Archive for the ‘Carol Ann Duffy’ Category

bookshelf with books

With January exams fast approaching, ‘tis the season to be jolly of revision. But rather than bombard you with more close-reading, let’s step back and regard the WJEC syllabus as a whole. It’s still crucial that you hammer out revision notes and re-read works. But asking yourself why certain texts have been chosen might free up your thinking. It will allow you to put the texts you study in a wider context and hopefully enable you to write truly sophisticated responses to exam questions. This is the plan, anyway.

The question of ‘classic literature’ recurs again and again. My old university tutor has a podcast on the subject, which you can listen to here. Why do some texts make it onto a syllabus and others not? How do the WJEC make their decisions? I spoke to Hugh Lester, an assistant director from the WJEC, who told me about the process.

The WJEC don’t have a completely free choice. As Hugh says, they are ‘regulated’, and must pick from a pre-determined Welsh, Irish and English literary heritage. Invigilators higher up than the WJEC have already grouped ‘relevant’ poets together, before passing this ready-made group down to examiners, who choose what they want on their syllabus. Teachers then go on to pick from this syllabus. Each group is making a subjective choice. Some texts make it into the ‘heritage’ – texts we can retrospectively classify as representative of our history – but others are excluded from it.




The WJEC only review the syllabus every five years. This is slow work. It’s easy to see how a literary canon can become crystallised over time. The WJEC syllabus is only one of a vast number of processes working to establish a tradition and in doing so, potentially closing up the opportunities to meet genuinely contemporary poetry. Exam boards represent ‘English Literature’ to students taking their exams in a specific, necessarily circumscribed way.

So the texts you study are not self-evidently the bastions of ye olde English literature. Is it ridiculous to censure an exam board for making a syllabus? Surely a syllabus is by definition a finite selection of an infinitely diverse range of works? As debate intensifies around exam-taking in Britain, and more people call for a radical overhaul of learning, such censure is perhaps not entirely out of the question. Certain people are unhappy with ‘old-fashioned’ methods of learning syllabuses by rote. Others fear this kind of learning will become even more entrenched under the governance of Michael Gove. 


But this isn’t reassuring to those of you currently sitting exams. I would recommend approaching a syllabus like this: certain texts are chosen because they contain something The Powers That Be consider relevant to you, as a

young person

♦ or a black person,

♦ as a girl or a boy,

♦ or as somebody from WALES – a place, like Scotland and Ireland, often perceived as marginal to England.

Race, gender, sexuality and nationality are not abstract concepts; you’ve definitely got one of something that probably means something to you somewhere along the way! The texts you study are malleable pieces of literature, capable of being interpreted in an infinite number of ways. Understanding why they’ve been chosen will point you in the direction of the answers that give you points! But just as importantly, if you respond sensitively to texts, you might find something in them nobody else even thought of. ‘Classics’ might be safeguarded by authoritative literary guard-dogs, but this doesn’t mean you can’t make them your own.




Let us zoom in on one aspect the WJEC likes to see in its chosen textsWelshness

For a Welsh exam board, (although not one studied exclusively by Welsh pupils), Welsh poets are important to include. But what makes a poem Welsh or indicative of Welsh national identity? This is the tough question. National identity is important for Welsh poets, but it would be limiting to see it as the only concern of Welsh poets. National identity remains a particularly poignant theme for Irish, Scottish and Welsh poetry; for poets who may feel like their unique personhood is subordinated by a general, all-encompassing ‘Britishness’. It’s inescapably implicated as these poets get themselves published, become identifiable in the public domain, and are consequently shuffled somewhere in among a British ‘canon’.


danDan Williams, a poet living in Aberystwyth, disagrees with me. Everyone else is more than welcome to disagree with me too. Below he talks about how the WJEC syllabus provided a framework for his own poetry, and just how Welsh he considers his poetry.  He mentions Carol Ann Duffy and Keats; see my posts on these poets here and here.


I also spoke to Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales. Her poems are on the WJEC GCSE syllabus. She told me that any reference to ‘Anglo-Welsh’ writing has been banished in literary discussion:

“Welsh, being an English word, is enough.”

She says she is, unambiguously, a Welsh poet. Her Welsh subject matter, the Welsh landscape and her total immersion in Wales, are enough to qualify her as a ‘Welsh’ poet.

These are important discussions to keep in mind. Reflecting on texts as part of a syllabus, heritage or canon – as part of artificial categories – will hopefully offer up a different perspective through which to view the poetry chosen for you. It is no bad thing to have a whole range of perspectives to hand, so that the way you approach a text does not stagnate but remains plural, fluid and always developing.


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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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