Exam resources


Some general points first: 


So many people have written wanting me to tell them how to interpret this or that poem; what is it "about"? They think, evidently, that there is One True Answer to this, as there might be to a maths problem, and that I, as the writer, know what it is.

 Well, I have news. First, there is no One True Answer, because meaning in language happens in two stages; when the words leave my mouth or pen and when they enter other ears or eyes. In my mind, words and phrases have associations they cannot have for anyone else; similarly when they enter your mind, your memory and experience colour them in an individual way I cannot know about.  Second, the poet's interpretation is not necessarily privileged over the reader's.

Anyway what the examiners want is not my interpretation of the poems. They want to know that you,the student, can read poems intelligently and come to plausible conclusions about them, which can be backed up by evidence from the text - i.e. quotes and examples. If these conclusions don't happen to be those of the examiner, or indeed of the poet, that doesn't especially matter. For example, I think I could argue that Wordsworth's "Daffodils" was about the influence of nature on man. Or I could argue, equally well, that it was about loneliness and the need for society.  What I couldn't do is argue that it is about industrialisation or the slave trade, because I couldn't produce evidence from the text to support those assertions. But if I argue from the text, and produce evidence, it won't signify if my interpretation is not that of the examiner, or for that matter the poet.


Just don't be dogmatic in your conclusions. Remember there is no One True Interpretation, including yours, just many possible ones. Don't write "this poem is about loneliness" or "the poet is saying such and such". The subjunctive is your friend - write "by using this metaphor, the poet may be saying..." or "it seems reasonable to suppose that...." It's harder to argue with suggestions than with dogmatic statements.


And don't make too many assumptions, especially biographical ones.  Poets are always being told by reviewers that they have clearly been influenced by the work of Fred Farnsbarn, when they have never read a line of Fred's work. Don't assume it unless there's evidence in the form of a quote from Fred or obvious reference to him. Above all, don't suppose that "I" is necessarily the poet. Poets have a saying, "I is a lie", and it's often true. Writing in the first person doesn't mean you are writing of your own personal experience. Poets make things up; it's our job.  When writing about a first-person poem, call the "I" voice "the narrator", not "the poet".


Now some individual questions that have come up a lot


And first, a question which also functions as a warning for spoilers, of which this page is full:

I notice that you often tell readers what message/image you intend to portray. Don't you think that doing so is very much like spoonfeeding? I find that if I can access someone else's intepretation of a poem, I'll more or less follow that intepretation and not develop my own. It sort of spoils the fun of figuring out what a poem means by yourself.

I don't tell them in the poems.  Nor, even here, do I tell them how to interpret poems; that's up to them. I give answers to specific factual questions on this site, if people ask. Those, like you, who would rather figure it out for themselves should follow your example and not read those pages!
       Actually I have never let an author's opinion of his work influence mine unduly. Dumas thinks, and often says, that his character Aramis is basically selfish and worldly. He's wrong.


Can you give the historical context of "Torturers"?


It is set in the time just after the overthrow of the military dictatorship in Argentina. During that time many left-wing people were arrested and killed and sometimes their children were adopted by members of the junta and brought up as their own. After democracy returned. the mothers of the "disappeared", as they were known, started trying to track their stolen grandchildren and in some cases succeeded. The poem is imagining how a child would feel finding out the truth of their origins in this way

Can you explain the theme of "Frost Greyface" and the quote in the epigraph?

The quote from Nekrasov, first. He was a 19th-century Russian poet with a social conscience, sort of like a Russian Dickens. His Frost Rednose is a character from a Russian folk tale; he catches travellers out after dark and freezes them to death. In the poem he comes as a welcome release to a poor woman who has no real hope in life.
       My poem was written during the Major government (ie it's another anti-Tory diatribe) and it particularly relates to what the government wasn't doing about homelessness and people living on the streets, which a lot of them were doing then, especially in London. This gets another mention in "Id's Hospit", the title poem of the collection that Frost Greyface comes from. Frost Greyface is a 20th-century version of the fairytale archetype but is also intended to resemble John Major. The bit about "does not come like a general" is another reference to Nekrasov's poem; Frost Rednose is a bluff, hearty type.

Can you explain the background to the Earth Studies sequence?


The premise is that at some time in the future, probably due to the actions of man, earth becomes uninhabitable. A remnant of mankind escapes and sets up home on another planet (probably, I think, indoors or underground). The next generation of children, born on this planet, have no knowledge of the earth their parents came from and it is decided they should learn about it. Their teacher is an elderly schoolteacher called Christie (who in my mind is definitely atheist and probably alcoholic). Some of the poems are lectures from him, some are his answers to student queries; a few his own musings. 

Why is the language in "Sometimes" not inclusive?

  • It was written for a specific individual who happened to be male, so it refers to men - other men do this and that, so can you.

  • Using "man" to mean both "male person" and "generic human being" depending on the context, is still sometimes the least clumsy solution.

  • Using "person" where normal speech says man or woman is, to my ear, poncy and not even decent prose, let alone poetry.

  • I'm bolshie - if people, especially critics or educators, tell me I ought to use "inclusive language", that's enough reason not to.


Why the title "MSA"?

They were the initials of a real person; at the time, because of the political situation in her country, using her full name would have put her in danger.

Is the "I" in "MSA" male or female?

Male. I wrote it for a competition, in which the entries were anonymous; I wanted to see if the judges would assume it was by a man. They did. So much for gender showing through... it doesn't if you don't want it to!

What's the historical background to "MSA"?

It's set partly in 1987 (the left-hand justified bits) and partly in flashback to the early 70s. In 1987, the male narrator, who's pushing 40, is watching footage of the then-ongoing Iran-Iraq war on TV and recalling a time, about 18 years earlier, when he was a young man studying in Berlin (which was then still divided into East and West, hence "Ulbricht's fortress"). He knew a lot of young Iranians who were studying in the West. At the time the Shah ruled in Iran and many young people wanted him overthrown, as do the boys in the poem. (SAVAK was the Shah's feared secret police). He was overthrown, but what replaced him was not democracy but a theocracy of ayatollahs who were more intolerant, especially towards women, than the previous bunch. The narrator looks at the soldiers dying in the war, wondering if the boys he knew are among them, and wondering even more what has become of the girl (MSA) with whom he was briefly in love. It's about growing older and the loss of innocence, also how older people continually louse up the lives of young ones.


Who was... (insert name of any one of several historical characters) 

All right, here are some. The woman in "She was nineteen" was a concentration camp guard called Dorothea Binz. Senesino and Farinelli were 18th-century Italian opera singers, castrati, making a living working for Handel in England. Roerek was exactly who he says he was in the poem, a minor Norwegian king. The snooker player in "Man getting hammered" was Jimmy White, the one in "Exhibition" is Dennis Taylor and the one in "147" was Kirk Stevens (Benson & Hedges Championship 1984). St Cuthbert lived on Lindisfarne island off the Northumbrian coast. The speaker of "Frankincense" is the parson of St Michael's church near Sedgemoor; the poem takes place after the battle of Sedgemoor. Kings Sigurd and Eystein were brothers who ruled jointly in Norway. The slave-girl in "Tree of Pearls" who briefly takes over a kingdom was real and her Arabic name is Shagaret-al-Dorr or something like it - I found her in a history of Cairo. Owen Beattie is a Canadian archaeologist who in 1984 exhumed from their graves in the Arctic three British sailors who had died there in 1846. Ice had encased their bodies and preserved them; when unfrozen they looked as if they were asleep. 

Karl Schlechter was a chess player who got the nickname "the drawing master" because he had no killer instinct and when in a winning position would offer a draw rather than humiliate someone by beating them. He died in poverty around the end of the First World War; he is my ideal man.