This page is not intended to be comprehensive; rather, it is to be used as a revision guide which mentions some, although certainly not all, of the aspects which you will need an awareness of for the examination.

Introduction

This part of the examination is similar to that on Carol Ann Duffy, Ted Hughes or Simon Armitage. In 30 minutes you are required to write an essay-style response to at least two of the poems.

This section is different in a small way. Firstly, there are many more poems to choose from, therefore it makes sense to be selective and to pair poems in advance. Some suggested pairings are explored below. Secondly, there are a number of distinct types of poem and theme; unlike those from the other poetry section, there isn't a strong sense of unity. This is partly because all these poems are by different writers.

Themes

There are a number of themes present in these poems. Here are some possible themes, with a suggestion as to which two poems will be useful to write about:

  • Anger - 'Nothing's Changed' and 'Ogun'
  • Language and Culture - 'Search For My Tongue' and 'Unrelated Incidents'
  • Identity - 'Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan' and 'Search for My Tongue'
  • Culture - 'Blessing' and 'Ogun'
  • The past - 'Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan' and 'Ogun'

Other themes and combinations are of course possible; these are just a suggestion.

Anger

In 'Ogun' the first twenty lines of the poem establish a positive image of the uncle and his job as a carpenter. There are many poetic devices used to increase the reader's ability to visualise his skill and his work. For example, on lines 2-4 the poet uses alliteration and onomatopoeia:

smoothing white wood out
with plane and quick sandpaper until
it shone like his short-sighted glasses.
In this quotation you can hear the repetition of the 's' sounds, which also reflects the sound of the sandpaper as the uncle works. Also, he uses a metaphor on lines 15-16 to add to the sense of this man performing magic he is so powerful and creative:
Cold
world of wood caught fire as he whittled
In this quotation you should have also noticed the alliteration. The poet is drawing attention to the power this man has to create wonderful items from the seemingly ordinary pieces of wood. He doesn't literally set fire to the wood; if he did his future as a carpenter would be a problem! There are also frequent references to simple shapes, perhaps showing the honesty of the man and his work.

Lines 21-26 form a short section in which a strong contrast is presented. Again, the writer uses a lot of imagery to make his point, particularly metaphor which convinces the reader of the uncle's and the writer's attitude to the imports and the influences of outside forces on the lives of people like the uncle.

spine-curving chairs made up of tubes, with hollow
steel-like bird bones
(lines 23-24)
In this quotation the imported chairs are made to seem more like torture devices. Also the metaphor of the chair being made of 'bird bones' reinforces the idea that these pieces of furniture are nothing like the high quality, strong pieces that the uncle creates.

The final part of the poem deals with the uncle's reaction to his feelings. He is angry and the result of this is the creation of a carving, of the god of iron and thunder, Ogun. Through his work we see that he has achieved a link with nature which allows him to share the feelings of exploitation.

explored its knotted hurts, cutting his way
along its yellow whorls until his hands could feel
how it had swelled and shivered
(lines 29-31)
And as he cut he hear the creak of forests
(line 34)
Both of these quotations show the close work the uncle does with the wood. He has experienced it growing, like a child possibly. He can also hear the 'creak of forests'. Is this caused by the chopping down of trees? He would cut down very few, largely because he works slowly and carefully, as shown in the first part of the poem. Others use machines - so perhaps the forests feel the same anger as the uncle at the damage caused by these supposedly 'modern' and 'better' ways of producing furniture?

Overall, it can be seen that despite great anger the result is productive. Through his work, the uncle is able to express his feelings and create a symbol of them.

In 'Nothing's Changed' we see a different reaction. This poem explores the feelings of a person returning to District Six, an area of Cape Town in South Africa. The poem is set after apartheid had ended. Apartheid was a system which required by law all non-whites to the kept separate from whites. This led to inequality and poverty for the majority of non-whites. District Six was an area of slum housing for blacks (as this was virtually all they were allowed to have). It was cleared and the inhabitants made homeless in order that facilities for whites could be built, like the restaurant in this poem, the 'whites only inn'.

There are several poetic devices used to communicate anger. In the second stanza the lines become progressively longer and there is the use of repetition of the word 'and'. The language used brings to mind extreme heat:

and the hot, white, inwards turning
anger of my eyes
(lines 15-16)
This tells us how strongly the person feels about what happened in District Six.

The way the restaurant is described also shows the person's anger and contempt:

Brash with glass
name flaring like a flag,
it squats
(lines 17-19)
In this quotation there is assonance in line 7, which gives the impression of harsh sounds, which link to the person's feelings. There is alliteration on line 18 which again draws attention to the 'showiness' of the restaurant. 'Flaring' can also be a link to the images of heat used earlier, reminding us of his anger. The line 'it squats' is very short and brings to mind something lowly and to be looked down on. Also, a 'squatter' is someone who moves into someone else's home without permission.

The final four lines show the person's reaction to his anger. Instead of producing something, like in the poem 'Ogun', he desires to smash the glass, either using a stone or a bomb. Again, imagery connected to heat is used, reminding us of his intense anger.

Hands burn
for a stone, a bomb
(lines 45-46)
The glass is also symbolic of the invisible barrier in society that prevents blacks from being treated equally. It is what the glass symbolises that angers the person so much. The anger in this poem leads to destruction rather than production, in contrast to 'Ogun'.

Language and Culture

'Search for My Tongue' is a poem that explores the difficulty of having a mother tongue (native or original language) that is different to that of the majority. In this poem the two languages are English and Gujerati.

To the poet the language you speak is vital to your understanding of yourself. In the poem she presents the difficulty of speaking in a way that is different and appears clumsy and wrong, all the time fighting the urge to speak in the original mother tongue. She says it is like having

two tongues in your mouth.
In this quotation the use of the word 'your' links the reader more closely to the problem, asking us to imagine the difficulty for ourselves. The two tongues are also the ones in the mind.
You could not use them both together
even if you thought that way
From this quotation we can see that the problems this person is having have as much to do with her as the people who don't appreciate her difficulties.

She also feels that by denying the original language, the mother tongue, it can appear to die:

Your mother tongue would rot,
rot and die in your mouth
until you had to spit it out
(lines 12-14)
Again, the use of the words 'your' and 'you' increases the effectiveness of the image; rather than this being someone else's rotting flesh, it becomes ours, making our reaction stronger. The loss of the tongue is significant because it is like losing a part of the culture that is treasured. Language in this poem is a means of linking with a culture, perhaps one from a person's past that they still value greatly.

The poem falls in to three sections which should be clear just from looking at the poem. The Gujerati script in the poem, and the phonetic representation underneath each line, is another means of getting the reader to sympathise with the problems of this person. We feel the same difficulty and foolishness she must have felt when trying to speak a new language. Understanding this section is not the point; you are not supposed to know the meaning, or indeed how to say it properly. Only by direct experience will be even begin to understand the situation properly. The section of script also represents the regrowth of the mother tongue. It shows that even in a new culture (a book full of English poems!) it can still make its presence felt.

The final section presents an extended metaphor to show the strength of the mother tongue. It is described as a vigorous plant, which eventually 'blossoms' (flowers). This image is important because it shows the mother tongue to be organic, natural, strong and beautiful. It is a very positive way to end the poem and suggests that the woman is happy living with both tongues; she has learnt to see the value of this, rather than the difficulty.

'Unrelated Incidents' is similar in terms of its subject: like 'Search for My Tongue' it deals with language and the effect it can have on a person's place in society. Like 'Search for My Tongue' the writer uses phonetic representation to make us more directly involved in the poem. In it he writes about the prejudice people have towards those with regional accents, which is why the BBC newsreaders have 'posh' accents; it is more trustworthy and reliable that way. However, by using phonetic representation the writer is making us all have the same accent as him. How do we feel about judging people by their accent when we sound the same? To Tom Leonard, the writer, his accent is who he is; his language is a central part of his identity. So by devaluing his accent, those who decide who reads the news devalue him as a person. As he says:

this
is ma trooth.
If he doesn't speak in the same way, why should he spell in the same way? The poet's argument is that his accent is correct, trustworthy and true because it is his.

This poem deals with the problem of living in a culture where another way of pronouncing words is considered 'best', rather than a completely different language, as in 'Search for My Tongue'. Both poems show the reader that language is a source of conflict in culture and an important cultural feature. 'Unrelated Incidents' ends in more of a negative way than 'Search for My Tongue' because rather than accepting both ways of speaking, Tom Leonard asserts his pride in his own way of speaking and he suggests that others 'belt up'.

Preparing for the exam

  • Make sure you have read each of the poems as many times as possible; ideally you should know the poems without having to look at them.
  • Use this familiarity with the poems to make links between them, concentrating on themes and use of language.
  • Make sure the notes in your Anthology make sense to you; read them carefully so you know where the important parts are to be found.

Examination Tips

  • When writing about the poems, you will be expected to cover at least two poems. If you can, refer to more, even if in just one sentence. This will impress the examiner and show you can make appropriate connections between the poems.
  • When you make a point always try to support this with a quotation. When you have given the quotation show that you understand (a) what it means and (b) how the language in it contributes to the meaning (metaphors, similes, rhyme etc.)
  • Try to structure your response as follows:
    1. Give a main point about the poem in relation to the question
    2. Then a quotation which is short but supports your point
    3. Finally you should write about the language in the quotation - how does it get the meaning across?
  • Although you should only spend thirty minutes writing about the 'Other Cultures' poems, you should aim to write about 1 1/2 to 2 pages in your answer booklet.