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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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. 

GCSE Poetry Revision | ‘August 6, 1945’ by Alison Fell

‘What have we done?’ – written by the co-pilot of the Enola Gay in his diary, as he witnessed the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb spreading over Hiroshima.

August 6, 1945

In the Enola Gay
five minutes before impact
he whistles a dry tune

Later he will say
that the whole blooming sky
went up like an apricot ice.
Later he will laugh and tremble
at such a surrender, for the eye
of his belly saw Marilyn’s skirts
fly over her head for ever

On the river bank,
bees drizzle over
hot white rhododendrons

Later she will walk
the dust, a scarlet girl
with her whole stripped skin
at her heel, stuck like an old
shoe sole or mermaid’s tail

Later she will lie down
in the flecked black ash
where the people are become
as lizards or salamanders
and, blinded, she will complain
Mother you are late. So late

Later in dreams he will look
down shrieking and see

ladybirds
ladybirds

By Alison Fell

CONTEXT: The title of the poem indicates the date America dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This unprecedented move by America is said by some to have ended WW2, however the poem itself explores the guilty conscience of those involved in the bombings and refers throughout to time passing, as each stanza begins with the word ‘later’. The poem is written from a retrospective point of view, yet begins moments before the bomb is dropped, when the world was still oblivious to the idea of atomic warfare.

‘Enola Gay’ is the name of the  Boeing B-29 Superfortress plane carrying the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy‘, and was named by pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets after his mother. The bomb was uranium-based and was untested during the Manhattan Project, unlike the second bomb (‘Fat Man‘) that was plutonium-based, and was dropped on Nagasaki three days after the Hiroshima bombing.

In the poem, Fell explores two aspects of the bombing; the aerial view of the pilots as they watched the event from the plane and their subsequent feelings of detachment, and also the suffering of the victims on the ground from the radioactive fallout.

Fell uses vivid imagery to show the three deadly stages of the bombing. The first is the ‘blast’ which produced the mushroom cloud. This is curiously compared to the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe in her white dress as it gets ‘blasted’ by the air from the subway grating.

The second stage is the fire storm and the  ‘black rain’ that occurred after the blast. The fire storm is shown through the ‘the scarlet girl’, whose skin has been stripped off from the heat of the bomb. The black rain is compared to bees ‘raining’ over white flowers, which symbolises the white-hot heat of the fire as it burns the people at ground-zero.

The third stage is the radioactive fallout, which is again shown through the girl whose body is being consumed by the cancerous radiation as she lies down in defeat. Other victims are also hinted at, and compared to ‘lizards’ and ‘salamanders’, who are well-known for shedding their skin. In ancient times salamanders were believed to be immune to fire, but this is false. Fell uses this image in an ironic way, as none of the victims survived the blast. In fact, photos taken by American pilots before and after the attack show a Hiroshima that was quite literally ‘wiped off’ the map.

Photos of Hiroshima taken before and after the bombing.

Photos of Hiroshima taken before and after the bombing.

The final stanza refers to a popular nursery rhyme called ‘Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home‘. The rhyme contains the lines:  ‘your house is on fire and your children are gone’, which links with Hiroshima being on fire and how all the children are dead or gone. The rhyme also refers to a girl called Ann, who survives by hiding under a baking pan. This could be linked to the girl in the poem whose skin has fallen off and is barely alive.

TONE/ MOOD: The poem is written in a conversational tone with lines like ‘the whole blooming sky’ where the word ‘blooming’ could be to swear or curse in colloquial language (slang). There is as sense of irony throughout the poem, as Fell uses inappropriate imagery to compare to the horrors of war. The mushroom cloud resembles Marilyn Monroe’s skirts and the fire from the bomb is compared to ‘apricot ice’. The poet is constantly challenging our view of the events with such images and this gives the poem a tone of absurdity. The realities of war are caricatured, or made smaller, which mirrors how mankind cannot cope with the scale of the atrocity and seeks to ‘shrink’ the consequences down to a manageable size. In the last stanza, this is represented by how the burning humans take on the shape of ladybirds in the dreams of the pilot.

RHYME/ RHYTHM: The poem has no regular rhyme or rhythm. This irregularity matches the feeling of confusion created in the poem.

KEY IMAGERY/ IDEAS:
* The ‘Enola Gay‘ – There is a constant reference to female figures. The plane ‘Enola Gay’ is named after the pilot’s mother and carries not only her offspring (the pilot himself) but also the bomb ‘Little Boy’, the brain-child of America. The plane symbolises America itself, which as a country is referred to as ‘the motherland’. She leads her brave sons to make history and conquer Japan. The dropping of the bomb signifies her ‘giving birth’ to a new and terrible age of warfare, where the ‘sons’ of one country annihilate the ‘sons’ of another.

Marilyn Monroe – The burst of the bomb is compared to the iconic figure of Marilyn Monroe with her flying skirts. This is sexually charged imagery, where motherland America is seen to stand astride Japan in a victory pose that is both a mockery and a taunt. It is a provocative pose, and the pilot gets aroused by the explosion the same way he would if looking at this picture of the sex icon. It promotes a boosted sense of virility for America as the ‘doer’ and ‘winner’; which is in total odds with Japan, whose population suffered from years of radiation exposure which caused sterility.

We could also argue that Monroe’s skirts that ‘fly over her head forever’, could signify a turning point for America and the world, where things will never be the same again. It also paints the image of a woman forever violated; of a woman who is perhaps so ashamed of what has happened, that she is ‘hiding’ her face from the very event she has given birth to.

the ‘Scarlet girl’ – The word ‘scarlet’ suggests a girl who is perhaps sexually promiscuous, which links to the image of Marilyn Monroe and sexual violation. Her skin hangs off her body in the same way that Monroe shows her skin in the provocative photo. The plane can also be connected to this idea as the name ‘Enola Gay’ is written over its body like a tattoo.

* Lizards/ Salamanders – The victims are compared to lizards and salamanders which is not only belittling, but also draws further ties with the shedding of skin, which these creatures are known to do. Salamanders were once believed to be immune to fire, however this is not true. It is ironic that Fell should use this imagery, as the victims had no protection against the catastrophe that befell them.

*Colours – These are used frequently in the poem. The most common are black, red, orange and white; colours that are associated with death, danger, surrender and war. The white is mentioned when Monroe’s skirts ‘surrender’ to the bombing; the red to the girl whose skin strips away to reveal raw muscle underneath (danger, blood, desire); the black to the ash that represents death shrouding the city and the orange to the ‘apricot ice’  fire storm that rages after the mushroom cloud.

GCSE Poetry Analysis | ‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy

Love is like an onion because…

OVERVIEW OF POEM
‘Valentine’ is the first poem featured in the relationships section of the Edexcel GCSE Poetry Anthology, and it is an excellent poem to study for language devices. Carol Ann Duffy explores the concept of love through unusual comparisons and imagery. In this post we will explore the poetic devices of the poem and how we can interpret the imagery used by Duffy.

In ‘Valentine’, Duffy chooses to challenge the conventional symbols of love, namely the ‘red rose’ and the ‘satin heart’. This rejection of classic love tokens is indicated through the negative ‘not’ in the first stanza. Instead Duffy introduces the reader to her own symbol of love, the onion, which is unusual because the onion is a very unflattering, smelly, acidic and unromantic object. Duffy spends the rest of the poem proving to us how the onion is more faithful and reflects the true nature of love.

The poem itself is an extended metaphor about how the unromantic properties of the onion fits the notion of love. Each stanza also shows the different phases of love, how it begins with all the best intentions yet gradually deteriorates into misunderstandings and violence.

Read the poem below and then scroll down for a stanza by stanza exploration of the poem.

Valentine by Carol Ann Duffy
Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

STANZA 1: Negative adverb ‘not’ indicates rejection of traditional symbols of love.

STANZA 2:  Duffy introduces alternative symbol of love; the onion. An unusual comparison, however Duffy begins to make valid connections by comparing the shape and colour of it to the moon.

Metaphor ‘a moon wrapped in brown paper’ refers to the romantic connotations that the moon carries. The moon influences the tides and all water on earth. Since 75% of the earth is water and our own bodies also contain the same amount, it means it also has an effect on our emotions too. In ancient mythology the moon was ruled by Diana, a goddess worshipped by the Roman women. She had two sides to her personality; the pure maiden and the huntress. She was believed to help pregnant women through labour, yet had a violent side to her. Duffy makes use of this in stanza 6 and 7, where love becomes a desperate hunt with violent imagery. However at this point, the image of moon/onion takes on a sensual image, and we have a hint of love-making as the beginning of the relationship.

Direct address – ‘I give you…‘, Duffy addresses the reader directly, giving the poem a personal tone.

STANZA 3: Beginning to explore the negative sides of love through similes and metaphors.
Direct address: ‘Here.‘ An offering of the onion to the reader. Very intimate, confident and bold.

Simile/ personification
: ‘…blind you with tears like a lover‘. The onion is compared to a lover and the way love often leaves us in tears. A large part of being in love is also the risk of being left heart-broken. This connection is explored in the way an onion stings our eyes when we try to get to the ‘heart’ of it (cut it), the same way we may be stung by another person’s heartlessness.
Metaphor
: ‘…make your reflection a wobbling photo of grief’. Imagery where we are looking ‘through’ the eyes of the upset lover who may be gazing at a their own reflection in the mirror and crying at the same time.

STANZA 4: A single sentence stanza that stands on its own. Duffy underlines how she is trying telling the bitter truth half-way through the poem. A line conveying honesty.

STANZA 5: Can be seen as the ‘second half’ of the poem and refers back to the first stanza.
Repetition: Both stanzas have the same syllable count (9), similar wording ‘Not’ and a rejection of two typical symbols of love ‘cute card‘ and ‘kissogram‘.

NOTE: Kissograms are not used now, but during the 70’s were popular. Kissograms were people who were hired on special days/ occasions like valentine’s day to go round and kiss the sweetheart on behalf of their lover with a special message.

STANZA 6: Images of jealousy and violence begin to creep into the notion of romantic love.
Repetition:  Mirrors the first line of stanza 2, carrying on with the pattern of repetition established in stanza 5.

Metaphor/ Personification: The onion is compared to a jealous lover and the way their kiss at this point in the relationship would be a mixture of passion and punishment. This is further illustrated through the way an onion’s smell clings stubbornly to our fingers when we cut it. The key word here is ‘possessive’, and this hints at obsessive love and how this is turning into an unhealthy relationship. One of the partners is evidently suffering from this claustrophobic relationship.

STANZA 7: Images of married life flash are introduced as Duffy implies that marriage kills romance and makes romantic love a chore or a punishment.

Direct Address: ‘Take it‘. Duffy is still addressing her readership in a bold and confident tone.

Metaphor: The loops of the onion are compared to a wedding ring that ‘shrink’ which implies being trapped. The loops are ‘platinum’, meaning a very precious metal, which is ironic because the onion is not at all precious or desirable. The words ‘if you like’ are added to show that the relationship could go in this direction, but it is not necessary for the things that will inevitably follow. The word ‘lethal’ is on it’s own, showing what the relationship has turned into and drawing attention to it.

The last two lines again imply the smell of the onion and introduces the knife. This is violent imagery which implies that the two lovers have become enemies. This is when the image of the moon (Diana) as huntress becomes relevant, as the dark side of romantic love (or the moon) reveals itself in the later stages of the relationship.