AQA B English Pre-Release Summer 2006

Poems from Different Cultures and Traditions - Notes

On the Highway

This free verse poem is very factual in its tone in the opening verse. This, and the colours described, give the feel of an old fashioned photograph - black and white or sepia tone - suggesting something old fashioned or caught in the past. Indeed, the whole poem has a photographic quality.

Verse 2 introduces the use of metaphor, with the references to "crescent moons", "shaved heads" and "black puddles". The shaved heads image is somewhat macabre coming from within the Vietnamese context of a history of conflict; it is not impossible to imagine that actual heads have been carried in this way. Adding to this macabre sense is the rather sinister image of shadows like "black puddles". When allied to the verb "spill", the puddles of shadow can be transformed into puddles of blood. It is as if the history of the traumatised country is reaching into the present.

Similes are introduced in verse 3, and these all have military connotations - "like defeated soldiers"; "like empty rifles"; "like medals". In each case the conflict is over: the soldiers are defeated; the rifles are empty; medals are only awarded after the event. It is suggested that the war is still very much in the nation's consciousness; it may be over but it has never gone away.

The final verse begins with a very vivid and visual image. The women look "Like clouds floating heavy before a storm". This is both visually accurate and, maybe, symbolic; given this still existent army of women, albeit defeated, and the image of storm clouds, is there more trouble on the horizon for Vietnam?

A sense of poverty and despondency pervades and overwhelms this poem, from the dingy colours to the torn clothes. Hope seems to be absent - "They expect no welcome, await no acclamation."- and the poem culminates in a question suggesting futility, aimlessness and squalor -

"Where do they come from and where will they go,
Spreading the smell of crabs and snails about them?"

This lack of resolution in the punctuation of the poem may reflect a lack of resolution in the nation's life.

Mulga Bill's Bicycle

This is a narrative poem, with significant ballad elements in its form, though the verse lengths are irregular. It does, however: begin abruptly; use simple language; tell a story through dialogue and action; deal with a single episode; have a strongly dramatic element; have an impersonal narrator; make use of incremental repetition ("T'was Mulga Bill of Eaglehawk..."); use simple imagery ("just like a silver streak"; "that two wheeled outlaw"), all characteristic of ballads. It is written in rhyming couplets with 7 feet (14 beats) in each line, unfailingly. This regularity of rhythm both drives the story on and adds an air of comedy, as the outcome is, from early in the poem, as predictable as the rhyme scheme and rhythm.

The poem employs three voices: that of the impersonal narrator, the standard shop assistant and the characterising colloquial voice of Mulga Bill himself. His salt-of-the-earth self confidence, bordering on arrogance, is communicated through his boastful use of animal imagery to describe himself -

"just ask a wild duck can it swim, a wild cat can it fight"

- and the reference to his "air of lordly pride".

His use of non standard English vocabulary - "narrer shaves"- and grammar - "But what I'll sit"& "I've rode" add to this sense of him as a rough diamond. Contrastingly incongruously with this colloquialism is the elevated language used by the narrator - "sought his own abode". The incremental repetition hints at heroism, a suggestion later undermined by the comical and ridiculous experience of Mulga Bill.

It could be argued that there is another character, albeit a voiceless one; the bicycle is given a sense of determination and identity in verses 5 & 6:

"it dodged... it made a leap"

All of these things seem to be wilfully done by the bicycle, which is ultimately personified as a "two-wheeled outlaw".

From the outset Mulga Bill is set up for comic failure, allowing the poet to convey the cliched moral that pride goes before a fall. It is, however, an affectionate satire of the stereotypically macho "Bruce" (sorry Mr Sheehan!) It may also be a rejection of the modern and an affirmation of traditional ways: Mulga Bill is punished for his rejection of "the good old horse that served him many days" in favour of "the cycling craze". The word "craze" is suggestive of transience and triviality in contrast to the solidity and reliability of what he has rejected. Ultimately Mulga Bill has to recognise and repent of his folly, re-affirming the old ways: "a horse's back is good enough, henceforth for Mulga Bill."

Mr Sheehan's theory is that this poem is part of an attempt to create a literary background and history for a country that was too new to actually have one - I think that's the idea anyway. I'm sure he'll elucidate for you if you ask him!

A Memory

This free verse poem divides into 3 sections: the memory emerging; the memory experienced and the memory analysed.

Plot wise, the poet remembers waking up as a 3 year old and wanting a drink. Her father goes to fetch it but does not return so she investigates and finds that the reason for his non appearance is a snake in the kitchen, which he kills and puts in a jar before cleaning up. In the morning he smuggles it out of the house. His wife sleeps throughout.

The first section is presented in a somewhat fractured form, with irregular stanza lengths growing in bulk as the memory emerges and solidifies. Each segment seems like a building block for the developing memory. The repeated phrases "This memory" and "There was" suggest a searching for certainty of memory and a growing confidence in its accuracy. At this opening stage the memory seems removed from her, almost to have a life of its own. The girl, who turns out to be the poet, is described in the 3rd person as " a three year old girl".

In section 2 we have the actual memory relayed to us from the viewpoint of the child. The language becomes more prose like in structure, as if the memory has finally surfaced, though there is a simile in this verse: the snake is described as

"silvery green
almost like moonlight
through the trees."

This might indicate that some of the romance and mystery of the emerging memory remains.

Using dashes to punctuate, rather than full stops, gives a continuity to the verse; the memory is whole now, no longer fractured. The girl is now identified as "I".

Section 3 moves forward into adult analysis of the childhood experience "Years later". It is presented almost as a trauma -

After all these years
for the first time
we are talking about it"

and certainly as a secret to be kept from her mother

"I remember his face in the morning
and his gestures
while my mother was still asleep."

By this stage there is no mystery or lyricism left; the memory has been recalled and dissected and the poem ends up in her father's lab. with the snake.

Condition of Sale

This free verse poem has tremendous dignity and creates the impression from the outset that this transaction, if it happens, is unlikely to be successful. The word "condition" appears in the very title and the first word of the poem is "if". Both of these word appear elsewhere in the poem. Repetition is extensively to highlight key concepts such as the fact that the land is "sacred"; the personified rivers are "brothers"; the "white man" and "red man" stand in contrast and opposition one to another, especially since the "white man" is a "stranger".

This last issue is reinforced by frequent use of the contrasting personal pronouns "we" and "you", "our" and "your". The vocabulary of violence used of the "white man" - "takes"; "enemy"; "conquered"; "devour" and the response of pain in the "red man" to the cities of the "white man" contrasts markedly with the natural and beautiful vocabulary used to define the "red man"'s values:

"the unfurling
of the leaves in spring
or the rustle
of an insect's wings."

Indeed, the whole structure of the poem presents this opposition: Verse 1 deals with the "red man"s approach to life; verse 2 presents the attitude of the "white man"; verse 3 brings the two together and verse 4 concludes rather inconclusively (!) using the words "consider" and "condition". There is a sense of the poem presenting a train of thought, each verse reflecting different stages in the process.

The dignity and simplicity of the language reflects onto the "red man", leaving the reader definitely having taken sides.

The Great Goddess

The title sets up heroic expectations which fail to be fulfilled, creating irony.

The extended metaphor of this free verse poem is of the world as an old sock and god(ess) eternally trying to hold it all together, mending the new ladders and holes. Her labour is eternal - "day and night"- arduous and ultimately futile as there are "ever new holes, new ladders." Time is immaterial to her, as we are shown in the lines

"Sometimes she nods off
just for a moment
or for a century"

To her, these are one and the same.

At first I liked the idea of god as female, but it soon becomes apparent that this isn't girl power but the epitome of female servitude; in the service of the world the "great goddess" has become "tiny, wrinkled and blind!"

Wedding in the Flood

This free verse poem tells the story of a wedding in the flood season, focussing on the small visual details as seen through the eyes of the people involved although, as the pre release intro suggests, "it is the monsoon rain which is the real protagonist of this story". The present tense is used throughout, giving a sense of immediacy.

The first voice we hear is that of the girls' mother, grieving over the loss of her daughter and worrying about her prospects. The reference to the "whine" of the clarinet, playing what should be celebratory wedding music, reflects the mother's "sobs".

The narratorial voice then takes over, filling in with exposition. We see the specific cultural identity of the poem coming through in the, at this stage, quaint reference to the Pakistani proverb about rain being caused by girls who lick pots in the kitchen. The nature of the dowry - "a cot, a looking glass, a tin trunk"- is described, at this stage in positive terms - "beautifully painted in grey and blue".

Verse 2 is given over mainly to the voice of the bridegroom, who is presented negatively through the use of the word "gloats" and through his appearance based, mercenary, blaming attitude;

"If only her face matches her hands,
and she gives me no mother-in-law problems,
I'll forgive her the cot and the trunk
and looking glass. Will the rain never stop?
It was my luck to get a pot licking wench."

It is interesting to see that the references to the proverb and the dowry are less positive in this verse; plainly this is not the dowry the bridegroom wanted, and he takes the proverb seriously rather that seeing it as quaint.

It is not until verse 3 that we hear from the bride. The main sense used here is that of touch; she is in the dark, with wet feet, feeling cold and scared. Her fear and insecurity is revealed by her anxiety about the now choric reference to the cot, trunk and looking glass, though her submerged but more major concern is "What sort of a man is my husband?" Because the structure of the poem has already introduced us to him, in no complimentary fashion, we are unable to anticipate a happy answer for her.

At this point the danger presented by the "swollen river" is reintroduced via the slipping feet of the palankeen bearers. A link seems to be being made between the risks offered by the river and by the marriage.

In verse 4 we meet the bridegroom's father, and are immediately able to see the source of the son's undesirable attitudes; the father's mercenary and condemning approach is brought into focus by reference, again, to the proverb and the dowry, which is deemed of low value because the items are "all the things that she will use!"

It is made clear that he had been expecting more personal advantage, in the form of cattle. Once again we are reminded of the danger of the journey, because "The light is poor, and the paths treacherous," and of the overwhelming river, which is associated with "fear".

The final verse belongs exclusively to the narratorial voice. The mercenary element persists with the reference to the fact that "a wedding party always pays extra" and the dowry makes its final, by this time devalued and trivialised appearance.

Metaphor, arguably personification, is used to describe both the "angry" river and the ferry which "disgorges" its load; I feel that the image of the ferry, at least, is more that of a monster spewing out its victims, Charybdis like, than of a person. Either way, both river and ferry cease to be inanimate and gain definite identities. The ferryman is reminiscent of Charon, who carried the dead over the river Styx to Hades.

The final 6 1/2 lines, if I am reading them correctly, seem squalidly comic, in a "Carry On" film kind of way; The reference to the clarinet filling with water can be seen as a sexual image, particularly when juxtaposed with the line "Oh what a consumation is here" and the information that

"in an eddy, among the willows downstream,
The coy bride is truly wedded at last."

OK. Further discussion with Mr Sheehan and Mrs Partridge (who are ganging up against me!) leads me to review my position on this. I have been convinced that this is about death, the ultimate consumation; Hamlet described death as "a consumation / Devoutly to be wish'd" so there are very respectable literary precedents. Further, the palankeen can be seen as a coffin, carried as it is by "bearers". In this reading, then, the whole wedding party dies as a result of the flood. The sexual imagery is still there - sex and death have always been linked in literature - but it is representative of death rather than being an end in itself.

Mr Sheehan argues that Taufiq Rafat sees the flood as sweeping away the old way of doing things, such as the arranged marriage described here, to make way for the new.

Maybe I'm responding to this poem in too much of a European feminist way, but I feel that the poet is presenting the attitudes expressed by the male characters in it as patriarchal and chauvinist. The sequence of events described is comic but the overall feel of the poem, especially in terms of the potential of happiness for the bride, strikes me as negative and hopeless.

Ballad of the Totems

This ballad (look at the characteristics of a ballad as listed under "Mulga Bill's Bicycle") is written in a strict metrical and rhyming scheme which bounces along jauntily and matches the lack of seriousness in tone of the poem; both content and form are comic. Some, however, might argue for an element of serious content, as this poem portrays conflict within a marriage and between cultures.

Plot wise, in a marriage between partners of different clans and with different totems (symbolic and sacred animals), a conflict arises because the totem of the husband is killing the wife's chickens, but is beyond punishment because of tradition.

In verse 1 we see the two parties introduced, father with a formal dignity suggested in the archaic form "whom none must ever slay" which is undermined by the colloquial nature of mother's assertion that "carpet snakes/ were nothing but a pest."

Alliteration -"Steady slithering sound" and onomatopoeia "yelp" and "squawk" are used to enhance the jolly nature of the poem, along with the cartoon like simile

"she looked as innocent as the cat
that ate the pet canary."

In the final verse we see the ultimate debunking of superstition, as the dead father's tribal totem is eaten-

"I think we all had snake for tea
one day about that time."

This, and the fact that the whole poem is a piece of shameless doggerel, may suggest that Walker is ridiculing the superstitions and traditions held dear by her father.

The Beggar

This free verse poem describes the poet's two encounters with a beggar, on the way to and from town, and the emotions provoked in him by those encounters. The vocabulary used to describe the beggar on the first encounter projects a curious mixture of aggression and vulnerability; his hand is "thrust" out in a way which is "demanding" and yet he is also "small", his eyes are "receding into bone", he is "shivering" and "too thin". The simile "small and crumpled as a towel" powerfully evokes a sense of his powerlessness and disposability. The simile "black as biltong", with its reference to dried meat, suggests the physical dessication and weakness of the beggar. The poet notes that all of this combines, "denying the truculence of the hand." It is as if these parts of his body have different identities, as if the hand is acting out of desperation, against its will or better judgement.

The poet refuses to give and is immediately assailed by a sense of guilt which he would rather not feel and which he tries to reject:

"I...walked on
annoyed that I was annoyed,
and swatting off shame"

The metaphor of his shame as a persistent and irritating insect is effective.

On the way back from town the weather changes and so does the attitude and behaviour of the poet. The vocabulary becomes positive and joyful-

"a suddenly clear
sky sang
of summer round the bend,
white sails in the Bay,
birds grown garrulous again."

in contrast with the earlier negativity of "grime", "crumpled", "receding", "shivering", "truculence", "annoyed", "shame".
The alliterative "s" words build towards the climactic "sang of summer", demanding the triumphant stressing of these words.
The poet is moved to look for the beggar who now is presented as being like a piece of rubbish

"hardly distinguishable
from any of the other
drifts of debris in the lane."

Despite his belief that the beggar is "Drunk again", the poet nevertheless gives him money. The use of the word "penance" suggests that this is as much to assuage his own conscience as to benefit the beggar. The alliterative p sounds of

"paused, then pressed
my penance into his palm"

drive home the pressing action.

The simile "Quick as a trap", with its snappy consonants, creates a sense of the speed of the beggar's response. It becomes clear that the poet had misjudged the beggar who is, in fact, "sober" and now holds on tightly to the gift.

The poet, however, seems to feel no better about himself having given; there is irony in the words "blessed me for my kindness", as the poet is well aware that this is not what motivated him. The words "the bribe my guilt refused" show that his conscience will not be bought off; he is trying to assuage his guilt for passing by at first by giving the second time, but his inner morality will not let him off the hook.

The final image of the beggar is as, again, a piece of debris, something abandoned, "as though a car had flung him there". The reference to the "healing of the sun" might be seen as suggesting that the free gifts of nature are more gracious and valuable than the reluctant sops to conscience given by such as the poet.