Archive for October, 2012

Homeboy Keats

Back to business.

(Sorry for the title. I once sat in a class where somebody referred, with wholehearted seriousness, to Keats as his ‘homeboy’. The immense satisfaction with which he delivered that line has remained with me since, and I couldn’t not honour him here, on his homeboy’s patch.)


Sad Keats

These facts about Keats completely affected how I read him.

1) He has THE MOST TRAGIC history. He died at 25 of consumption. TWENTY-FIVE. Just think how many more poems you would have had to study for A Level if he had lived to 30.

2) He was pretty sure that he was a genius. He knew he had some kind of preternatural talent for poetry. But then sometimes he wasn’t so sure. His letters return obsessively to his own uncertainty about whether poetry was the correct vocation for a man with medical training.

3) He was in love with, and engaged to, a woman that his sense of propriety and reverence of social convention prevented him from having sex with. This is Fanny Brawne. A lot of scholars detect her presence all through his poetry, and he often wrote to her. We still have many of his letters to her.

GUESS WHO! The real Fanny is on the left. Abbie Cornish played her in the film. Totally see the likeness (…)

Keats can be hard. There are plenty of mythological and classical references that you will just have to look up. Don’t skip over them: the story Keats alludes to will always add something to the poem, often in a way you didn’t expect. (‘Allude’ is another handy word for essay-writing; use it when you want to say the poet ‘mentions’ something, e.g. “Keats here alludes to Homer’s Odyssey“. Pretend like I was clear-sighted enough to put that in my original glossary). Finally, remember to break the verse down slowly and always process the image so that it means something TO YOU.

The first thing to getting through a Keats poem is to try and decipher his exceptionally long sentences, jam packed with subordinate clauses. ‘Clauses’ are parts of a sentence – they are phrases that in themselves do not make up a proper sentence. Let me show you.

This is Keat’s ‘To Autumn’. It has three 11 line stanzas. These 11 lines are just ONE SENTENCE.


Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For Summer has o’er -brimmed their clammy cells.

  • The semi-colon ‘;’ is the friend you never knew you had. It helps to break up the sentence, usually stopping it at points where a voice would naturally pause for a bit longer than normal. In fact, it pretty much operates like a full stop here, but using a full stop would ruin the effect of the poem’s voice rolling languidly in a nice continuous sequence. Give thanks for the semi-colon.
  • On the surface, the verse is floating dreamily from one image to another, but underneath, the cogs of grammatical structure are working hard to keep the whole sentence in place. In your brain, add in the words that probably would be there if we were speaking normally. For example, you could reconstruct the first three lines like this: “Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness [THAT ARE THE] Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun [AND WHO ARE] Conspiring with him how to load and bless”. Put back in the ugly conjunctions that Keats has taken out.
  • Make an inverted sentence sound normal. Like I said in my glossary post, poets often mix up the syntax (the phrasing) of a line in order to place a convenient rhyming word at the end. Word-bending Keats does it here. “With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run.” It’s weird but we know why he did it.  The verb ‘run’ is placed at the end of the line so that it rhymes with ‘sun’ two lines before. If Keats was speaking like an average human being, (I like to think he spoke in perfect verse, all the time) he would have said “The vines run round the thatch-eves.” Obviously the way that Keats wrote it is more ‘unusual’ and typically ‘poetic’ sounding, but reconstructing the line like this will help you to process it, and work out exactly what he means. Don’t be afraid to really smash up a poem. You have to do this to make sense of it, and when you’ve done this, then you can just smugly bask in all the original poetry. 
  • By the way, ‘gourd’ is a kind of large fruit and ‘kernel’ is something to do with the seed of corn, or the soft bit of a nut. ‘Gourd’ and ‘kernel’ are words that rarely fail to make an appearance in a poem about AUTUMN. Especially from this period: early 19C. They are highly ‘poetic’ terms – ‘poetic’ because they are unfamiliar words that would rarely be used outside the context of a poem.

Google images seems to think that this is a gourd. Weird.


I recommend watching ‘Bright Star’ – a film based on Keats’s relationship with Fanny Brawne. This isn’t exactly a comprehensive biopic of Keats; actually it’s more about Fanny, but if you want a good cry over montages of frustrated poetry writing and sorrow-laden whispers of Keats’s verse, then YES this is the exact film you have been looking for.


… which is actually a lot more important than watching a film, is, if you have any time at all, to read Keats’s letters. Scholars are now beginning to treat Keats’s letters not simply as reference material to back up his poems, but as important literary artefacts in themselves. Because you are a full time student, you probably do not have spare time to casually scroll through the hundreds of Keats’s letters that we have. So I have found some important quotes from them that would look mighty fine in one of your essays, accompanying analysis of his poetry. Some of these quotes refer to themes of his poetry, and others are Keats talking about his own work, or his role as poet.

– “Is there another life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There must be, we cannot be created for this sort of suffering.” (Keats to Charles Brown, Sep. 30 1820)

– “Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic on his own works.” (Keats to James Hessey, Oct. 9 1818)

– “If Poetry comes not as naturally as Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” (Keats to John Taylor, Feb. 27 1818)

– “The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth.” (Keats to Benjamin Bailey, Nov. 22 1817)

“A long poem is a test of invention which I take to be the Polar star of poetry, as fancy is the sails, and imagination the rudder.” (Keats to Benjamin Bailey, Oct 8, 1817)

“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced – even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it.” (Keats to George and Georgiana Keats, Mar. 19 1818)

Peace out from your homeboy. x

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Shakespeare’s The Tempest is on in the Bay. This is done for both A Level and GCSE. So get to it, sirs!

This is a long way away in the blog-world but it’s worth mentioning now to make sure you all get tickets! The Tempest is a really interesting play in terms of staging. It has everything that would challenge a production team even today: shipwreck, sorcery, flying fairies. Remembering that the Elizabethan stage was incredibly bare – very few props and minimal scenery – it’s always interesting to see if the director will reproduce this kind of bareness, and rely on the imagination of the audience, or if there will literally be a ship, in the middle of the stage, and men dressed in fairy wings hanging uncomfortably from wires.

It only runs for 2 days! November 30th and December 1st! Look here for more info.



You should see as much Shakespeare on the stage as possible, because this is, unsurprisingly, the best way to understand how his plays work as theatre. (Stunning point). Scenery, props, facial expressions, physical gestures and music add so much to Shakespeare’s meaning, and you completely miss out on this if you stick only to the play as recorded on the page. If there is anything you are confused about, I can guarantee that seeing how a theatre company interpret it, and act it out, will help clear things up. 

Get to the theatre! Now! Go! Good! Told you so.

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Who has read Dickens’s Hard Times?

In Hard Times, Mr Gradgrind wants his pupils to learn FACTS FACTS FACTS. They must be able to recite statistics mechanically, and churn out ‘hard’ data in unison. It is an unimaginative, barren, bleak, emotionless universe. Of course, the opposite of this suggested by Dickens in the novel is equally suspect – but that is a point for another day.

The point is that this is not how studying literature works. You can learn the technical terms (see here!) but how you use and refer to those terms is completely up to you. You have to be independent and you have to completely trust your own instinctive reaction to a poem.

This applies when you read online blogs. Just because some anonymous person online ‘explains’ a poem to you – it does not mean that they are right. I am one of these strange anonymous persons lurking on the interweb! You must reject and castigate me if you disagree! (Please don’t troll me). But you do have to be careful. At the end of the day when all’s said and done, avoid clichéd responses to a poem by absorbing everything you read, and then use that to decide what you yourself think. Examiners got respect for that.

Here are some online literary blogs that I do think are useful:

1) Elegant Variation: This is a really famous literary blog written by all-round clever guy Mark Sarvas. A lot of his posts are about things you and I probably won’t have come across, but they’re always full of advice for writing and point you in the right direction for useful things to read. He often talks about teaching his creative writing students, and if you’re interested in reading fiction, it’s interesting to consider the ‘theory’ behind teaching it.

2) SFX: This is a blog written by teachers for A Level English language. Which I didn’t do, so I don’t know that much about it. (Seem to be advising you on it anyway). This is great – it’s topical and to the point. It takes issues of language that have been thrown up by the press, or by any form of current discussion, and opens up the questions surrounding them. It’s just as relevant for thinking about language in terms of studying literature and the more broadly linguistic scope of a language A Level. Definitely have a read. 

3) The Shakespeare Blog: I really like this because there are hundreds of nice and short articles about Shakespeare. You will easily find an interesting post on the play you’re studying in class. It also has up-to-date information about Shakespeare exhibitions, Shakespeare adaptations, and Shakespeare tours, if you need to know PRECISELY what Shakespeare is up to as we speak.

And finally, you may have seen this gentleman placed – quite at random, really quite innocently – at the top of the post.

I was asked why I was writing a blog for a GCSE English syllabus that would soon be scrapped. Firstly, we don’t know what’s happening in Wales yet. The plans Michael Gove has drawn up for England do not affect Wales. It is up to the Welsh Assembly to decide what they want, and at the moment they seem to want to take the reviewing stage slowly. For the time being, all you can do is work as hard as possible on the work your teacher gives you. And if you’re really desperate for answers, I reckon just ask @LeightonAndrews on twitter. He’s always on there. Twitter mad.

Praised be, devolved education services.

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Lots of schools choose to study Duffers for A Level. She really is incredibly readable and a lot of her writing seems to ‘resonate with young people’. There’s no non-embarrassing way to say that last bit so just accept the quotation marks as my apology.

The Duffy Argument: 

A lot of people respond to Duffy’s poetry with “Duh a two year old could have written this!” 

So? I’d still think it was good! Actually I’d think, MY GOD this child barely out of the womb can construct proper grammatical sentences! No no this is too much!

Or they say: “Even I could write a poem like this.”

Good! Off you go! Get it down on a scrap of paper and then we can all study it for A Level and I can write a blog post about it!

Seriously though I fail to see what’s wrong about a poem that makes a student think that they could produce their own poem. I would celebrate that if I was in charge.

Moments of Grace

This is one of my favourite poems so please don’t hate all over it. But you are of course entitled to your opinion.

I dream through a wordless, familiar place.
The small boat of the day sails into morning,
past the postman with his modest haul, the full trees
which sound like the sea, leaving my hands free
to remember. Moments of grace. Like this.

Shaken by first love and kissing a wall. Of course.
The dried ink on the palms then ran suddenly wet,
a glistening blue name in each fist. I sit now
in a kind of sly trance, hoping I will not feel me
breathing too close across time. A face to the name. Gone.

The chimes of mothers calling in children
at dusk. Yes. It seems we live in those staggering years
only to haunt them; the vanishing scents
and colours of infinite hours like a melting balloon
in earlier hands. The boredom since.

Memory’s caged bird won’t fly. These days
we are adjectives, nouns. In moments of grace
we were verbs, the secret of poems, talented.
A thin skin lies on the language. We stare
deep in the eyes of strangers, look for the doing words.

Now I smell you peeling an orange in the other room.
Now I take off my watch, let a minute unravel
in my hands, listen and look as I do so,
and mild loss opens my lips like No.
Passing, you kiss the back of my neck. A blessing.

There really is so much to talk about in this poem. But I want to focus on the 4th stanza because here Duffy does something that a lot of other poets do.

Because poets ‘do’ language, it often seems to take on a solid reality for them. In their poems, words are often physical, tangible things. Many self-consciously refer to their own writing within their poem. This is known as ‘metafiction’ or ‘metapoeticism’. Ever since I discovered those words I never missed an opportunity to excitedly flap them in front of an examiner. And now that you have a label to slap on what almost every poet does at some point, you’ll notice it cropping up everywhere!

1)       The idea of this stanza is that instead of using grammar as a background tool to help her describe something, Duffy – the sly devil! – makes grammar become the human, and therefore the very object of description. “These days / we are adjectives, nouns.” All you need to know is that nouns are static names to work out what Duffy is saying there.

2)      “A thin skin lies on the language.” Language is bound up with experience; there is no separation of ‘words’ from the people and the feelings they describe. They too undergo the lethargy and inactivity that the poet describes feeling.

3)      “Look for the doing words.” A sense of frustration with their own language is the breed of poet’s MOST INEXHAUSTIBLE TOPIC. In this stanza there is a real sense that i) in general emotional terms, the poet is yearning for a past that has been crystallised by time into something vivid and special and ii) that a language just as vivid is also elusive. I can’t stress just how much this theme of language twinned with experience appears in poetry. ALL THE TIME.

While I’m at it, ‘enjambement’ is almost always a relevant word to use when analysing a Duffy poem. This means that one line will end but will run on into the next line as one phrase, or one sentence. She writes in FREE VERSE, which means that she just cuts off her lines here and there and throws words on the page pretty much wherever she wants to. But it will always have a poetic purpose. Enjambement, as a general rule, creates space between two words in a sentence and as a result, emphasises either the one at the end of the line or beginning of the next. Take the sentence spread over two lines: “We stare / deep in the eyes…” So much time is created by that line break! It really slows down the phrase and elongates ‘stare’, which falls straight into ‘deep’ of the next line, itself already ‘deepened’ by the pause that a line break will inevitably create.

Pretty neat, hey! Hey!

I hope the hate is already seeping away. x

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Already thinking of myself as the John Keating of the WJEC. No? Okay.  

That is the film ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ and it will make you feel so much better about poetry. If only for 90 minutes.

And here is a handy list of words that look superbly appropriate* in a poetry essay.

*Never use a phrase like ‘superbly appropriate’ in a poetry essay.

1) Imagery: Any ‘picture’ in the poem. This could be something technical like metaphor, or simile, or something as simple as plain description, i.e. ‘the white snow’. It is a really useful umbrella term. All poetry can be said to work through creating imagery in some way or another.

2) Metaphor: Something is something. ‘Man is lion’. But not in real life. Man is a metaphorical lion because man is not a literal lion. Being able to recognise a metaphor – and in doing so show that you can understand the different layers to a poem – will win you prizes. Don’t just say it’s there though, and then leave it at that. Saying that man is a metaphorical lion suggests that men are ruthless, fierce, destructive. There is your point.

3) Simile: The key word here is LIKE. Something is like something. If you see the word ‘like’ – ‘man is like a lion’ – or ‘as’ – ‘man is as ruthless as a lion’ – then you can scream simile. And make a point. Points make, um, prizes.

4) Syntax: The way a phrase is arranged; the order of words in a phrase. This will always be very important in poetry because the way we would normally speak (our normal syntax) is frequently contorted and pushed around to fit into a pattern. In Shakespeare and Chaucer, we often see that the adjective comes after the noun – usually to accommodate a rhyme that is necessary as part of a rhyming scheme. “And there we saw the forest green /More bright against the sun than its own beam“. (Copyright Alice Thompson). We would call this an ‘unusual syntax’.

5) Exotic: I like to use this when the poet has used a really weird expression or word. I like to think of it as a polite concession to the examiner that you do not understand. But you DO understand that it’s weird.

MOROSE not sad.

6) Juxtapose: Such a good word! And it means something so straightforward! If a word is juxtaposed with another word in a poem, it simply means that the two words have been put side by side. They are next door to each other. Poets often ‘juxtapose’ words, or images, that are totally opposite to each other in order to create a ‘jarring’ effect.

7) Emotive: This does not just mean ‘sad’. This is a word that can be used to describe anything that to you seems powerful – that inspires ’emotion’ in you. I like to pair this with imagery. ‘Emotive imagery’. Essay scrabble.

8) Stanza: This means ‘verse’ – but sounds more technical.

9) Incongruous: If a word stands out in a verse because it seems unusual – or like it shouldn’t be there – then the word you need is ‘incongruous’. Poets create effect by creating clashes of words/sounds/imagery. An ‘incongruous’ word means the poet is trying to say something. And you have to suggest what you think that is!

10) Symbolic: Use this word when you want to say what a poet intends an image to represent. As in: ‘the lion is symbolic of man’s ruthlessness’.

Carpe Diem x

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Dylan before he became really quite fat

Dylan Thomas’s Selected Poems are on the A Level WJEC syllabus. What is so tricky about Thomas is that he is not happy with letting his reader casually breeze through his poem. He is always throwing in abnormal phrases and really messing around with conventional ‘poetic’ expressions in order to catch the reader unaware and force them to really consider what’s on the page. Which is probably why the WJEC chose him! Sneaky.

This applies to every time you read a poem, but especially with Thomas: read it through and then quickly record your instinctive reaction to the poem. It doesn’t have to  be anything technical or serious – the point is that you don’t over-think it. If I were reading Fern Hill I would quickly write down ‘sadness’ ‘nostalgia’ ‘childhood’ ‘memory’. Your first, genuine emotional reaction to a poem is the BEST WAY (aggressive caps) and the MOST SURE WAY (unnecessary caps) of leading you towards a thoughtful, confident appreciation of a poem.

This is Thomas’s boat house in Laugharne which I visited this summer. The town is his model for Llareggub in ‘Under Milk Wood’.

2 things to remember about Thomas:

1) Looking closely at the language is the only way to understand the poem. Thomas uses strange combinations of words to recreate the contradictions and often surreal nature of everyday emotional experience. His favourite ’emotional experiences’ tend to be confronting death, understanding memory, and recounting his childhood in Wales.

2) Thomas is known to have always written with a thesaurus by his side. He prefers an unusual, out of the ordinary word, to one that is so over-used it no longer creates any effect. He is also said to have written his poem, and then gone over it, tearing apart any phrases that were clichéd or too normal. He does not make it easy for you!

Opening stanza of Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

The night above the dingle starry,

Time let me hail and climb

Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns

And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves

Trail with daisies and barley

Down the rivers of the windfall light.”

1) “Now as I was young”. Why does that sound weird? Past and present tense together. What effect does it have? For me (although remember, you may have another perfectly legitimate response) it brings his childhood memory right up into the present second – now made present by the act of active remembering. It fits in with the whole theme of the poem: incredibly potent nostalgia.

2) “Lilting house”. Houses don’t tend to lilt. Or move. The imagery (a handy word whenever you want to pick out a picture in the poem you like) adds a sense of gentle movement to the memory, creating the kind of hazy, indefinite, surreal quality that is attached to early memories.

3) “Dingle” just means valley. Or just anywhere with trees, really. But it does so much more in this poem than the word ‘valley’ or ‘anywhere you want with trees’ would. I would guess that 80% of Thomas’s readers would not know what ‘dingle’ meant. And he plans this! The unusual word, simply by virtue of being weird, really adds an element of the exotic to the passage. (‘Exotic’ is a brilliant word to use in an essay when you have used ‘weird’ or ‘strange’ or ‘oh my god what?’ too many times.) Now, for us and for Thomas, we can feel the distance and strangeness of his memory at the very moment that we register ‘distance’ from the word ‘dingle’. This is what I mean when I say that language is doing all the work. 

4) Finally, “once below a time”. What familiar story-telling phrase does this remind you of? Once upon a time! Instead of using this conventional opener, something so clichéd that it would deaden a poem like this, Thomas flips it around by changing one word. And amazingly, it actually helps to convey his meaning far more vividly than ‘once upon a time’ would. Once ‘below’ a time is a far more accurate of describing the way humans understand memory – as something locked away from and ‘below’ the present ‘time’. Yet again, Thomas is actually letting you completely understand his poem just as he seems to alienate you with his, at first, weird combinations of words.

I really am just making this up. And you are meant to do so. It is stuff like this the examiners actually want. Mad!

Happy inventing!

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After appearing in Stratford-upon-Avon and the West End, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Julius Caesar is in Cardiff from this Tuesday (23rd October) until Saturday (27th October).

It’s not actually on the WJEC syllabus, but I would definitely recommend going! Shakespeare makes so much more sense when you see it on the stage.

It is on in Cardiff’s New Theatre and tickets range from £8.50 to £25.00

It also has some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. It is worth going just to hear those iconic lines that have taken on a life of their own: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears” and “Beware the ides of March”.

Happy watching!

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