Archive for the ‘Texts’ Category

 

Compare the emotions portrayed in Mrs Lazarus and Answer by Carol Anne Duffy.

Have you included:

1.       Overview

Both poems interweave ideas of love and death;

Both poems are personal and from a first person point of view – although Mrs Lazarus is narrative whereas Answer is a dramatic monologue;

The love in Answer is immutable, eternal and defeats death; the love in Mrs Lazarus changes and wanes on the death of her husband.

2.       Sensuality Both women display a high degree of sensuality in their language. Duffy shows women to be sensual and sexual in their relationships with men.

Answer:

  • Within the formality and rigidity of the structure, Duffy refers to the sensual pleasures of love:
    “kiss… tongue… heart… arms… mouth…”

Mrs Lazarus

  • The dead husband is reduced throughout the poem to “the shrunk size of a snapshot”, until “His scent” vacated the home. The husband’s presence reduced to a mere sense-perception, suggesting the warmth of the love they had shared
  • The sensuality of her shock on touching “a man’s strength”

 3.       Passion Both women are passionate in their loving

Answer:

  • The imagery of fire and “hissing flame” and the “small coal glowing” suggests passion
  • The choice of verbs suggests passion: “roaring, foaming… spinning… waves torn from my breath”
  • A high calibre student may make links from here also to Anne Hathaway as another example of a powerfully passionate and sensual character, particularly in the interplay of language and sensuality.

Mrs Lazarus

  • The passion of her grief is extreme in her passionate choice of verbs: “ripped… howled, shrieked, clawed”
  • The alliteration of “Gone home. Gutted the place” echoes the description of her passionately having “retched” his name. almost onomatopoeic.
  • A high calibre student may gon on and comment on the echoes here of Havisham but a pain from which Mrs Lazarus escapes whereas Mrs Havisham does not.

4.       The Partner

Answer:

  • The image of her lover’s kiss as a “fossil” suggests that even if his love were long dead (literally or emotionally) her love for him would endure
  • The image of the partner being “sealed up” or “locked” in ice suggests a form of death or absence;
  • The image of the partner’s body as “only breeze against my dress” suggests again an absence.
  • Notice how the speaker’s love remains as emphatic as ever in the repeated “yes yes” even if unrequited

Mrs Lazarus

  • His “dwindling” from husband to
  • “snapshot”, to
  • a “name” which no longer worked as a “spell” to conjure up the image of his “face”,
  • the eventual loss of the final physical evidence of his existence as the “last hair on his head / floated out from a book” and his scent was lost,
  • to just the “zero” of the wedding ring – notice the use of the physical shape of the ring to symbolising not the eternity of love as is traditional but the death of love and its reduction to nothing,
  • to “legend, language” and eventually
  • “memory”, devoid of emotion and allowing her to move on.
  • Notice that the process is one allowing her to become “healed” not of abandoning her husband
  • Notice the “horror” she feels when she finds him resurrected: “rotting shroud, moist and dishevelled”
  • Not simply a visceral horror of the reanimated rotting corpse (more zombie than resurrection) but also the emotional horror of facing the man she has moved on from, rendering him a mere “cuckold”

 5.       Conclusion

Which version of love seems most realistic or healthy?

A love that continues despite the death or absence or withdrawal of the lover sounds romantic, but can become obsessive, self-defeating and ultimately a form of “death” itself.

A passionate love that feels desolation and grief but allows the surviving partner to heal seems much more healthy.

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A more challenging comparison this time, perhaps? Mrs Lazarus and Answer.

Mrs Lazarus

I had grieved. I had wept for a night and a day
over my loss, ripped the cloth I was married in
from my breasts, howled, shrieked, clawed
at the burial stones until my hands bled, retched
his name over and over again, dead, dead.

Gone home. Gutted the place. Slept in a single cot,
widow, one empty glove, white femur
in the dust, half. Stuffed dark suits
into black bags, shuffled in a dead man’s shoes,
noosed the double knot of a tie around my bare neck,

gaunt nun in the mirror, touching herself. I learnt
the Stations of Bereavement, the icon of my face
in each bleak frame; but all those months
he was going away from me, dwindling
to the shrunk size of a snapshot, going,

going. Till his name was no longer a certain spell
for his face. The last hair on his head
floated out from a book. His scent went from the house.
The will was read. See, he was vanishing
to the small zero held by the gold of my ring.

Then he was gone. Then he was legend, language;
my arm on the arm of the schoolteacher-the shock
of a man’s strength under the sleeve of his coat-
along the hedgerows. But I was faithful
for as long as it took. Until he was memory.

So I could stand that evening in the field
in a shawl of fine air, healed, able
to watch the edge of the moon occur to the sky
and a hare thump from a hedge; then notice
the village men running towards me, shouting,

behind them the women and children, barking dogs,
and I knew. I knew by the sly light
on the blacksmith’s face, the shrill eyes
of the barmaid, the sudden hands bearing me
into the hot tang of the crowd parting before me.

He lived. I saw the horror on his face.
I heard his mother’s crazy song. I breathed
his stench; my bridegroom in his rotting shroud,
moist and dishevelled from the grave’s slack chew,
croaking his cuckold name, disinherited, out of his time.

Answer

If you were made of stone,
your kiss a fossil sealed up in your lips,
your eyes a sightless marble to my touch,
your grey hands pooling raindrops for the birds,
your long legs cold as rivers locked in ice,
if you were stone, if you were made of stone, yes, yes.

If you were made of fire,
your head a wild Medusa hissing flame,
your tongue a red-hot poker in your throat,
your heart a small coal glowing in your chest,
your fingers burning pungent brands on flesh,
if you were fire, if you were made of fire, yes, yes.

If you were made of water,
your voice a roaring, foaming waterfall,
your arms a whirlpool spinning me around,
your breast a deep, dark lake nursing the drowned,
your mouth an ocean, waves torn from your breath,
if you were water, if you were made of water, yes, yes.

If you were made of air,
your face empty and infinite as sky,
your words a wind with litter for its nouns,
your movements sudden gusts among the clouds,
your body only breeze against my dress,
if you were air, if you were made of air, yes, yes.

If you were made of air, if you were air,
if you were made of water, if you were water,
if you were made of fire, if you were fire,
if you were made of stone, if you were stone,
or if you were none of these, but really death,
the answer is yes, yes.

Okay, I have asked my Year 11s to write an essay in exam conditions on these poems and this title.

It is so close to the exam, I clearly need to give them feedback but no longer wish to take in their books, depriving them of the opportunity to revise. Therefore, I have started giving them a “Have You Included” sheet.

It is basically an essay plan – what would I have put into the essay had I been asked to do so. But it allows students to self assess, referring to what they wrote, my Have You Included sheet and the marking criteria.

Compare the experiences of education portrayed in In Mrs Tilscher’s Class and Head of English by Carol Anne Duffy.

Have you included:

1. Overview

The experiences are very different:

i.      Mrs Tilscher is affectionate and warm;

ii.      Head of English is mocking and satirical.

The titles of the poems – the difference between naming the teacher and identifying her only by title – are hugely symbolic       

2. Relationship with the teacher

Mrs Tilscher

i.      Opportunities given “you could” do and go anywhere

ii.      Respect shown to the pupil: “Mrs Tilscher loved you” and sometimes “left a gold star”. Is maternal an appropriate word for Mrs Tilscher?

Head of English

i.      Gives instructions – imperative sentences – “Notice…” “Sit up straight”

ii.      Curbs and restricts, limits student responses “show your appreciation / by clapping. Not too loud”

iii.      Prefers the formulaic and traditional poets: “Season of mists” from Keats’ To Autumn is presumably her preferred form of poetry; Kipling likewise traditional – and also colonial, perhaps an offensive figure to those who have English as a “Second Language”

iv.      Short snipped fragments of sentences – gives impression of snappy, rude teacher barking commands

3. Environment

Mrs Tilscher is a sensual poem, students engaged through the senses:

i.      “tracing the route”

ii.      “coloured shapes”

iii.      “scent of a pencil”

iv.      Exciting: even books were “enthralling” and the class “glowed like a sweetshop”

v.      At points, synaesthetic:  “the air tasted of electricity”, “chanted the scenery” almost mystical or magical

Head of English is dramatic monologue, less description

i.      Silence is enforced “Whispering’s, as always, out of bounds”

ii.      Environment is controlled “Open a window”

4. Education beyond the curriculum

Mrs Tilscher shows a development and growing up process, perhaps rite of passage

i.      The tadpoles “changed” which parallels the students’ own maturity

ii.      Questions over “how you were born” and students “impatient to be grown”

Is this paralleled in the shortening of the stanza lengths?

iii.      Final humid image of the sky “split open into a thunderstorm” heavy with suggestion of the turmoil and potential of adolescence.

Head of English

i.      Extremely limited view of poetry and of education

ii.      Dismissive: “not all poems, / sadly, rhyme these days” – undermined by Duffy’s own use of rhyme within the poem itself?

iii.      Final line deeply offensive, challenge to the poet to “Convince us that there’s something we don’t know”

iv.      Reference to education of technique out of context – “Remember / the lesson on assonance” – no opportunity for students to play with or experience language, only derive a lesson

v.      “Take notes but don’t write reams. Just an essay / on the poet’s themes”

Two fabulous poems by Carol Anne Duffy – nothing unexpected but a clear opportunity to ask students to compare her attitude to education in the poems. A good start to the OCR Poetry Anthology on Duffy.

And a good reminder for us teachers that education is done with and by children, not to them!

In Mrs Tilscher’s class

In Mrs Tilscher’s class
You could travel up the Blue Nile
with your finger, tracing the route
while Mrs Tilscher chanted the scenery.
”Tana. Ethiopia. Khartoum. Aswan.”
That for an hour,
then a skittle of milk
and the chalky Pyramids rubbed into dust.
A window opened with a long pole.
The laugh of a bell swung by a running child.

This was better than home. Enthralling books.
The classroom glowed like a sweetshop.
Sugar paper. Coloured shapes. Brady and Hindley
faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake.
Mrs Tilscher loved you. Some mornings, you found
she’d left a gold star by your name.
The scent of a pencil slowly, carefully, shaved.
A xylophone’s nonsense heard from another form.

Over the Easter term the inky tadpoles changed
from commas into exclamation marks. Three frogs
hopped in the playground, freed by a dunce
followed by a line of kids, jumping and croaking
away from the lunch queue. A rough boy
told you how you were born. You kicked him, but stared
at your parents, appalled, when you got back
home

That feverish July, the air tasted of electricity.
A tangible alarm made you always untidy, hot,
fractious under the heavy, sexy sky. You asked her
how you were born and Mrs Tilscher smiled
then turned away. Reports were handed out.
You ran through the gates, impatient to be grown
the sky split open into a thunderstorm.

Head of English

Today we have a poet in the class.
A real live poet with a published book.
Notice the inkstained fingers, girls. Perhaps
we’re going to witness verse hot from the press.
Who knows. Please show your appreciation
by clapping. Not too loud. Now

sit up straight and listen. Remember
the lesson on assonance, for not all poems,
sadly, rhyme these days. Still. Never mind.
Whispering’s, as always, out of bounds –
but do feel free to raise some questions.
After all, we’re paying forty pounds.

Those of you with English Second Language,
see me after break. We’re fortunate
to have this person in our midst.
Season of mists and so on and so forth.
I’ve written quite a bit of poetry myself,
am doing Kipling with the Lower Fourth,

Right. That’s enough from me. On with the Muse.
Open a window at the back. We don’t
Want winds of change about the place.
Take notes, but don’t write reams. Just an essay
on the poet’s themes. Fine. Off we go.
Convince us that there’s something we don’t know.

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These are the opening lines of the novel. From an OCR GCSE point of view, opening lines are always likely to be picked up as possible context questions. Now, for the sake of speed I have no intention of copying whole pages out, so please bear with the wobbly photographs!

Nor am I pretending to cover every point on this page: what follows is no more than a collection of (probably the most patent and obvious) observations as they occur to me.

The first thing that leaps out at me here is the length of the sentences: an entire page comprising just four sentences. The first sentence takes up ten whole lines; the last sentence takes up less than one line. What could a student say about that? That Fugard’s control of the sentence structures creates a rhythm and a direction, a momentum out of languor? If so, a student could go on and suggest that there is a parallel between the content of the lines which describe a listless afternoon coalescing into an evening of activity. As so often elsewhere in the book, Fugard’s language holds a rhythm that bears its own meaning.

Let us look at the opening sentence in more detail and we see that this is a sonorous writer, a lyrical writer straight away. His language uses alliteration and onomatopoeia in ways which would not be out if place in a poem and need to be analysed in the same way.

…to lift up a glass and hold it high over their heads for the dregs to drip into their open mouths or to yawn and stretch and then slump back into their chairs…

. We can practically hear the boys’ anticipation for the final drop of beer: the long vowel sounds of the ‘e’ in “dregs” delaying and contrasting with the short ‘i’ and plosive ‘p’ in “drip”; the long vowels of “yawn” and “stretch” drawing out the listless ennui which Fugard is describing.

From these opening lines, students should be aware that they will need to drag out of their subconscious those long forsaken key poetry terms!

Let’s look further in the same sentence as Fugard describes the neighbour’s voice.

…the old woman who was scolding, rattling her words like stones in a tin…

.
This is a tiny detail, admittedly but critical to the passage: up until this point, Fugard could have been describing a middle class barbecue in suburban England – indeed many of my parents’ barbecues ended with people slumped in chairs, scratching themselves and finishing the dregs of their drinks – but this simile is our first insight into the poverty of the setting. Only the poorest, most disadvantaged sections of society would be reaching for similes such as “like stones in a tin” to describe a voice. What we are being treated to here is a beautiful, lyrical prose depicting abject poverty; the poetry of poverty.

But what a powerful simile! What a simple and potent way to describe both the harsh sounds of the voice and her implicit dissatisfaction and disapproval of the four boys. As this is being tested in the context of Prose From Other Cultures and understanding of context is being tested, this one simile opens up an opportunity to discuss the poverty of 1950s Sofiatown in Johannesberg, South Africa.

This one simile therefore clarifies that the boys’ languor is not suburban contentment but an ennui almost symptomatic of the diseased state in which the black community existed: robbed of pride, self-esteem, opportunity, education or employment by a white apartheid system the black youths have nothing gainful with which to employ themselves.

Let’s move on to character: no one is fleshed out here except for

…the young one, the youngest of the four, the one who said the least, who sat there and listened to the other three, the one they called Tsotsi…

Again, we are being handed a gift of an opportunity to gain context marks: the name Tsotsi is an urban slang from South Africa meaning “thug”. It is more than simply thug though: it refers to an imitation in 1950s South Africa of 1940s American gangsters in style of dress, violence and gang loyalty and rivalry. Within a single word, students are gifted opportunities to mention South Africa, Sofiatown, the violence that plagued its streets, the gangsters who ruled its slums, even the language of its streets which acquired its own name, tsotsitaal.

But this is not the end of the use we can put this quotation to. He is “the one they called Tsotsi”. It is therefore a label, a tag rather than a name. So? Might ask some students…. Well a name connects a character to a history, a family, an identity; a label is bereft of heritage. A name identifies; a label describes. As we later learn that Tsotsi has no memory of his past and the book revolves around his reclamation identity, this would be a critical issue to pick up.

But again, it’s too soon to leave this quotation: as he is “the one they called Tsotsi,” a reader may infer that the label Tsotsi is one forced upon him, one imposed by external factors rather than one chosen himself. On the surface, this seems inconsistent with what we learn later – that Tsotsi adopted the name himself after his mother was taken. But students could question who “they” may be: the other members of the gang; society; whites.

There are intriguing features to the presentation of Tsotsi here: he is clearly the gang’s leader as “The other three looked up at him and waited” but he is also “the youngest”; the gang is clearly capable of murder and violence from the remainder of the book, yet Tsotsi’s hands are “slim” and “delicate” and his fingers are “interlocking in the manner of prayer”. Whilst incongruous at this point, the novel reveals itself to be an allegory if redemption and becomes explicitly Christian in terms of that redemption and this opening image of prayer could be interpreted as an interesting early pre-figuration of that redemption.

Some things are very strange with the blogging world.

I started the Book Lover’s Sanctuary blog with no more drive or ambition than to record my thoughts, feelings, ideas about books that I read. Simple. Personal. Uncomplicated.

And then I read and blogged about Tsotsi by Athol Fugard here and here. In my opinion, a sublime and wonderful novel: lyrical and redemptive and real.

And the blog’s hit rate exploded. 20, 30, 40 hits per day on that review alone. So I did what I try to avoid doing: I though and I pondered and I wondered. And decided that it would be rude not to respond to this in some way. I am also teaching this book.

So my plan is to re-read it and to do a chapter-by-chapter textual analysis – a practical criticism exercise really. Maybe it will interest some; it might be useful to others; it may become tedious ad nauseam.

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Where does it fit within the English curriculum? Well, it’s currently a set text on the OCR GCSE English Literature specification which students read prior to a 45 minute terminal examination as Prose From Other Cultures.