October Dawn (Post 35)

October Dawn by Ted Hughes

October is marigold, and yet
A glass half full of wine left out

To the dark heaven all night, by dawn
Has dreamed a premonition

Of ice across its eye as if
The ice-age had begun its heave.

The lawn overtrodden and strewn
From the night before, and the whistling green

Shrubbery are doomed. Ice
Has got its spearhead into place.

First a skin, delicately here
Restraining a ripple from the air;

Soon plate and river on pond and brook;
Then tons of chain and massive lock

To hold rivers. Then, sound by sight
Will Mammoth and Sabre-tooth celebrate

Reunion while a fist of cold
Squeezes the fire at the core of the world,

Squeezes the fire at the core of the heart,
And now it is about to start.

I couldn’t resist posting this poem while we are still in October, and also because gardens are becoming the most popular places in which to socialise at the moment – October 2020 – while we wrestle with the Covid19-related restrictions put in place by the UK and Scottish Governments. (Apparently sales of outdoor heaters, fire pits and other cooking-related apparatus are greatly increased at the moment, and people are planning to celebrate Christmas outdoors with their friends this year!)

Although I love this poem and have done ever since I first read it, many years ago, I’ve always thought of it as rather far-fetched, because here in Scotland it would previously have been thought of as madness to sit outside with a glass of wine on an October evening. Now, we have been made more brave – and more creative – by the restrictions facing us!

There are many wonderful things about this poem. It is about a transition phase – between summer and winter – and Hughes reinforces this sense of being half-way between things by using half rhyme in almost every verse. Half rhyme in this case rhymes the consonants at the end of words but not their vowel sounds, for example yet and out; strewn and green; ice and place.

The opening image gives us a sense of warmth and sunshine – “October is marigold” – but immediately afterwards he takes us to the point of the poem: winter is almost here: “and yet/ A glass half full of wine left out/ To the dark heaven all night, by dawn/ Has dreamed a premonition/ Of ice”.

As well as half rhyme, Hughes uses enjambement – lines which run into the next, without punctuation to make the reader pause – so that we have a sense of the sweeping inevitability of the coming of winter, as if, indeed, “The ice-age had begun its heave.”

As in many of Hughes’s poems, Nature is not soft and pretty but fierce and dangerous: “The lawn . . . and the . . . Shrubbery are doomed.” “Ice/Has got its spearhead into place.”

The subtlety with which winter approaches is beautiful – “First a skin, delicately here/Restraining a ripple from the air” – but “Soon” it becomes an immense and powerful thing like iron or other metal, holding even previously-flowing rivers in its inescapable grasp: “plate and rivet on pond and brook;/ Then ton of chain and massive lock/ To hold rivers.”

The prospect of the deep cold of winter inspires Hughes to imagine the now-extinct creatures of the ice age – “Mammoth and Sabre-tooth”.

The cold of winter is such that it seems to squeeze the very heart of the world in its fist; and humans are not immune to the threat of winter either. There is something about the psychological effect of winter that Hughes touches upon – “a fist of cold/ . . . Squeezes the fire at the core of the heart”. And we look to the threat of winter with a sense of foreboding: “And now it is about to start.”

Notice how Hughes finishes the poem with a complete rhyme – heart and start. Shakespeare often does this at the end of a scene in his plays, too. I think it’s like a double underlining when you’ve finished something off!

I like, too, the way in which our sense of foreboding at the end of the poem links us to the glass half full of wine which, at the beginning of the poem, had “dreamed a premonition/ Of ice”. We are inextricably linked with nature.

Reading helps young people cope with life (Post 34)

Cressida Cowell, the author of the How to Train Your Dragon series, was writing in The (London) Times Saturday Review last weekend – 22nd August 2020. What she had to say struck a chord with me. The piece was timed to appeal to parents and carers in England whose children are returning to school in early September after – in some cases – a six-month break because of the Covid19 restrictions. Understandably, some children will be fearful about going back to school. That prompted her to write about helping young people cope with fear, through reading.

“. . . To a certain extent you have to know the child: what is acceptably and even necessarily scary for one child might be very frightening indeed for the next. That’s one of the reasons why librarians and booksellers are so vital. They have so much experience of giving children the right book at the right moment.

“Reading together is also important; it means that the adult is there to chat about any issues in the book. . . .

“And don’t forget about the necessity of the words themselves. The first stage of dealing with any kind of fear is being able to describe it. The more a child reads or is read to (audiobooks still count), the more words they have to help them. This is why it is so important that books survive as a medium. It’s the words, people. Words are the pathway of thought: the more words a child has, the more intelligently and creatively they are able to think about their emotions and the emotions of others.

“Children’s books often distil the most important messages we and our children need to hear, doing so with simplicity, humour and heart. In the words of Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: ‘We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!’ “

I couldn’t have put it better myself! Good luck with the things that you fear – we all have them – and keep reading! (For other blog posts on reading and books, see Posts 5, 11 and 22.)

Back to School! (Post 33)

Most school-age children and young people in Scotland are returning to their classrooms this week – some time between Tuesday 11th and Tuesday 18th August 2020.

It has been a long time since schools closed because of the Covid19 restrictions, on Friday 20th March.

I wish you all every success in the coming term and academic year. I know that there will be very mixed feelings amongst returners (both staff and pupils, although most teachers I’ve heard from are really looking forward to seeing their pupils face-to-face again).

This weekend is a good time to engage in some refreshing of your memory and some reflection, so that you can get off to the best possible start when school work gets underway once again.

If you completed (or even just started!) it, the exercise in Post 1 – These are strange times . . . is worth re-reading now. It will remind you of what you were doing in one or more subjects just before school closed. It’s not only the content that you can think about; in fact in that respect it’s unlikely that you’ll pick up in August exactly where you left off in March. You can also use your reading of the exercise to get yourself back into the mindset of being in the classroom, remembering how it felt, perhaps some of the challenges you faced with the work you were doing, and/or some of the aspects that you particularly enjoyed.

Remember what it was like to work with other pupils in the classroom or in the laboratory. Remember what it was like to be in the same room as your teacher, and able to ask questions directly.

Then, I suggest, you should think about what you might want to do differently when you go back to learning in class. It would be sensible to write your thoughts down; then you can organise them and use them as a basis for your work-plan for the year ahead. Use the same format as you used for Post 1’s exercise, if you attempted it – either a Word document or a hard-copy journal.

You will have learned a lot during “lockdown”, and I don’t mean only academic content: you may or you may not have learned much of that.

You will know yourself better now. Write about what you have learned about yourself during lockdown. Then think about how you might apply that in order to work differently, and better, in this new school year. Perhaps you have come to enjoy working on your own, with minimal input from others. If so, that’s something you can build upon. Perhaps you’ve really missed working collaboratively [with other people]; if so, try to find ways of doing more of that.

You will have learned things about yourself that are helpful when considering what you want to do as a career: for example, whether you like working mainly alone or mainly as part of a team is an important influence on what sort of employment you’ll enjoy.

What have you found difficult during “lockdown”? Try to work out ways of helping yourself with these things once you’re back at school. Perhaps you’ll return to lessons with a new appreciation of either your teacher(s) or your fellow pupils – or both!

Make sure that you write down your thoughts and plans. Even if these change over time, even if you want to change what you’ve written as soon as you’ve read it over, these things are important; they allow you to note and to reflect upon your self-knowledge, your ambitions and your learning style.

If you want a reminder of how things have been during “lockdown”, as a prompt to help you reflect on how different it will be to return to school, you might look at what you wrote in response to Post 8 – Time to get writing, and/or the Scrapbook of your Life suggested in Post 24. (Neither of these activities needs to stop, by the way, now that you’re back at school.)

This time is an opportunity to take more control of your life, using what you’ve learned about yourself and others during the last few months.

Let’s finish with a fairly trivial example. If one of the things you’ve learned about yourself is that you really like getting up late in the mornings, I’m sorry to say that that’s not something you can implement once you’re back at school (but it IS something that you might want to consider in terms of a future career; however, remember that your sleep patterns might well change as you grow older). However, if you’ve also discovered that you really enjoy having breakfast whilst still in your pyjamas, rather than fully dressed (or vice versa), that’s a little thing that you can implement which might just make your days a little bit more enjoyable! Best of luck!

Wind – by Ted Hughes (Post 32)

See the source image

To my mind, this is another wonderful poem (See Posts 27 and 31 for others I admire and enjoy).

Although it has fairly even (in length), four-line stanzas, there is a random quality to the actions and elements described in the poem – reflecting the unexpectedness and sudden changes of events caused by a viciously high wind in the UK. (There are more damaging and stronger, but more consistent, winds that ravage other countries.) This poem seems to me to describe an English (Ted Hughes was a Yorkshire man) or Scottish storm particularly well.

1 The title bluntly describes what the poem is about. That bluntness – including use of monosyllables (one-syllable words) – is going to run throughout the poem.

2 The opening line challenges our imagination – how can a house be at sea? – but perfectly conjures up the sense of unsteadiness which has been caused by the buffeting wind howling around the outside of the house throughout the night.

3 Even indoors, the narrator has heard and seen the vicious damage caused by the winds. Inanimate objects – the woods, the hills, the winds – are given actions, as if they were alive: The woods crashing . . . the booming hills,/ Winds stampeding the fields . . . .

4 If this were prose (not poetry), there would be something missing in the final line of the first stanza: “astride” usually requires an object – that is, something is astride something else. Here there is nothing. And what is it that is astride, anyway? Is it the winds – stampeding the fields under the window/ Floundering black astride and blinding wet – ? Or is it the fields, or even the window? Certainly “blinding wet” would apply very well to the window during a rainstorm. Here there is a disconnect of language, something poetry can do very well and which we wouldn’t usually “get away with” in prose. The randomness and uncertainty of the actions and the nouns in lines 3 and 4 work to draw us into the situation of looking out of a house window during a raging storm.

5 I’m not going to go through this poem line by line, as I did with the other two. I don’t want to bore you, and also by now you will be able to respond to the poem in your own way, and explain how it works on you. I’m going to pick out a few things that I think work especially well, and a few techniques that we haven’t come across or focused on before.

6 Look at how the lines don’t always end with a punctuation mark. In these cases the sentence runs on into the next line – sometimes even into the next stanza (Stanza 1 into Stanza 2; 4 into 5). This effect is called enjambement (it means making a leg; I always think of a leg bending at the knee, seen side-on, with the thigh being the upper line and the calf being the lower one! OK, I’m strange, but it works for me). I particularly like how the reader comes to an end of the description of the night of the storm (at the end of line 4) and then, as soon as the next line and stanza begin, it is daybreak – and a whole new world, it seems, emerges into the light.

7 The storm continues during the day. An image (a picture in words) that I especially like comes in line 9 – At noon I scaled along the house-side. “Scaling” is how we climb cliffs. The wind is so strong that it threatens to blow the narrator off the side of the house. If you’ve been out in any really strong wind, you’ll relish that description!

8 Line 11 makes great use of monosyllabic wordsThrough, brunt, wind, balls, eyes – and hard-sounding lettersbrunt, that, dented, balls. The brutal impact of the wind on the narrator’s face and eyes is conveyed through the sounds of the words as well as though their meaning.

9 There’s a lovely extended metaphor in lines 12, 13 and 14. Remember, a metaphor is a comparison between two largely unalike things and doesn’t use either the word like or the word as. Here, the metaphor compares the hills with a tent: The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope, / The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace, / At any second to bang and vanish with a flap . . . . Have you been in a tent when it’s likely to be blown away by a very strong wind? The quivering canvas, the flapping of any sections which aren’t pinned down tightly enough – these are all reproduced here, and the hills (possibly tent-shaped on the horizon) – those massive, earthbound lumps of age-old rock – are made to seem flimsy and vulnerable in the face of the powerful wind.

10 Possibly my favourite part of the poem is the image of the black-Back gull [which] bent like an iron bar slowly. Every time I see a bird fighting its way into a strong wind, the black-back gull comes to mind. Again the hard sounds – blackback gull – suggest struggle, and the way in which the epithet (short description) black-Back is bent around the end of one line and the beginning of the next is, I think, genius! And it’s not bent “slowly, like an iron bar” but like an iron bar slowly – so that we have to continue reading the line, relentlessly, without comma or pause, in the same way that the wind is relentlessly pressing on and bending the gull.

11 Have you ever run a wet finger-tip round a fine glass to make it ring? It’s a wonderful sound; do try it. And here the whole house is being made by the wind to ring like a fine glass – and as with the tent-like hills, the massive house is rendered as fragile as glass by the whipping wind – The house/ Rang like some fine green goblet in the note/ That any second would shatter it.

12 The final six or so lines focus on the effect of the wind on the occupants of the house, and tell us of the unsettling, disturbing effect it has. Despite being safe in deep chairs, in front of a great fire, the occupants cannot concentrate on anything, but only sit and wait, experiencing the ravaging effects of the storm – watch the fire blazing . . . feel the roots of the house move . . . seeing the window tremble . . . Hearing the stones cry out . . . .

Perhaps reading this will make you want to try your hand at writing your own poems about intense experiences in nature!

Another poem: High Flight (Post 31)

This poem is very different from the last one we analysed (Valentine, by Carol Ann Duffy – see Post 27). Nevertheless, responding to the words you read, and giving evidence to back up your responses, are the two elements needed – once again – to write a critical account of the piece.

You don’t need to know this, but for interest’s sake: the writer of the poem, John Magee, was an Anglo-American aviator and poet. Magee served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, which he joined before the United States entered the second world war; he died in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire in 1941.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or
ever eagle flew –
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

1 You can see on the page or screen that this poem is fairly regular in its line lengths (unlike the Carol Ann Duffy poem). This shows us that the poet has put some effort into achieving that effect, as everyday speech and writing do not come out like that naturally. As I’ve said before, poetry is a form of writing where the writer has made an extra effort in his or her use of words, and so it is a form which repays an extra effort on the part of the reader.

2 In fact, if you count the number of syllables (units of sound within the words) in each line, you will find that they are all the same – ten syllables per line.

3 If you read the poem aloud, once you’ve got the sense of it, where do you put the strong stresses? Don’t get “hung up” on this, because different readers will read the poem differently, but on the whole I’d say that the stresses are in pairs, and that the most common stress pattern in those pairs is dit-DAH (weak-STRONG). Lines which are mostly ten syllables long, and where the stress pattern is most often weak-STRONG, are known as lines of iambic pentameter – and this is a very popular form in English because it is thought to resemble most closely the speech patterns of native speakers. Most of the text in Shakespeare’s plays, for example, is iambic pentameter.

4 Anyway – on to a more instinctive response! The title gives us a clue to what the poem is about – flying high. It could be about a bird – in which case the voice of the poem is the bird; we can tell this from the first line; “I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth”. The first verse (as it’s set out here – though in some editions the poem is only one, longer, verse) is a joyous description of flying and playing in the air. It is only in the final line of the first verse (or section) that we find out that the voice of the poem – the narrator – is not a bird after all, but a pilot: “I’ve . . . flung/ My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .”.

5 In the second verse, or second section, the narrator states that flying in his (or her – but as we know he was a pilot, it is likely that Magee is writing about his own experiences here) aircraft enables him to reach places that even birds cannot: “Where never lark, or even eagle flew – “.

6 What are the words and expressions which enable us to sense some of the joy and freedom the narrator feels whilst flying? “I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth”: he has escaped from the ties holding him to the ground. Notice the alliterationrepetition of a sound or sounds within a short distanceslipped – surly – to give a sense of something material (and unpleasant: surly means bad-tempered) falling away.

“And danced the skies” – a happy image (word picture), and one that tempts us to wonder at how anyone – or anything – could dance in the sky.

“on laughter-silvered wings” – laughter and silver are both attractive things; one speaks of happiness and joy, the other of beauty and richness. Notice, too, how the poet is appealing to both our sense of sound – with laughter – and our sense of sight – with silvered.

“Sunward” – most of us here on earth turn our faces to the sun, whether we be humans, animals or plants, as a matter of instinct.

“joined the tumbling mirth/ Of sun-split clouds” – mirth means happiness and laughter; sun-split (notice the alliteration again, which focuses our eyes and ears on the expression) clouds are something for us to conjure up in our imagination. It is (I think) a wonderful picture.

“and done a hundred things/ You have not dreamed of” – well, that’s how wonderful it is for him – better than any dreams we might have had.

“wheeled and soared and swung” – these are the actions he’s taken, and they have a marvellous sense of freedom about them.

“High in the sunlit silence” – having told us about things we can see, or imagine we see, he now appeals to our sense of hearing: there is no sound at all. (And yes, there’s more alliteration, again on the letter s. Either he really likes this sound, or – and having gone up in gliders for several years, I favour this interpretation – there is something about the s-sound that replicates or suggests the experience of flying freely.)

“Hov’ring there” – balanced between earth and sky, almost magically (because air-borne things usually fly or fall or climb). Why has he cut out the e of hovering, replacing it with an apostrophe? That’s because he wants to keep to ten syllables per line, and without the e we pronounce it as “hov – ring” – two syllables – rather than “hov – er – ing”, three syllables.

“I’ve chased the shouting wind along” – who wouldn’t want to be able to chase the wind? And here’s some sound, too – “shouting”.

“long, delirious, burning blue” – there’s a challenging image for you to conjure up! How can blue burn? How can blue be long? I expect you can explain that, but it’s not how we’d usually describe the sky, so I think it’s an excellent way of trying to get us to feel the wonder that the pilot feels. (Delirious, by the way, can mean wildly happy, which is how – I think – he wants us to feel here, even though – again – he’s actually describing the blue.)

“I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace” – what an achievement! And he makes it seem effortless – “with easy grace”.

7 At the end of the poem, we come to something going beyond even the physical, mental and emotional joys of flying. In the final three lines, the poet suggests that there is something spiritual about the experience of flying your own aircraft so high in the sky.

“with silent, lifting mind” – as if perhaps in a church, where people reflect in quietness and raise their thoughts to God.

“I’ve trod/ The high untrespassed sanctity of space” – sanctity means holiness. And he is not a trespasser here – it’s not wrong for him to be here.

“Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.” Here he is experiencing something beyond the normal human experience. There is something sublime about his experience while flying.

8 It seems wrong to say much, if anything, after that superb and mysterious ending – but you might want on another occasion to look at the rhyme-scheme [ABAB CDCD EFE GFG]. The poem is a sonnet . . . but that’s material for another day and another blog!

Word (Dis)Association Activity (Post 30)

This activity can be used either as a challenging game or, more seriously, to try to find out more about the person you’re talking to.

We all associate different things in our minds. So, for example, snow might, for you, conjure up images of cold, wet, darkness, hunger and other unpleasant things. For me, however, snow suggests whiteness, crisp cold air, sparkling sunlight, blue skies and Christmas. These associations are called the connotations of the word. A word’s connotations are not its literal meaning (which is its definition) but its associations.

Connotations can be different from person to person, therefore. Some words are generally agreed to have similar connotations for most English speakers, however. For example, jolly, fatherly and homely are all thought to have positive connotations for most people. Cold, tight and ghost are all thought to have negative connotations for most people.

You can see that this is far from being universal. Each of the six words above could easily have completely different connotations for some people.

However, this game – or activity – allows you to have your own associations.

If you are using it as a game, you need to be prepared to defend your associations.

You can either be reasonable with one another and make your own judgments, or you can appoint a third person as judge (or arbiter).

Version 1: Speaker A mentions a word, and within a reasonable space of time Speaker B has to respond with a word associated with it. Versions of Speaker A’s word are not allowed. So, for example, if A says snow, B may not say snowing or snowfall. (S)He may say cold, or Christmas, or wet, or any number of things . . . but if B says, for example, hippopotamus, A may well challenge him/her.

Then, it is up to B to defend him/herself by explaining why hippopotamus is associated with snow. If B fails to explain this convincingly, A gains a point and comes up with another word for B to respond to. If a reasonable explanation is forthcoming, the game continues: A has to come up with a word which is associated with hippopotamus.

A might say river or water or horse. If, however, A says cloud, B might reasonably challenge this. A must defend his/her choice of cloud; if he/he is successful (coming up with a convincing explanation), the game continues, with B responding to cloud. If A fails to defend the choice, however, B gains a point and comes up with another word for A to respond to.

As you get better at this, try to make the time-limit for each response shorter.

Version 2: as above, except this time the challenge is to respond with a word which has nothing at all to do with the previous word! This is much more difficult than Version 1! Challenges are more frequent, and they can also be ingenious and funny. If you want to hear comedians tackle this, try to listen to some broadcasts of the Radio 4 programme I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue.

Version 3: this isn’t a game. It’s a way of finding out about your partner/friend. Played with great trust and honesty, it can reveal a great deal about a person and his/her past. It might be something to save for someone close to you, therefore. Simply, you ask the other person, “What comes to mind for you when you hear the word [and then you choose a word]?” Suggested words: friend; happiness; fear; hope; comfort; love; funny; childhood; home.

You can take turns asking each other about the connotations of a particular word, or you can just use the exercise as part of a normal getting-to-know-you-better conversation.

Why play (these) word-games? (Idea 29)

Children learn through play. We sometimes forget this as we grow older, and think that anything that’s going to do us good on the learning front has to be serious work. It doesn’t. Older people can learn through playing games, just as children do.

Playing word games is good for your vocabulary – that is, the number of words you know. In turn, a wide vocabulary is useful for writing and talking, so that you can make yourself more clearly understood (or so that you can confuse people, if that’s what you want to do !). Knowledge of a range of words (that is, a wide vocabulary) is also useful in reading and listening, because it increases the chances of understanding what you’re taking in.

By playing word games, you learn to listen more closely and also to express yourself more clearly. You become more creative or inventive in the way you use language.

Word exchanges can also be used, more seriously, to find out about people.

And sometimes, word games can be mischievously good fun!

The Questions Game

You may already know this one. You can start it with someone else at any time, even without their realising you’re doing so. The idea is that you should have a conversation in which you only ever respond in questions. The first person to respond with a statement (rather than a question) loses, and the other person gains a point.

So, you might be asked, “What do you want to do today?” You might reply, “Do I have a choice?” If the other person doesn’t realise you’ve begun the game, (s)e might reply, “Yes. You could …”: too late! You’ve scored a point.

Once the other person realises that the game is on, it becomes more and more difficult to produce a reasonable response in question form in a reasonable amount of time. You might want to put an official time limit on how long there is to reply, but generally people sense what’s a fair amount of time and what isn’t.

“So, do you want to play?”

“Why not?”

“Are you uncertain?”

“Are you?”

“About what?”

“What did you say?”

“When?”

“Just now …. AAARGH!”

For interest: there is a very well played example of this game in the film (and stage play) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard.

Next time: Word Association (and Disassociation) Games.

Code-switching (Post 28)

It sounds like something a double agent in a spy story would do. In fact, it’s something we all do – or at least, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t do it.

We speak in different ways when we are in different settings. I think the most influential aspect of the setting is the person or people we are with at the time. There are things that we would say to friends that we wouldn’t say to our parents; similarly, there are ways of speaking that we would use with friends which we wouldn’t use with our parents. For many people, swearing falls into this category.

HOW we speak, as well as what we say, changes when we are in different groups. In Post 3How do you sound? I asked you to record yourself speaking. You probably sounded rather different when consciously recording yourself, compared with when you speak naturally and in a relaxed way. That slightly more formal, more self-conscious way of speaking is one code; the relaxed, informal way of speaking with your friends is another code. Yet another code might be the way you would speak in an interview – more thoughtful and formal still, trying hard to create the impression you think the interviewer wants to hear (and see).

Gangs very often have their own codes – their own ways of speaking – which they use to identify one another. Rap often contains examples of gang code.

You might choose to speak in only one way all the time, and of course that is your prerogative [that is, it’s your choice to make]. You might think that that shows integrity, and it probably does. If you do only speak in one way all the time, however, you are losing what might be valuable opportunities to establish bonds with other people, and you may be displaying a lack of empathy [sharing other people’s feelings].

It is valuable to be able to code-switch. If people regard you as more like themselves, they are more likely to trust you. If they consider that you are not “one of us”, you must be “one of them” and so they might not accept you into their group. If their group happens to be the university you want to attend, or the business you want to work for, that’s going to place you at a disadvantage.

Here is the writer and journalist Oliver Kamm explaining why knowing how to speak (and write) in an appropriate manner (“code”) is helpful to you. The explanations in square brackets are by me. The extracts which follow are from his book Accidence will happen: The NON-PEDANTIC GUIDE TO ENGLISH. The title makes use of both a pun (see Post 18) and a homophone (see Post 19): “accidents will happen” is a much-used expression in our language, while accidence is the part of grammar dealing with inflection – where we put the stress on words; see Post 17Rhythm.

“We all adapt our style … according to our audience. We use intimate terms (and perhaps a private vocabulary) with a loved one, casual language with friends, and varying degrees of more formal language … with strangers, experts or figures in authority. … code-switching … saves us time and gains us credibility with listeners or readers whose attention we want … .”

” … the conventions of language enable you to talk to any audience without being dismissed or patronised [treated as if you were a child] because of the way you write or speak … .”

“The reason for speaking and writing fluently in Standard form [conventional or “correct” English] isn’t to show refinement; it is to make us at home in the world. Slang makes us at home in a like-minded group. That isn’t wrong but it is limiting.”

“Teenagers may be highly intelligent and also habitual users of slang and non-Standard forms; but if all they use is slang or non-Standard English, then their intelligence will not be recognised and their abilities will be needlessly constrained … .”

“… Linguistic superstitions don’t matter. Tacit [unspoken] conventions that make up Standard English do, because they enable you to get listened to without prejudice.”

And here is another writer on English language use – Professor David Crystal – making the same point about punctuation [commas, full stops, inverted commas, etc] in written English:

“… non-standard punctuation used in settings where we expect standard forms to prevail … can affect the user’s social credibility or career prospects.” [From his book Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation.]

I’d argue very strongly, then, that knowing how to speak and write in Standard or formal English is a valuable tool for anyone to have in his or her language tool-box. It might be said to be a power-tool. And this blog is all about the power that language use gives you!

Criticism – not always a bad thing (Post 27)

In day-to-day life, criticism tends to mean disapproval, an observation of something badly done, or something we think is wrong.

In the world of the arts – writing, music, painting, etc – criticism is a less loaded [biased] word. To criticise a work of art is to analyse it, and to make both positive and negative comments about it, backed up by evidence.

Analysing a poem is one of the least popular parts of English and English Literature courses for many pupils. It has a reputation for being difficult, and/or boring and pointless.

If you have to analyse poetry – or even if you’re just interested in how it’s done – try to get rid of those off-putting barriers; if you are prepared with a range of things to consider, and prepared to be honest in your reactions and to say WHY you react in that way, you’ll be fine!

Let’s look at a poem which has been set in exam courses over the years. Relatively modern poetry is often set by examiners because they think it will be more appealing to teenagers. Sometimes that is the case; sometimes it’s not.

Valentine

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

(written by Carol Ann Duffy)

Suggestion: if you can, print the poem out or find it in a book. Then you can look at the whole poem at the same time, which is useful.

Suggestion: you might want to look back at Post 15, which is about poems, to remind yourself of a few things about them.

1 What does the title – Valentine – make you think of? Today St Valentine’s Day is a big commercial occasion, with card, gift and flower shops making a great deal of money out of objects covered in red hearts, and the exorbitantly high mark-ups on the price of red roses. So perhaps this poem is about that sort of thing.

2 The first line (also the first stanza) tells us immediately that this is NOT going to be about conventional Valentine-related things. So that’s one remarkable thing about this poem: the writer has set up an expectation in the reader that she immediately overturns.

3 So, if it’s NOT about the conventional Valentine’s Day things, what IS this Valentine poem going to be about? Line 2 tells us: “I give you an onion.” Now, an onion is a very everyday, unromantic thing indeed. It is ordinary – round, and brown – and quite cheap; and once cut into it smells (and not a very nice smell at that). Many people find that their eyes water painfully when they are cutting up an onion, which is because of the chemicals released at that point.

4 Let’s look at the whole of the second stanza (I’m not calling it a verse because it doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t have a pattern of rhythm – but we’ll get to those things later). It describes the onion in two ways that we’d never have expected. The onion “is [like] a moon wrapped in brown paper”. And “it promises light/ like the careful undressing of love.” Both the moon and love are things traditionally associated with Valentine’s Day – so perhaps this poem is more romantic than we thought!

5 Writing about the onion as a moon is an image. Imagery is used to describe one thing in terms of another. The poet writes that the onion “Is a moon”. That’s a metaphor: a description of one thing in terms of another – usually things that we wouldn’t normally associate with one another – without using the words like or as. (If the poet had written, “It is like a moon” then that would have been a simile – the same as a metaphor but using either like or as.)

6 Is the onion = moon metaphor an effective one? (Try to avoid using “good” in your criticism; it is too vague to be helpful.) The onion is like the moon in that it is round. Also its skin is brown and has a texture rather like paper – so the brown paper wrapper is an effective way of describing the object too.

7 And “It promises light” is also part of the moon metaphor: the onion is a soft, pearly white inside its brown skin, which when removed will show a pearly white orb like a small moon. The point of imagery is to make us look at (or think about) things in a new way – so I’d say that this image is an effective one. You might disagree, of course, and that’s fine as long as you can support your opinion with evidence.

8 “Like the careful undressing of love” is the first of the erotic images in the poem, suggesting one lover undressing another in an atmosphere of gentle expectation. Again, I’d day that that is effective, this time because it creates atmosphere – and gradually builds our realisation that this is a poem about love, even if it’s not about the conventional aspects of Valentine’s Day.

9 “Here.” The one-word line is an effective way of focusing the reader’s attention. This one also suggests action – that the writer is handing the onion over to the reader NOW. It refers to the first line of the previous stanza – “I give you an onion.” This sense of immediacy – that is, that the action that’s being written about is happening NOW – gives the poem a freshness that isn’t present in many poems, where there is a tendency to write in the past tense.

10 “It will blind you with tears” – yes, we know that that is true of onions. “like a lover” – she puts this in a separate line, so that it comes as a bit of a surprise to us. Here’s something not so romantic about love: the people we love can make us cry. This – for me – is another way in which this is an unusual, and therefore interesting, poem.

11 “It will make your reflection/ a wobbling photo of grief.” When our eyes are stinging and overflowing with the tears caused by the cut onion, we won’t be able to see clearly. When we look at ourselves in a mirror, our reflection will seem to be wobbling because we are looking at it through tears. I like the fact that she describes the reflection as “wobbling” even although it’s not; it’s the tears that make it seem to us, the viewer, to wobble. It also makes me remember that lovers can make us cry too – the “photo of grief” may foreshadow the future of the relationship.

12 “I am trying to be truthful.” Like the one-word line, the one-line stanza can also be used to focus the reader’s attention. This is a statement of the poet’s purpose – or, if we have already picked that up from what’s been written in the first stanzas, a reminder that she is not writing about conventional Valentine’s gifts and sentiments, but about real life.

13 And here’s another part of the reminder: “Not a cute card or a kissogram.” Another one-line stanza focuses our attention. Writers have to be careful not to over-use devices such as this, or they lose their effectiveness, but I think three one-line stanzas in a poem of this length is a reasonable rate – especially as this third one reminds us very strongly of the first one – “Not a red rose or a satin heart.”

14 “I give you an onion.” Repetition of an earlier line reminds us of what’s happening, here in this poem. “Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,” is another image; the taste of the onion is like a kiss because the raw onion has to touch our lips in order to create the taste. And the taste is strong, “hot” and fiery: it is a “fierce kiss”. And as anyone who has ever eaten raw onion will know, the taste does indeed stay in your mouth for a long time afterwards.

15 So the “kiss” of the onion is “possessive and faithful” – the taste dominates your tastebuds (“possessive”) and it lasts for a long time (“faithful”).

16 “as we are”: that’s a pleasant (Try to avoid “nice”: like “good” it is an overworked word that doesn’t convey very much nowadays.) message: the lovers – the writer and the reader – are in a close and mutually loyal relationship.

17 “for as long as we are.” Again, a new line for this means that we come across it rather unexpectedly. Just when we were enjoying the pleasant feelings of the lovers’ relationship, here’s a reminder that it won’t last for ever!

18 “Take it.” This command to action is again in the present tense, and it’s the next action after the writer has given the reader the onion, an action which she marked with the word, “Here” earlier. The action reminds us – or perhaps helps us to imagine – that this exchange is happening NOW.

19 “Its platinum hoops shrink to a wedding-ring”: an onion consists of concentric skins of that translucent, pearly white that we noted earlier. As you slice it, each skin becomes a ring in the slice, like the rings in sawn-up trees except that each ring of the onion will separate from the others if you press them. The rings towards the centre of each slice are small, and some could indeed fit round your finger like a ring. Platinum is a slightly less shiny, slightly greyer metal than white gold. I think the metaphor here is effective because it is very unusual but also has a basis in physical similarities between the two objects being compared – the onion-rings, and a platinum wedding-ring.

20 “if you like”. This for me is the point at which the poem turns. Up until now it’s been clever – witty – with its comparisons of the onion and traditional romantic thoughts and actions; there’s also been a suggestion of true love, desire and care between the lovers. Here, however, the writer’s casual, “if you like” suggests to me that she isn’t as keen on the relationship being formal and long-term as we might have expected after everything that’s come before this.

21 The final verse reveals a pessimism and possible bitterness that undercuts much of the playfulness that has gone before. “Lethal” means deadly; it will kill. What is it that is lethal? Is it the onion – or the wedding -ring? And what will it kill? Your tastebuds (for quite a long time afterwards) – or the relationship between the lovers?

22 “Its scent will cling to your fingers” suggests the onion – but in a metaphorical way the “scent” of a wedding-ring might cling to the wearer’s fingers. “cling to your knife” again suggests the taint of the onion being transferred to other things cut by the same knife – but what else might the reader’s tainted knife be used for? Perhaps I’m getting carried away here – and I certainly don’t think the writer’s suggesting that the reader might stab her! – but the last picture we hold in the poem is of the reader’s knife, which to me suggests the possibility of the relationship being cut through.

23 Look at the poem on the page. The layout is irregular: the lines are of different lengths and so are the stanzas; there is no over-all pattern to them (although we have seen some patterns within the poem); there is no rhyme-scheme. (Re-visit Posts 16 and 17 if you want to be reminded about rhyme and rhythm.) This suggests to me that the poet wants us to pay more attention to the line-divisions and stanza divisions that she chooses to make within the poem, rather than to an over-all pattern; and that she wants us to pay more attention to the meanings and echoes of the words within the poem than to any pattern of sounds they might make. I think it works; I wouldn’t want to be distracted from her message by the patterns imposed by regular rhythm and rhyme.

So there you have it: read the poem; explain your reactions and how the poem has caused these reactions. Say whether you think the poem was effective or not, and how/why. Not so difficult after all!

PS I have referred to the writer and the poet as if the poem were the thoughts and views of Carol Ann Duffy. Actually this is not ideal because writers are great at using their imagination and Duffy might well be imagining how someone in the poem’s situation might feel. You can avoid this problem by referring to the voice in the poem as “the protagonist” or “the narrator” – although “the narrator” is normally used when a story is being told. I wanted you to focus on analysing the poem, so I didn’t add more to absorb by using “the protagonist”.

Write a story today (Suggestion 26)

As I write this, there is a strong, gusty wind blowing the trees outside rapidly and roughly in a range of directions. I can hear the wind in the chimney. It is a day for staying indoors, and either losing oneself in reading a good story – or writing one!

In Post No. 13 I set out some guidance as to how you might set about writing a story, if you find it tricky. You might want to revisit that now.

Or you might just be inspired by one of the topics below – quotations, situations, descriptions, possible titles … .

Have fun!

“I’ll tell you, shall I, something I remember? Something that means a great deal to me. It was long ago.”

Write a story arising out of one of the following situations:

finding a solemn occasion very amusing

being mistaken for another person

discovering that you have no money, app or card with you when the moment comes to pay for something

Alone.

Write a story suggested by one of the following statements:

“That’s my last word,” he said.

It seemed a great chance, but I had learned my lesson.

“Absolutely terrified!” was the answer.

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to get too involved.

“This is a wild land, country of my choice, with harsh craggy mountains, moor ample and bare.”