Monday, 6 June 2011

The AQA GCSE English---Does It 'Teach Anything Meaningful'?

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 They range from classic texts to brand new, previously unpublished poems from popular contemporary writers.'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.

42 comments:

  1. I still have conversations with my friends that begin: "not all poetry is as bad as Carol Ann Duffy, you know".

    I actually found a lot of the crap we were spoonfed at GCSE to be more difficult, because of its lack of form and general air of Sunday-supplement-style enigmatic posturing. I couldn't really work out what Duffy, Lochhead, et al were getting at. When we read Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress", conversely, everything seemed to fall into place and make perfect sense.

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  2. Oh my, it's dire, isn't it? I haven't a clue what it is actually trying to say; it just chucks the usual images at the reader and hopes something meaningful will ensue. As Saki says; "the cook was a believer in the influence of environment and cherished an obstinate belief that if you placed rabbit and curry powder in the same dish, a rabbit curry would result". The war memorial is "like a wishbone" because wishbones grant wishes, the fact that war memorials are seldom or never shaped like wishbones is not allowed to intrude. Drivel, but I can see why it got on to the GCSE syllabus, it is packed with metaphors that can be ticked off and listed. I've met teachers and examiners who honestly think a poem is no good if it doesn't have the proper quota of metaphors. Shame so few of them in this poem actually work.

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  3. Fran Brearton6 June 2011 16:03

    The wishbone. Clearly if the speaker leans back, her shoulders against a memorial, she and it contitute a wishbone that, when snapped, will leave one or the other headless. Which means also this is a chicken wishbone, thereby containing a buried allusion to cowardice in wartime, and presenting feathers to unenlisted men! What nonsense!

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  4. Some ingenious suggestions re. the wishbone! I think you may be right, Fran, but of course then the speaker would only be half a wishbone, so I'm keen to help the metaphor if I can.

    Stand 18 inches from the war memorial, feet wide apart, arms tight to the sides. Lean forward until your forehead is in contact with the war memorial. You are now 'like a wishbone'. This will catch on as a radical alternative to planking.

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  5. Yes, to be serious it must be the angle between herself and the monument she's on about (though that doesn't work grammatically), but my objection to that is the same as yours, viz: who the hell stands at that angle when leaning on a wall? I'd be more or less flush with it, myself. It boils down to the fact that the whole image is too sought for, as if nothing can be said straight for fear of not being poetic enough.

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  6. Thanks for this post, Tim. I was beginning to think I was alone in my opinion that 'Poppies' was execrable. The wishbone does somewhat stick in the throat, and I've yet to find a reasonable explanation for it that doesn't either make a total nonsense of the rules of grammar, or the laws of physics and biology. The underlying problem with 'Poppies' - and it infects the poem at every level, from word-choice upwards - is that it seems to begin with a vague fug of serious and pretentious 'Meaning' (the capital's deliberate), as opposed to 'sense', and then hopes to fit the images and language around that. Really, it's as programmatic in intent as any snippet of amateur doggerel in the pro- or anti-war camps, but doesn't have the excuse of ignorance or naivety to blame for its egregious artistic failures.

    Simon @ Gists and Piths

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  7. Taking a risk here... as one who will be teaching this stuff from September... Does the 'wishbone' image have to be physical? Can't it relate to her parental desire to change places with her dead son - wanting to be broken instead of him and to have her wish granted (for him to return)?

    Goodness only knows really but I thought I'd join in...

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  8. Maybe Ms. Duffy should pen a sequel called "Mommies"--with no bloody flowers to confuse things (or students)--in which she becomes her son's missing rib, a sort of "son is mother to the Mom" thing. Which could then be added to the alphabet-soup sillybus as gender politics at its re-visionary best, and another example of the L.C.D. principle lamely applied to Lit.

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  9. "Does the 'wishbone' image have to be physical?"

    I think it does, at least partly, because the whole point of an image is that it makes a picture in the mind. Or a sound, or a smell, the point is, it uses the senses. If it's going to be purely abstract, why mention leaning on the wall at all?

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  10. Maybe I should have asked 'Does the 'wishbone' image have to be entirely physical?'

    Here's something relevent (perhaps?) in terms of how set texts get chosen: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/who-chooses-the-settexts-our-children-study-1971975.html

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  11. I'm on the other side of the Atlantic and beyond a further mountain barrier, and the poem is awful here too.

    Clunky, as you say: no focus, details that go nowhere, no euphony to speak of, dull vocabulary, silver-platter topic, dove of peace, misty resolution. (Doves, of course, have wishbones: mystery solved?) Of course, it does suggest that war is tragic - especially, it appears, for the chap with the poppy (how ironic that he left home just before Armistice Sunday); so it isn't a total loss as a warning to those with ears to hear.

    Actually, I take that back. But my human, nonprofessional half is deeply sorry if the poem has anything autobiographical or related to Weir's family in it.

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  12. Fear not! The poem is a figment of Jane Weir's imagination, although she points out that she does have two sons, and it is a poem of witness... http://www.janeweir.co.uk/PoppiesInterview.html

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  13. Poppies are soldiers in death's grey land...

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  14. knowing several mothers (and fathers) of fallen soldiers, and several mothers (and fathers) of soldiers who serve in theatre, I am uncomfortable with this poem of 'witness'. in it I find none of the sheer terror and dread, or alternately, the big emotions locked down, I've observed in these parents before, during, and after war.

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  15. I agree with everything you say.
    Why, oh why are we feeding children terrible poems by third-rate poets like Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy rather than the awesomely spell-binding work of Blake, Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hardy ... I could go on. I won't go on.
    Hopefully you'll be able to do something about it - I'm a mere English teacher with no influence over the choices of government ministers whatsoever.
    I love my subject and I am so very, very tired of dishing up this rubbish to children year after year after year. It must stop. Please make someone listen. Please make it stop.
    If we only give children the poems of Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy they will grow up believing that poetry really is rubbish.

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  16. I have been shouting and screaming about this for years and years. I teach A level English Literature in a sixth form college and every year students come into my classes HATING poetry (but loving novels and plays) because all they have read is poem after poem by Duffy and Armitage. The students are always surprised (and relieved) when I tell them that they have a right to think that Duffy and Armitage's poetry is rubbish because it is rubbish. As soon as they are introduced to 'really great' poets they start to love poetry as much as they already love other forms of literature.
    It makes me want to cry.
    Nobody listens. What exactly is the hold that these two writers have over those who decide on the contents of the English national curriculum?
    I really don't get it at all.

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  17. I am currently trying to teach Carol Ann Duffy's poetry collection 'Rapture' to a group of very bright A - level literature students and they think her poems are terrible. We are supposed to compare her work with that of the Metaphysical poets and F Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby - the work of Duffy really cannot compare in any way, shape or form to that of these other writers.
    My students recognise this and I am finding it very difficult to justify the examiner's choice of Duffy as an exam text to them.

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  18. Wow, what a lot of vitriol misdirected at poor Duffy and Armitage! You all wrong, I'm afraid. Actually they are both good poets who have written some fine poems. It's easy to forget that even the great poets you cite, such as Blake or Yeats, wrote some second-rate tosh which very few people read. Where I agree is that AQA board seems fixated on Duffy and Armitage. There are so many poets to choose from it's philistine to narrow the focus in this way. I'd also concede that the choice of poems could be better. And I'd also confess that I don't have to teach AQA - the execrable title 'moon on the tides' was enough to put me off!

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  19. I studied both Duffy's and Armitage's work for GCSE and although I didn't enjoy Armitage's work as much, Duffy's poetry to me was outstanding! she has an amazing way of conveying the feelings of the persona she has chosen. I thoroughly enjoyed Havisham and Anne Hathaway. The metaphors, the imagery, the irony- absolutely brilliant!

    I'm not saying we shouldn't study other poets, but in their defence I just want to say they're brilliant at what they do! I do think however, that more poets should be included in the curriculum

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  20. That wishbone again... the persona in the poem leans against the war memorial 'like a wishbone.' In order for the wish to be granted, the wishbone has to be broken - and someone loses, so there is the element of risk. There seem to be a lot of unarticulated 'wishes' in the poem... contemplating the potential anguish of losing her son to war (though I had read it as 'losing' him to the public school system / adolescence...it was the 'blazer' that did that for me... 'grieving' for the little boy who grew up) she is preparing for, accepting
    'brokenness...'?

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  21. I'm currently studying the conflict cluster for my English GCSE and I am not very inspired at all by AQA's selection of poems!

    Poppies in particular I find very hard to write about in essays; comparisons with others are particularly difficult.

    Regarding th 'wishbone' metaphor, my teacher suggested that the speaker is referring to needing to support herself against the memorial as she struggles to stay strong from the grief. This isn't a very inspiring or clever metaphor if this is the case!! All the same, it provides a reasonably sane explanation to the meaning of this comment.

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  22. I teach English and AQA Moon on the Tides. I read this poem and decided the Place cluster was a better choice. I was beginning to think I had missed some important meaning in 'Poppies' - clearly not!!

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  23. I came to this site looking for something else (a copy of the GCSE exam I sat in 2006) but I'm going to have to disagree with you here:

    "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."

    That's arguably not even close to the truth, but factually it's an out and out mistruth: the English exam I sat (as a closed exam) for my A-levels included the Canterbury Tales as a mandatory text, in the original text. While obviously we "translated" it to modern text to better understand it while we studied, all quotes used as evidence for points made in exam essays only gain marks if written correctly in the original prose.

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  24. (Same poster as above) I should point out, however, that the AQA syllabus is frankly a crock of shite and a child could pass it, compared to the difficulty level of the OCR exams.

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  25. Goodness me, what a load of pomposity! You'll be saying next there has been no composition of worth since Mozart. Drag yourselves into the 21st century and let students have something they can identify with. Oh, and sharpen up your teaching too if your kids find poetry boring!!

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    1. A bit late replying to this, but only just aware of the site. The word 'pomposity' grabbed my attention and I would have to agree. It is so easy to criticise! I don't like many things on the GCSE/A Level teaching lists, but that doesn't mean to say I can't help students get something out of them. To simply generalise and say everything by Hardy, Wordsworth, Browning etc is excellent is surely as naive as suggesting that there is no value in teaching a poem such as Jane Weir's 'Poppies'. Perhaps if we start by understanding what students are being tested on and why, we may comprehend why certain works are set. If we're still not happy, then shouldn't we be lobbying MPs rather than grouching on some website?

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    2. Where did anyone say that 'everything by Hardy, Wordsworth, Browning' etc. is excellent'? It's easy to insult ('pomposity') but perhaps you might try to offer a positive case for the poem if you disagree?

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  26. I doubt that I, or anyone else, will be claiming that there has been 'no composition of worth since Mozart'. Where is that implied? Your own claim that students (or 'kids', as you call them) can only identify with the contemporary is an insult to their intelligence.

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  27. I am a Year ten student studying GCSE and quite enjoy the poems by Tennyson and Wilfred owen, and think out of the blue by Simon Armitage is decent, but hate all the other poems we are doing. Somebody please change the system!

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  28. I studied for my English Lit O'level in 1984, it was an eye-opening wonder that gave me a life long love for literature. I am currently a very mature teacher training student (PGCE Secondary English) and I am in despair. I am fed up teaching children to spot metaphors or analyse "what else the poem might mean." Everything has to be over analysed until it is meaningless ("say a lot about a little!")or completely invented (hence the wishbone ridiculousness....it could mean the memorial is supporting her because she is weak from grief????)I'm sure when I studied English lit we discussed over-arching themes and viewpoints and then backed this up with lots of evidence and detail rather than this in depth analsysis of every word. This gave us a sense of the poem as a whole which we could then relate to other poems/ films/ stories/ moments in life etc etc. I feel that I am thick because I don't "get" these poems because I don't seem to get all the minor detail.....well, at least not until I've looked it up in the revision guide. I can't wait to finish the course and never set foot in an English classroom again. It's almost put me off poetry too......but hopefully I will get my confidence back there again one day.

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  29. I find 'Poppies' immensely irritating becasue it seems inauthentic--a poem written, as the author says, for an occasion, and it doesn't seem to have any real sense of grief. It reads to me as though the child is sent off to school, and that the poet then aligns this to women losing children in war, which is frankly breathtaking.

    There's a huge lacuna in the poem between the release of a songbird from a cage (which is truly awful as a metaphor for sending a child off to school--it must be school, not war, given the gelled hair and blazer, surely?) and the flight of the dove. One moment she's saying goodbye the next she's at the war memorial again, and it seems we are supposed to intuit the rest. But mentioning poppies and doves and sadness doesn't seem to quite cut it for me as a war poem.

    Having said that, it is not the worst poem in the anthology. If you read it you will find that Duffy and Armitage, over-represented as they are, are positively fabulous compared to 'Singh Song' for instance(the reason I'm doing Conflict with my unfortunate students)

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  30. Richard Sellwood24 April 2012 12:22

    Perhaps students should be asked to write about what fails to work in this piece of mediocrity.

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  31. I 'did' this poem with a Year 10 class the other day and concentrated on the 'leaving home and discoverng life is like a treasure chest' image. They couldn't quite get beyond pirates, bless them. I didn't really have the heart to move on to the wishbone palava.

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  32. The wishbone metaphor:

    A wishbone is in two halves, right? So the mother feels like she's been seperated from her son, and wishing that he'd come back. Also, it might not be a metaphor - she might just be doubled over in sorrow, feeling as delicate as a wishbone.

    Just a few ideas from a lowly student.

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  33. Honestly, I am a year 10 student studying poetry for my exam in year 11, and to say that such contemporary poets are not the same as heritage poets is true, but in any case, we study both. It is the student's choice what they write about in the exam, but we still have to learn about 15 poems as preparation- including poems from Armitage, Wilfred Owen, Tennyson, Hughes, ect.
    All that said, I would have to say that this poem was one that I like the least, it is lacking emotion and has confusing metaphors which are hard to relate to for a modern student. On the other hand, I loved 'Out of the Blue' and 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' a contemporary and a heritage poem. To say that English Exams are getting easier is not true.

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  34. I would just like to point out that I'm an A Level English Literature student studying 'The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale' in its original Middle English form. Not only that but we have to compare it to Jonson's 'Volpone' in the exam. Our other exam text is 'King Lear'. We are by no means 'protected' from challenging works of literature.

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  35. Thank you! Finally, somebody agrees with me!

    In my opinion, poetry is supposed to convey emotions clearly wit rhythm. Poets these days have got so wrapped up in metaphors that people have to do a 10 page analysis to discover the true meaning behind every single word.

    And just because a poem don't need any an amazing structure like in sonnets, poets are also completely forgetting about including any structure at all and also blanking out rhythm which, in my opinion, forms the core of poetry.

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  36. Personally, I think all good English teaching should be underpinned by the fact that readers are entitled to form their own opinions about literature. If learners are able to articulate their opinion of a poem then that tells me that a deeper learning (and appreciation of literature) has taken place than would have if we just give them fantastic classical poetry and expect them to appreciate it with no room for disagreement. Poetry is art and art is subjective and that is what I will be telling my English group when I give them 'Poppies' to look at on Monday.

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  37. (same poster as before) Also - isn't being able to criticise poetry or articulate a viewpoint what University professors should look for? Not blind appreciation.

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  38. there are a variation of poems, some of which I agree are terrible, however, others- for example Mametz Wood explore numerous ambiguous ideas and effectively present a number of language techniques that every student needs to be aware of

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  39. Some poems like Invasion by Choman Hardi are really average. Its feels they're selected just to tick the cultural diversity box...

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