AQA Conflict Cluster Poems | How Do I Approach Them?

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Poetry is often a daunting subject for many prospective GCSE students. Often the idea that there are multiple interpretations of a text can confuse those who are approaching a certain cluster of poems for the first time. If you are beginning to study, or are revising the popular conflict cluster of poems in the AQA Anthology Moon on the Tides, then this is a guide to help you focus on the kind of thoughts and questions that will apply to many of the poems in this cluster.

DIFFERENT TYPES OF CONFLICT

Firstly, what you should be aware of is that ‘conflict’ can be interpreted in many ways. The collection of poems in this cluster showcase the many types of conflict a person can encounter. So it is important to keep an open mind when trying to understand what types of conflict the poem might be addressing; not just simply ‘war’.

Different types of conflict you may encounter are: terrorism, civil war, political differences, occupations, tension between ethnic groups or personal struggles (either mental or physical) with an idea, person or even their conscience.

Some poems focus on a narrow point of view, possible the inner thoughts of a persona or they could shed light on the aftermath of conflict and its consequences.

CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING FOR THE POEMS

When studying the poems in this cluster, try to get into the habit of asking yourself these questions to help you ‘unlock’ the main ideas it is trying to convey:

  • What kind of conflict does this poem FOCUS on?
    Is it set during a conflict or is it the aftermath of the conflict? Who does the conflict AFFECT? Does it feature on a certain war? If so, what is it trying to highlight?
  • From what PERSPECTIVE is it written?
    This could be first (I), second (you) or third person (they). Is there a persona (written from a character’s point of view)? If so are they a participant, observer or a victim? How does this affect the reader? What time is it set in? Past, present or future? Has this been done for a reason?
  • How does the poem EXPLORE CONFLICT?
    What does the poem tell/ suggest about conflict? How does the poet do this with his language choices, structural features (layout/ organisation of text and ideas)?
  • WHY has the poet written this poem?
    What is the overall attitude/ feelings of the poet/ persona? What is the mood of the piece? How could the atmosphere reflect this?
  • How has the poet COMMUNICATED their ideas?
    Look at language choice, literary devices and their placement in the poem – could these help to communicate the poets central ideas?
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Biography | John Agard

John Agard

Biography

  • Born 21st June 1949, Guyana
  • Afro-Guyanese poet, playwright, author and children’s writer
  • Wrote first poetry when he was in sixth-form
  • Left school in 1967 to pursue career as a librarian, sub-editor and feature writer in the newspaper Guyana Sunday Chronicle.
  • He wrote two books which were published while still in Guyana.
  • Left Guyana in 1977 and travelled to England, still lives there today with his long-term partner Grace Nichols (also renowned poet).
  • Worked for the Commonwealth Institute and the BBC in London.
  • Became poet-in-residence at the National Maritime Museum in 2008
  • His poem Half-Caste featured in the AQA English GCSE Anthology since 2002 and has been studied by pupils aged 14-16 across the country for their GCSE qualification.

Awards

Understanding the Poem Belfast Confetti – Ciaran Carson

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TITLE OF POEM: Ciaran Carson’s poem may sound a bit odd to those who where not around to witness ‘The Troubles’ in Ireland that ran from the 1960s to the 1980s. Carson lived through those troublesome times when there were clashes between Irish Nationalists (IRA) who basically wanted the British out of their land (Northern Ireland). These public riots often took place on huge streets and would go on for days. They involved the public against British armed forces and police. The name ‘Belfast Confetti’ was basically slang for the homemade hand grenades put together by the Irish opposition in Belfast that were filled with leftover pieces of nuts, bolts and other small metal items.

It was called ‘confetti’ because of the resemblance of shrapnel falling on people when a grenade explodes. It is ironic how a celebratory term is being used to describe what was essentially the complete opposite.

THE POEM:
Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks,
Nuts, bolts, nails, car keys. A fount of broken type.
And the explosion
Itself – an asterisk on the map. This hyphenated line, a burst of rapid fire …
I was trying to complete a sentence in my head, but it kept stuttering,
All the alleyways and side-streets blocked with stops and colons.

I know this labyrinth so well – Balaclava, Raglan, Inkerman, Odessa Street –
Why can’t I escape? Every move is punctuated.
Crimea Street. Dead end again.
A Saracen, Kremlin-2 mesh. Makrolon face-shields.
Walkie-talkies. What is
My name? Where am I coming from? Where am I
going? A fusillade of question-marks.

SPEAKER, TONE AND ATTITUDE

The speaker (person speaking to us from the poem) is someone caught in the sudden clash between the two factions. We could say it is Carson himself telling us how it felt to be caught up in the conflict on the streets of Belfast. The tone of the poem is indicative of someone who is bewildered. Notice the very short sentences for effect, and the multitude of question marks “fusillade” in this case showing someone not being sure of what to do or where to go. This reveals the shock and panic of a person trying to find a way out. In the first stanza we have a hasty list “nuts, bolts nails, car keys” which speeds up the pace of the poem, adding a feverish atmosphere. The objects themselves and the things that are the very ‘confetti’ that the poem is named after, but here they are raining down on the speaker’s head like bullets. 

These supposedly safe, household objects turn hostile, adding a certain horror to the situation. The objects are used for a strange Which probably aims to highlight how Ireland itself (home) to both sides, has become an alien environment to live in. Neighbourhoods which should symbolise calm and friendliness have now become a battleground. This is jarring to the viewer, as the things and places they once knew as ‘safe’ have taken on a sinister, deadly role. 

SEMANTIC FIELD/ WORD CHOICE OF POET

Carson uses a specific semantic field when describing the conflict on the street: punctuation. Punctuation marks come to symbolise the violence on the streets. It is important to also note that this is an extended metaphor as all the way through the poem punctuation is a metaphor for violence. In some instances it it the appearance of it that he uses to illustrate the destruction of a mine “the explosion itself, an asterisk on the map”. If we take the analogy of the asterisk as an explosion, we can read further into this – what do we use asterisks for? How can this apply to the explosion on the map? 

My students have remarked how an asterisks is often used to indicate an addendum (extra information that sheds more light onto an issue in a text), so they interpreted the asterisk as Carson’s way of hinting that there is far more going on in the conflict that meets the eye. The ‘troubles’ themselves have a complex history, and my pupils raised the issue that it could be possible that these rioters may have even forgotten why they are fighting, or what they are fighiting for.

IDENTITY

In any case, this could be supported by the fact that there is also a loss of identity emerging towards the end of stanza 2, where the speakers states “what is my name?” In the same way that punctuation makrs help us make sense of a written piece of work, here they seem to be causing havoc. There is a break down of communication (which causes most wars and conflicts), therefore we could argue that Carson is trying to convey how this may sometimes give way to a loss of ‘self’ and especially with our own conscience. 

War dehumanises people. Is Carson conveying this to us? Could the “Makronlon face-shields” be testament to this loss of hmanity and identity? What of the walkie-talkies? I think it is very telling, that the punctuation and imagery here is highlighting the  aggressive, brutal language of war. 

LANGUAGE

We have already established the importance of language, or rather the degeneration of it. The stuttering of a sentence in the head resembles a machine gun report. The alleyways are blocked by hostile stops and colons in the form of road blocks. Carson is using the only thing he knows to portray the nonsensical violence of what is happening around him: language. 

STRUCTURE: There is much to say about the way the pem structured. There is frequent use of caesura to indicate communication being cut off, either geographically or in the literal meaning of the word. This is reflected also in the semantic field. 

There are two stanzas, 7 lines each. Yet each line is different lengths indicating how the streets are cut off and are irregular lengths. The enjambment is also testament to this, where we get a sense of how the speaker is trying to run away, but isn’t able to. Paying attention to lines like ‘what is my name?’ is especially telling, as the phrase is literally cut in half, a bit like the rioters. The people of Ireland are divided and no longer feel like united.