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What To Look For in a Poem…

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see the annotations…

Island Man by Grace Nichols


Comment: Rhythm sounds like
Morning waves on shore

and island man wakes up Comment: made-up word to


suggest the nurturing nature of
to the sound of blue surf sleep and the sea – like a womb.

in his head Comment: Vocabulary of the


sea – line break here emphasises
the steady breaking and wombing this word at the end of the line -
seabirds
Comment: Lots of sibilant ‘s’

wild seabirds
sounds in this poem, suggesting
the sound of the sea.

and fishermen pushing out to sea Comment: defiantly, like the


way the island man refuses to
the sun surfacing defiantly forget his homeland

from the east Comment: Powerful description


– gem-like description
of his small emerald island Comment: Repetition suggests

he always comes back groggily groggily the waves – doesn’t want to wake
up
Comment: Pun on sounds/ sands

Comes back to sands Comment: City vocabulary


Comment: We expect roar, but
of a grey metallic soar he uses soar – suggest seabirds –

to surge of wheels mixing up images – just liked the


man is of mixed nationality
to dull North Circular roar Comment: Mixing up images
Comment: Named a part of
London
muffling muffling Comment: Roar rhymes with
his crumpled pillow waves soar above – suggesting the
circular movement of the wheels
island man heaves himself mentioned in the line between,
returning to the same sound
Comment: Repetition - sea

Another London day Comment: The effort of leaving


the dream – it has taken up to here
to leave the sea imagery behind,
the dream of his original home has
lingered. He can never leave
behind his past
Comment: Concrete line – the
reality of London – the sea has
been left behind
Not my Business by Niyi Osundare

They picked Akanni up one morning


Beat him soft like clay Comment: Powerful image –
flesh beaten soft like clay
And stuffed him down the belly Comment: Personification –

Of a waiting jeep.
makes the jeep seem like a hungry
person or monster

What business of mine is it


So long they don’t take the yam from my savouring mouth? Comment: Nice choice of word
– the sibilant ‘s’ sound suggests
salivation

They came one night


Booted the whole house awake Comment: Word choice
suggests the door being booted in
And dragged Danladi out, by the soldier
Comment: Alliteration – double
Then off to a lengthy absence. hard consonants suggest hard
action
What business of mine is it Comment: a litote– an
So long they don’t take the yam understatement, sinister here
because the absence means death
From my savouring mouth? Comment: Repeated phrase –
central concern of the narrator

Chinwe went to work one day Comment: A normal situation,


contrasting with the horror of the
Only to find her job was gone: next three lines

No query, no warning, no probe –


Just one neat sack for a stainless record. Comment: Bitter – not fair

What business of mine is it


So long they don’t take the yam
From my savouring mouth?

And then one evening


As I sat down to eat my yam Comment: So he’s kept it up to
here – ironic that he still doesn’t
A knock on the door froze my hungry hand. get to eat – need to think about
politics
The jeep was waiting on my bewildered lawn Comment: personification

Waiting, waiting in its usual silence. Comment: the narrator is


bewildered – the lawn is reflecting
his feelings
Comment: repetition for effect -
sinister
IMPORTANT - in the exam you will have to compare a specific
poem from one Cluster (named in the question) with a poem (or
more than one poem) of your choice from any other Cluster.
Knowing the themes and concerns of each poem is vital
therefore if you are to pick the best poem to write about.

I have divided the poem analysis up using a system of question


and answers…

What is it about?
What do I need to know about the author?
What poetic features are noteworthy?
What are the key themes in the poem?
Do I want to use it in the exam?

Cluster 1
Edward Kamau Brathwaite – Limbo
What is it about? - In the 18th Century European countries took African people
and traded them as slaves – they were carried in the holds of ships – dark,
cramped, dirty and diseased places. While the slaves were on the ships they
invented the limbo dance as a way of keeping themselves fit whilst chained to
long iron bars. Today the dance remains a cultural tradition in the West Indies
which you might see if you go and visit the area.
Limbo can refer to a special dance where people pass under a pole by
leaning backwards. It can also refer to empty space (“I’m in limbo” people say,
when they don’t know what to do!). In the poem the ambiguity of the word
‘Limbo’ (the fact that it can mean different things) is exploited. By going into
slavery, the Africans are passing into a world where they mean nothing (‘limbo
like me’); on the slave ship they enter the limbo dance as a way of maintaining
their culture onboard.

What do I need to know about the author? - Kamau Braithwaite is a West Indian
writer – he often writes about how powerful countries have taken over smaller
countries and exploited them.

What poetic features are noteworthy? The repetition of the word, ‘limbo’ is key to
the meaning of the poem (see above). It provides the musical beat of the poem,
like the music that is played during the limbo dance. The word ‘stick’ is also used
ambiguously to mean both the limbo stick which is passed under and the stick of
the slavers. The word, ‘dark’ is also used a lot which suggests the void that is
limbo, but also the misery and darkness of being a slave.
Sound is vital in the poem (it’s a limbo dance!). Onomatopoeia is used in,
‘drum stick knock’ for example. The, ‘drummer’ is frequently mentioned. The
rhythm is very strong (look at lines 3-6).
The structure of the poem is in two parts and describes a journey. The
slaves are on the ship, and then arrive at their destination and step onto the,
‘burning ground’. The

‘down
down
down’

and the similar use of the word, ‘up’ suggests (visually on the page) both the
slaves movement beneath the limbo stick and their movement down into and up
out of the hold of the slave-ship.

What are the key themes in the poem? – How cultures interact, one culture
enslaving another, the history of African people brought into western society, how
cultural identity is maintained despite relocation, culture represented through
music

Do I want to use it in the exam? YES! It’s an easy poem to talk about and good
for comparisons, though make sure you analyse it closely, otherwise you may
find yourself without enough to write!
Tatamkhulu Afrika - Nothing's Changed
What is it about? This poem depicts a society where rich and poor are divided.
In the apartheid era of racial segregation in South Africa, where the poem is set,
laws, enforced by the police, kept apart black and white people. The poet looks
at attempts to change this system, and shows how they are ineffective, making
no real difference. “District Six” is the name of a poor area of Cape Town (one of
South Africa's two capital cities; the other is Pretoria). This area was bulldozed as
a slum in 1966, but never properly rebuilt. Although there is no sign there, the
poet can feel that this is where he is: “...my feet know/and my hands.”

What do I need to know about the author? Afrika lived in District Six during
apartheid and was actively involved in opposing it.

What poetic features are noteworthy? The structure is clearly divided into six
stanzas, appropriate for the clearly divided apartheid society and for a poem
about District Six.
The rhyme of, ‘heels’, ‘seeds’ and ‘weeds’ perhaps suggests the footsteps
that the stanza begins with.
The second stanza concentrates on strong images of body parts, perhaps
suggesting how closely the poet’s existence is tied to the place.
The third stanza uses angry words like, ‘brash’, ‘flaring’ which shows the
poet’s anger leading up to the ‘gatepost’ and the injustice of the ‘whites only inn.’
Note the pun on the word, ‘inn’ meaning both a place to stay and the act of
entering. The alliteration of, ‘guard at the gatepost’ draws attention to this part of
the poem which holds the key issue.
The fourth stanza contains images of, ‘glass’ which is a good image for
the invisible barrier of apartheid separating white and black people. The line, ‘No
sign says it is’ echoes the line in the second stanza; in apartheid it is what is NOT
said that is important ie. people in power don’t like to talk about the division of
whites and black but it happens all the same.
The fourth stanza’s, ‘crushed ice white glass’ belongs to the rich white
areas and contrasts with the fifth stanza’s ‘plastic table’s top’ that is for the poor
black people. The line, ‘it’s in the bone’ suggests that this divide is the result of
people’s bodies, their race and colour.
The sixth stanza again shows anger, a desire for, ‘a stone, a bomb’ to
break the glass and symbolically to end the separation between white and black.
Yet the last line, ‘nothing’s changed’ suggests that the author has little hope that
such an action would make things better. A pessimistic ending.

What are the key themes in the poem? How cultures interact, one culture
enslaving another, culture trying to prevent itself from mixing with another

Do I want to use it in the exam? POSSIBLY! It’s a poem that requires some
knowledge of the context, but there is a lot to talk about if you know the issues.
Grace Nichols - Island Man
What is it about? The subtitle really explains this simple poem - it tells of a man
from the Caribbean, who lives in London but always thinks of his home.

What do I need to know about the author? Nichols was born in Guyana and now
lives in Sussex. She claims to feel at home in both places, and lives in two
worlds, like island man.

What poetic features are noteworthy?


See annotated fully annotated poem above.

What are the key themes in the poem? People split between cultures, cultures
mixing and interacting, people establishing their identity through culture

Do I want to use it in the exam? YES! It’s an easy poem that is rich with imagery
to discuss.
Imtiaz Dharker - Blessing
What is it about? This poem is about water: in a hot country, where the supply is
inadequate, the poet sees water as a gift from a god. When a pipe bursts, the
flood which follows is like a miracle, but the “blessing” is ambiguous - it is such
accidents which at other times cause the supply to be so little.

What do I need to know about the author? We have a clear sense of the writer's
world - in her culture water is valued, as life depends upon the supply: in the west,
we take it for granted. This is a culture in which belief in “a kindly god” is seen as
natural, but the poet does not express this in terms of any established religion
(note the lower-case “g” on “god”). She suggests a vague and general religious
belief, or superstition. Note that she uses the word, ‘congregation’ to suggest a
crowd, a term more normally used in a religious context.
The water is a source of other metaphors - fortune is seen as a “rush” (like
water rushing out of the burst pipe), and the sound of the flow is matched by that
of the people who seek it - their tongues are a “roar”, like the gushing water. Most
tellingly of all, water is likened to “silver” which “crashes to the ground”. In India
(where Ms. Dharker lives), in Pakistan (from where she comes) and in other
Asian countries, it is common for wealthy people to throw silver coins to the
ground, for the poor to pick up. The water from the burst pipe is like this - a short-
lived “blessing for a few”. But there is no regular supply of “silver”. And finally, the
light from the sun is seen as “liquid” - yet the sun aggravates the problems of
drought.

What poetic features are noteworthy? The opening lines of the poem compares
human skin to a seedpod, drying out till it cracks. Why? Because there is “never
enough water”. Ms. Dharker asks the reader to ‘Imagine’ it dripping slowly into a
cup; her voice here is strong, as if she were showing the reader around her
homeland. When the “municipal pipe” (the main pipe supplying a town) bursts, it
is seen as unexpected good luck (a “sudden rush of fortune”), and everyone
rushes to help themselves. But the end of the poem reminds us of the sun, which
causes skin to crack “like a pod” - today's blessing is tomorrow's drought. The
poet celebrates the joyous sense with which the people, especially the children,
come to life when there is, for once, more than “enough water”.
The poem has a single central metaphor - the giving of water as a
“blessing” from a “kindly god”. The religious metaphor is repeated, as the
bursting of the pipe becomes a “rush of fortune”, and the people who come to
claim the water are described as a “congregation” (people gathering for worship).
The poem is written in unrhymed lines, mostly brief, some of which run on,
while others are end-stopped, creating an effect of natural speech. The poet
writes lists for the people (“man woman/child”) and the vessels they bring
(“. ..with pots/brass, copper, aluminium,/plastic buckets”). The poem appeals to
the reader's senses, with references to the dripping noise of water (as if the
hearer is waiting for there to be enough to drink) and the flashing sunlight.
The poem ends with a picture of children - “naked” and “screaming”. The
sense of their beauty (“highlights polished to perfection”) is balanced by the idea
of their fragility, as the “blessing sings/over their small bones”. This also suggests
the fragility of a world dependent on water.

What are the key themes in the poem? The differences between cultures, how
climate and situation affect people’s lives and their outlook.

Do I want to use it in the exam? PROBABLY. This poem has lots of imagery to
talk about, but it is so simple there might not be enough to write unless you have
sufficient background knowledge.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti - Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two
Beautiful People in a Mercedes
What is it about? Quite simply, the rich-poor divide, the culture of the rich and
how it differs to the culture of the poor. The “Beautiful people” in the title is
perhaps written with a mild sense of irony - as this phrase was originally coined
by the hippie movement in 1967 (maybe earlier) to refer to the “flower children”
who shared the counter-culture ideals of peace and love. The couple in the poem
are not beautiful people in this sense but wealthy and elegant. In the poem the
two cultures are juxtaposed (put side-by side) and it almost seems for a moment
as if they might mix and interact. However, at the end they are still divided. Is it
ever going to be possible to truly bridge cultural gaps?

What do I need to know about the author? Born in New York (a city with a great
rich-poor contrast), as a teenager he was arrested for petty theft. Thieves are
people that arguably try to bridge the rich-poor divide, as they may be poor
themselves but exist through the world of the rich. Cities, more than any other
geographical location, are places where cultures mix and interact; you often hear
the term, ‘cultural melting-pot’ to describe such cosmopolitan areas.

What poetic features are noteworthy? The poem is deceptively simple - in places
it is written as if in bright primary colours, so we read of the “yellow garbage
truck” and the “red plastic blazers”, we get exact details of time and place, and
we see the precise position of the four people: all waiting at a stoplight and the
garbage collectors looking down (literally but not metaphorically) into the “elegant
open Mercedes” and the matching couple in it. The details of their dress and hair
could be directions for a film-maker.
Ferlinghetti contrasts the people in various ways. The wealthy couple are
on their way to the man's place of work, while the “scavengers” are coming home,
having worked through the early hours. The couple in the Mercedes are clean
and cool; the scavengers are dirty. But while one scavenger is old, hunched and
with grey hair, the other is about the same age as the Mercedes driver and, like
him, has long hair and sunglasses. The older man is depicted as the opposite of
beautiful - he is compared both to a gargoyle (an ugly grotesque caricature used
to decorate mediaeval churches, and ward off evil spirits) and to Quasimodo (the
name means “almost human”) the main character in Victor Hugo's novel The
Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The poem moves to an ambiguous conclusion. The two scavengers see
the young couple, not as real people, but as characters in a “TV ad/in which
everything is always possible” - as if, that is, with determination and effort, the
scavengers could change their own lifestyle for the better. But the adjective
“odorless” suggests that this is a fantasy - and their smelly truck is the reality.
The poem also considers the fundamental American belief that “all men
are created equal” - and the red light is democratic, because it stops everyone. It
holds them together “as if anything at all were possible/between them”. They are
separated by a “small gulf” and the gulf is “in the high seas of democracy” - which
suggests that, with courage and effort, anyone can cross it. But the poet started
this statement with “as if” - and we do not know if this is an illusion or a real
possibility. The American belief in equality is often thought to be false, as
America is not an equal society.
Visually the poem is split horizontally down the page. This perhaps
suggests the divided society that is at the heart of the poem. The poem also
looks quite messy as a result, which perhaps suggests the jumble of the city, the
mess also reflected in the scavengers’ truck.
The vocabulary is vital to understanding. The words for the scavengers
include, ‘grey iron hair’, ‘grungy’ and ‘red plastic blazers’ which suggests the poor
quality of the world they inhabit. By contrast, the beautiful people’s world is
made up of a, ‘three-piece linen suit’, ‘an elegant couple’ and a ‘casually coifed’
blond woman.

What are the key themes in the poem? Cultures mixing and interacting, culture’s
divided by wealth, bridging cultural gaps

Do I want to use it in the exam? YES, there’s lots to talk about, and lots of
important issues for discussion.
Nissim Ezekiel - Night of the Scorpion
What is it about? In this poem Nissim Ezekiel recalls “the night” his “mother was
stung by a scorpion”. The poem is not really about the scorpion or its sting, but
contrasts the reactions of family, neighbours and his father, with the mother's
dignity and courage.

What do I need to know about the author? Born in Bombay, Nisim Ezekiel would
have observed the practiced Hindu religion around him (he was not a Hindu
himself). Hinduism believes in reincarnation after death, a person’s soul is
reborn in another body such as an animal’s, maybe even a scorpion’s. The
animal that the person becomes in his next life is defined by how much good or
bad was done in the last life. Lesser animals were thought to have sinned in a
previous life. In the poem, the poet’s mother’s pain was thought to be cleansing
her or sin, ready for her next life.

What poetic features are noteworthy? The scorpion (sympathetically) is shown


as sheltering from ten hours of rain, but so fearful of people that it “risk(s) the rain
again” after stinging the poet's mother.
What follows is an account of various superstitious reactions:
• the peasants' efforts to “paralyse the Evil One” (the devil, who is identified
with the scorpion);
• the peasants' belief that the creature's movements make the poison move
in his victim's blood;
• their hope that this suffering may be a cleansing from some sin in the past
(“your previous birth”) or still to come (“your next birth”).
The poison is even seen as making the poet's mother better through her
suffering: “May the poison purify your flesh/of desire and the spirit of
ambition/they said”. The poet's father normally does not share such superstitions
(he is “sceptic, rationalist” - a doubter of superstition and a believer in scientific
reason). But he is now worse than the other peasants, as he tries “every curse
and blessing” as well as every possible antidote of which he can think. The “holy
man” performs “rites” (religious ritual actions) but the only effective relief comes
with time: “After twenty hours it lost its sting”. After all, when facing death, it is
tempting to try every solution possible.
The conclusion of the poem is its most effective part: where everyone else
has been concerned for the mother, who has been in too much pain to talk (she
“twisted...groaning on a mat”) she thinks of her children, and thanks God the
scorpion has spared them (the sting might be fatal to a smaller person; certainly
a child would be less able to bear the pain).
Ezekiel's poetic technique is quite simple here. The most obvious point to
make is the contrast between the very long first section, detailing the frantic
responses of everyone but the mother, and the simple, brief, understated
account of her selfless courage in the second section. The lines are of irregular
length and unrhymed; the lines are not end-stopped but run on (this is sometimes
known as enjambement).
Instead of metaphor or simile the images are of what was literally present (the
candles and the lanterns and the shadows on the walls). The poem is in the form
of a short narrative. One final interesting feature to note is the repeated use of
reported (indirect) speech - we are told what people said, but not necessarily in
their exact words, and never enclosed in speech marks. The poem may surprise
us in the insight it gives into another culture: compare Ezekiel's account with
what would happen if your mother were stung by a scorpion (or, if this seems a
bit unlikely, bitten by an adder, say).
Some comments about Nissim Ezekiel that you might find helpful in relation to
Night of the Scorpion are these: he writes in a free style and colloquial manner
(like ordinary speech); he makes direct statements and employs few images.
The title of the poem seems more fitting almost to an old horror film - do you think
it is a suitable title for the poem that follows?

What are the key themes in the poem? The difference between cultures and
religions, how the culture here contrasts with the western culture we inhabit.
Do I want to use it in the exam? Probably NOT. The poem is not particularly rich
in poetic features to talk about, and you need background knowledge about
Hinduism to make full sense of it.
Chinua Achebe - Vultures
What is it about? This is one of the most challenging poems in the anthology.
The vultures of the title are real birds of prey but more important, perhaps, for
what they represent - people of a certain kind.
The poem introduces us to the vultures and their unpleasant diet; in spite of
this, they appear to care for each other. From this Achebe goes on to note how
even the worst of human beings show some touches of humanity - the
concentration camp commandant, having spent the day burning human corpses,
buys chocolate for his “tender offspring” (child or children). This leads to an
ambiguous conclusion:
• on the one hand, Achebe tells us to “praise bounteous providence” that
even the worst of creatures has a little goodness, “a tiny glow-worm
tenderness”;
• on the other hand, he concludes in despair, it is the little bit of “kindred
love” (love of one's own kind or relations) which permits the “perpetuity of
evil” (allows it to survive, because the evil person can think himself to be
not completely depraved).
We are reminded, perhaps, by the words about the “Commandant at Belsen”,
that Adolf Hitler was said to love children and animals.

What do I need to know about the author? Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian writer,
but has a traditional English-speaking liberal education: the poem is written in a
highly literate manner with a close eye for detail.

What poetic features are noteworthy? The poem is in the form of free verse, in
short lines which are not end-stopped and have no pattern of stress or metre.
Achebe moves from
• images of things which are actually present,
• to the imagined scene of the commandant picking up chocolate for his
children,
• to the final section of the poem in which appears the conventional
metaphor of the “glow-worm tenderness” in the “icy caverns of a cruel
heart”.
In studying this poem, you should spend a lot of time in making sure you
understand all of the unfamiliar vocabulary. Look out, also, for familiar words
which are used in surprising ways, because of their context. For example, we
read of the commandant “going home...with fumes of human roast clinging
rebelliously to his hairy nostrils” - it is as if he wants to get rid of the smell (put it
out of nose and mind) but the smell refuses to go away, rebelling against his
authority: something he cannot command.
As you think or write about the first part of the poem, you should try to
describe in your own words the different things on which the vultures feed, while
looking for the evidence of the birds' love for each other. The vulture is a creature
about which we will have ideas before we read; because it feasts on corpses, it
has come to symbolise anyone or anything that benefits by another's suffering.
(The vultures here are shown far less sympathetically, for example, than the
scorpion in Nissim Ezekiel's poem.)
• How does the poet try to make the reader feel disgust towards the vultures?
Is this fair?
• The ending of this poem is highly ambiguous - the poet recommends both
“praise” for “providence” and then “despair” (because the little bit of
goodness in otherwise evil things allows them to keep going, in
“perpetuity”). Which of these conclusions do you think the poet feels more
strongly, if either?
• Chinua Achebe refers to Belsen, the Nazi death camp - do you think this is
a powerful way of suggesting evil, or might readers now and in the future
not know what Belsen is or what happened there? (Some younger readers
may know of it mainly because Anne Frank died there, at the age of 15.)
The poet could be contrasting the natural world of the vultures with the human
world of the Commandant. In some way they are different, in some ways
similar. The last words of the poem are, ‘perpetuity of evil’ which suggests
that evil is ever-lasting. Does evil exist in the human and animal world both?
Perhaps all animals (including man) cannot help but do what they do…

What are the key themes in the poem? This is an odd inclusion in the anthology,
as it doesn’t entirely fit in the idea of different cultures. Arguably it is drawing
similarities between the worlds of animals and humans. By saying that perhaps
good and evil are not so different, the poem is perhaps drawing an analogy with
how world cultures are rarely that different.

Do I want to use it in the exam? Probably NOT. This poem doesn’t fit neatly in
the anthology and will be a difficult poem to use in comparisons.
Denise Levertov: What Were They Like?
What is it about? This is a famous poem, written in 1971, as a protest against
the Vietnamese War (1954-1975. This was originally a civil war between
communist North and capitalist South Vietnam; the south received support from
western countries, notably the USA. In 1973 President Nixon withdrew the US
forces, in 1975 the armies of North Vietnam were victorious, and the country was
reunited the following year. More recently, Vietnam has adopted democratic
government and opened itself up to visitors from the west.)

What do I need to know about the author? Denise Levertov protested in public
against the war, and spent time in jail. In the poem, inspired by the violence of
the US bombing campaign, she imagines a future in which the people have been
destroyed and there is no record or memory of their culture. (In the light of the
Nazis' genocide of European Jews, this was not an unreasonable fear.) In fact,
the people and culture of Vietnam are thriving today but attempted genocide
(now we call it “ethnic cleansing”) has devastated Cambodia, Ruanda and
Burundi and the former Yugoslavia.

What poetic features are noteworthy? The poem is in the form of a series of
questions, as a future visitor might pose them to a cultural historian. The
questions might seem straightforward, but the answers are revealing. Together
they create a sympathetic portrait of a gentle, simple peasant people, living a
dignified if humble life amid the paddy fields. This contrasts with the violent
effects of war, as children are killed, bones are charred and people scream as
bombs smash the paddy fields. The final lines of the poem show how utterly the
people have been forgotten - the report of their singing (of which there is no
record) is hopelessly vague - it resembled, supposedly, “the flight of moths in
moonlight” - but no one knows, since it is silent now.
The poem shows the Vietnamese as rather childlike, innocent and
vulnerable - a way of seeing them that seemed to be confirmed by some events
in the war, lie the destruction of the forests with napalm, and by the notorious
photographic image of a naked burning child running from her devastated village.
But the people of Vietnam eventually proved more resilient than in this well-
meaning but rather patronising western view. On the other hand, it was protests
like that in the poem that changed US public opinion, so that President Nixon
withdrew their forces from combat - which helped the Northern Communist forces
win the war, and reunite Vietnam by force.
The answers are curiously mysterious, riddle-like. The first answer twists
the question about stone lanterns to make a point about how war meant that the
people’s, ‘light hearts turned to stone.’ This twisting of the question suggests that
the respondent has their own agenda: perhaps he wishes to make a bitter point
about the war, or perhaps he is merely sad. The second answer again twists the
question to a bitter end. The third answer comes in the form of a proverb, ‘Sir,
laughter is bitter to the burned mouth’. Oriental culture is full of a love for hidden
meanings, and proverbial sayings that require wisdom to understand. The fourth
answer follows the same pattern of quizzical bitterness.
The fifth answer is different. Rather than a riddle we are presented with a
sorrowful image of what happened in the war. This is far more direct than the
previous responses, suggesting the savagery of war. The sixth answer becomes
enigmatic again and we get the strong image of the people’s singing being like,
‘the flight of moths in moonlight’, a potent image of a peaceful nation and of the
lost memory of them.
When describing the people (as opposed to war) much of the poem uses
vocabulary that suggests insubstantial things, ‘dream’, ‘echo’ and ‘moths’. This
suggests the fading of the memories. By contrast the harsh reality of war is
represented through more substantial words, ‘bombs’, ‘scream’ and ‘burned’.
The rich culture of Vietnam at peace is represented through culturally-specific
words such as, ‘jade and silver’ and, ‘blossom’.
A rhetorical question is used (‘who can say?’) to suggest the fact that the
respondent does not have all the answers. This adds to the atmosphere of
mystery and uncertainty. There is a sadness to a question that can never be
answered.

What are the key themes in the poem? How culture’s interact (ie. war and the
consequences), how culture can be lost over time

Do I want to use it in the exam? POSSIBLY. This is not the easiest of poems
but there is lots to talk about if you know a little background and there are
opportunities for very sophisticated responses.
Cluster 1
Sujata Bhatt: from Search for My Tongue
What is it about? This poem (or rather extract from a long poem) explores a
familiar ambiguity in English - “tongue” refers both to the physical organ we use
for speech, and the language we speak with it. (Saying “tongue” for “speech” is
an example of metonymy). In the poem Sujata Bhatt writes about the “tongue” in
both ways at once. To lose your tongue normally means not knowing what to say,
but Ms. Bhatt suggests that one can lose one's tongue in another sense. The
speaker in this poem is obviously the poet herself, but she speaks for many who
fear they may have lost their ability to speak for themselves and their culture.
She explains this with the image of two tongues - a mother tongue (one's
first language) and a second tongue (the language of the place where you live).
She argues that you cannot use both together. She suggests, further, that if you
live in a place where you must “speak a foreign tongue” then the mother tongue
will “rot and die in your mouth”.
The final section of the poem is the writer's dream - in which her mother
tongue grows back and “pushes the other tongue aside”. She ends triumphantly
asserting that “Everytime I think I've forgotten,/I think I've lost the mother
tongue,/it blossoms out of my mouth.”
Clearly this poem is about personal and cultural identity. The familiar
metaphor of the tongue is used in a novel way to show that losing one's language
(and culture) is like losing part of one's body. The poet's dream may be
something she has really dreamt “overnight” but is clearly also a “dream” in the
sense of something she wants to happen - in dreams, if not in reality, it is
possible for the body to regenerate. For this reason the poem's ending is
ambiguous - perhaps it is only in her dream that the poet can find her “mother
tongue”. On the other hand, she may be arguing that even when she thinks she
has lost it, it can be found again. At the end of the poem there is a striking
extended metaphor in which the regenerating tongue is likened to a plant cut
back to a stump, which grows and eventually buds, to become the flower which
“blossoms out of” the poet's mouth. It is as if her mother tongue is exotic,
spectacular or fragrant, as a flower might be.
The poem's form is well suited to its subject. The flower is a metaphor for
the tongue, which itself has earlier been used as a (conventional) metaphor, for
speech. The poet demonstrates her problem by showing both “mother tongue”
(Gujarati) and “foreign tongue” (English), knowing that for most readers these will
be the other way around, while some, like her, will understand both.
The poem will speak differently to different generations - for parents,
Gujarati may also be the “mother tongue”, while their children, born in the UK,
may speak English as their first language. The poem is written both for the page,
where we see the (possibly exotic) effect of the Gujarati text and for reading
aloud, as we have a guide for speaking the Gujarati lines.
What poetic features are noteworthy? Ms. Bhatt rewrites lines 15 and 16 in
Gujarati, followed by more Gujarati lines, which are given in English as the final
section of the poem. For readers who do not know the Gujarati script, there is
also a phonetic transcript using approximate English spelling to indicate the
sounds.
There are some strong images here (spitting out your tongue!), especially
the image of the re-growing tongue which is metaphorically compared to a, ‘bud’.
There is also a questioning style, ‘you ask me’, ‘I ask you’ as if the author
is responding to a difficult question by throwing it back at the reader.

What do I need to know about the author? Born in India but studied and working
in USA, now lives in Germany with husband. She writes in English. She is
intrigued how various languages co-exist in the mind, how they interact,
interfering but also enhancing one another. In many parts of the world where
English, though not the native language, has become the people’s first language,
foreign words are seamlessly integrated into the English. Thus in Singapore
people speak a fashionable slang called, ‘Singlish’ which contains Chinese and
Malay words within its English dialect.

What are the key themes in the poem? Language here is symbolising cultural
identity and how it never really dies no matter where you live. The theme is of
culture’s interacting, clashing but also enhancing one another.

Do I want to use it in the exam? YES. There is only a limited amount of close
analysis that can be done, but you can discuss the issue the poem raises (ie.
Should people maintain their original language when they move to another
country or integrate and learn the new language) until you are blue in the face!
Tom Leonard: from Unrelated Incidents
What is it about? Have you ever wondered why newsreaders always sound posh?
Why do you never get someone with a cockney accent, or a Scottish accent like
here? Well so does Tom Leonard!
This poem uses non-standard English to explore notions of class,
education and nationality. The poem is a phonetic (by the sounds) transcript
which shows how a Glaswegian Scot might speak. The poet imagines the BBC
newsreader smugly explaining why he does not talk “lik/wanna you/scruff” -
though in this version, of course, he is doing just this. The writer takes on the
persona of a less educated or “ordinary” Glaswegian, with whom he clearly
identifies.
The most important idea in the poem is that of truth - a word which
appears (as “trooth”) three times, as well as one “troo”. The speaker in the poem
(with whom the poet seems to sympathize) suggests that listeners or viewers
trust a speaker with an RP (Received Pronunciation) or “BBC” accent. He claims
that viewers would be mistrustful of a newsreader with a regional accent,
especially one like Glaswegian Scots, which has working-class or even (unfairly)
criminal associations in the minds of some people.

What do I need to know about the author? Tom Leonard is a Scot who loves his
country and resents the way the English have dominated it. This is his way of
having a go at what is considered the ‘correct’ way of speaking.
The poem is humorous and challenges our prejudices. Leonard may be a
little naïve in his argument, however: RP gives credibility to people in authority or
to newsreaders, because it shows them not to favour one area or region - it is
meant to be neutral. The RP speaker appears educated because he or she is
aware of, and has dropped, distinctive local or regional peculiarities. And though
RP is not spoken by everyone, it is widely understood, much more so than any
regional accent in the UK. Tom Leonard's Glasgow accent would confuse many
listeners, as would any marked regional voice. RP has the merit of clarity.
However, why should RP have become the ‘standard’ way of speaking?
Why not the Glaswegian accent?

What poetic features are noteworthy? The poem is set out in lines of two, three
or four syllables, but these are not end-stopped. The effect is almost certainly
meant to be of the Autocue used by newsreaders (the text scrolls down the
screen a few words at a time).
The poem seems puzzling on the page, but when read out aloud makes better
sense. Remember that it is written in phonetics to suit the Scottish accent. A
Scot may find it easier to follow than a reader from London, say. Again, the way
we write English is designed to portray the phonetics of a Southern English
accent, not any other regional accent (‘this is me tokn yir/ right way a/ spellin’). Is
this fair? Tom Leonard obviously thinks not… (‘this is ma trooth/ yooz doant no/
thi trooth/ yirsellz cawz/ yi canny talk/ right’). The poem is light-hearted however,
rather than truly angry, and at the end he just says, ‘belt up’ as if the issue
already bores him.

What are the key themes in the poem? How one culture (English) has come to
dominate another (Scottish) through its dominance in the language, how we write,
and how it should be spoken.

Do I want to use it in the exam? MAYBE. Only use it if you understand the
complicated argument about which regional dialect is considered correct and
how Leonard is attacking that concept. If you do, there’s lots to talk about,
certainly in terms of the issues.
John Agard: Half-Caste
What is it about? This poem develops a simple idea which is found in a familiar, if
outdated phrase. Half-caste as a term for mixed race is now rare. The term
comes from India, where people are rigidly divided into groups (called castes)
which are not allowed to mix, and where the lowest caste is considered
untouchable. In the poem John Agard pokes fun at the idea. He does this
• with an ironic suggestion of things only being “half” present,
• by puns, and
• by looking at the work of artists who mix things.
• It is not clear whether Agard speaks as himself here, or speaks for others.
The poem opens with a joke - as if “half-caste” means only half made (reading
the verb as cast rather than caste), so the speaker stands on one leg as if the
other is not there. Agard ridicules the term by showing how the greatest artists
mix things - Picasso mixes the colours, and Tchaikovsky use the black and white
keys in his piano symphonies, yet to call their art “half-caste” seems silly.
Agard playfully points out how England's weather is always a mix of light
and shadow - leading to a very weak pun on “half-caste” and “overcast” (clouded
over). The joke about one leg is recalled later in the poem, this time by
suggesting that the “half-caste” uses only half of ear and eye, and offers half a
hand to shake, leading to the absurdities of dreaming half a dream and casting
half a shadow. The poem, like a joke, has a punchline - the poet invites his
hearer to “come back tomorrow” and use the whole of eye, ear and mind. Then
he will tell “de other half/of my story”.
Though the term “half-caste” is rarely heard today, Agard is perhaps right
to attack the idea behind it - that mixed race people have something missing.
Also, they often suffer hostility from the racial or ethnic communities of both
parents. Though the poem is light-hearted in tone, the argument of the last six
lines is very serious, and has a universal application: we need to give people our
full attention and respect, if we are to deserve to hear their whole “story”.

What poetic features are noteworthy? The form of the poem is related to its
subject, as Agard uses non-standard English, in the form of Afro-Caribbean
patois. This shows how he stands outside mainstream British culture. There is no
formal rhyme-scheme or metre, but the poem contains rhymes (“wha yu
mean...mix red an green”). A formal device which Agard favours is repetition:
“Explain yuself/wha yu mean”, for example. The poem is colloquial, written as if
spoken to someone with imperatives (commands) like “Explain yuself” and
questions like “wha yu mean”. The punctuation is non-standard using the hyphen
(-) and slash (/) but no comma nor full stop, not even at the end. The spelling
uses both standard and non-standard forms - the latter to show pronunciation.
The patois is most marked in its grammar, where verbs are missed out (“Ah
listening” for “I am listening” or “I half-caste human being” for “I am half-caste”).
When you write about the poem you should perhaps not use the term
“half-caste” except to discuss how Agard presents it. If you need to, use a term
like “mixed race”. For older readers, especially those aware of the (now
scientifically discredited) racial theories of the Nazis, this poem seems powerful
and relevant. And in Britain today, resistance to mixed-race couples (who may
have mixed-race children) is as likely to come from an Asian or Afro-Caribbean
parent as from a white Anglo-Saxon family. (In some ethnic groups, there is
enormous family pressure to marry within the community.) Younger readers,
especially in cosmopolitan communities, may wonder what the fuss is about.

What do I need to know about the author? Yes, John Agard is indeed of mixed
race origins. Born in Guyana and emigrated to Britain. But hey, you already
guessed that right?

What are the key themes in the poem? Cultures mixing and how this should not
be seen as a bad thing.

Do I want to use it in the exam? YES, lots of meaty issues and poetic devices to
talk about. Not hard either.
Derek Walcott: Love after Love
What is it about? This poem is about self-discovery. Walcott suggests that we
spend years assuming an identity, but eventually discover who we really are -
and this is like two different people meeting and making friends and sharing a
meal together. Walcott presents this in terms of the love feast or Eucharist of the
Christian church - “Eat...Give wine. Give bread.” And it is not clear whether this
other person is merely human or in some way divine.
The poem begins with the forecast of the time when this recognition will occur - a
moment of great happiness (“elation”) as “you...greet yourself” and “each will
smile at the other's welcome”.
The second stanza suggests that one has to fit in with others' ideas or
accommodate oneself to the world, and so become a stranger to oneself - but in
time one will see who the stranger really is, and welcome him or her home. Our
everyday life is seen, therefore, as a kind of temporary disloyalty, in which one
ignores oneself “for another” - but all along it is the true self, the stranger “who
has loved you” and “who knows you by heart”.
And when this time comes, then one can recall and review one's life - look at the
record of love-letters, photographs and notes, and what one sees in the mirror -
and sit and feast on one's life.

What do I need to know about the author? A man who spans several cultures.

What poetic features are noteworthy? The poem is written in the second person -
as if the poet addresses the reader directly. It is full of imperative verbs
(commands) “sit”, “give”, “eat”, “take” and “feast”. The poet repeats words or
variants of them - “give”, “love”, “stranger” and “life”. This is a very happy poem,
especially in its view of the later years of life, not as a time of loss but of fulfilment
and recovery. The words are therefore of happy things.
There is no rhyme, which perhaps suggests the need and joy in difference
that the poem champions.
The central line is, ‘each will smile at the other’s welcome’ which
expresses in a very concise way the shared nature of the feeling. The poem
confuses identities deliberately, ‘you will greet yourself arriving/ at your own door,
in your own mirror’. This is appropriate for a poem that is saying difference
doesn’t matter (ie. that we’re all the same really).
‘Feast on your life’, is a strong image and very uplifting.

What are the key themes in the poem? Again that it is a good thing for culture’s
to mix, that the world will be a better place if we all get along, peace love and
understanding

Do I want to use it in the exam? PROBABLY. It’s an easy poem, good for
contrasts with others, but is there enough to talk about if it’s your main poem?
Imtiaz Dharker: This Room
What is it about? This is a quite puzzling poem, if we try to find an explicit and
exact interpretation - but its general meaning is clear enough: Imtiaz Dharker
sees rooms and furniture as possibly limiting or imprisoning one, but when
change comes, it as if the room “is breaking out of itself”. She presents this rather
literally, with a bizarre or surreal vision of room, bed and chairs breaking out of
the house and rising up - the chairs “crashing through clouds”. The crockery,
meanwhile, crashes together noisily “in celebration”. And why is no one “looking
for the door”? Presumably, because there are now so many different ways of
leaving the room, without using the conventional route.
One's sense of self is also confused - we say sometimes that we are all
over the place, and Ms. Dharker depicts this literally, as well - she cannot find her
feet (a common metaphor for gaining a sense of purpose or certainty) and
realizes that her hands are not even in the same room - and have taken on a life
of their own, applauding from somewhere else.
We do not know the cause of this joyful explosion, but it seems to be
bound up with personal happiness and fulfilment - it might be romantic love, but it
could be other things: maternity, a new job, artistic achievement, almost anything
that is genuinely and profoundly life-changing.
The poem works very much like an animated film - the excited “pots and
pans” suggest the episode in Disney's Fantasia of the Sorcerer's Apprentice. It is
a succession of vivid and exuberant images, full of joy and excitement. (Even if
one does not enjoy the poem, the reader might like to know what made the poet
feel like this - and perhaps give it a try.)

What do I need to know about the author? Born in Pakistan and grew up in
Glasgow. Is this getting predictable or is it just me?

What poetic features are noteworthy? My interpretation is that this poem is a


conceit (an extended metaphor) for something else. It is suggesting that it is
important not to be limited to your own culture (the room) but to break out and
experience the world and all the cultures it has to offer (to mix cultures).
The line, ‘my hands are outside, clapping’ is on its own because this does
indeed suggest being outside. Maybe the author has succeeded in mixing
cultures, getting outside the box of the familiar, and is celebrating his joy with
applause. However it’s a confusing time for us all, and this is symbolized by the
disruption of a familiar symbol of domestic security (a room!).

What are the key themes in the poem? Cultures mixing and not being restrained
to themselves, this being seen as a good thing.

Do I want to use it in the exam? POSSIBLY. This is not an easy poem but if you
understand it then you can make yourself look very clever with good analysis.
Not my Business: Niyi Osundare – (see annotation at
start of document)

Moniza Alvi: Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan


What is it about? This poem can be compared usefully with the extracts from
Search for My Tongue and from Unrelated Incidents, as well as with Half-Caste -
all of which look at ideas of race and identity. Where Sujatta Bhatt, Tom Leonard
and John Agard find this in language, Moniza Alvi associates it with material
things. The poem is written in the first person, and is obviously autobiographical -
the speaking voice here is really that of the poet.
Moniza Alvi contrasts the exotic garments and furnishings sent to her by her
aunts with what she saw around her in her school, and with the things they asked
for in return. Moniza Alvi also shows a paradox, as she admired the presents, but
felt they were too exquisite for her, and lacked street credibility. Finally, the
presents form a link to an alternative way of life (remote in place and time) which
Ms. Alvi does not much approve: her aunts “screened from male visitors” and the
“beggars” and “sweeper-girls” in 1950s Lahore.
The bright colours of the salwar kameez suggest the familiar notion of exotic
clothes worn by Asian women, but the glass bangle which snaps and draws
blood is almost a symbol of how her tradition harms the poet - it is not practical
for the active life of a young woman in the west.

What do I need to know about the author? The idea of living in two cultures is
seen in the voyage, from Pakistan to England, which the poet made as a child
and which she dimly recalls. This is often a symbol of moving from one kind of
life to another.

What poetic features are noteworthy? In a striking simile the writer suggests that
the clothes showed her own lack of beauty: “I could never be as lovely/as those
clothes”. The bright colours suggest the clothes are burning: “I was aflame/I
couldn't rise up out of its fire”, a powerful metaphor for the discomfort felt by the
poet, who “longed/for denim and corduroy”, plainer but comfortable and
inconspicuous. Also she notes that where her Pakistani Aunt Jamila can “rise up
out of its fire” - that is, “look lovely” in the bright clothes - she (the poet) felt
unable to do so, because she was “half-English”. This may be meant literally (she
has an English grandmother) or metaphorically, because she is educated in
England. This sense of being between two cultures is shown when the
“schoolfriend” asks to see Moniza Alvi's “weekend clothes” and is not impressed.
The schoolfriend's reaction also suggests that she has little idea of what Moniza -
as a young Pakistani woman - is, and is not, allowed to do at weekends, despite
living in Britain.
Obviously the vocabulary is important here, the lists of exotic things (and
foreign words for them) showing the exoticness of the place they’ve come from.
The form of the poem on the page is jumbled left and right, messy, like a
pile of different objects.

What are the key themes in the poem? The difference and diversity of culture
and how it is represented through language and things.

Do I want to use it in the exam? NO. There is only a limited amount to talk about,
though you could usefully use it as a comparison piece.
Grace Nichols: Hurricane Hits England
What is it about? The central image in this poem is not the poet's invention but
drawn from her (and other people's) experience. The hurricanes that sometimes
strike England as destructive storms really do bring the Caribbean (or its weather)
to Britain - they retrace the poet's journey from the west, and recall her own
origins.

What do I need to know about the author? The poem begins in the third person
(note the pronouns “her” and “she”) but changes in the second stanza to a first-
person view as the poet speaks of herself, and addresses the tropical winds. The
speaker here could be anyone who has made this journey, but Grace Nichols is
probably speaking for herself in the poem. The poem is written mostly as free
verse - there is no rhyme scheme; stanzas vary in length, as do the lines, though
the first line of the poem is a perfect pentameter.

What poetic features are noteworthy? The poem is interesting for its range of
vocabulary. Ms. Nichols uses the patois form “Huracan” and names the gods
(“Oya” and “Shango”) of the Yoruba tribe, who were taken as slaves to the
Caribbean in times past. She connects this to the modern world, as she names
the notorious Hurricane Hattie (of October 1961). There is interesting word play
in “reaping havoc” - a pun on the familiar phrase “wreaking (making or causing)
havoc”. The poem also brings together the four elements of earth, air (wind), fire
(lightning) and water.
But the most striking things in this poem are the images and symbols from the
natural world, which explain the poet's relationship to the Caribbean and to
England. The wind is called a “howling ship” - “howling” we expect to find with
“wind”, not “ship”. (Technically, this is a transferred epithet.) But the wind is like a
ship in having travelled across the ocean. This nautical image is echoed later by
the comparison of felled trees to “whales”. The reference to an “ancestral
spectre” calls to mind the worship of the spirits of ancestors, a practice the slaves
took from Africa to the West Indies. Here the ghost of the ancestor is perhaps
rebuking the poet for leaving the Caribbean.
In the fourth stanza, Ms. Nichols contrasts the massive power of the
natural electricity of lightning with the electricity generated by man. The electrical
storm cuts off the mains electricity, plunging us into “further darkness”. This may
be the literal darkness of England in winter, or a metaphor for the poet's dismay
at leaving her homeland.
The fallen trees (which lie around in England after a tropical storm) are
seen by the poet as like herself, uprooted from her home. The wind brings
warmth to “break (the ice of) the frozen lake” in her - as if the English weather
has caused her to lose touch with her emotions. (Associating one's mood with
the prevailing weather is a well-established poetic convention, sometimes known
as the pathetic fallacy. Here pathetic means to do with feelings [Greek pathos]. It
is a fallacy [mistaken belief] because our moods do not literally control the
weather (unless we have special magical powers), though often the weather
does influence our moods!)
Perhaps the most powerful image, from a Caribbean writer, is that which
has its own line, where Grace Nichols asks: “O why is my heart unchained?” In
expressing her sense of joy, after the storm has hit England, she recalls the
image of freed slaves being released from the chains in which they have been
held. Here she shows awareness of her historical culture.
Note that again, the Hurricane is a conceit, an extended metaphor for
something else, in this case the poet’s journey to England.
The last line, ‘the earth is the earth is the earth’ perhaps suggests that
despite all man’s difficulties, nature continues, life goes on and is greater than all
of us.

What are the key themes in the poem? Culture’s mixing, clashing, interacting.
Like The Room this poem describes how destructive and tricky this process of
cultural integration can be.

Do I want to use it in the exam? YES. An easy idea and ideal for comparison
with The Room.