Notes on the extra poems

Carol Ann Duffy – Salome page 34

The story line is of a woman who’s so used to drinking that this particular night she picks up a bloke, sleeps with him, and in the morning wakes up to find him dead on the pillow beside her.

She doesn’t remember his name or anything about him.

The story is taken from the story in the Bible about John the Baptist, a preacher and holy man, who predicted the coming of the Messiah and who managed to annoy the king of the time, Herod, and his new wife Herodias, by saying that their marriage was illegal and immoral.

The story goes that on Herod’s birthday Salome, Herodias’s daughter danced for him and he and his guests were so impressed that he offered her any gift she wanted. After asking her mother’s advice, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Many of the lines end in half-rhymes which build up to the final word – ‘platter‘! Almost as if making a mockery of it through avoidance of proper rhymes showing her inability to face up to what she’s done until the last line, as witness the fact that we don’t know he’s dead in the poem until the final four line stanza!

The names in the poem are actually the names of the four main disciples of Jesus, one of whom shares his name with this John, not a disciple!

It is both a modern commentary on the lives which so many young people seems to lead nowadays, full of ‘booze, fags and sex’, which blur the edges of life such that much of what they do they can’t remember afterwards, and a rewriting of this 2000 year old story for the modern generation.

Many of the words are 20th and 21st century expressions and yet the moral of the story is timeless.

 

Stealing page 38

The character in this poem seems to be answering an unheard question with the reply that the most unusual thing they ever stole was a snowman. Descriptions of it follow along with a list of other things taken for the sheer hell of it.

The character in the poem is bitter and twisted, they enjoy violence and random acts of revenge on people who have what they haven’t got. They enjoy making children cry and desecrating people’s homes.

Similar to the poem Education for Leisure this person feels as if they have been let down by society and really all their acts are a plea for attention.

There are many colloquial expressions: ‘nicked, flogged, pinch, daft, sick of‘ which an impression of the ‘don’t care attitude’ they would like to have.

They describe their own head as full of ice as if they can no longer feel and this is the only way they feel as if they are still alive.

Each act of vandalism or violence only results in disappointment and the final disappointment is that the person being spoken to doesn’t understand either.

Is this us? The bulk of society who judge the thugs and hooligans on their violent acts and condemn them without hearing what they’ve got to say? Without realising that what they really want is a life worth living?

 

Simon Armitage – My father thought it….page 40

This is a classic déjà vu story of childhood and parenthood.

The character in the poem, actually the poet himself by his own admission, is ashamed to suddenly find himself telling his own child off for having an earring put in and in the middle of it he remembers his own father having exactly the same reaction to him when he was younger!

Presumably, like most of us, he has prided himself on not have the same attitudes as his parents and is ashamed to find that in fact he does! He reflects on his own lack of nerve in having the hole made by a ‘jeweller’s gun‘ not by his own daring hand and now on his conservatism with regard to his own child!

 

November page 42

The story is of a couple who take his grandma to the old people’s home (ward) that she will spend the rest of her days in. They feel guilty, but the woman(?) telling us the story is explaining to her partner that one day they will be in the same position. There are various grim images of what it is like to grow old with their,

bloodless smiles…slack breasts…stunned brains …and baldness‘. She describes the terror, the feeling of impending death, refers to it as the ‘Twilight Zone‘, an old sci-fi series about scary and unknown things, and the need to ‘numb ourselves with alcohol‘.

Sadly she remarks that it is only on odd occasions we even realise we are alive and now all too soon we will be dead.

The implications her are two-fold: one is that we all die, it is inevitable; and two is that they need to change their lives and do something with them before it is too late.

 

The Song of the Old Mother page 46

This poem would make a good comparison with the one above, although from a different point of view. Her we have an old woman’s view of her life. She reflects that life is circular and she now does what her mother must have done when she was young and probably with as much resentment for her lost youth. Now that she is old she can see the selfishness and arrogance of youth for what it was.

She is irritated with the young for whom the most crucial decision is what ribbon to wear and who don’t lift a finger to help, while she slaves keeping the house warm and cleaning and cooking for the ungrateful youngsters.

Her life is hard and long, she gets up early and goes to bed late and works hard all day.

She is bitter and angry and resentful and sad, regretful.

The metaphor the poet uses here is of a fire which is getting feeble now, to describe the flame of her life, which blazed brightly while young but now is almost spent.

The structure is regular, 10 lines, 10 syllables, mostly, and a regular rhythm and rhyme to emphasise the stateliness, the regularity of life and the grinding monotony like a treadmill, both the poem and the woman are unable to break free from the confines and the inevitability of the rhythm of life and death.

 

 

The Man He Killed page 48

A poem about the irony of war (particularly ironic at the moment with the debate raging over whether Tony Blair really should be going to Libya and shaking hands with a dictator whose people were responsible for the bombing of Lockerbie!). Here one man is reflecting on the fact that he shot and killed a man who, under other circumstances, had they met down the pub he might have offered a drink to, but because he’s been told he was the enemy he treated him to a bullet instead.

He shot him because the other man would have shot him first given the opportunity. But afterwards he gets to thinking that perhaps the other poor chap was much the same as him; that maybe he too had joined up because it was a job and jobs were scarce.

Lines 9-10 mark the pivot of the poem because before this he sounds reasonably convinced he did the right thing, but the dash at the end of line 9 indicates a sudden pause, hesitation, that perhaps there was more to it and it wasn’t so obvious after all.

Written as if it is one half of a conversation, as if he’s mulling the whole thing over, not so much feeling guilty as one can imagine him shaking his head over how stupid humans can be and the folly of war which makes a man your friend one day and your enemy the next just because those in power say so!

This poem has a very regular structure of 4 line stanzas with 6, 6, 8 and 6 syllables and rhyme scheme abab in each, giving the impression of a rigidly controlled poem, perhaps like the infantryman he was supposed to be, ordered and unquestioning and yet within this rigid format the poet is still able to allow his doubts to surface by the effective use of dashes, each one of which indicates where a new thought comes through as if he’s having an internal debate. This is further added to by the repetition of, ‘my foe, / just so: my foe of course…‘ in lines 10 and 11 where he’s putting the party line, doubts surface and are quelled momentarily only to resurface almost straight away with, ‘although…

 


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