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Forum Home > Poetry > Poems of the Decade

Neil Bowen
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Posts: 837

Edxcel exam board have made the bold and very commendable decision to set a modern poetry anthology as a set text for their new AS & A-level specification. It's great to see Forward's Poetry of the Decade book selling well and to know that students will be introduced to some of the very best modern poets. However, as students and teachers are probably already finding, because it is a recent publication there's very little supporting material currently available on the anthology (though I hear on the poetry grapevine that the ever excellent English & Media Centre are providing top class training and have some resources in process).


In the meantime, in the constructive, collaborative spirit of the peripeteia project, I'm going to start a regular discussion thread on the set poems and invite members to add to the discussion as and when they wish. I'll aim at one poem/ week during term, but might get through a few more in the holidays. :) 


Edited and expanded versions of the extracts posted here will be published in complete book form. All being well, The Art of Poetry, volume 2, Forward Poems of the Decade will be published some time in early 2016...

December 6, 2015 at 2:40 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Administrator
Posts: 837

So, let's begin with Patience Agbabi's disturbing poem 'Eat Me'. 


In terms of form, Agbabi's poem is a dramatic monologue written in the voice of an obese woman kept in some sort of captivity by a perverse male lover. According to The Oxford Companion of English Literature a dramatic monologue is a poem 'delivered as though by a single imagined person, frequently but not always to an imagined auditor: the speaker is not to be identified with the poet, but is dramatised, usually ironically, through his or her own words'. The Companion goes on to note that the Victorian poet Robert Browning was especially adept at this form (Browning's My Last Duchess - which will feature in a forthcoming The Art of Poetry book - is one of his finest dramatic monologues). The key ideas here are that we have a character speaking, not the poet, and that irony is a key device in dramatic monologues. In particular, there is usually an ironic gap between what the central character says about themselves and what the writer implies. We'll keep this idea in mind when we explore character in more detail.


Stil thinking in terms of classification, how else might we classify it? Well, thematically it's a sort of love poem, albeit a perverse one, and it also has a strong narrative element. It reminds me a little of a parable or a moral fable. Like the story of King Midas, it warns of the dangers of greed and there's something of Ovid's story of Erysichthon who desecrates a sacred grove and is cursed by the Goddess Ceres to suffer such insatiable hunger that he ends up eating himself! Agbabi's use of religious language of 'forbidden fruit', her monstrous characters and the commeuppance of the greedy man suggests to me that she wanted a sort of mythic dimension to her modern fable.


How does the protagonist present herself?

  • 'When I hit thirty' suggests her age, especially in conjunction with the reference to 'cake'. However we soon realise that this refers to her morbid obesity. That rather indirect way of telling us her weight might imply some embarrassment or shame at her condition
  • She's submissive to the man, at least at first: she 'did/ what' she 'was told' even when it brings her no pleasure; parading herself, she seems to do the man's bidding 
  • She's treated as an object and a possession, an assembly of parts - 'belly', 'chins' & 'hips
  • A series of metaphors dehumanise her and express her identity in terms of what she provides for the male character: 'I was his Jacuzzi'; 'forbidden fruit'' 'breadfruit'; 'a beached whale on a king-size bed'; 'a tidal wave of flesh'; 'his desert island'. These images suggest she provides him with pleasure, comfort, sex and refuge
  • Metaphorical references to her physical size give way to more direct rhetorical language, such as the repetition of 'too fat to...' The tone is difficult to determine here. Is the woman ashamed of her condition? The voice sounds neutral, merely cataloguing events, emotionally detached from her own experience, perhaps even numb. Certainly though the narration is retrospective, there is a noticeable absence of reflective commentary expressing her thoughts or feelings.
  • The power dynamic shifts between the characters: 'I allowed him to stroke' implies she has some control. And this raises a troubling aspect of the characterisation of the woman; her apparent compliance in her own abuse. In the next line, for instance, the man says 'Open wide' and he pours 'olive oil down' her 'throat'. The woman is either unable or unwilling to resist. Earlier she had said her 'only pleasure' was the 'rush of fast food' the man feeds her. The monstrous descriptions of her body also come from her own mouth. 
  • The understated, matter of fact tone of the horrific last line: 'There was nothing else left eat' to so casually explain resorting to cannibalising his dead body confirms a sense of growing unease with the narrator as the poem progresses.

 

This last point takes us back to irony in dramatic monologues. Clearly there is an ironic gap here between what the character is saying and what the writer wants the reader to understand by it. She has in fact been turned into a monster by her abuser, but the question remains to what extent did she have some responisiblity for the situation. The poem poses, but does not answer this question.


Why is the poem written in rhymes three line stanzas, technically called 'tercets'? The form reminds me a little of Dante's use of terza rima in The Divine Comedy adn these gluttonous, dysfunctional characters could, perhaps, be found in a modern version of Dante's outer circles of hell. Agbabi's tercet's don't feature the chain rhyme characteristic of terza rima and the rhyme pattern, like the metre, has a roughness & looseness about it. Partly the use of half-rhymes rather than full rhymes help generate a believable speaking voice - Browning masterfully uses full rhymes in My Last Duchess, but obscures them with caesuras, enjambment and other devices - but the sounds that don't quite fit together might also suggest the tension in the relationship. The three line structure might also remind us that there are three characters in the poem, the unnamed woman and man and behind them the poet. 



December 6, 2015 at 3:37 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Administrator
Posts: 837

The shortest poem in the anthology is not on the Edexcel set list. But it makes for a good lesson starter activity on the significance of titles. 


The poem is by academic & poet David Herd and is two lines long:


Worked in the morning.

Watched TV.


What can we say about such a short, seemingly inconsequential poem? How could it possibly have been selected as one of the best Forward Poems of the Decade? Is this another case of the sort of craziness that gives modern art a bad name? Is it some sort of game about how we construct a poem by reading it as such?


Clearly the poem is composed of very ordinary, everyday language and outlines a very ordinary, seemingly insignificant experience. Probably most of us do this or something like it each day and few of us would think of writing a poem about something so mundane. And if we did, we'd probably try to jazz it up a bit. There are none of the usual poetic techniques, such as imagery or sonic effects. Both of the two sentences are incomplete fragments, denuded of a subject, which we take to be 'I'. This helps create the impression of someone speaking, perhaps. They are blunt, truncated and seemingly plain statements of fact - technically both sentences are declaratives.


Each of the two lines ends with an emphatic full stop so that the two experiences of work and leisure seem disconnected. Maybe there's the suggestion that only these two things mattered for some reason. Why, for instance, aren't there further lines, such as 'drank some tea', 'drove home', 'cooked the dinner'? Something about watching the TV at this point must have been very important. 


After spending as long as you or your class can stomach on analysing these 6 words, the next task is to suggest possible titles. Here are a few my cynical yr. 11 class suggested: Life, School, What I learnt today, The shortest poem with the longest possible title we could think of. 


 

Another poem with an evocative title is Simon Armitage's Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass. I'm not going to analyse this poem in detail, for now, for reasons that will become apparent early next year, he writes, hoping to sound a little bit mysterious. So here, for the time being, are jsut a few, introductory thoughts about the title:

 

Perhaps you’ve whiled away some time when waiting for a bus or somesuch by playing imaginary match-ups. Which would win in a battle between a shark and a crocodile? Would a tiger defeat a lion or would the lion lick the tiger? Who’d come out on top in the final showdown between Superman and Batman? What about Nigella Lawson against Mary Berry? In this game, the contestants have to be well matched, otherwise there’s obviously no fun in the speculation and not much of a fight.


Obviously Armitage's title is meant to sound like a sports match or a fight. There’s no article (‘a’ or ‘the’ at the start which also makes ‘chainsaw’ sound like a name of a person or team. If we think of chainsaws and their place in popular culture for just a moment or two we’ll soon hit on the notorious horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Chainsaws are clearly serious bits of kit, poweful and dangerous tools that can be wielded as weapons by nutcases in horror films. Powerful and dangerous are not words we would usually associate with the rather flimsy, thin stemmed and fluffy headed pampas grass. In pitching a potentially deadly weapon, armed with rotating sharp serrated teeth propelled by a powerful motor incongruously against some defenceless wavy grass, Armitage makes the battle seem comically one-sided, like Supermans taking on Mary Berry. As the first line of the poem acknowledges, ‘It seemed an unlikely match’. Inevitably the grass will be wiped out, quickly and easily, we assume. Perhaps this will be a rather short poem?

 

Notice that the poem’s speaker is not included in the title: It is not Armitage & the Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass. This adds to the sense that the chainsaw is a character in the poem, acting almost autonously, with a will of its own. It also excuses the speaker from responsiblity for the foreshadowed carnage to come.


December 7, 2015 at 11:52 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
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Posts: 837

Sorry, Astral for deleting your helpful questions, but so that the thread doesn't get too long I've cut my bit from your post.


Astral wrote:  You mention the growing unease with the narrative voice in Eat Me - I entirely agree. Where do we all think that the shift in how we feel about the narrator occurs - does this wait until the last lines or does it happen earler? If we read the poem in this way - the poem is retrospective - how does this change our perspective earlier on in the poem?

December 8, 2015 at 12:29 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
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Posts: 837

In Edexcel's AS exam students have to answer one out of a choice of two questions. Both questions require comparison of two poems. On each question one poem will be selected by the board; the choice of the matching poem will be left to the students:


e.g. Compare the ways in which poets explore the shift from childhood to adulthood in An Easy Passage and one other poem. In your answer you should consider:

 

  • themes
  • language & imagery
  • the use of other poetic techniques

For Eat Me the question could ask about male and female relationships or the presentation of the female character. If that were the case, good comparison poems would include A Leisure Centre is also a Temple of Learning, The Map-Woman or The Gun.  

 

December 8, 2015 at 12:43 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
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Posts: 837

The Gun by Vicki Feaver - part 1


What thoughts spring to mind when you read the first couple of lines of this poem?


Bringing a gun into a house

Changes it.


A home is a place of safety. Imagine a gun brought into your own house. How would your family react? What possible reason could there be for its arrival? How would it change the atmosphere?


Immediately in these two lines the poet establishes a sense of tension and danger. Notice how the poet uses space to generate suspense:

• A mini-space is left between the first line and the second. Feaver could just as easily have written the sentence as one line, not two. Which option is more effective? Why?

• These two lines are isolated from the body of the poem - another brief space for us to contemplate the lines’ significance.

• The poet doesn’t give too much away; we know the gun changes things, but she doesn’t tell us how, another space for speculation.

• A fourth uncertain semantic space is created by the non-specific pronoun ‘it’, which can refer to the gun or the house. For now, the resolution of meaning remains suspended.


We are then introduced to a second person, the poem’s auditor, ‘you’ who has brought in the gun. Unhurried lines convey unhurried action. The poem’s paradoxical theme is subtly suggested: The gun is itself ‘like something dead’. In the last four lines of this stanza there is a tightening of syntax and attention. Shorter lines are a series of concertrated still images, one per line. Ominous details signal the gun’s potential danger: ‘jutting over the edge’, for example, implies transgression, crossing boundaries. The phrase ‘Over the edge’ implies losing control. The poet increases the foreshadowing – a ‘shadow’ is a common poetic metaphor for a ghost.


The tone changes with the casual sounding, looser and more conversational, ‘At first it’s just practice’. But this stanza moves very swiftly and suddenly from harmless shooting inanimate objects to shooting a rabbit through the head. The level of violence has escalated unnervingly fast. In this light, that ‘at first’ becomes more ominous; if this is what happens ‘at first’ what might happen, we wonder, ‘at last’?

December 9, 2015 at 4:55 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
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Posts: 837

The Gun - part 2


Feaver’s poem is in free verse. No metre or rhyme scheme determines either line or stanza length. Or, indeed, the overall length of the poem. This structural looseness means the lines in the poem are hard to predict – they are not following a predetermined pattern which the ear and the eye can anticipate. What stops free verse poems being prose randomly arranged into something looking like verse?


Firstly the stanzas themselves; some principle must structure them. As we have already noted, in The Gun, for instance, there is clear design in the isolation of the first two lines. Subsequent stanzas outline the stages of a narrative. In the second, the gun is brought into the kitchen; in the third is put to use; the fourth stanza outlines the results of the gun’s use; an isolated line follows echoing but modulating the opening and the poem concludes with how the poet/ the poet’s persona reacts.


Secondly, lineation, the choice of where to start and end lines is particularly important in free verse. A good rule of thumb is to assume the poet has put careful thought into this element of structure. Try re-arranging the lines, as we did with the opening two, to highlight the effects of the poet’s choices. If the lineation is not purposeful then we do have prose chopped up and masquerading as poetry. The middle lines from Feaver’s fourth stanza illustrate her precise lineation:


Your hands reek of gun oil

And entrails.


Four elements of arrangement come together here to generate impact:

• The choice of syntax so that the most important aspect comes at the end of the sentence

• a small delay created by cutting the line before ‘and entrails’

• the placing of this phrase at the start of the next line

• the caesura after ‘and entrails’, allowing its effect to sink in and linger.


Compare, for instance, an alternative arrangement:


Your hands reek of entrails and gun oil.


We have here exactly the same words and broadly the same meaning, but all the tension, the shock impact of ‘and entrails’ has been lost.



 


December 10, 2015 at 5:31 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Administrator
Posts: 837

Material by Ros Barber - part 1


Look at Barber’s poem on the page and what will immediately strike you is how neat, regular and well ordered it appears. Nine stanzas, each eight lines long, each follows the same cross rhyme pattern, so that the second and fourth lines rhyme with each other. This pattern is then neatly mirrored in the second half of each stanza, so that the sixth and eighth lines also rhyme with each other. Many of the stanzas comprise one sentence and almost all finish at the end of a sentence with a clear full stop. Listen to the poem and you’ll notice the metre is regular too; its iambic tetrameter ticks away steadily throughout the poem with very few trips, hiccups or variations. A pleasantly neat sonic and syntactical effect is thus created and sustained from stanza to stanza, making each one sound rounded off and satisfyingly complete.


Examine the language of the poem (sometimes called the diction) and you’ll find nothing shocking or badly behaved there either. There are no extravagant or fanciful metaphors or potent rhetorical devices, no exotic sound effects and few showy or erudite words (‘lassitude’ might perhaps be an exception). Nor do words or registers collide together in explosive, original and surprising combinations to generate semantic or tonal fireworks. The poem’s language does not draw attention to itself. Like its form and structure, the language is exemplary in its well composed orderliness.


How might we feel about this trimness and tidiness? Is it to be admired for its craftmanship? How might it relate to the poem’s title and themes? Is all this repeating of strict patterns a little excessive, even oppressive, perhaps? We’ll come back to that thought at the end of this essay.


For now, imagine a class of perfectly behaved, neatly dressed, quiet, biddable children with one child in it who is loud, scruffy and badly behaved. When there is so much that is so well ordered deviations to the norm tend to stick out. In Barber’s poem there are just a few disruptive elements. For example, in the fifth stanza the second line end word ‘foot’ does not rhyme with its pair word ‘butcher’. But that’s as nothing compared to Stanza 6. Compared to its polite peers, Stanza 6 is almost a delinquent: Not only does it have an extra ninth line, thus throwing its rhyme scheme out of sync, but its second and fourth lines do not rhyme either! (‘talons’ & ‘piano’.) Moreover stanzas 5 & 6 are the only stanzas which share a sentence between them and are thus linked by enjambement. If that wasn’t enough already, it’s also composed of two sentences (mind you, so are about half of the stanzas, so that’s not that rebellious). Anyhow, clearly there’s something going on in the middle of this poem. The question then is what?

December 12, 2015 at 12:35 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
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Posts: 837

Inheritance by Eavan Boland. part 1


What would you say you’ve inherited from your parents and grandparents? Perhaps the elegant shape of your nose, your eye colour or your uncommon academic ablity. Maybe your interest in poetry. We may inherit DNA and material goods, but we also pick up less tangible things from our parents, such as attitudes and values. Eavan Boland’s quietly contemplative poem explores what we inherit from others either deliberately or by accident. Only she’s a bit more specific than that; what interests the poet here is what is passed on from women to women, from mothers to daughters. Fathers are noticeably absent from the poem. Inheritance is written in the first person in an open, conversational style.


The free verse form fits the idea of ‘wondering’ aloud; it is as if we are being given intimate, privileged and direct access to the poet’s thoughts. The absence of a metre ticking away through the poem or a rhyme scheme, or indeed any rhymes at all, combine with the long, often enjambed lines to generate the sense of unhurried, reflective calmness and the contemplative mode. Boland also eschews grand or showy poetic devices. Conventional features of poetry, such as figurative language are, like men, noticeably absent from this poem. Rather, like Ros Barber, in Material, the language here is literal and concrete and composed of ordinary, everyday, unostentatious words.


If all poems can be placed somewhere on a continuum between two linguistic poles, as illustrated below, Boland’s poem is much closer to the left than to the lefthand side:


Flattening into prose  ........................................................Blossoming into metaphor


December 13, 2015 at 7:13 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
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Posts: 837

A Leisure Centre is also a Temple of Learning, by Sue Boyle.


Before reading this discussion of Boyle's poem I would like you to look up Edouard Manet's famous painting 'Olympia' which we will use as a comparison text: 


https/en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympia_(Manet)#/media/File:Edouard_Manet_-_Olympia_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg


When it was first exhibited in 1865, Manet's painting was deeply shocking and highly controversial, not as we might suppose, because of the female nudity it depicts, but rather because of the unabashed and frank way in which the woman looks back at us looking at her, making us conscious of our act of looking. Various symbolic details, such as the flower in her hair and her exotic robe, also signal that the woman was a prostitute, a fact that obviously added to the painting’s capacity to shock its audience.

 

  • How does Boyle’s depiction of a female nude differ from Manet’s? 
  • Does it matter that the artist in Boyle’s case is a woman, not a man? If so, why? 

 

December 14, 2015 at 5:47 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Seashore
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Posts: 2

A Minor Role

I would be interested to hear how other people have interpreted A Minor Role. The Edexcel commentary  mentions "the narrator’s reluctance to acknowledge her illness" and seems to assume that she is ill. To me (and several colleagues with whom I've discussed this) it reads as though the narrator is the partner of someone who's ill. Obviously we can see these as alternative interpretations but the former doesn't actually seem to make sense to me. "Contrive meals for a hunger striker" and "I am here to make you believe in life" suggest the latter very strongly to me, as does the title. What do other people think?

December 16, 2015 at 3:36 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
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Posts: 837

A Minor Role 

Firstly, thanks for kickstarting the discussion, Seashore, it's exaclty what I hoped this forum would promote. I plan to write some detailed material on this poem sometime early in the New Year.


For now, it seems to me that the poem is open to both the interpretations you suggest. Your reading, that she is partner fits with the idea of the speaker habitually taking a secondary, ancillary role; in this narrative the protagonist is the ill person, whereas the narrator says she does not take 'the star part' . Clearly there is another character in the poem: In the hospital they are 'holding hands'. The care and attention with which the narrator checks dosages, asks questions and so forth, plus the fact that she does the driving suggest the partner is the ill one. The references to telling people things are 'getting better', making meals for a 'hunger striker' and wanting a 'simpler illness' could be read either way. If we read the poem as being about the partner's illness the last line is made more personal, addressed to the ailing beloved, as well, of course, to us. This seems, to me, to add an extra poignancy to the line. So, while both readings are valid, I'm inclined to agree more with yours.


What does anyone else think?


Here's an extract from my essay on Fanthorpe's poem:

A Minor Role is a list poem, busily full of ordinary, everyday verbs. Seemingly the poet herself, its protagonist is described as ‘propping’, ‘making’, ‘driving’, ‘parking’, ‘holding’, ‘making sense of’, ‘asking’, ‘checking’, ‘getting on’, and ‘sustaining’. Repetition of all these present continuous tense verbs conveys the sense of endless and unending, mundane, but essential, chores. Syntax reinforces this impression. Look, for instance, at the last six lines of the second stanza: Each sentence fragment follows a very similar pattern. Notice too how the grammatically incomplete sentence, starting with ‘Holding hands under/ veteran magazines’ ending at ‘civility’, lacks one thing, a subject, the speaker who performs all these unherculean tasks. It’s another way in which the poem’s protagonist slips into the background, even in her own poem.


Repetition occurs too across stanzas: Relocated from the hospital to the home, the second half of the third stanza follows a similar pattern to the previous stanza. Again we have a list of actions, the terms of which are again separated by semi-colons; again each item in the list starts with a verb, again in the present tense: ‘answer’; ‘contrive’, ‘find’. This sequence ends with a quickening flurry, as if the pressure is increasing: ‘cancel’, ‘tidy’, pretend’, ‘admit’. Of course, these last two verbs contradict each other; the impression of everything being under control is just that, an impression, an act. Underneath the appearance of coping the narrator is, in reality, struggling to deal with a traumatic situation. Even when a major break in the narrative is signalled by the use of three stars, the next stanza begins in the middle of a sentence and immediately with another present continuous verb that evinces continual struggle, ‘enduring’.


All the while the poem’s hard-pressed, industrious narrator is uncomplaining. Maintaining her composure and good manners, she asks questions ‘politely’, is ‘grateful always’, sustains ‘the background music of civility’, says ‘thank you/ for anything to everyone’. Hence the reader is encouraged to feel sympathy and respect for this quiet form of domestic heroism.

December 16, 2015 at 4:56 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Administrator
Posts: 837

The Lammas Hireling

Like the killing of the albatross in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the murder of the mysterious, fortune-bringing stranger brings a curse down on the poem's narrator. He cannot even dream now of his dead wife, and his herd, that was as ‘fat as cream’, is now afflicted by malign magic, ‘elf-shot’. In another surprising development the poem ends with the speaker using traditional Christian, specifically Catholic, language to try to absolve himself. The fact that it has only been ‘an hour’ since his ‘last confession’ may convey obsessive feelings of guilt or his desperation to find some way to mend his cursed fortunes. Or both.


Duhig’s poem is a strange, beguiling, Gothic folk tale. The poet leaves the significance of the story for the reader to try to puzzle out. It is like a parable, but one whose meaning is not accessible to outsiders. Perhaps it is a sort of cautionary tale, warning us about how we treat the things in nature we do not understand and the harm we may do ourselves as a consequence of our ignorance. When confronted by the stranger’s mysterious behaviour the poem's narrator immediately demonises what he doesn’t understand, precipitately jumping to the conclusion that the stranger is a ‘warlock’.


The title uses the Northern word ‘lammas’ which is connected to a pagan festival celebrating the wheat harvest. The mysterious stranger takes on the form of a hare, a conventional symbol of fertility. Perhaps then, he is a god of fertility, akin to the Greek God Dionysus, a character from myth presenting himself to a host in humble attire, whose transformational magic is misunderstood by the superstitious narrator and killed with his modern man-made weapon, a gun. After all, did this speaker really have to shoot the stranger, who had brought nothing but benefits into his life? You’ll have to answer these questions yourself.


What is certain, I think, is that Duhig’s poem is wonderfully rich and vivid, it weaves a magic like a charm itself. It is full of memorable images. The American poet Wallace Steven’s dictum that ‘The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully’. It is a great example of what the poet and critic Glynn Maxwell refers to as a ‘lunar’ poem in his useful book On Poetry; a poem that does not give up its meanings easily, but lingers in the mind after reading and haunts the imagination.

December 30, 2015 at 10:50 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
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Posts: 837

Galliopli, by Ciaran Carson, part one

It’s a truism that a picture is worth a thousand words. On the other hand, fans of the radio say it has all the best pictures. Certainly a poet only has words and the pictures he or she can conjure in our heads. So how can poetry convey the true horror of war? How can poetry ever hope to capture a scene as filmic and complex, a sprawling muddle as varied as Carson’s poem attempts?


Having had a very good go at it, this is a point the poet self-reflexively acknowledges at the end of the poem:


I have not even begun to describe Gallipoli.


This is a gigantic list poem: Carson captures the chaotic, collisions of cultures, the sense of overcrowding and claustrophobic space, the intoxicating smells and flavours, the extravagant costumes and the rancid slum setting by piling together a mishmash of specific details, sense impressions, languages and cultural references into tightly knotted sentences. The place names, for instance, take us from London’s Billinsgate market to Dublin to India (Benares) to France (Boulogne) to Sheffield to Italy (Bologna) and so forth. This assembly of different cultures and nationalities is inherent in the composition of the landscape too: There are English ‘sheds and stalls’, ‘farmer’s yards’ and ‘chimney stacks’, as well as an ‘Irish landlord’s ruinous estate’ as well as gutters from France, arcades from Italy, pagodas from China and ‘souks’ from Turkey. The impression generated is of giddy, disorientating, dilapidated, disease-ridden, sprawling mayhem.


But there are underlying patterns, counter forces of good order, shaping all this teeming content, helping the reader to navigate a way through:

• The voice of the poet

• The stanzas and their ancillary punctuation

• The rhythm

• The complex rhyme scheme

January 6, 2016 at 6:00 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Matthias
Member
Posts: 6

Neil Bowen at December 30, 2015 at 10:50 AM

The Lammas Hireling

Like the killing of the albatross in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the murder of the mysterious, fortune-bringing stranger brings a curse down on the poem's narrator. He cannot even dream now of his dead wife, and his herd, that was as ‘fat as cream’, is now afflicted by malign magic, ‘elf-shot’. In another surprising development the poem ends with the speaker using traditional Christian, specifically Catholic, language to try to absolve himself. The fact that it has only been ‘an hour’ since his ‘last confession’ may convey obsessive feelings of guilt or his desperation to find some way to mend his cursed fortunes. Or both.


Duhig’s poem is a strange, beguiling, Gothic folk tale. The poet leaves the significance of the story for the reader to try to puzzle out. It is like a parable, but one whose meaning is not accessible to outsiders. Perhaps it is a sort of cautionary tale, warning us about how we treat the things in nature we do not understand and the harm we may do ourselves as a consequence of our ignorance. When confronted by the stranger’s mysterious behaviour the poem's narrator immediately demonises what he doesn’t understand, precipitately jumping to the conclusion that the stranger is a ‘warlock’.


The title uses the Northern word ‘lammas’ which is connected to a pagan festival celebrating the wheat harvest. The mysterious stranger takes on the form of a hare, a conventional symbol of fertility. Perhaps then, he is a god of fertility, akin to the Greek God Dionysus, a character from myth presenting himself to a host in humble attire, whose transformational magic is misunderstood by the superstitious narrator and killed with his modern man-made weapon, a gun. After all, did this speaker really have to shoot the stranger, who had brought nothing but benefits into his life? You’ll have to answer these questions yourself.


What is certain, I think, is that Duhig’s poem is wonderfully rich and vivid, it weaves a magic like a charm itself. It is full of memorable images. The American poet Wallace Steven’s dictum that ‘The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully’. It is a great example of what the poet and critic Glynn Maxwell refers to as a ‘lunar’ poem in his useful book On Poetry; a poem that does not give up its meanings easily, but lingers in the mind after reading and haunts the imagination.

Hello I have a question about the title of the poem why is the hireling in the poem "the Lammas hireling" is it to do with the warlock or is to do with the reference to him being bought on the day off Lammas and do you think the "warlock" dies or escapes as there is no splash in the water? 

Also is there a suggestion the hireling killed the farmers wife ?

January 8, 2016 at 10:14 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
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Posts: 837

Hi Matthias.

First off, well done for taking the plunge and asking a question - that's what this forum is for. Second off I'm very happy to offer my opinion, but I don't have the single correct reading of the poem. I believe that all works of art are open to different interpretations - it's the quality of the interpretation that's important. Third off and lastly, the material posted here is extracted from longer pieces in my forthcoming book. In the book I certainly discuss the significance of 'lammas'.  

As to your questions:

 

  • I think Lammas is to do with the time of year. 
  • While the narrator takes the hireliing for a 'warlock' I don't think we have to - I'm inclined to the view that the narrator demonises something he doesn't understand. 
  • There's a number of possible explanations for the lack of a splash, here are a few: 1. the hireling was some sort of magical creature 2. somehow he escaped (though the narrator would surely have noticed) 3. The farmer dreamed he killed the hireling. I think the point, though, is the mystery, not the answer. 
  • The way it's phrased 'my dear late wife' suggests to me that the wife has been dead some time, so, no, I don't think the hireling is responsible for her death. But, I'm happy to be persuaded otherwise...

 

Ian Duhig tweeted today that he thought my material on his poem was good. Which was very nice of him and, putting the intentional fallacy to one side for a moment, suggests we're on the right lines, or at least, not on the wrong ones. So I hope that gives you confidence to develop your own, informed reading of this great poem. Good luck! 

January 8, 2016 at 12:49 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Matthias
Member
Posts: 6

Neil Bowen at January 8, 2016 at 12:49 PM

Hi Matthias.

First off, well done for taking the plunge and asking a question - that's what this forum is for. Second off I'm very happy to offer my opinion, but I don't have the single correct reading of the poem. I believe that all works of art are open to different interpretations - it's the quality of the interpretation that's important. Third off and lastly, the material posted here is extracted from longer pieces in my forthcoming book. In the book I certainly discuss the significance of 'lammas'.  

As to your questions:

 

  • I think Lammas is to do with the time of year. 
  • While the narrator takes the hireliing for a 'warlock' I don't think we have to - I'm inclined to the view that the narrator demonises something he doesn't understand. 
  • There's a number of possible explanations for the lack of a splash, here are a few: 1. the hireling was some sort of magical creature 2. somehow he escaped (though the narrator would surely have noticed) 3. The farmer dreamed he killed the hireling. I think the point, though, is the mystery, not the answer. 
  • The way it's phrased 'my dear late wife' suggests to me that the wife has been dead some time, so, no, I don't think the hireling is responsible for her death. But, I'm happy to be persuaded otherwise...

 

Ian Duhig tweeted today that he thought my material on his poem was good. Which was very nice of him and, putting the intentional fallacy to one side for a moment, suggests we're on the right lines, or at least, not on the wrong ones. So I hope that gives you confidence to develop your own, informed reading of this great poem. Good luck! 

Thank you for responding to my question my argument to the hireling killing the wife is when "stark naked but for one bloody foot of a fox trap"now I believe fox trap  is metaphorical implementing he has been caught by the farmer, after killing his wife. The word blood implying that he has blood on his hands, so a death, murder maybe even sexual actions as he is naked ? 

January 11, 2016 at 6:56 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Administrator
Posts: 837

An interesting and ingenius reading, Matthias. I think you're certainly right to pick up the disturbing erotic charge of the scene when one night the farmer finds the stranger standing stock-still and stark-naked in his house. There is a sense in which the stranger seems to have taken the place & voice of the wife.


However I'm not convinced that there's any suggestion that the stranger has killed the wife. Yes, he's been caught in a fox-trap, but do you mean the farmer has set out the trap in the hope of catching the killer of his wife? That would seem an improbable way of going about finding them. Re the blood on his foot = blood on his hands, I'm not convinced by that I'm afraid. But it's the order of narrative and phrasing of it that is most telling. If the wife had been killed after the arrival of the hireling, then I don't think the farmer would refer to her as 'my dear late wife'. Wouldn't the wife's death be more central to the story if it had just happened? The phrase doesn't suggest to me recent loss. Wouldn't the farmer also mention he'd caught his wife's killer after shooting him? Or do you think he doesn't make the connection you do? Not sure I can help you any more with this. Perhaps some other readers would care to join the discussion...:)

 

January 11, 2016 at 3:46 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Administrator
Posts: 837

Available uniquely on Amazon, 'The Art of Poetry' volume 2 features critical essays on 15 poems from Forward's Poems of the Decade anthology, as well as ideas for reading, teaching and revising the poems and advice on essay writing: 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Poetry-Forwards-Decade-anthology/dp/0993077870/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1452861945&sr=1-9&keywords=neil+bowen

Currently, and probably for a short time only, the book's available for under £4 plus p & p. Volume 3, exploring the remaining poems will be available later this year. :)


January 15, 2016 at 7:52 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Administrator
Posts: 837

I'm pleased to confirm the nice people at The Guardian are going to publish extracts from our Poems of the Decade book on the Guardian Teacher's Network, hopefully starting this week. :)

January 19, 2016 at 3:00 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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