Saturday, 13 October 2018

Taking Tennyson and Owen to the pub for a pint

This week I have been working with Year 10 and helping them start writing poetry comparisons. As a class, we created the following opening comparison paragraph.

Both ‘Exposure’ and ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ show us that the reality of war is death. Both show us that death is inevitable and a part of the life of war. However, ‘COLB’ celebrates death and glorifies the sacrifice the soldiers gave in dying and ‘Exposure’ shows us that death is a process that should be pitied and thought about. As Owen fought in the war and protested about war, it shows a personal and bitter point of view challenging the mentality of Tennyson is his poem. 

Tennyson doesn’t shy away from death in his poem. His constant reference to the ‘noble 600’ and how they are left as ‘not the 600’ is a constant reminder of death. He doesn’t want the death to be forgotten and ‘fade’ away, which is why he constantly refers to the ‘600’ and uses endless repetition. Tennyson doesn’t want them to be forgotten. Although he repeats ‘the death’, he does hide the actual violence and uses onomatopoeias and alliteration to give the sense of chaos surrounding the situation. It is as if the action is so hard to define, as it is here. It is hard to separate one from the other. The reality of war for Tennyson is confusion, chaos and death.  In contrast, Owen’s ‘Exposure’ refers to explicitly death at the end of the poem. However, the whole poem echoes the dying process: a cold, slow, long process of war. A common thought is that war is about action and whilst ‘COLB’ shows us that with ‘cannons to the right’ and ‘sabres’, ‘Exposure’ challenges this idea and gives us the idea that war is about ‘waiting’ for death. The use of long sentences and repetition of ‘nothing’ gives us the sense that not much happens and that soldiers are waiting for death and they’d rather it happened quickly. The wait is a metaphoric death.  ‘Exposure’ is the process before the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. It shows us why the soldiers rush into the ‘Jaws of Hell’ because they have had to wait for ages for nothing. They’d rather do something than wait, even if it means dying. They want to be ‘exposed’ to the danger and rather not wait for it.  

Along the way, I noticed that I didn’t use the words ‘poet’ or ‘writer’ in the writing and it got me thinking.  Instead, the emphasis was actually on the writer’s surname.

Tennyson doesn’t shy away from death in his poem.

Tennyson doesn’t want them to be forgotten.

The reality of war for Tennyson is confusion, chaos and death.

For years, I have been correcting the students who use a poet’s first name. Unless you have shared a pint (an impossibility) with Tennyson, it isn’t polite to use their first name. But, interestingly I haven’t really given the choice between writer and surname much thought. Yet, the above example made me see things differently and think of things differently. 

In the example above, I have mentioned Tennyson as numerous times and I haven’t equally given Owen the same coverage. What could I say if I looked Owen? 

Tennyson doesn’t shy away from death in his poem.

Owen challenges the glory of dying for one’s country.  

Tennyson doesn’t want them to be forgotten.

Owen thinks they are forgotten and the trapped between life and death.

The reality of war for Tennyson is confusion, chaos and death.

The reality of war for Owen is endless waiting and emptiness. 

The problem with using ‘writer’ and ‘poet’ is one of emotional detachment. Being academic in writing is not about being emotionless. Put things down to a faceless, emotionless and genderless noun (the poet) makes everything perfunctory. Tennyson was a living, thinking person made of wobbly flesh and bones. He thought, felt and probably drank tea.

One of the things I am noticing with the new literature is the importance in language precision. Long gone are the days of including X, Y and X and you’ll pass the GCSE. Students need to be able to express things fluently and precise. You can’t rely on bolt on statements or sentence openings. That’s why I think a shift in the subject of the sentences makes a shift in understanding and perspective. It’s more personal.

Owen wanted …

Owen thought …

Owen felt …

Getting students to explore the intent is quite hard, but an emphasis on the surname can help students to do this. We are exploring his (or her, depending on the poem) personal perspective on the idea. How he sees things? 

We can then include emotions and add to the student’s understanding of the intent further.

Owen felt bitter.

Owen felt frustrated.

Owen felt detached.

In fact, I’d be bold enough and say we are that blooming obsessed with the reader and their feelings so much that we neglect the poet and their feelings. We are obsessed with how we feel and forget that the poem has been writing with emotion. 
Then, we can add something specific about what the writer is doing: 


Shying away









Owen is uncovering the reality of war.

Owen is dehumanising soldiers.

Owen is alienating the reader.  

Then, we can just add some adverbs to suggest how Owen is feeling.

Owen is quietly uncovering the reality of war.

Owen is subtly dehumanising soldiers.

Owen is controversially alienating the reader.  


The best students don’t plonk ‘writer’, ‘alliteration’ and ‘mood’ in a sentence and magically create great responses. We need to craft how poetry is written about. We need to teach poetry analysis just as much as we do other skills. It will help too with all forms of analysis. 

So when I sat down for a pint with Tennyson and Owen a conversation started. Tennyson angrily mocked and ridiculed the atmosphere of the pub. For he hated, gastropubs. Owen, on the other hand, respectfully disagreed and boasted that it was one of his favourites.

We need work hard on getting students to think of writers as real people with feelings and thoughts. A01 is one that some students struggle with when writing about poetry. That’s because they are obsessed with the language. The starting point should be the writer’s ideas. Their thoughts. Their feelings. Their perspective. I am seriously considering getting rid of the 'writer’. Not in a hitman sort of way. Just the word. 

Thanks for reading,


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