Changes ( for Carol)

Nothing stays the same and at this time of year the changes are so rapid that a blink and it seems as if you are in another country.

The blossom comes, the blackbirds sing ,

The leaves come and the blackbirds sing.

The grasses flower and the blackbirds sing,

Crickets puncture the night , after the blackbird sings:

And the first bat scissors the dusk,

And tomorrow the blackbird still sings .

“Head of English” by Carol Ann Duffy. Notes.


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”

First Stanza:

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.

Brilliant.

Word press can achieve some remarkable things. It has introduced me to a poet that writes about places I have never seen but in the language that I can understand, in the scruffy messed up edge of the wild in which we we all inhabit .

When you go to this post you can read his collection in the link. You don’t need to be his nationality or gender or age to feel these poems, just kick through the discarded rubbish and feel the sublime.

http://peterfrankiswrites.blog/2022/02/22/here-it-is/

Tardigrade on the table!

After writing my last blog where I mentioned tardigrades possibly lumbering through the moss, my husband was inspired to dust off his microscope and we finally went looking for them in earnest.

Moss bears like damp places and after a very wet year our garden is full of moss. We took a random clump, soaked it overnight in a little water and put a drop of the water from the moss on a slide.

Within minutes my husband yelled that he could see one. I haven’t looked down a microscope for a spectacularly long time and took a much longer time to make out the tiny translucent blob that had to be arrowed before I could see it.

Without his help I don’t think I would have seen it, but once I was convinced it wasn’t a trick of the light, I could see the hoover bag body and the stumpy legs of this astounding creature . I had almost considered them to be mythical : but there it was, a real tardigrade!

Swimming in the drop of water were euglena , algae that can swim . All the rules are being broken by looking closely at the moss at the foot of my humble bird table.

“ To see the world in grain of sand, infinity in an hour…” Blake .

Happy Christmas folks!

A tardigrade through a much more powerful microscope!

Blackberry Picking

The race between the frost and the late sunshine is being run hard in my little garden. The blackberries are glossy, but still a day or two away from sweetness: the frost is forecast for the approaching full moon.

I thought of Seamus Heaney’s disquieting poem “Blackberry Picking “ where he is acutely aware of the childish desire to hoard all sweet things along with the adult recognition of the transience of life.

Poets can spoil everything by always showing us the skull beneath the skin.

...the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.

……..

Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney, “Blackberry Picking” from Opened Ground: Selected poems 1966-1996

Adam Zagajewski

This is the only lily that survived the hail storm . It is damaged but it’s perfume is undiminished and breathtakingly lovely.

It made me think of this wonderful poem by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. I was looking for a copy of the poem on the Poetry Foundation Website and I found that he had died only a few months ago. This poem has circled in my head since I first read it . The poem is universal , deeply human and the author was a great poet .

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

By ADAM ZAGAJEWSKITRANSLATED BY Clare Cavanagh

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Ode to a Nightingale.

The pear blossom is over, the cherry blossom is still splashing down and the pink edged perfect apple blossom is just showing between the twin green leaves that seem to offer up the simple flowers to an April morning.

In the thicket a real Nightingale sang. Her song is so rich, so varied, so burbling, so beautiful it needs Keats to do it justice. This poem seems so apt and poignant today, just as it did for Keats struggling with TB and still transported by the astounding beauty of the bird’s song. It is a long poem, but well worth reading again, or for the first time.

“Immortal bird” indeed.

Ode to a Nightingale .

John Keats- 1795-1821

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
  My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, 
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains 
  One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: 
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
  But being too happy in thine happiness,— 
    That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, 
          In some melodious plot 
  Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, 
    Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

2.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
  Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth, 
Tasting of Flora and the country green, 
  Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth! 
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
  Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, 
    With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, 
          And purple-stained mouth; 
  That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, 
    And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

3.

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget 
  What thou among the leaves hast never known, 
The weariness, the fever, and the fret 
  Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; 
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
  Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; 
    Where but to think is to be full of sorrow 
          And leaden-eyed despairs, 
  Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, 
    Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

4.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee, 
  Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, 
But on the viewless wings of Poesy, 
  Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: 
Already with thee! tender is the night,
  And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, 
    Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays; 
          But here there is no light, 
  Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown 
    Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

5.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, 
  Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, 
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet 
  Wherewith the seasonable month endows 
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
  White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine; 
    Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves; 
          And mid-May’s eldest child, 
  The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, 
    The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

6.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time 
  I have been half in love with easeful Death, 
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, 
  To take into the air my quiet breath; 
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
  To cease upon the midnight with no pain, 
    While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad 
          In such an ecstasy! 
  Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
    To thy high requiem become a sod.

7.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! 
  No hungry generations tread thee down; 
The voice I hear this passing night was heard 
  In ancient days by emperor and clown: 
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path 
  Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, 
    She stood in tears amid the alien corn; 
          The same that oft-times hath 
  Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam 
    Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn. 

8.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toil me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Simon Armitage’s poem on the funeral of Prince Phillip and his generation.

The Patriarchs – An Elegy

The weather in the window this morning
is snow, unseasonal singular flakes,
a slow winter’s final shiver. On such an occasion
to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up
for a whole generation – that crew whose survival
was always the stuff of minor miracle,
who came ashore in orange-crate coracles,
fought ingenious wars, finagled triumphs at sea
with flaming decoy boats, and side-stepped torpedoes.

Husbands to duty, they unrolled their plans
across billiard tables and vehicle bonnets,
regrouped at breakfast. What their secrets were
was everyone’s guess and nobody’s business.
Great-grandfathers from birth, in time they became
both inner core and outer case
in a family heirloom of nesting dolls.
Like evidence of early man their boot-prints stand
in the hardened earth of rose-beds and borders.

They were sons of a zodiac out of sync
with the solar year, but turned their minds
to the day’s big science and heavy questions.
To study their hands at rest was to picture maps
showing hachured valleys and indigo streams, schemes
of old campaigns and reconnaissance missions.
Last of the great avuncular magicians
they kept their best tricks for the grand finale:
Disproving Immortality and Disappearing Entirely.

The major oaks in the wood start tuning up
and skies to come will deliver their tributes.
But for now, a cold April’s closing moments
parachute slowly home, so by mid-afternoon
snow is recast as seed heads and thistledown.

February (thinking of Wilfred Owen’s “Exposure”)

Thick white muffling snow outside, a hotel duvet of down and cotton.

Inside the house is loud with quiet.

The stove ticks, the metal expands and contracts as logs burn hot and then down splutter down into jewel crusted ash.

The cuckoo clock ticks, comfortable and confident in time passing that will be undisturbed even by the Amazon van lost in drifting uncleared roads.

The cat wheezes and turns over again in his sleep .

But nothing happens.

Swallow.

I took the curtains down
They have hung unwashed against the glass for too long.
The window was bigger,
filled from frame to frame with sunshine and a perfect blue sky
And then the sky erupted:
Swallows and martins exploded,
flung exuberance , flight and life,
Careering, tumbling , screaming,
A great cloud of birds in all of the sky giving depth to the flat perfection of the blue day : calling calling calling.
I could not hear them behind the glass but I know the sound
The screaming chattering essence of flight, of movement , of freedom –
Oh swallow, swallow!