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Archive for the ‘Keats’ Category

On Sunday morning I found myself tutting over Michael Gove, who with his thick-rimmed indie spectacles bobbing up and down on the screen, was expostulating against the use of Mr Men characters to help explain Nazi history. How awful! Cartoon characters desecrating the reign of Hitler!

But then, six minutes in, I found myself nodding in assent. This took me by surprise.

Gove wants you to read Middlemarch, rather than Twilight. But actually, he says, he’s just happy if people are reading.

“There’s been an assumption that books like Middlemarch, or plays by Shakespeare, or poems by Keats or Wordsworth, are only ever accessible to a minority, to a gilded elite. I think that’s wrong.”

Thank you for your wise words, Minister.

It really is a valuable philosophy and one that all students of literature should remember. It’s a case of approaching works like this fearlessly, facing them head-on and making them your own. You are the poets, just as much as the poet.

It’s just a shame it came in the middle of a speech about greatness, where I’m confident I know exactly who he was thinking of…

Party Faithful Attend The Annual Conservative Party Conference

I promise to post something a bit more helpful very soon.

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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.

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5 YEARS

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. 

DON’T WORRY

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.

WELSHNESS ON THE PAGE

 

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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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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.)

Okay BACK TO BUSINESS.

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.

BRIGHT STAR 

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.

MY OTHER RECOMMENDATION 

… 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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