AQA B English Pre-Release Summer 2007

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.

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.

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.

The Washerwomen

I don’t much like this but I shall try to be positive and enthusiastic.

This poem is about women washing clothes in the river and how much this activity has become a part of the fabric of their lives.

In the first stanza the river is personified and given a sense of intent:

“the river beats itself against the stones
And washes them”

It is as though the river chooses this behaviour, identifying itself with the washerwomen. The picture painted uses both aural and visual detail: “clouds of frothy spray” and “the thousand tones / Of an orchestra”, bringing a sense of immediacy to the writing. The alliterative f sounds in “Or foaming fumbles” intensify the stress on those words, enhancing the rhythmic pattern being created in these early lines. Try reading it out loud to see if you can hear what I mean; I think the rhythm being created is of the stones being washed by the water, as the clothes are washed by the women.

Like the river, the women are also washing. Their humming equates to the orchestral sounds of the river; we can see a strong sense of identification between the river and the women. As the women wash, “families of bubbles” are created and destroyed. These are a metaphor for the community of which the women are a part; their transience reflects the ephemeral nature of life:

“To be destroyed
Like all the baffled hopes that had their little suns
Tossed on the furious drifts of disappointments.”

Yet their tenacity in the face of the powerful waters represents the indomitability of the human spirit:

“But all the tide
Cradles these clinging bubbles ever still, alike
The friendly little hopes that never leave the heart.”

Stanza two, a much shorter stanza, makes much use of assonance and onomatopoeia. All of those “s” and “sh” sound echo the whooshing of the river, again creating a sense of immediacy and presence. The washing rhythm is re-established, so that though the “slender shoulders” of the women contrast with the “big hall of rushing waters”, we nevertheless have the sense that they are part of a whole. The rhyming of “shoulders” and “boulders” adds to this impression, as women and nature are connected. The women seem powerless, with their “slender” shoulders and their “rags”, but still they are “stubborn” and their heaving is “steady”. I feel that the poet admires their determination and persistence. The women seem to be plugging themselves in to the power of nature (I may be going a bit nuts at this point) as “They keep a sort of time/With their thoughts.” These thoughts are described as being in tune with the river:

“These were unchanging
Like the persistent music here
Of swirling waters.”

Furthermore, the activity of washing is linked to the activity of nature:

“The crash of wet clothes beaten on the stones,
The sound of wind in leaves,
Or frog croaks after dusk, and the low moan
Of the big sea fighting to the river’s mouth.”

In the final stanza this sense of unity becomes rather oppressive and despairing; we read that the women have “resigned themselves to day long swishing”. Even the natural world seems oppressed: “wet cloth chafing the very stone”; the foliage is isolated:

clumps of tall stems standing alone,/Apart, like band leaders or sentinels”. In this final stanza the imagery of music changes to that of war; “band leaders” are transformed into “sentinels”; the “hum” of the women becomes the hum of insects, likened in a simile to the sound of war planes - “bombers on a plotted course”.

Look at the repetition of the word “must” in the phrase “They must hear”. It suggests that the women have no options in their lives, that the continuance of the status quo is inevitable.

The poem ends in negativity
“As dead ones flutter down like living things
Until the shadows come.”

Cheery little piece, isn’t it? But this is my personal response. Maybe you like it; Convert me, please! I have a funny feeling about this one, that it might show up on the higher tier paper.

After the Deluge

The title refers to a saying by Louis XV of France “Apres moi le deluge”, intimating that he was all that was holding back chaos. He enjoyed an extravagant and decadent life style and it was in the reign of the Louis after him, Louis XVl, that the French Revolution brought the chaos earlier predicted. In this poem an un-named dictator, perhaps un-named because he is representative of a type, is shown living a similarly extravagant lifestyle which provokes a political “deluge”. In this poem, however, we see what happens to the dictator in consequence of the catastrophe he precipitated – “after the deluge”. This deluge is a flood, but not of water; this flood is of the disorder that washed away money and success.

Whoever this dictator is, he enjoyed a lifestyle of obscenely conspicuous consumption, as described in the first stanza. The careless, defiant waste of resources here described should be set against what is known of the poverty of Nigeria and the Nigerian people. Despite the straightforward narration of the facts, the poet communicates a sense of disgust at this excess.

Stanza two introduces us to the financial and political corruption of this dictator and there is a certain ambivalence here; whilst admiring the skill with which he manipulates money, conveying this admiration through an acrobatic metaphor –

Leap from Tokyo to Buenos Aires,
Turn somersaults through Brussels”

- the poet can clearly see the damaging global political consequences of theses actions:

“It cracked the bullion market open wide.
Governments fell, coalitions cracked
Insurrection raised its bloody flag
From North to South.”

Note the emphatic alliteration in “coalitions cracked” and the personification of insurrection.

Despite all of his wealth, even in his glory days there is a sense that he is a prisoner in a cage of his own making; Stanza three suggests that he is trapped, isolated, held at a distance from his native land with which he does not engage firsthand but through technology:

“He knew his native land through iron gates,
His sight was radar bowls, his hearing
Electronic beams. For flesh and blood,
Kept company with a brace of Dobermans.”

There is almost a sense of pity here for the man who has sacrificed real human contact for money and power. Almost.

The reference to the widow’s mite is biblical; Jesus watched rich people coming to the temple and making a huge show of giving their alms. Then he saw a poor widow come and furtively give a tiny coin, as if she were ashamed of how small the amount was. Jesus said that, because she had virtually nothing, what she had given was far more valuable than the larger amounts the rich had given out of their excess. You’ll find the story in Luke 21: 1-4. (It might remind you of that bit in Pygmalion when Higgins and Pickering discuss what Eliza’s suggested fee is really worth.).

Anyhow, the reference is a bit problematic; he’s hardly giving his all, as she did. I think the suggestion is that he only gives a small amount, a mite, like she did, despite the huge resources he has available to him. He certainly makes a big deal of what he gives. Note the oxymoronic nature of “discreetly publicised.”

In stanza four we find out what happens to him “after the deluge” and learn that “He escaped the lynch days. He survives.

The contrast between the extravagance of stanza 1 and the bare survival of stanza four is telling. In the poet’s dream the dictator is forced to engage with the reality he had previously kept at bay-

“I dreamt I saw him on a village
Water line, a parched land where
Water is a god
That doles its favours by the drop
And waiting is a way of life.”

Even so, maybe believing that there is a way back to his affluence, the dictator refuses to give up-

“Rebellion gleamed yet faintly in his eye
Traversing chrome-and-platinum retreats”

-despite his obvious irrelevance-

“Hubs of commerce smoothly turn without
His bidding, and cities where he lately roosted
Have forgotten him, the preying bird
Of passage.”

The metaphor here is of a bird of prey. The point being made is that, despite his earlier pretensions, he is ephemeral, of no lasting significance. It’s a bit like Ozymandias by Shelley. Look it up. Really, do!

The closing stanza, stanza five, suggests that his continued existence is more of a punishment than a mercy:

“They let him live, but not from pity
Or human sufferance. He scratches life
From earth, no worse a mortal than the rest.”

That phrase, “no worse…” is interesting; is the poet suggesting that everyone would behave as the dictator did, given the opportunity?

Back in the dictator’s past life, of which he can only now dream, his luxurious home is colonised by the forces of nature and decay. This is SO much like Ozymandias, and you’re not going to look it up, are you, so…


I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my works. Ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Enough said.

I, too, sing America

This poem is a dramatic monologue in response to Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics--each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat--the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench--the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter's song--the ploughboy's, on his way in the morning,
or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother--or of the young wife at work--or of the girl sewing or washing--Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day--At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

What Hughes is doing is to assert that the black community – “the darker brother”- is also a part of America and has something to contribute to the song: “I too sing America.” The word “brother” is an assertion of equality of status, despite the inequality of treatment described in stanza 1:

“They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,”
This is symbolic of the repression experienced by the coloured community.
As the stanza continues, Hughes demonstrates a refusal to be put down and the confident preparation for and expectation of a better future-
“But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.”

This confidence carries through into the second stanza, evidenced both by the use of the future tense with no conditionality and by the phrase “Nobody’ll dare”. “Tomorrow” and “Then” sit alone on the line, emphasising them.

This is not aggressiveness, though; stanza three reveals Hughes’ belief that the society in which he lives has the capacity to undergo moral and attitudinal change:

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed-“

In the final line “I, too, am America” the poet substitutes “am” for “sing”. This is a clear assertion of identity and belonging.

To Another Housewife

This poem takes the form of a dramatic monologue. It is written in strict octameter makes use of rhyme but the enjambment (suspensive pause) obscures and dilutes this rigidity of form and creates a colloquial tone.

The title identifies the speaker as a housewife, by the fact that she is addressing another housewife. Obviously the real audience of the poem is wider than this, but the title establishes a context.

Furthermore, it is a specific other housewife who is being addressed, one with whom the speaker shares specific memories. Of course, on another level the addressee is generic; any aboriginal woman of a certain generation would be likely to have had similar experiences and be able to identify with this memory. The use of alliteration – “Lean and loud”- and the use of visual detail – “how they leapt/against their chains”- crystallises the memory and makes it appear real and credible. The last line of the first verse is odd; I wonder if it is a political comment on the behaviour of the aboriginal people themselves and their response to “civilisation” and authority.

In the next verse the specific event upon which this poem focuses is described in more detail, with use being made of the senses to heighten the realism and the reader’s response. We are meant to feel “greensick”, like these girls. Am I wrong in thinking that the “green” has connotations of naivete as well as nausea? I’m thinking of “My salad days, when I was green in judgement” (Cleopatra, speaking of her renounced love for Caesar) The speaker is aware now, as she was not then, that her response to the feeding of the dogs and her vow “to touch no meat forever more” was idealistic and could not be maintained in the real world. If we are looking for cultural references, this kind of dog feeding activity is not something which would be expected of English children like you, so the poem is clearly located in another culture.

The next verse moves us out of the past tense of the memory and into the present tense of the real world. It immediately becomes obvious that the idealistic vow has long ago fallen by the wayside:

“How many cuts of choice and prime
our housewife hands have dressed since then.”

Now the speaker realises that dealing with this kind of reality is a necessary expression of love – “these hands with love and blood imbrued”. There is a sense that love and blood go together. The last four lines of this verse are, on one level, talking about the breeding and butchering of cattle for food. I wonder if, on another level, the “creatures” are the aborigines themselves, raised for the “feast of death-in-life” which is oppression and conflict.

The poem seems to open out here; it no longer relies on the specific memory mentioned earlier. Now it is addressing any other housewife, all other housewives; the specific has become generic. The picture painted in the opening four lines of this verse could be European, but the final image is of the housewives armed, as it were, with their cutlery; it is as if the news has thrown them back to the “savagery” of their childhoods, ready to stand up against the “murder, famine, pious wars…

pious wars” is an interesting oxymoron, suggesting the irreconcilability of ideals with politics. I wonder if these wars are the equivalent of the angry dogs in the first verse; do these wars happen because the oppressed aboriginal peoples are leaping angrily against their chains, making themselves the food of warfare?

Just a thought!

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.