Poetry Analysis in the Soprano Range

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From The Sopranos, Series 3, Episode 2. Anthony Jr [AJ] and Meadow [M] – brother and sister – are talking. Anthony is in his bedroom studying and throws a pen at the wall in anger just as Meadow is passing on the landing outside his door. She enters his room:

M – What’s your beef?

AJ – Asshole Robert Frost. How am I supposed to know what this means? Like I even care. ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.

M – Oh, my god, I’m so glad I’m not in high school anymore.

AJ – You read this?

M – Sure.

AJ – What does it mean? I have to turn in a close-read by tomorrow.

M – What does it mean?

AJ – ‘The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.’

M – Okay, look. Where is he?

AJ – He’s in a field on a horse.

M – He’s not on the horse. The horse has bells.

AJ – So?

M – What kind of horse has bells?

AJ – I don’t know! Just give me the fucking answer so I can write this?

M – A horse that’s pulling a sleigh.

AJ – Oh, so this is a Thanksgiving poem like, ‘over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go’.

M – No, it’s not a Thanksgiving poem. What’s covering the field?

AJ – Snow.

M – Yay! And what does snow symbolize?

AJ – Christmas?

M – Hello? Cold endless white, endless nothing.

AJ – I don’t know!

M – Death.

AJ – I thought black was death.

M – He has ‘miles to go’ before he sleeps.

AJ – So, he must be far away from his house.

M – The sleep of death. The big sleep. He’s talking about his own death, which is yet to come, but will come.

AJ – That’s fucked up.

M – Gotta go.

AJ – I thought black was death.

M – White too.

Disco Poetry

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It doesn’t take a whole lot to make me nostalgic or to make me nostalgic about a whole lot.

Use this opening line to write a poem…

Just joking. My opening line is a proper line about my reacting to an article in today’s Guardian here ‘Pretty ain’t it…Mrs Yonge said so’: the changing face of teaching poetry by Alison Flood. This refers to an exhibition at Cambridge University about GCSE poetry teaching texts over the years, collected and explored by Julie Blake, a PhD student in the Faculty of Education and detailed further here.

It didn’t make me nostalgic about teaching GCSE poetry texts, not that I can’t be, but in continuing to examine this each year for GCSE English Literature [now 35+], it is not as reflective as what I was prompted to reflect upon.

I was suddenly driven further back to my teaching poetry at secondary level and using a variety of school anthologies for this. I began teaching in 1980 and there was an abundance of these [see a selected list at the end of this piece – selected because after all these years memory is selective…]. But more than an abundance, there was a sense then that reading and talking about and writing poetry was so much more than studying it, and that wealth of anthologised materials made this not just ‘easier’, but ordinary, and I don’t mean expected, though this would be a part of it.

There were anthologies like the Michael and Peter Benton Touchstones series that presented poems thematically and with pictures and ideas for exploring [this latter I seem to remember]. Other popular texts were the Voices series by Penguin, again with a wide range of poems and pictures. Then there were the classroom textbooks of more than poetry, but including poetry [and I don’t mean The Art of English et al] like a great landscape book Sandals in One Hand with stories and poems and creative writing tasks and comprehension exercises – lively and colourful in presentation.

When I went on Amazon to research these – typing in ‘school poetry anthologies’ – I was disappointed that the first four or more pages at least and then throughout were all about GCSE poetry examination texts and the teaching of these [including the turgid CGB Book series] with many from the various Awarding Bodies as well as major English subject publishers.

As the author of Poems in your Pocket, a Longman text about teaching for GCSE poetry examination, it will seem a tad hypocritical to say the above, but I did include one of the widest ranges of poems to read and explore ever put out there as well as a Teacher Handbook that encouraged creative writing with a host of activities and exemplar [see other creative writing texts in About].

Defense over, and to the thrust of my nostalgia, I return to those anthologies which provided students with such a rich source of reading. And as a keen teacher/presenter of poetry, and poet, these would be supplemented by work from the likes of Roger McGough and Adrian Mitchell [yes, from my days as a student, but still so engaging and fun] as well as many more.

A fondest memory is of my personal Poetry Disco [sans flashing lights, and I will always regret not making that happen] which was a mobile bookcase – on wheels – jam-packed with poetry books – multiple copies, occasional hard-back and illustrated editions, small-press editions, genuinely wide-ranging individual texts – these funded by, as I recall, TVEI money the school had received which was used either directly or indirectly by releasing other money for departments to enhance their resources.

I choose poetry. And without question, just riding that bookcase into and around a classroom and opening it out to its two sides with burgeoning collections of poetry books and an exhortation to students of all ages to select and simply read was one of the happiest teaching experiences of my life and by and large a positive encounter for the students.

Even in my final days of teaching, that sense of freedom and space to just explore was diminished by the weight of targets and testing. The demands too of the sheer amount of GCSE poetry to cover intruded on the instinct and desire to simply read and write poetry for pleasure – and the urge then, as increasingly now, to make instead the lower school curriculum, and especially year 9, ‘rich’ with such is understandably and importantly a laudable rearguard action, but examining at GCSE should not be the dictator to this degree of curriculum development [*].

That is my whole lot of nostalgia, and the following is a list of some school poetry anthologies I remember using and sharing with students:

Touchstones
Life Doesn’t Frighten Me At All
The Fire People
Is That the New Moon?
The Bees Knees
The Bees Sneeze
Voices – An Anthology of Poetry and Pictures
Touched with Fire
Junior Voices
Watchers and Seekers
Against the Grain
Poems in My Earphone
Poetry With a Sharper Edge

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[*] The removal of GCSE coursework also impacted heavily on my work with poetry in the classroom: for the Original Writing piece, I always introduced and provided models for writing poetry that encouraged experimentation and abstract uses of language, the work from mixed-ability students never ceasing to please/impress me [and them].