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 – 10 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.
Well. Really. Run along now, girls. I’m sure that gave an insight to an outside view.
Applause will do. Thank you
very much for coming here today. Lunch
in the hall? Do hang about. Unfortunately,
I have to dash. Tracey will show you out.
Carol Ann Duffy
I love this poem, as an ex-Head of English myself I can hear my own voice and others in her pomposity and her exasperation and rushed insensitivity. It makes me laugh out loud every time I read it.
This blog is a pretty quiet place, as I do absolutely nothing to increase traffic (as I believe it is called). I don’t link it to anything and I don’t do any other social media at all, so I have been fascinated to see how many views I get from India, from Pakistan and from some other WordPress readers on the same poetry posts.
I have two short posts that continuously attract “traffic” and they are about “ The Road Through the Woods” by Kipling and “McCavity the Mystery Cat” by Elliot. I have deduced that they are both on an exam syllabus and many struggling students have stumbled across my posts and used them to help with homework or revision.
I see “The Head of English” is on the IGCSE syllabus at the moment, so this post is by way of an experiment to see if my simple notes attract interest.
Notes on the poem ( feel free to use!)
Carol Ann Duffy is a famous poet and she must often have visited schools and given talks to pupils just like “the real life poet” in this poem. She would have been met by many women like the Head of English ( the head of the English department in the school) and given an introductory talk by her to the students. After the poet had spoken; in this case to “the girls”; she would then have been given a few words of thanks by the Head of English and then usually taken for lunch with the other teachers in the staff room. The poet would have been given a small payment for this talk: in this case “ forty pounds”.
What is original about this poem is that we never hear a word from the actual poet. She is not a character in the poem at all. Duffy speaks entirely through the Head of English and creates a wonderfully small minded, judgmental character who speaks in cliches; likes old fashioned poetry and is obviously very unimpressed by what the real poet has to say “Well. Really”
The Head of English is addressing her pupils before the poet speaks to them. The Head of English speaks in awful clichés “ note the inkstained fingers” and “verse hot off the press”. She tells the pupils to clap but “not too loud”, she is the controlling and illogical school teacher .
The second stanza runs straight from the first with no punctuation ( an example of enjambement!) which mimics the rush and pomposity of the teacher. The mention of “assonance” is there to impress the poet with her superior knowledge of poetical terminology, but this is spoilt by her lament that “ not all poems rhyme” and her determination to get her money’s worth from the poet “After all, we’re paying forty pounds”
In the third stanza she mentions the students for whom English is not their not their first language. Her curt, throw away line “see me after break” makes these students seem a problem. “Season of mists and so on and so forth” is a mashed part of a line from Keats’ famous poem “Ode to Autumn” which again might be considered old fashioned, as might her studying of Kipling with her older students. She again wants to appear superior due to her knowledge . All English teachers will recognize the “I’ve written quite a bit of poetry myself “ boast and may cringe with embarrassment as they read Duffy’s very clever lines.
The fourth stanza is the funniest. Her “ winds of change” comment is an allusion to a famous political speech, but she is using it to refer to the girls potentially farting during the speech and the need to open the window. She orders the girls to take notes and not write too much ( “reams” ) but somehow manage to write an essay about the poet’s themes at the same time. This is obviously impossible and her glib rhyming of “reams and themes” makes her seem even more foolish and irritating.
As she sits back to enjoy a break from teaching by listening to the poet, her line “Convince us that there’s something we don’t know” is adversarial and the reader of the poem may positively dislike her at his point.
In the final stanza, the talk from the poet is over and the Head of English is not impressed. “Well. Really” these two short words convey her displeasure and shock in a typically repressed polite fashion. School teachers are geniuses at conveying disappointment in the very few words allowed. She is now in a hurry now to get rid of the poet. The implication is that the poet had said something controversial which has shocked the teacher and she does not want her pupils contaminated “ Run along now Girls” The teacher does not want to spend any more time with poet, she does not invite her to eat with her and leaves it to a girl called Tracey ( an unpoetic name) to see her out.
The Head of English has not had her intellect or sympathy expanded by the talk from the poet.
Carol Ann Duffy leaves the reader to imagine for them selves what sort of poems the imaginary poet read aloud to the girls. Duffy leaves the reader to construct what good poetry might be, by setting the views of the Head of English in complete opposition.
This is a funny poem because we recognize our teachers and their prejudices in the character Duffy creates. We laugh at her, but not too cruelly, as no one has been harmed in the snubbing of the imaginary poet . Duffy is undoubtedly using her own personal experiences as a visiting poet to create a memorably foolish character in The Head of English.