The most popular form of narrative poetry is probably the ballad, which you'll remember we looked at last week when we read 'Lord Randal'.
Some narrative poems are long, some are short. Some very long narrative poems are made up of many shorter ones.
Here is a narrative poem:
by Walter De La Mare
'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
'Is there anybody there?' he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:-
'Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,' he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
The first things I'd like you to do are:
1. Identify the poetic techniques in the poem
2. Do a syllabic count
3. Answer this question: Are there any similarities with the ballad poem we read last week?
Next I've got a couple of comprehension questions for you:
1. Who is the traveller?
2. Who are the listeners?
Then I want you to look at the structure of the poem -
and answer these questions:
1. What happens in the poem?
2. Where does one section end and the next begin?
And finally I want you to:
1. Look at the words in the poem which describe sounds,
2. Write down in which sections of the poem there are noises and in which silence? "
I'm sure that thinking about what I've just said has been particularly exciting and stimulating, so let's just take a step back and ask ourselves a different kind of question:
What have I just been doing? What's it for?
I began by telling you something about what is often called 'genre' - I'll come back to that in a moment; I've read you a poem that has been read in schools from at least as early as 1954, which is when it was first read to me in a state primary school in Pinner, Middlesex; and I've asked you a set of questions and cues for activity that have focused on:
what are called 'poetic techniques';
comparisons with another poem;
identifying who the protagonists are;
what is called the 'structure' of the poem;
words that describe what I presume are regarded by the anonymous questioner as essential or fundamentally important about the poem, namely, 'noises' and 'silence'.
I used that phrase 'so-called' or 'what are called' several times just then, because I'd like to challenge some of the ideas that lie behind what's going on here.
First, the idea of 'genre' in poetry.
I'm not clear why anyone thinks that it's a good way to spend time and energy telling children that this or that poem could or should be clumped with another poem on the basis of an arbitrary category or other. Another way of raising this matter with children is, as some of you will be well aware, that one that goes:
'What type of text is it, how do we know?'
As that's a question that has been puzzling literary critics for several thousand years, I'm not sure why or how primary school children are supposed to know, unless they come up with the answers that have been so over-simplified by the official education documents that they are probably fibs. You know the sort of thing: "it's got rhythm and rhyme so it must be a poem". Well, the explanations of rhyming slang have rhythm and rhyme: 'Your plates are your feet, plates of meat, feet.' But even a slack definer like me would probably say that isn't really a poem.
There are of course many problems with allotting categories or indeed with wanting to do it in the first place.
When we say that dogs are a different breed or species from cats, we have an important piece of material reality to back us up: neither in their behaviour nor in their chemistry are they able to combine sexually. They are, in part, defined by what they're not.
When it comes to literary, or more specifically, poetic genres, we have two kinds of chaos going on: the one that plucks a set of characteristics out of the world of poetry and deems these particular characteristics significant enough to become a category; and the other, that once this category has been chosen, a poem that fits this set of characteristics belongs to this category and not another.
So, someone a long time ago thought that it was significant that a distinction be made between, say, narrative and lyric poetry, the one 'telling a story' and the other, supposedly, more 'personal'. However, a quick glance across articles and books that like doing this sort of thing, and we find the business of genre expanded into a wonderfully disorderly, un-systematic range of categories. One moment the word is used to describe something to do with the form of a poem, as with the supposed 'genre' of 'prose poetry', the next with a poetic effect, such as, 'satirical poetry'. It doesn't take long to figure out that a poem could be, say, a personal, satirical, narrative prose poem combining all these so-called genres in one. In fact, I've been trying to write such things for years. Where does one genre end and another begin? And if they really are categories, then just as you can't have in real life - (though you can in stories, poems and jokes) - a catty dog or a doggy cat, surely you shouldn't be able to have a mix of genres? Or is that OK in the world of literary genres that we keep trying to teach children about?
So, to make my position clear, I have nothing against people hanging on to their jobs, and if coming up with poetic genres and defending them against barbarians like me who say that it's a nonsense, keeps them in work - fair enough. But telling children that it's important or useful to know that 'The Listeners' is a 'narrative poem' because...er...it's a 'narrative', then I say, no, I don't think so.
Of course, it's very handy for the purposes of testing because, in the event of the
question being asked in an exam, 'What genre of poem is this?' or 'What type of text is it, how do we know?'
- the examiner will have a check list, and the answer, 'a narrative poem', will be the only one to score. It's a markable factoid. This process enlists the reading of poetry into the power-game of education which alludes to a mystical authority which lies outside, beyond and above the confines of classrooms and schools; an authority that knows that the category of 'narrative poetry' simply exists and must be learnt. Teachers become the janitors and schools the store-houses for this mystical, mostly unauthored knowledge and they are required to pass it on in a mystical way, that is: stating things as definite and certain when they're not, saying that processes or literary happenings are facts rather than leaving them open to investigation and discovery.
So, 'The Listeners' is a narrative poem and that's that.
Now to 'poetic techniques'.
Two processes are at work here, a false dualism and fetishism.
This is the problem: whatsoever we would like to express in poetry, is expressed in words, or, if you prefer, 'signifiers'. It is the selection and arrangement of these signifiers (or 'form' if you prefer) in a poem, that readers will negotiate in order to make meaning. A reader reading a poem (or listening to it) cannot get at some kind of content outside of, or beyond the poem in any way other than doing it through the signifiers. The way Yeats expressed it was to say that you cannot see the dance without the dancer. Yes, as Terry Eagleton points out, you can refer in an abstract way to a dance (the fox-trot, the jive) but you can't actually see it or do it without a body doing it. Yes, you can read or know material outside of a poem, and this material may or may not tell you, say, that the 'I' in 'Daffodils' refers to a person and that this person is William Wordsworth. (Though, of course, even this may not be wholly true, as an alternative story tells us that the 'I' of 'Daffodils' refers to the consciousness of both William and his sister, Dorothy and when we read her journal, (discovered and preserved thanks to Beatrix Potter!) we discover that the 'I' is really a 'we'. Things aren't always what they seem in poetry. The word 'I' can be, (perhaps always is), as big an invention as the Jabberwock.)
But I don't want to be overly dogmatic here. Just as we can talk about kinds of dance without seeing the dancer, we can talk about poetic techniques, because as humans we are quite capable of creating abstractions out of concrete situations. The question, though, is does it do young children reading poems any favours, or is it, yet again, a means by which poems can be reduced to markable factoids, that get you gold stars or smiley faces on the end of your worksheets?
But we do know that there's another agenda behind the 'poetic techniques' game, don't we? It's the one exercise that has dominated the teaching of literature for at least fifty years. This is the one that not only identifies the poetic techniques but asks, why are they 'effective'? Oh what a big deal is wrapped up in this little word, 'effective'! How many millions of children and students have sat in lessons and exams trying to figure out what is in a teacher's or an examiner's head as they write their paragraph on why this or that bit of alliteration or this or that metaphor is effective. Once again, the great mystical authority who stands in a land beyond the classroom is invoked; the authority who has at some point determined that this simile or that verse structure has been effective and so it shall be. And it has of course also determined that the very process of saying that it is effective is an important and useful activity too. There is an alternative notion: that to debate and discuss and re-enact how a piece of writing has affected you is perhaps a more significant activity. More of that anon.
Pause a moment, and let's hear it for
'the forest's ferny floor'.
Using my 1950s education, I can tell you that that is alliteration. Using my training in guessing what is in examiners' minds, I might suggest that it's 'effective' because the letter 'f' is a soft sound and contributes mood and quiet to the moment of 'silence' that comes after the Traveller has just shouted. But of course, we don't really know that it contributes to that mood, because we haven't got anything to compare it with. This isn't a science experiment with a control group of poems about other travellers knocking on moonlit doors and shouting followed by a line of poetry with no ferny forest floors in it, whereby we could prove that alliterative 'f's' are genuinely and definitely and proveably effective in doing softness. No matter. I reckon I'd get my mark for saying my bit just there. I have reunited the form (alliteration) with the content (feelings of softness). The idiocy that I've just expressed, however, comes about because, as I've said, the only way I could get to the softness feeling or the softness meaning is through the words that have expressed it. If, say, someone else reads those three words and connoted the letter 'f' with a kind of hissing, and read it as, let's say, the contempt of the forest for the traveller who has arrived and disrupted the peace - there is no one who can argue with it. In spite of the strenuous efforts of generations of critics, buttressed by generations of examiners, no one can ever quite succeed in deducing definitive meanings from form. All they can do is pretend that they can as part of a curriculum method.
And so to the most intriguing questions of all:
'Who is the Traveller?' and 'Who are the Listeners?'.
Now, I have to say, of all the questions so far, these are the ones that have me stumped. In all honesty, I don't know who the traveller and the listeners are. In all the many times I've read the poem - I even spent a few weeks learning how to perform it as part of an interschool choral verse-speaking competition in 1955 - I have never known who the traveller and the listeners are, and I suspect I never will. And do you know, I'm actually quite happy with that. It's quite possible for me to enjoy something about the poem without needing to know or even wanting to know who they are.
And here we might have landed on something important about poetry. In most, but not all, stories, our expectations given to us from thousands of years of story-telling give us a need or a desire. It goes like this: in the event of us being told that the main protagonist is a traveller who arrives somewhere and knocks on a door and then, in the event of us being told that there some phantom listeners doing some listening, we have a desire to be told who they are within the story and a legitimate expectation that we will be told. That's what most stories do. They give us whys and wherefores and recognisable outcomes. Yes, I know Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras don't but that's why I said 'most stories' and not 'all'. One of the distinctive features of poetry is that we, as experienced readers, will often read poems from start to finish and, without even being aware of it, suspend our desire to know exactly who is talking, who the protagonist is, where we are, or even why people do things. I cannot stress how important this is. I would even go so far as to say that one of the reasons we read poetry for pleasure is precisely because many poems have this quality of withholding many of the specifics we have come to expect in stories.
Back to 'Daffodils' - which, as you'll know, wasn't called that by Wordsworth. To start with he gave it no title, but we have written that part of the poem for him. Another example of a gap in a poem that readers fill, perhaps. We could call it 'Inner eye' or 'My couch' or 'A Day out with Dorothy'. No matter.
For experienced readers, the poem comes attached to Wordsworth and the Lake District. But that's only because we've been told it is. There is nothing intrinsic in the poem that tells us that the 'I' is a man from two hundred years ago, living in a particular place and time, walking and thinking in a particular place and time. In other words, poetry offers us the possibility, should we so choose, to read a poem without knowing or needing to know this sort of thing. It's as if, this kind of poem says to us, 'You don't need to know all that stuff about what I had for breakfast before I went for the walk, or who I was with, or anything else that happened that day. I don't need to tell you what happened to the daffodils. I'm drawing your attention to what I'm drawing your attention to which is that when I got home I thought about the daffodils."
This is at the heart of why poetry is a kind of writing that refuses to be tied down. It keeps slipping out of a critic's grasp. Very often, there just isn't enough stuff there for us to make the definitive statement. What's more, the very act of trying to wring this statement out of the poem - or worse - out of children, is anti-poem. It runs against the grain of the poetic impulse, which more often than not, is an impulse to suggest, imply, hint, infer and to withhold even as it reveals.
With de la Mare's poem, I can of course do that exam thing of culling info from the poem. This will tell me for example that the traveller is male , he's on a horse, he's travelled at night, he can smite, he is capable of being perplexed, he has grey eyes, either he or his call (or both) are lonely, he can 'feel in his heart' the 'strangeness' of something he can't see or hear, and yet he also feels he can address this strangeness; he has some kind of undefined relationship with a 'them' which refers to a plural entity he has come to see; he has some sense that he wants this entity to know that he's a man of his word. We also know that his horse's hooves are shod.
Who is the traveller? I have no idea beyond saying that he appears to be someone that someone called Walter de la Mare wrote some words about in a poem called 'The Listeners'. At this point in my thinking, the traveller is all text.
Who are the listeners? Well, they're 'phantom'. And that doesn't mean much more than that they're made up, which, as it's a poem, we kind of knew anyway.
So, quite why I'm being asked the questions who is the traveller and who are the listeners is not clear. In fact, I'm quite cross I've been asked these questions. I feel that I'm being asked something that I shouldn't have to answer. What's more, because I don't know the answers, I feel embarrassed and uncomfortable because I've got quite a good idea that other people in the room do know who they are. And the teacher or examiner knows. And I don't. I am not good enough to know. I'm not good enough to understand this poem. In fact, it's now turned into quite a horrible poem...
And as we all know, one of the first and most important lessons many of us learn from reading poetry in school is that quite often and for a large number of children, it's a mildly humiliating experience. It's a means by which we learn that we aren't quite good enough. Just beyond reach, there is a right answer out there, an answer that someone knows and that someone for sure ain't me.
It's also a means by which poetry stays in the closet, as a set of practices rather like freemasonry, that can only be carried out by a select few, the few that got on with this kind of questioning, or perhaps who saw through it to the other side and found poems in spite of and not because of the practices. For the rest, poetry is just something you do at school and sits there on your table in front of you, as a means by which you pass exams. Rather like algebra has been for me. Learnt, done, 'examinated' and put away never to be returned to.
Is this good enough? Is this fair to poetry? Is it fair to children and students? I don't think so.
Now, I think there might be interesting ways of asking questions about the traveller and the listeners - note that I've conceded that they're worth asking questions about.
I'll give it a go:
Who might the traveller be? (And I might add here, that I don't know who he is. Honestly I don't. Really.)
Who might he have been coming to see? (Same again, I really don't know) But who do you think it could be?
Why do you think he came?
If you could talk to the traveller, is there anything you'd like to ask him, or tell him? Is there anyone here who would like to be the traveller?
Now, who would like to ask him anything?
Do you think there are some listeners of some kind or has the traveller imagined them?
Let's all pretend to be a traveller who's just arrived at an empty house in the middle of the night in the middle of the forest...
How do we feel?
Let's all pretend to be listeners watching someone arrive at the empty house where we hang out...
How does that feel?
Does anyone want to ask one of the listeners what's going on?
Now I'm going to make a suggestion here: I don't really know what 'The Listeners' is about; or more accurately, I don't really know what the poem means for me.
I might surmise some things about its role in our national life, though. I could perhaps describe its iconic status in the teaching of poetry over the last fifty years. I could even offer up some answers as to why that is - like...perhaps we like giving children literature that has some kind of respectable mystery at the heart of it. By 'respectable mystery', I mean a mystery that doesn't appear to be about sex, drugs or rock'n'roll, or indeed anything nasty to do with how children get on with each other or with the adults in their lives. Literature, through a poem like this, can serve its time not only as a means of test-led instruction, but also as a means by which we can lead children into the land of unexplained mystery. In fact, I could suggest that by asking the very questions that avoid the active engagement of the reader, we sustain the status of a poem like this in the land of the respectable mystery. It can exist sealed off from us, unexplored.
But that said, before engaging with the poem, I don't know what 'The Listeners' is for. However, I not only don't think this matters -that is, I don't have to know what it's for - but I also think that its unknowability might be what's important or interesting about it. In other words, there is a strange contrast between the purposefulness of the traveller, smiting on the door, and the complete lack of revealed matter about who he is or what he's doing or what he's doing it for. We know he's got a purpose but we don't know what it is.
So this leaves us with another kind of prospect. We can ask of the poem not the kind of question we might ask of a play or a novel - like, say, what are the protagonists' motives? Or what do you think of the outcome of the poem, in this case: what do you think about what happened to the traveller at the end - but instead, we can ask ourselves: is there anything about the feeling of the poem and the feeling of its scenes that we might say are in some way or another representative, or transferable? That's too abstract a question to ask in most classrooms, so in terms of asking questions of you or a class, this could be phrased thus:
Is there anything about the poem, or characters in the poem or scenes in the poem, or the sounds of the poem that remind you of anything that's ever happened to you, or anything that you've ever read?
Now that's a simple question that conceals a whole load of theory.
If I ask you, does this poem remind you of anything you've ever read, I'm asking you a question about intertextuality - that process by which every text we ever read is, through the minds and acts of readers, joined to other texts. In fact, it's impossible to conceive of a text that isn't joined to other texts. It's the nature of texts that they are in a sense constructed out of the shapes, colours, molecules of other texts and that in some way or another (unpredictable at the time of writing) contribute to other texts that come after it. Accessing a poem's intertextuality through a class's intertextual investigations and questions might be a way by which we can get to know more about who someone like the traveller or the listeners are. After all, these characters are in part, perhaps mostly, perhaps entirely (I won't get into that) textual entities.
As a way of inviting students to enter into this sea of texts, we can keep it simple and open by asking them the 'reminding' question. And there's no need to get hung up about chronology here. If 'The Listeners' reminds a reader of something that was composed years after the composition of 'The Listeners' then that can serve to remind us that motifs and themes and phrases and sounds travel about in the world of literature gathering or losing significance, becoming stereotypes and archetypes, gaining or losing their power as the epochs pass.
And if I ask you - does it remind you of something that you've experienced in your life? - you'll note I'm not saying that this poem is about that experience - I'm saying that the best route by which we might access what we could call the 'symbolic psychology' or 'symbolic sociology' of the poem, is best done through a dialogue with the kinds of experiences that we the readers have had.
So, pause a moment. Back to 'The Listeners'. Turn to the person next to you. Try those two questions:
were there any moments in the poem
or any sounds of the poem
that reminded you of something else you've read
or anything that has happened in your life.
Perhaps you have at some time another been like the traveller, or like the listeners, or alternatively perhaps you know someone who has been like the traveller or like the listeners. You can treat the two questions (that is, reminding you of a text or reminding you of an experience) as separate or together as you wish, because in truth, the way we describe our experiences is itself a text that is informed by other texts.
It may help you to restate what you think is the bare essence of the poem...or it may not...
I'm going to think aloud...
The idea of opening a piece of writing with a question reminds me of several things: the writer Morris Gleitzman once told me that the key to grabbing a reader's attention is 'start writing as late on in the action as you can. You can always go back and fill in details if you need to.' In other words, you don't have to start a poem, a play, or a novel by describing where we are, or why we are where we are. You can dive straight in with a statement or a question that will intrigue a reader or listener.
So, what pieces of writing do I know, that begin with a question...?
'Hamlet' begins with 'Who's there?' There's a nursery rhyme that begins with 'How many miles to Babylon?; a folk song begins with 'Who will shoe your pretty little feet?'; a French folk song begins, 'Qu'est-ce qui passe ici si tard?' 'Who's that coming here so late?' In other words, it's a piece of literary rhetoric, the question as opening gambit, going back hundreds of years, borrowed by de la Mare.
What poems or stories do I know with a man on horse arriving somewhere? There are many, aren't there? A knight arrives at a castle or a tower to free a lover, or slay a dragon, or meet his fate in a fight with an enemy.
And what poems or stories do I know about listeners? 'The Borrowers' perhaps, with those little beings under the floorboards; and literature, particularly Shakespeare is full of people who overhear or eavesdrop...Polonius in 'Hamlet'; Toby Belch, Feste and Fabian spying on Malvolio in 'Twelfth Night'; Oberon and Puck listening to the lovers in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'; there's the overhearing of Rumplestiltskin revealing his name. And then, of course, there's a way of thinking of all literature as a means by which we eavesdrop on what people think, say and do. We, the readers, are invited to be eavesdroppers and listeners.
And I could go on like this, thinking about empty houses, forests, knocking on doors and so on and I can build up what I'd call a map of awareness about the themes, motifs and feelings that are in the poem. Any or some of these may well help me find a point of contact with the poem, an entry-point that makes whatever is proving difficult, or odd about the poem, feel more familiar or more accessible. After all, poems are almost by definition strange ways of using language, one moment appearing to say too much; next, appearing to say too little - full of ornament, inversion, compression and comparison, making ordinary things seem extraordinary and extraordinary things seem ordinary. To get at them or into them, I'm grateful for any bridge, any link, any way in which the poem's charge can leap across to me.
So let me try this: (it's actually one of the questions that the beastly test-type questions asked us at the beginning of this talk!) how would I describe what happens in the poem... (but I'll humanise it by adding): if it's me who's the traveller?
I arrive with something important to say but there is no one there to hear. I am not heard. I plead that I have been honourable. I've kept my side of the bargain. I have a sense of a hidden world that hears, but it is unresponsive. It witnesses but says nothing. The people I wanted to hear me, weren't there. Instead, I'm surrounded by a landscape that has a life of its own that is indifferent to me.
So, now I'm thinking of those moments when, say, one of my children has asked me a question and as I've tried to answer it. Then, the moment I start talking, I've become aware that they are instantly bored. They walk off, or suddenly start to find that the grains in the wood on the table are incredibly interesting or that they've left a sandwich in their lunch box. And I'm thinking, I'm keeping my side of the bargain, I'm answering your question, but you're not listening. The rest of the room is listening but it's inanimate. OK the cat's there but even the cat isn't listening. The frying pan isn't listening. Or is it? And you, you're there while I'm explaining that thing you asked me to explain...I think it was about clouds or was it about Henry VIII...anyway, you're not listening. You exist in your own ecology, and anyway then you scamper off and watch Kim Possible on the Disney Channel. So you're not there. Fine. And I'm here. On my own. In fact, I could do that thing I call 'recruitment' where people like me say to themselves or to our children, 'Well you may not want to do x or y, but there are lots of other children out there who would!' In a lot of our moments of stress we try to recruit invisible assistants, don't we? As my mother used to say when looking at me at the end of the day, 'I'm sure the other children in your class didn't go to school in shoes they hadn't polished!' And when we're lonely, we can often imagine how much better it would be if only we could get this or that person over for a chat...
(Yes, I know I've conflated the absent 'them' who I came to see with the listening 'them' - but so be it.)
Anyhow, through reading the poem, I've accessed something about me. A quirk, a trait. Through my reading, I've helped myself become aware of something about me and the way I behave. In some peculiar way, it's helped me extract something inside me that feels very individual and full of self-importance, and this process has helped me to put these feelings outside of me to contemplate them alongside the poem. It has, as the jargon has it, helped me objectify my experience.
But wait a minute, hasn't it also thrown me back on what I called the symbolic psychology or symbolic sociology of the poem? And won't I now need to revise my rather glib account of 'The Listeners' standing as some kind of convenient icon for respectable mystery?
In ways, that are difficult to unravel, this poem seems to chime with a sense that I've had that there are times when I haven't been heard. And this is a lonely place to be. And there might be an awareness that there is some kind of 'other' out there, who, if they could only be 'recruited', I'd feel better, less lonely.
Again, I've got a feeling that only by accessing all this, can I get a sense of why or how, what I called this poem's 'respectable mystery' becomes much more problematic, much less comfortable.
Now, it's my view that any set of questions, any curriculum plan or strategy in connection to poetry implies a view as to what poetry is for.
The questions that I began this talk with, seem to me to imply an idea that what poetry is for, is that it should stand as a kind of assault course, a training-ground in answering closed-ended questions with an end result that has very little to do with feelings or meaning. The poem and the contact it might or could make with readers through the intermingling of its intertextuality and its reference to experience is secondary or, worse - invisible.
The questions I've asked so far, are intended precisely to engage with this potential for contact. I'm trying to avoid constructing artificial points of contact - that's how I would typify all those questions about 'effectiveness'. Instead, I'm trying to set up little platforms for readers of all kinds to establish those points of contact for themselves. Even all those questions about alliteration and metaphor don't need to be phrased in such a way that they appear like the questions in a pub quiz, with the question-master holding the answers in his hand, and these are the only right ones. Anything else, you don't get your point.
If you want to refine that question about 'is there anything that reminds you...'etc etc..you can say, are there any sounds, any pictures, any words, any phrases, any way of saying things that remind you of something you've seen, heard, or read somewhere else.? What are they? Where are they? How did they remind you? The questions we ask about poetry don't have to be ones that we know the answers to. That's my undogmatic way of putting it. My dogmatic way, is to say, the questions we ask about poetry should always be ones that we the questioner don't know the answers to.
This opens up the possibility of asking a question that invites questions - I've mentioned some already in relation to the characters of the poem. But we can also expand that into things like: is there anything we would like to ask the writer? Who would like to be the writer and try and answer those questions? Is there anything we would like to find out about the writer? Or the time and place the writer lived through? There are 211,000 entries for Walter de la Mare on google. I wonder if any of them are interesting. Will any of them give me a point of contact with the poem? Maybe, maybe not.
So, back to our title: what is a Bong Tree?
Well, as we know, Edward Lear created a kind of poetry that lays a false trail. He tells us that something is a spoon, or a tree, or, say, that there is some kind of creature that uses a sieve for a boat but then he obscures the whole thing by calling the thing or the person something we have never heard of: 'runcible', 'bong' or 'Jumblies' and the like. In so doing, he created worlds that had a logic that you can figure out - and yet they do not entirely correspond to the world we know. A sieve is a receptacle but it wouldn't work as a boat unless you're a ... Jumbly. Quite why it would work, isn't clear. In other words, this is a world where motives and empirical explanations will work only up to a point. There is no legitimate 'yes' outside of the poem to the question, is it possible for an owl and a pussycat to marry? In fact, why am I asking such a silly question of myself?
So, Lear in a way crystallises the problem at the heart of all poetry and all literature: we create these beings and creatures, these scenes, these dramas, but we readers do not really know who the characters are or why they are. Like the phrase 'Bong Tree', the words signify something but the only way I can access this meaning is to find out how they chime with what I've read and what I know and what I've felt and what I've done.
For poetry in schools to be both a significant and enjoyable way to spend time, then I suggest that we have to go back to the reader's place in the poem in order to find out the poem's place in the reader and that we put this process at the heart of our activities.
Today I've just suggested one or two ways. There are many others - through painting, dance, drama, mime, photography, film, wall displays, yes, even choral speaking, in other words, ways that don't ask any questions at all.
Very soon, we'll have a website up on Booktrust's website where teachers and poets can share ideas of how we can all create poetry-friendly classrooms. I see that the most recent documents to emerge from one of the acronym-laden authorities that speak to schools and teachers are making noises that are, I'd say, more poetry-friendly, with an emphasis on children making their own anthologies, doing poetry performances and the like. Perhaps they've suddenly remembered what literature is for...I hope so.
In the meantime, in case anyone was still wondering...
For me, though perhaps not for you,
A Bong Tree is
A Bong Tree is
A Bong Tree is
a tree that goes bongggggggggggggg!
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