Some traffic has come to this site lately, looking for analysis of Jane Weir's 'Poppies'. Not wanting to disappoint my readers (see the final paragraphs below), and having a vague recollection that I had read the poem somewhere before, I looked it up. All was revealed: 'Poppies' is included in an anthology which is part of the AQA GCSE English syllabus.
I sat my O level English Literature exam in 1985. The selected texts were Julius Caesar and The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale, which we studied deeply and painstakingly. Unfortunately, that was a long time ago. Nowadays, even undergraduates are protected from Chaucer, either by avoiding him altogether or by reading him in editions with modernised spelling. It is doubtful that students have become less intelligent during the intervening decades. Yet the level of challenge has dropped steadily, in inverse proportion to the number of students achieving the highest grades.
It is worth remembering that the GCSE syllabus is not created with the wishes of university professors paramount, nor should it be. Most students who take English at GCSE will not go on to study English Literature at A level; most who study it at A level will not read English at university. All the more reason, then, that the 16-year-olds who end up studying sciences or some different area of the humanities, or leaving school and getting a job, should have been exposed during their education to a profound engagement with the finest literature which our language has to offer.
Which brings me, by force of negative example, to the AQA poetry anthology which goes by the moody title Moon on the Tides. The poems, we are told, 'have been chosen by teachers and examiners to appeal to a range of students. They range from classic texts to brand new, previously unpublished poems from popular contemporary writers.' Do not mistake 'classic' for 'classical'---the overwhelming majority of poems are contemporary, and only 10 come from before 1900; just one (Shakespeare's sonnet 116) is pre-Romantic. The recommended task for that sonnet---no I'm not making this up---is to consider the following question: 'Does the poem tell us anything meaningful or is it just "an exercise in poetic cleverness"?'
That question is not posed of more obviously relevant (i.e. contemporary) poems, among which can be found the good, the bad and the downright terrible. At some point in the early 1990s some government committee must have decided that Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy were the appropriate poets to inflict on the nation's youth: they are here represented by 6 poems and 3 poems respectively, while apparently minor poets like Hardy, Heaney and Yeats must make do with one, and Auden, Douglas and Hill don't appear at all.
The poems are divided into 'clusters', each cluster having been 'arranged by themes that have been chosen because they address universal and timeless issues'. One such cluster is titled 'Conflict', and here is where Jane Weir's 'Poppies' can be found alongside thirteen other poems. The selection is, to be kind, utterly bizarre. It includes a so-so poem by e.e. cummings, although it remains unclear which out of the 'English, Welsh [or] Irish Literary Heritage' his work is meant to represent. (There is no Eliot, no Plath, no Bishop, no Stevens, no Frost, no Lowell, no Moore, no Crane, no Berryman---but at least we have e.e. cummings!). Great War poets are represented solely by Owen's 'Futility' and Margaret Postgate Cole's 'The Falling Leaves'. Ted Hughes's 'Bayonet Charge', written early in his career before he realised that there was no future in trying to out-Owen Owen, takes up room which might have been given to Rosenberg, Sassoon or Gurney.
And then there is 'Poppies', by Jane Weir, in relation to which students are encouraged by the AQA to 'consider some statistics from recent conflicts'. Click on the link to read it. I confess that I have read no other poems by Jane Weir, so it may be that she is a fantastic poet. 'Poppies', however, is irredeemably poor. Ezra Pound famously stated that 'A poem should be at least as well written as prose'. But imagine reading this in a novel: 'I was brave, as I walked with you, to the front door, threw it open, the world overflowing like a treasure chest.' Or this: 'Before you left, I pinned [a poppy] onto your lapel, crimped petals, spasms of paper red, disrupting a blockade of yellow bias binding around your blazer.' Even as prose, it seems clunky, especially in its habitual recourse to asyndeton. The metaphors trip each other up. Take this one: 'All my words / flattened, rolled, turned into felt, // slowly melting'. If the words are flattening, wouldn't that stop any rolling? Are they turning into felt and then melting, or are they melting into the form of felt? And what is the felt all about anyway? Or take the dove (Please, somebody, take the dove!): who would have guessed that that particular bird would appear? And, as it flies out of its pear tree, are we meant to wonder why the first two days of Christmas are prominently muddled in a poem set just before Remembrance Sunday? As a last example: the poem's speaker describes leaning against a war memorial 'like a wishbone'. I have pondered that image long and hard, and can make no sense of it whatsoever. If anyone has any ideas, please post below.
'Poppies' performs all the right gestures: the poppy itself, the dove, the churchyard, the soldier who was once a child, the war memorial at which (inevitably) the inscriptions are 'traced' by the protagonist. It is well-meaning and weak, which makes it perfectly suited for the AQA syllabus.
Postscript: For an account of Ted Hughes's 'Bayonet Charge', see here.