World Book Day: Thursday 4th March 2021 (Post 39)

The past year, in which most of us have been confined to our homes more than ever before, has seen a great increase in reading.

Perhaps that’s a good reason for celebrating World Book Day especially enthusiastically this year. Celebrate it by telling friends and family about books you’ve particularly enjoyed – or particularly valued (not always the same thing). Celebrate by buying, or arranging to borrow, a book you’ve been wanting to read for some time. Celebrate by starting – or continuing – to write your own book, if that’s your inclination. But above all: celebrate by READING.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, is probably the classic novel about the value of books. First published in 1953, it is what we would nowadays call a “dystopian” work of fiction, set in an imagined future where books are banned and, if found, burned. Like Asimov’s short story The Fun They Had (see Post 38), Fahrenheit 451 suffers from having made predictions or assumptions about the future which do not take account of how our lives have actually changed since the work was written. Bradbury has no concept of computers, for example, or the internet, whereby whole libraries can be digitally stored on cloud servers for posterity, even if all hard copy books were to disappear. He has some interesting ideas on home entertainment, though! If you haven’t come across it, Fahrenheit 451 is definitely worth a look. It is thought-provoking as well as being a well told story.

Other books to try . . .

Douglas Adams’s The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy became a cult, back in the early 1980s. There are still some people who make knowing reference to 42 being the answer to “life, the universe and everything”. Starting as a radio series, “Hitch-hiker” then became a book (and a series of books) and then a tv series, and eventually a film. Douglas Adams, whose death at a relatively early age deprived us of many, many more wonderful pieces of writing, takes a wry look at the way that the future will alter our perceptions: written at a time when digital watches were new, expensive and quite rare, the book refers to “an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” It’s another classic that deserves your time if you haven’t already read it; it won’t take long to read and with luck you’ll find it still very funny.

Richard Adams (no relation) is best known as the author of Watership Down, a children’s book which was also enjoyed by many older readers. A later novel, The Girl in a Swing, is much darker and definitely for adults. It is well written, of a good length, shows variety in its subject-matter and leaves the reader questioning the strangeness of what happens.

P.G. Wodehouse wrote in the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote a great deal, and most of it remains very popular. Light-hearted and with an extraordinary use of well known (or half-remembered) quotations from Shakespeare, the Bible and other works which formed the basis of a boy’s education in literature at that time, Wodehouse’s novels tend to focus on the English aristocracy or well-to-do middle classes in a way that gently makes fun of them. My favourites are the “Jeeves” series of novels and short stories, which were turned into a tv series with Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, some time in the early nineties (and the jazz theme tune is wonderful!). No need to see the action, though – the books are a treat, especially when you feel in need of being cheered up.

Donna Leon has written 30 novels about Inspector Guido Brunetti of the Venice police and his family and colleagues. They are detective stories, but much more than that. The descriptions of Venice are wonderfully atmospheric, and the characters beautifully created. There may be some resolutions of the cases featured, but there is no happy ending to the corruption and self-interest of many of the organisations and individuals Leon includes. The balm of the books is Brunetti’s family life, which restores the reader’s sense of what is essential in life as much as it does his own.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are known and loved across the world. I don’t need to tell you about the massive industry that has sprung from them. What is particularly special about these books is that they started – or re-started – boys reading fiction in a way that nothing else had done. Even the “boys’ own” adventure books of earlier in the twentieth century didn’t have the same mass appeal as her stories of the boy wizard and his friends (and enemies). They are the product of a very special imagination, and the reading the first in the series – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – always impresses me with its inventions. It is easy to take the “world” of Harry Potter for granted now, but we shouldn’t forget all that it has achieved.

Two books that deal with real-life challenges for young people are The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Each deals with reactions to the serious illness or death of a parent, in one case on the part of a young girl, and the other on the part of a young boy. One is absolutely based in real life; the other has a magical element to it but is no less valuable an insight into young people’s lives and emotions for that.

If you want something very lighthearted, easy to read and always enjoyable, try Jilly Cooper‘s novels (which tend to find favour with female readers rather than men) such as Score!, Wicked! and Appassionata. For factual but no less entertaining light reading, any of Bill Bryson‘s travelogues will fit the bill, especially (for my money) the early ones.

Opinions are divided about the work of Terry Pratchett, but I love his use of language, his humour and his insight into human behaviour disguised as the behaviour of the inhabitants of Discworld. Each of the novels tends to have a particular relevance to the time in which it was written, but that’s never made explicit and it doesn’t prevent readers of any period enjoying them.

I could go on . . . but I hope that some of what I’ve written gives you ideas for trying something you haven’t read before.

Have a very happy World Book Day!

A story for our times? (Post 38)

One of the greatest writers of science fiction was Isaac Asimov. He is probably best known for his “Robot” series and his “Foundation” novels. He was however a prolific writer of short stories [that is, he wrote a lot of them].

Very often it is the content of science fiction stories that attracts its readers, rather than the style. That is probably true of Asimov’s work as well, although his style is pleasingly easy to read.

It is interesting to see what sci-fi writers guessed correctly about the future (as it was to them) and what they got wrong. In the story to which I’m attaching a link, which he wrote in 1951, Asimov imagines a mechanical teacher rather than a computerised one, and – unsurprisingly, I think – had no concept of the Internet. He also still works in “old fashioned” fractions, rather than decimals.

Despite all that, however, the story still speaks to us, in my view. Asimov sets it in 2157; he would have been surprised, perhaps, to know that it already has a resonance for us in 2021. When you read it, spare a thought for what school-age pupils are missing out on, during this Covid19-related “lockdown”.

Press Ctrl and click on the link to go to the story’s site.

The Fun They Had (visual-memory.co.uk)

Are you – or ARE YOU IN CONTACT WITH – a school pupil? (Post 37)

Here in the UK we’re facing another period of schools – some of them, at any rate – being closed because of Coronavirus. It’s January 3rd 2021 as I write, and the four nations of the UK have made different decisions about closures, but each of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland is going to have at least some pupils working from home for some of this month.

This blog has – since April 2020 – posted online ideas for pupils who are stuck at home, so that they can continue to develop their English language skills. The suggestions cover talking, listening, reading and writing. They don’t require much equipment at all. They develop skills such as communication, analysis and reviewing, as well as the more obvious ones such as creating stories, reports and speeches, and playing word-games. Look back at some of the earlier blog-posts if you’d like to get some ideas.

Now, here we are again, with pupils of all ages at home when they would normally be at school.

Schools will set work to be done at home, of course, but there can be problems there. Last summer term showed us that some schools managed this better than others – and that’s not necessarily their fault. Technical issues were undoubtedly a barrier in some cases. Home situations can also be difficult: does each pupil have access to a laptop or tablet for his or her exclusive use during the school day? (A phone isn’t really as good, here, because of the size of the screen and of the “keyboard”.) Is the broadband connection at home (and at school) good enough to allow the downloading and uploading of work in a reasonable time-frame? Is there a quiet place at home where the pupil can concentrate, and work without interruption? What happens when (s)he gets stuck with a work problem: is there someone either at home or contactable by phone or online who can help?

None of these is a small problem – and if you are in touch with a school pupil who has to work from home, maybe you can help. If you’re an older sibling [brother or sister], or a grandparent, can you lend a tablet or laptop to someone who doesn’t have one? Can you provide a quiet workspace for some of the day? Can you be nearby to help with any problems – and perhaps provide hot or soft drinks, and something nice to eat, when the pupil needs to take a break?

Most of all, can you help a pupil with her or his motivation to work? That’s probably the biggest obstacle of all to working from home for any length of time.

You may not think you can help a young friend of yours, but you can.

There is nothing more influential on a young person than an older one who has chosen to take an interest in him or her. (And although parents are hugely important and – although they may not think so, at times! – do have an influence on their children, they don’t count as having chosen to take an interest: it’s part of the parental job description to do so.)

You don’t have to be heavy-handed about this. You don’t need to have done well at school yourself – although it’s not a barrier if you did do well. You don’t need to be a family member (although you might be). Just by asking your young friend or contact what the home-schooling arrangements are, by taking an active interest in how the arrangements are working and how the young person’s getting on – and keeping that interest going – you are showing that it matters to you how well that person is doing.

It’s often easier to talk to someone outside your immediate family about any problems or negative feelings you’re having. If you’re that someone outside the immediate family, gently ask about any difficulties your young contact is having with working from home. If you identify a difficulty, ask whether you can help, and if so how. If the answer’s “I don’t know”, perhaps you can make some suggestions – but don’t feel that you have to solve the problem; just being there to listen to the difficulty is helping; sometimes the person can solve the problem him- or her-self after having talked it out with someone else.

Similarly, if it’s an “academic” problem in, for example, maths or physics, you don’t have to be a maths or physics person to help. You can suggest where help might be found; but even more simply you can say, “Talk me through what you’ve done so far” and “What did your teacher say you had to do, when you were taught this?” Sometimes that, too, will trigger the learner to realise that (s)he does actually remember what to do after all – or knows where to find the method that (s)he’s been taught.

You might think that if you hated school, and couldn’t wait to get out of it, you’re not the best person to motivate someone who’s still a pupil, but that’s not the case. You might say – as a great member of the estates staff [a workman] at one school where I taught often did to pupils – “You don’t want to have to do the job that I do. You want to work hard and get qualifications so that you can choose what sort of job to go for.” He was a great motivator, and he wasn’t bitter about his work, just honest.

You might say that you didn’t enjoy being at school, but you realise that you did learn something by being there – even if it was what you didn’t want to do in your life beyond school. Even having the conversation about what you liked and didn’t like, and what your young friend likes or doesn’t like, about school, will help her or him to realise that (s)he isn’t alone in that. One parent apparently told a pupil of mine that he might not like school, but that it was “a short pain for a long-term gain”; I’d hope it can be a bit better than that – but at least, again, he was being honest, and it did make his son realise that there was a reason why he was expected to do the work set by his school.

And if you happen to “hit it off” with your young friend, and get to talking about a subject that both of you really enjoy – well, there’s no end to the help you can give, and the pleasure you can both have in exploring it together.

You may think there’s nothing you can do to help a home-learning pupil in these coming weeks, but believe me: if you know one, you can help.

PS – There are some pupils who are perfectly happy learning from home and don’t need much, if any, help. There are others who think that they don’t need any help; and there are some who think they don’t want any help. Nevertheless, your taking an interest will be appreciated, and what you do after that will depend on the young person’s response. Good luck – and thank you.

Christmas Poems (Post 36)

Whatever Christmas means to you, I hope you enjoy these poems.

The first is a well known poem of nostalgia, written in the voice of an adult wishing that he could still believe the accounts of Christmas that he was told as a child. In this case, the story is the legend that at midnight, when Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day, all the animals kneel down, to honour the birth of the Christ child.

Thomas Hardy uses a simple structure of four-line verses, rhyming a b a b, with a regular rhythm; this is appropriate for a simple story of childhood. The atmosphere that Hardy creates is a large part of the attraction of the poem; it is one that we might all long to experience. [barton and coomb are dialect words from Hardy’s part of the country. We might say “farmyard” and “valley”.]

The Oxen – Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock. / “Now they are all on their knees,” / An elder said as we sat in a flock / By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where / They dwelt in their strawy pen, / Nor did it occur to one of us there / To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave / In these years! Yet, I feel, / If someone said on Christmas Eve, / “Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb / Our childhood used to know,” / I should go with him in the gloom, / Hoping it might be so.

U. A. Fanthorpe wrote poems regularly at Christmas. Some of her best, it seems to me, look at the traditional story of the Nativity – the birth of the Christ child in a stable in Bethlehem, surrounded by farm creatures, laid in a manger for his bed and attended by his parents – from an unusual point of view. The two short poems that follow are examples of that.

Joseph uses – like Hardy’s poem above – a simple four-line verse structure with a regular rhythm; its rhyme-scheme is a b c b. Again, it’s essentially a simple message – it’s how Joseph feels about the birth of Jesus, who is said to have been conceived by his mother, Mary, while she was still a virgin, through the action of the Holy Spirit. Because it’s written in the first person – that is, as if it is being spoken by Joseph himself – it makes it easier for us to appreciate how he feels. Joseph could so easily have felt resentful about what had happened. There is, instead, a sadness and a determination about his response here. The final verse suggests to me the great love that Joseph has for his “foster son”, and the final line is a very compact summary of the life of Christ as traditionally told.

Joseph – U. A. Fanthorpe

I am Joseph, carpenter, / Of David’s kingly line, / I wanted an heir; discovered / My wife’s son wasn’t mine.

I am an obstinate lover, / Loved Mary for better or worse. / Wouldn’t stop loving when first I found / Someone Else came first.

Mine was the likeness I hoped for / When the first-born man-child came. / But nothing of him was me. I couldn’t / Even choose his name.

I am Joseph, who wanted / To teach my own boy how to live. / My lesson for my foster son: / Endure. Love. Give.

The second U. A. Fanthorpe poem tells the story from the point of view of one of the animals in the stable – the donkey. It includes, too, other elements of the traditional story – the shepherds and Magi (or Wise Men from the East) who came to worship Jesus when he was born, and the multitude of angels (“the heavenly host”) who told the good news to the shepherds and guided them to the stable. A cherub, by the way, is traditionally a small angelic figure, rather like a baby with wings.

What I particularly like about this poem is the sense of ownership of the stable which the donkey has, and the oblique [indirect] reference in the last two lines to the adult Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, on the back of a donkey, at the beginning of the week in which he is to be tried, found guilty and executed by crucifixion.

This poem is more free-form than those above: the lines are of uneven length and the rhyme scheme is slight, if indeed it is there at all (course – host; baby – money). The effect is to render the poem more like normal speech – an effect which is enhanced by the poem also being written in the first person, in the “voice” – or thoughts – of the donkey.

What the Donkey Saw – U. A. Fanthorpe

No room in the inn, of course, / And not that much in the stable / What with the shepherds, Magi, Mary, / Joseph, the heavenly host – / Not to mention the baby / Using our manger as a cot . / You couldn’t have squeezed another cherub in / For love or money.

Still, in spite of the overcrowding, / I did my best to make them feel wanted. / I could see the baby and I / Would be going places together.

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.