on their predominantly folk label, Meltzer’s track being wonderfully psychedelic and lyrical.

I was unnerved when reading his poem Cold which I assumed was about a lost love/lover as the poem traced this woman’s life across a sequence a brisk vignettes, only to discover at the end it was about his mother. But such clarity in its brisk, almost poetic asides:

To the end spoke in a little girl’s
high pitched sing song voice
insouciant but insistent

Meltzer doesn’t share his fellow Beat poets’ more expansive and free-flowing style, generally staying with his brief and closely-focused detail. There is a beauty in the sounds he crafts so effortlessly and simply. I’ll finish on one example – as this is meant to be a snapshot of a recent and pleasurable re-discovery – and I would love to be able to write like this, the first two parts from Night Reals:


Night when it’s light placed on paper,
tracked-down. Dear lights
haunt me. I seek it in black.
Her round hills still give me thrills.
Song against dark. O mere words.
Mother tongue furl to scoop tar out of milk.
Endless possible sea.


Night the canopy our poem shapes.
Bend over song.
Pull long veils down majestic hallways
or stalled on a Freeway to stammer
ultimate truth. Any moment.
Night the canopy blesses bent-over peon
tills royal soil of invented earth.

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