Poetry is one of those subjects that students either love or hate to begin with. Anthologies such as AQA’s Love and Relationships do tend towards the saccharine, although there is definite humour in there too! As an English tutor, I find that poetry is one of the most useful ways to experiment and improve pupil’s analysis and essay structure. It requires a great deal of sensitive commentary and terminology – all of which can be taught on the basis of a 14-line sonnet rather than an entire novel or play.
So far, I’ve generally managed to persuade my GCSE students that poetry really is something you can have a bit of fun with. I find this is especially the case when modern and “traditional” poetry are contrasted. I recently taught a lesson comparing Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 29: I think of thee and Daljit Nagra’s Singh Song, in which we focused on overall essay structure and PEEZAP paragraphs (more on these to follow). To do this, I wrote a sample essay that we worked on improving, by cutting it up and identifying the Points, Evidence, Explanations, Zooming, Analysis and Perspectives.
If you are currently working on your own GCSE poetry analysis, why not print out the essay below and have a go yourself at marking, and making it better. What would you change, and why?
If you are unfamiliar with the two poems, here’s a great introduction to Singh Song, presented by the poet himself:
Here’s an analysis of Sonnet 29:
OK, feeling ready? Here you go….
Compare how the poet presents feelings of love and joy in this poem (Singh Song) and one other of your choice (Sonnet 29: I think of thee).
In Singh Song and Sonnet 29, the poets depict their all-encompassing love for their partner – both playing with traditional form and structure to highlight their overwhelming emotions and desire. Whereas Singh Song primarily focuses on the specific social and cultural background of the two newlyweds, Sonnet 29 utilises a more universal extended metaphor – that of nature and encircling vines. Despite these differences, both poems ultimately present a joyous celebration of the poet’s love for their partner – Singh Song in proximity, Sonnet 29 in absence.
Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 29: I think of thee contains a central extended metaphor of the poet’s feelings for her lover. She compares herself to vines encircling a tree. This illuminates the way that Barrett Browning sees her relationship. He is a solid, stable and strong ‘tree’ and she is the ‘wild vines’ that surround it – with her ecstatic love bordering on the obsessive. This central image allowed the poet (as a Victorian woman) to express feelings of desire that she would not have been able to if she had been more literal. Imperatives such as “renew thy presence” further highlight the sense of urgency that Browning feels – to be united with her lover.
In a similar manner, cultural constraints and considerations play an integral part in Singh Song. The very title is a pun, playing with the meanings of a harmonious “sing song” as well as the traditional Indian surname of “Singh”. The poet’s new wife swears at her husband’s mother, makes fun of his father, and dresses in an amalgamation of British and Sikh cultures. The juxtaposition of traditional conventions and her behaviour is highlighted with her “tartan sari” and “effing at my mum / in all di colours of Punjabi.” Despite all this, the poet offers no criticism and solely highlights his loving obsession with his new wife.
The two poems also utilise unconventional structural devices to highlight their heightened feelings of love and desire. Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 29 is structured in the form of a Petrarchan Sonnet, often used for love poetry. However this highly controlled form is manipulated to demonstrate the poet’s excitement and impatience. Although the volta (a change in tone after the initial problem is set out) usually occurs at the beginning of the sestet, Barrett Browning introduces this turn in line seven when she demands “Rather…” his immediate presence. This emphasises the urgency of her desire to be with him, further developed with the intensity and plosives of the following verbs – “drop”, “burst” and “shattered”.
Whilst Daljit Nagra’s poem is much more unconventional in its structure, both in terms of stanzas, their forms and rhymes as well as the vivid Indian dialect – it also plays with conventions such as nursery songs with their traditional rhyming couplets. Imagery such as “teddy”, “sweeties”, “silver stool” and the “moon” are all reminiscent of traditional Mother Goose tales, particularly the Hey Diddle, Diddle rhyme. The repetition of certain refrains such as “My bride” and the final “she say / I say” further emphasizes the fascination and fixation that the poet is experiencing for his wife. Mr Singh, although an adult, has the status of a child in the family, just looking after “one ov my daddy’s shops” – and thus responds with a corresponding joy and lack of responsibility in his actions. The poem even starts with him locking the door to run “up di stairs” with his bride.
In conclusion, Sing Song and Sonnet 29 both present an overwhelming, bordering on the obsessional joy expressed for the poet’s lovers. Sing Song creates this atmosphere primarily through the specific social and cultural background of an Indian shop in modern Britain, whereas Barrett Browning does this through the extended natural metaphor of a tree and its enveloping vines. Both poems play with traditional structural expectations (much like their individual relationships play with the expectations of the day) – ultimately depicting their own joyous and highly idiosyncratic love for their partners.