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  • Writer's pictureInspiredDeb

The power of poetry!

Updated: May 23

Understandably, many #GCSE students will now be over the moon to have both of their English literature papers behind them!


My own wonderful students are fairly relieved that their English exam questions have been quite kind. Last week's appearance of questions on the memorable Lady Macbeth, Scrooge's well-trod path to redemption, and the fundamental tension in the Gothic novella Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are all very familiar and highly welcome topics!


Concerning #poetry, many students are now undoubtedly happy—no, it'd be more accurate to say ecstatic!—that they won't have to read any more poetry or analyse the effects of any more caesuras, sonnets, or sibilance!


However, I'd be lying if I didn't admit to feeling quite sad that the GCSE poetry discussions with my current cohort are over!



The poetry anthology I have spent the most time teaching this academic year is AQA's Power and Conflict, a wonderful collection of powerful, emotive, and technically fascinating poetry.


Despite numerous readings, I still feel my original sense of awe when I teach 'My Last Duchess' and share Robert Browning's clever use of the dramatic monologue, a poetic form that he is argued to have perfected during the nineteenth century.


Browning uses the dramatic monologue to foreground the sixteenth-century Duke of Ferrara and his commanding first-person narration to ominously convey the Duke's egotistical control of the eponymous 'Duchess'.


'I gave commands' is a euphemistic phrase that connotes the duke's authority while showing that the Duchess is his unmistakable possession.


In addition, Browning's scattering of personal pronouns leaves the reader without any doubt about the narrator's narcissism.


The following lines repeat the personal pronoun 'I' to highlight the duke's control over who can look at his painting of the Duchess, a painting that is concealed by a curtain until he deems otherwise:


' ... none puts by

The curtain I have drawn for you, but I'


The duke's obsession with his art collection, of which the duchess, 'painted on the wall', is a notable part, includes a bronze statue of Neptune, '[t]aming a sea-horse'. This mythical allusion to Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, is an alarming metaphor for the duke's power and domination over his 'Last Duchess' - and a clear warning to the next prospective duchess.


 

William Blake's use of structure in 'London', another of the anthology's dramatic monologues, is equally brilliant. The poem laments the omnipresent misery of 'every man' in London at the end of the eighteenth century.


In the third quatrain of the poem, Blake hides a sneaky acrostic to reinforce his plea for social equality. Look at how line eight ends and how Blake then structures the third quatrain to foreground his political message:



'The mind-forged manacles I hear.


How the chimney-sweeper's cry

Every black'ning church appals,

And the hapless soldier's sigh

Runs in blood down palace walls.'



I've yet to find a student who isn't as thrilled as me by the discovery of Blake's compelling cypher!


 

Alongside these literary marvels is one of my favourite poems in the #AQA Power and Conflict anthology: Beatrice Garland's 'Kamikaze', which emerged in this week's second English literature exam


The poem is about a Japanese pilot who chooses to return to the family he loves rather than complete his suicide mission.


The free verse of 'Kamikaze' obviously means it lacks the structural gems gifted to us by both Browning and Blake.


However, few students observe that the poem's first end-stopped line—a line of poetry with a full stop at the end—doesn't appear until two-thirds of the way through. The poem's first five stanzas are, in fact, one very long sentence!


Until then, Garland employs free-flowing enjambment to convey an impression of the pilot's inspiring and life-affirming flight.


For example, the pilot's daughter narrates how her father:



' ... must have looked far down

at the little fishing boats strung out like bunting

on a green-blue translucent sea'



The imagery of the small fishing boats clearly juxtaposes with the vast American warships, the destruction of which would have been the intended end to the kamikaze pilot's journey.


Not only does Garland highlight the pilot's choice between life and death by juxtaposing the fisherman's peaceful role with the warrior's violence, but she also uses the simile of 'bunting' to foreground the celebration of life over death.


Further on, there is a flashback to the pilot's childhood.


' ... his brothers waiting on the shore

built cairns of pearl-grey pebbles'


The poignant childhood memory of playing with his siblings compels the pilot, now a father of a similarly innocent child, to return home 'safe / to the shore, salt-sodden'. Despite the hypnotic and tranquil effect of Garland's sibilance, the seemingly insignificant full stop at the end of the fifth stanza represents the symbolic end of the pilot's life.


Although the pilot returns home to his family, he is 'treated as though he no longer exists' for dishonouring them and his country by abandoning his mission. The pilot's heartfelt decision to return to those he loves imbues the poem with a terrible and tragic irony: his story ends with death despite opting to live.


Painfully, his daughter recalls how:


' ... we too learned

to be silent, to live as though

he had never returned, that this

this was no longer the father we loved.'


Garland's poem is excruciatingly beautiful. Not only does it capture the infinite and mesmerising beauty of living but also the inevitable and often unjust nature of dying.










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