I’ve started off the GCSE course with the poetry anthology it’s a great way to build skills of literary analysis and the close understanding of literary terminology that’s needed throughout the GCSE. So far it’s working brilliantly, but there’s been a lot of concern about the closed-book nature of the exam, and whether students need to learn poems. I think meaning can be explored in other ways. Obviously, we need to come back to language, form and structure, but there are plenty of ways to do that without learning the poems off by heart.
Exploring the creation of meaning can be done in different ways – explaining the effect of a dramatic monologue needs no quotation whatsoever, but you need to know that My Last Duchess is about power and pride while another, such as Climbing My Grandfather, is about the difficulty of getting to know family members.
One successful route is to compare beginnings and endings. By focusing on the structure of the poems in this way, we can talk about how a reader is affected and how their interpretation has changed at the end. Starting with a match up of the other cluster is an interesting beginning – and helps build unseen poetry skills too – as it provokes students to question how poems work, beginning to end. As an introduction to the poem, it might be useful to start with these and develop some students’ ideas – what are they about to read? What do they expect in the middle of these lines? Comparison with their expectation would be interesting. It’s easy to assume that character change and thematic development is restricted to prose and drama, that poems are a mere snapshot of a momentary feeling, but there is still usually a significant moment of change to get hold of:
“They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden Rock / I had not thought it would be like this. “
“I think of thee! My thoughts do twine about thee / I do not think of thee – I am too near thee”
“When we two parted / With silence and tears”
“I’m ten years away from the corner you laugh on That glamorous love lasts where you sparkle and waltz and laugh before you were mine”
The development of these stories tells us about the speaker’s character, their relationship, the changes they are exploring.
Then, perhaps, divide the beginnings and the endings and shuffle them about – which work together?
The clouds had given their all / We stood by a pond that winter day / The rain set early in tonight” (Winter Swans / Neutral Tones /Porphyria’s Lover)
Mother, any distance great than a single span requires a second pair of hands / my father worked with a horse plough” (Mother, Any Distance / Follower)
From there, build a discussion of tone and story – not focused yet on language or form, but on the feel of the poem the narrative, the character. What do they remember from reading the poem the first time around?
- What else changes?
- Why does the change happen?
- How is the change described?
By then, getting into some recall about clusters of language should be possible – this needs doing regularly, it’s no good teaching poetry at the beginning of year 10 and then coming back to it in May of Y11, but regularly recall and revision weeks keep the long-term memory going. I’m going to keep coming back to the poems with different ways in of exploring and comparing them.