Poetry Analysis in the Soprano Range

a and m - copy

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

poetry discopoetry books 2

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:

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].

Rupert Loydell’s ‘Blue Trees’…

…is now mine.


If that sounds possessive you are mistaking this for the actual sound of keen appreciation. But it is now mine.

Rupert Loydell, Senior Lecturer in English with Creative Writing at Falmouth University and a prolific writer, especially poetry, with a publishing list of always significant and distinctive poetry [from the ‘spiritual’ to experimental to collaborative and much more], is also a widely exhibited artist whose small abstract paintings/sketches/collages I have always admired, but from a distance and I mean seen largely in print form on various sites, including his own at ‘Stride’ where you can see many if your scroll through this link.

Indeed, it was at ‘Stride’ that I saw his recent Blue Trees and I emailed to express my liking, especially its vibrant colours, colours that also appear potently in his Imaginary Landscapes, again at the link above, as well as here in a great sequence [and I wrote a  found prose poem in September based on another ‘Imaginary Landscape’ here].

So imagine my surprise but also delight to receive the original in the post a couple of days ago. It was an unexpected gesture from a good friend [and long-time supporter of my work as encourager, publisher and platform provider] so I am also writing this brief thank you and celebration to return a little the favour.

Do check out his work, paintings and poetry and reviews.

i.m. Mary Oliver

I hadn’t read the poetry of Mary Oliver until attending the funeral just over two years ago of a dear friend who had chosen her following poem to be read then. Obviously moved by that occasion, the poem resonates because of the moment and Andy’s choosing it, but also in its own strident right.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

from Dream Work by Mary Oliver
published by Atlantic Monthly Press
© Mary Oliver

Corbyn’s Shouting

Meaning matters. Of course it does, in most things. Especially in politics.

Take Brexit and last night’s defeat of the Prime Minister’s Brexit ‘deal’ by 230 votes. The meaning of this should be instant and obvious, but Theresa May is apparently unperturbed and will slog on regardless, as PM, and hoping to somehow morph a ‘better’ deal.

In ‘ordinary’ political times this defeat would have meant her defeat and the defeat of her government. But as every UK news broadcaster informs us at the moment, these are not ordinary times. The fact I am putting words within single quotation marks represents this to some degree.

This whole Brexit issue has been such a colossal conundrum. That it has engaged/enraged such a large portion of the UK population is both deeply ironic and embarrassing: it really should be austerity and the phenomenal increase in food banks and child poverty and the crisis in care, both for the elderly and the young, that has engaged/enraged. But no, this hasn’t animated a country where only the wealthiest have continued to prosper, and prosper hugely since 2008.

That the pro-Brexit ‘majority’ [and this word as well as its implications requires considerable unravelling, like the Brexiteers’ mantra of the ‘democratic will of the people’…] was in my opinion driven by the ‘immigration’ disinformation via UKIP; the ‘sovereignty’ deflection by a few, and the ‘wealth of a nation’ ironies by hedge-fund self-interests like those of Rees Mogg et al – and this is despairing.

Well, that in itself presents the colossal dilemma as I am merely presenting one side of the argument, and this is where, in simplistic terms, the bifurcation of a nation sits. And this is too large to debate here, now, after the event of yesterday.

My focus in this piece is Jeremy Corbyn’s shouting. I joined the Labour Party soon after Corbyn was elected leader and did so for two main reasons: first, my political sensibilities have always been socialist; and second, Corbyn represented this genuine Left leaning and seemed to me a sincere politician of principle. This latter quality mattered, especially in a political world where such is ostensibly and frighteningly lacking.

This didn’t mean I didn’t have reservations. Most of these were, and are increasingly now to do with presentation. Whilst meaning should matter most [like having sincere principles about socialism and caring about others and adhering to these] in the political world today, presentation – the yin – and presence – the yang – [remember, nothing is ‘ordinary’ or as it used to be anymore…] matter greatly too.

At times Corbyn has displayed this, but too often he hasn’t/doesn’t. For me, Prime Minister’s Questions and other House of Commons debates are where Corbyn is ‘failing’. And he fails because he shouts too much. I know it is the performance of a seasoned campaigner having to historically shout a message above a din in the most difficult places.

Whenever I watch/see Corbyn [primarily on the TV News, like most of us] he is shouting and I am shouting back at the television for him to stop shouting. May, like Cameron before her and thus two unprincipled PMs, always behaves/behaved calmly and thus apparently in control. It is in most respects an aspect of the thorough preparedness, Cameron often having killer put-downs, written by others, and May similarly, though she has her own seasoned knack of being apparently ‘superior’ in thought and meaning with a calm riposte and other kind of rehearsed slap-downs.

This is the nature of the parliamentary ‘debate’, of course, and there is little spontaneous cut and thrust. Therefore, if you come prepared with what to say, it is important to know how to say it. Corbyn needs to stop shouting. He even has a crescendo of shouting, so her starts loud and gets louder. Any good teacher will tell you, calmly, shouting is by and large an ineffective way of conveying message and meaning.

As for spontaneity and actual debating – well, as I have said, that is not the nature of HoC discourse, but Corbyn [and his team] could surely work more to respond immediately and critically to the things May says and claims rather than relying on the often [by then] less relevant reply of the prepared response. You know what I mean.

Meaning matters, but presentation and presence often matters more, for impact. This is paradoxical when so many other politicians get away without either substance. Obviously playing to my political leanings, two ‘successful’ if appalling Tory politicians who somehow manage to get air-time and thus credence are Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, especially yesterday.

First, Raab somehow gets plenty of time to speak on Brexit when as the Brexit Minister he helped to negotiate what he now despises, and whenever he speaks, as yesterday, he too is calm and relatively unflustered, but he always comes across to me as the archetypal Headteacher who is smooth and polished but you know immediately could never engage and control the most ordinary of classrooms [let alone command respect] and yet Raab is touted as a possible ‘leader’. Second, just before ITN News was about to interview Boris Johnson for their 10 o’clock slot last night, he was roughing up his hair for his own kind of vacuous ‘presentation’, a tousling of the bonnet for a tousling of verbiage that somehow still seems to endear so many to him.

It is clear that over perhaps the past year Corbyn has had his own hair redesigned. It is subtle and neat and nothing like the madcap mop of BJ, but there has been a recognition that presence and presentation does matter, so there is a sense of modernity to it and a pedicured beard. He now wears ‘conventional’ suits. And ties.

Therefore, to whoever is in charge of being mindful to presence – so that the meaning can be delivered despite people’s shallow prejudices, but also so it doesn’t aggravate those like me who find the shouting suggestive of a lack of control – can you please stop Corbyn from SHOUTING.