Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

Poets in Partnership

Another source of insight into the relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes for Module C Conflicting Perspectives.

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The rubric for this module is, I think, the shortest for any English module in the HSC. It reads:

This module requires students to engage in detailed analysis of a text. It develops students’ understanding of how the ideas, forms and language of a text interact within the text and may affect those responding to it

Although brief, this paragraph has a lot of ideas packed into it. Here are the key ones:

Ideas: this refers to the themes and message of a text. One way we’ve discussed it in class is the “big ideas” of the text.

Forms: this is the type and structure of a text; for example, whether it’s a poem, a novel, or a play and then how it is put together within its text type.

Language: this refers to the word choices and techniques used by the composer.

Then we need to work out how these interact and how the mix of ideas, form, and language affect responders. (Psst, you’re the responder but so are the people for whom the text was originally composed).

Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is written in sonnet form (form). Sonnets are usually about love so Owen’s ideas about war (ideas), expressed using violent imagery (language), are made even more confronting (affect on responders) for his readers.

Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, uses first person narration (language) and chapters labelled using prime numbers (form) to highlight the protagonist’s Asperger’s affected worldview (ideas). This invites the reader to empathise with him (affect on responders).

Being able to bring these three elements–ideas, form and language–together and analyse the affect on the responder, is not easy. But if you can get on top of it before the dreaded Trials, you should be able to nail this module.

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The HSC is an endurance event and the Trials are the last corner before the finish line. Most students probably have at least one internal assessment (my guess is for Module C) remaining but, for the other modules and the AoS, all that’s left is two exam responses: the Trials and the HSC. Studying at this stage should consist firstly, of making summaries and, secondly, of writing practice responses.

The first part of any summary should be an annotated copy of the module rubric. You can use key words from the rubric or the ETA’s aspects of belonging as subheadings. Choose the ones that are relevant to your texts, but make sure that you have a good range to work with. Under the subheadings, list quotes from your texts (both prescribed and related) with an analysis of the techniques and an explanation of how the quote/technique relate to the aspect of belonging.

For example:

belonging in historical contexts

“beauty” and “truth” in ‘I died for beauty’ by Emily Dickinson are literary allusions to the Romantic poet, John Keats. This connects the persona, who feels isolated from her own context, to a tradition of poets.

“the night of Europe” is Primo Levi’s metaphor for the spread of fascism in his own historical context. He feels isolated because he is Jewish but finds a sense of belonging through his “comradeship” with Sandro. This term is used specifically for its political connotations, as the communist Sandro is an antidote to the otherwise pervasive fascism.

A simpler way to approach this would be:

belonging in historical contexts

‘I died for beauty’ – ED. “beauty” “truth” – literary allusion to Keats. Belonging to poetic tradition.

‘Iron’ – Primo Levi. “night of Europe” – metaphor for fascism. “comradeship” – political connotations. Belonging through friendship.


belonging to place

‘I had been hungry all the years’ – ED. “Nature’s dining room” – personifiction – persona feels more at home with nature than in human society.

‘Iron’ – PL.  “a new communion with the earth and sky” – biblical allusion – similar to but also contrasting with ED. Primo and Sandro belong in the mountains, away from the politics.

Even thought the BOS seems to be moving towards specifying ONE related text in the Area of Study response, it is worthwhile having at least TWO thoroughly prepared. Your summary should be around three pages long. The real value of a summary lies in the making of it but it can also be a kind of security blanket, something for you to clutch onto the night before an exam.

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The focus of Birthday Letters (or at least the poems selected for study) is on the following personalities, events and situations:

Personalities: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and, to a lesser extent, Otto Plath

Situations: The marriage between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and its subsequent breakdown.

Events: Seeing a photograph, eating a peach, destroying an heirloom sideboard, a trip to Paris, a wild ride on a runaway horse, Plath’s eventual suicide.

There have been other literary marriages and relationships that have been personality driven and tumultuous. Exploring some texts that portray conflicting perspectives about these relationships could be an interesting approach to this module.

Personalities: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, writers, expatriots and icons of the roaring twenties.

Situations: Their whirlwind courtship, acrimonious marriage, F. Scott’s alcoholism, their literary careers, Zelda’s obsession with ballet, her struggle with mental illness.

Events: Zelda being admitted to a sanitorium and diagnosed with schizophrenia, F. Scott’s affair with Sheilah Graham, his death in Hollywood, Zelda’s death in a fire.


Nancy Milford’s fascinating biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. Well researched and, although sympathetic towards its subject, inclusive of other perspectives.

The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Allegedly Fitzgerald stole excerpts from his wife’s diaries and included them, verbatim, in this and other novels. When Zelda Fitzgerald drew on their relationship for her writing, F. Scott became enraged.

Article: Would you swap places with Zelda Fitzgerald? from The Guardian

A visual biography of the couple, which was created drawing on their individual albums and scrapbooks.

The Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald, includes her novel Save Me the Waltz as well as semi-autobiographical short stories and magazine articles.

Given the theme of conflicting perspectives, these texts could also work for The Justice Game, Julius Caesar, Snow Falling on Cedars or the other core texts. I think they could also work for History and Memory, particularly The Woman Warrior or The Queen.

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Film: Sylvia. 2003. Directed by Christine Jeffs and starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

Although the film is extremely sympathetic towards Plath, her daughter, Frieda Hughes, refused to have anything to do with it (hence the lack of poetry in the film, as Frieda Hughes is also the literary executor of both her parent’s estates.

Novel: The Ballad of Sylvia and Ted by Emma Tennant.

This is a fictional recreation of the poets’ marriage using the images in their poetry as clues to the relationship. Interesting for this module as Tennant once again stretches poetic licence to the limit.

Poetry: Ariel by Sylvia Plath.

I am reluctant to advise using poetry in a module where your core text is poetry as I worry that it will make students appear “one trick ponies” to the marker. However, others (who probably know better than I) have said it’s ok. As Birthday Letters is pretty much a direct response to Ariel, the conflicting perspectives are clear.

Novel: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

Semi-autobiographical novel chronicling the struggles of adolescence compounded by depression. I think of it as a kind of feminine version of The Catcher in the Rye.

Memoir: The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm.

There are some great moments in this work and the author very helpfully outlines her goals, and her biases, at the beginning.


There are so many. Here’s a small selection:

Ted, Sylvia and Me by Al Alvarez

Ted Hughes, archives and alligators by Stephen Enniss

Son of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes kills himself

On Ted Hughes’ ‘Last Letter’ to Sylvia Plath

When choosing a related text, my advice is to go with your strengths. If you do well with film analysis, choose a film. If you think you know poetry, choose a poem. If you like the structured prosaic nature of journalism, pick an article.

If you have any ideas you’d like to share. Comment on this post.





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When first learning the superficial details of Emily Dickinson’s life, it is difficult to avoid developing a mental picture of her that looks something like this:

If, however, we are going to discuss Dickinson’s poetry in the context of Area of Study Belonging, we need to explore a life that was much more complex than “Emily Dickinson felt she didn’t belong”.

I have put together a powerpoint with some further information. See the link below.

Emily Dickinson Contextual Notes

Some notes to accompany the powerpoint:

Slides 3-4: Emily Dickinson was highly educated for a woman of her time. When compared to other female poets of the era like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rosetti, she had access to a huge amount of formal education as well as books and journals to continue her education through reading.

Slide 5: Darwin’s and Lyell’s theories were both hugely controversial when they were first published (still are in some places).

Slide 8: Emerson’s and Thoreau’s essays and/or articles might make good related texts for this module. Particularly if you’re interested in the ideas of belonging to a tradition of writers/poets or belonging to nature.

Note for teachers, tutors and extra keen students: you are free to download and use any of my docstoc powerpoints. It would be nice if you mentioned where you got it, particularly the Module A powerpoints that were actually put together by some of my students.

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The epigraph to Frankenstein reads:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?”

This is Adam addressing his Creator in Book 10 of Milton’s Paradise Lost. This epic poem has been hugely influential, not just on Frankenstein or the Romantics but also on Western Christian thought.

Take a look at the powerpoint below. It is not comprehensive but it should give you some idea of the relevance of Milton’s great work to your study of both Frankenstein and Blade Runner.

Paradise Lost and the (post)Modern Prometheus

The image of Satan by Gustave Dore, like Milton’s text, emphasises the fallen angel, heroic rebel aspect of the character. His bat-like wings distinguish him from the angels of heaven but his pose is that of a victim and Dore has drawn him in the armour of a classical hero.

William Blake was one of the earliest of the Romantic Poets*. Nature was deeply spiritual to Blake and, as a child, he often saw visions, including one of a tree filled with angels. The bible, often mediated through interpretations such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, was important to Blake in both a literal and an interpretative way. He, like many of his time, saw the French Revolution as a sign of the end of the world, as foretold in the book of Revelation. The image of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar** turned into a beast of the field, carries the same warning as Frankenstein and Blade Runner: there are serious consequences for humans who play at being gods.

Jacob’s Ladder, again by Blake, shows a Romantic interpretation of the vision of Jacob (one of the patriarchs of the Israelite nation) from Genesis chapter 28. Jacob saw angels ascending and descending on a ladder from heaven; this was, the bible tells us, a sign that through Jacob’s lineage, all the inhabitants of the earth would be blessed. This reminds me of Victor Frankenstein’s insistence that his creation would be of benefit to mankind (though I notice that neither the almighty nor Frankenstein explain exactly how their blessing will work). Like Dore’s Lucifer, Blake’s angels are classical figures, showcasing the abandon with which the Romantics mixed biblical and classical mythology.

The Romantics and their influences are key to understanding the context of not only Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but also Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

If you have any specific questions relating to posts or resources, please ask in the comments. I’ll do my best to respond.

*The Romantic Poets can be thought of as two groups or generations: those who were old enough to experience the French Revolution (either first hand by visiting France or through the many political pamphlets written about it) and those of the subsequent generation. The first group includes Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth; the second, Byron, Keats and Shelley.

**If you would like to read explore this story further it can be found in the biblical book of Daniel, chapters 2-4.

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‘The Saddest Noise, The Sweetest Noise’ by Emily Dickinson is a poem of contrast and paradox. The “noise” of the title is the birdsong that haunts the poet, reminding her that although the seasons continue, individual immortality does not exist. The beauty of nature is both intensified and undermined by the memory of lost friends and family.
The setting of this poem is the edges, the in-between places, the “magical frontier” between Winter and Spring; and the moment before dawn, “night’s delicious close”. These edges are, according to British myth, the realm of faery so these allusions bring with them an air of beauty tainted with mischief and loss.
In the same way, the beauty of the changing seasons is tainted by the knowledge of that which cannot and will not be renewed: the lives of lost lovers. The memory of whom is “cruelly dear”.
Unlike other Dickinson poems, the persona here is neither childlike nor innocent, she is fully aware and even world weary. Yet in spite of this she can still appreciate and connect with nature. Her feelings, too, are on the edges. She hesitates, she “almost wish”es and Summer is “almost too heavenly near”. That last line conveys the awkwardness and anticipation of the emotion rhythmically.
Finally, the poet finds herself separated from those she loves and cruelly reminded of this fact by nature. But she is not alone. The poem uses inclusive language, particularly first person plural, to generalise the experience. We, too, have lost loved ones and must suffer through reminders of that loss as the seasons change.

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Last week year 9 submitted their essays on the poetry of Judith Wright and its perspectives on the relationship between the Australian people and the Australian landscape. Here are some of the points we came up with in class:

Bora Ring

  • a bora ring is an Aboriginal dancing circle, the one in the poem has been abandoned, which symbolises the loss of Aboriginal culture in modern Australia;
  • the tone of the poem changes from regret to anger at this loss;
  • Wright uses personification, “the grass stands up”, “the apple gums mime a past corroboree”, to reinforce the emotions in the poem;
  • she also uses biblical allusion, which shows her intended audience to be reasonably educated and Western.


  • this poem remembers the bullock teams and their drivers who were the lifeblood of inland Australian in the 18th and 19th centuries;
  • biblical allusion is again used to highlight the loneliness of the driver in a harsh landscape (he is pictured as Moses);
  • the poem ends on a high note, again using the image of Moses to portray the notion that the bullock drivers were founders of this “promised land”.

The Surfer

  • in this poem we shift our gaze from Australia’s past to its present;
  • intensely physical (sexual) imagery is used to express the connection between a surfer and his landscape, the ocean;
  • later in the poem the tone moves from joyful to sinister, with the sea being pictured as a wolf which snarls and gnaws on the beach.


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