Jay Rixon is a Senior Manager in Access, Open and Cross-curricular Innovation and responsible for the MA or MSc Open qualification. In this post, Jay reflects on a staff-student online drop-in session titled ‘Four Famous Poems – a literary discussion’ held on Tuesday 30th June 2020.
In the session, Jay was joined by Dr John Butcher, Director of Access, Open and Cross-curricular Innovation who led the discussion.
Our drop-in sessions were created as a response to going into lockdown. They were intended to be an antidote to the challenging news at the time and an opportunity to explore and wallow in well-known topics and enjoy a community of people who value learning across a range of subjects. We have explored many topics in these online sessions, from music, film, books, TV and art among many others. For this occasion, the topic of poetry was selected, and four poems were chosen to be delved into, explored and examined.
The first poem to be explored was Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
John shared how he felt this poem seemed to reflect recent events where statues have been torn down or re-evaluated for what they historically represent. The statue in this poem depicts the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses the II, whose Greek name was Ozymandias. Shelley was apparently inspired by the British Museum’s announcement that they had acquired a large fragment of a statue from the 13th Century BC. Many of us in the session had no idea of the historical back-story of the poem and that knowledge helped give us a hook into understanding the poem to a greater extent.
Session participants felt the poem was about life being transient; about death and decay. Many people felt the language used helped them to visually picture a statue that had been weathered and beaten, eroded by time and now covered by sand. Lines like ‘Half sunk, a shattered visage lies’ conjured images of a partial face covered by desert sands, hidden or forgotten and perhaps irrelevant.
This work by Shelley is considered to be a sonnet. It is written in iambic pentameter, but has an atypical rhyming scheme. We discussed how poetry can feel elitist and highbrow but once you know a little more about the context or the writer and the language used, there can be much to explore and identify with.
Our second poem for this session was Still I Rise by Maya Angelou
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns
With the certainty of tides
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
John shared with us the value of having poems spoken out loud and how this poem has almost a gospel music-like cadence to it, imagine the crescendo at the end of the poem and the rhythm of the words used in the verses. This video of Maya Angelou giving a reading of her poem with such a sense of humour, sassiness and passion is well worth a watch as it truly brings the poem to life.
This poem written in 1978, feels so powerful, current and topical, despite its being over 40 years old. The session participants expressed their disappointment at how much the recent conversations playing out in the media echo the poem and the lack of progress that has been made around equality, inclusion and diversity since it was penned.
The use of language again in the poem was celebrated, with phrases like ‘Does my sassiness upset you?’ called out for its provocative feistiness, whereas the line ‘Shoulders falling down like teardrops’ is wonderfully and sadly evocative. The poem ends with an aspirational and hopeful end, ‘Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear, I rise, I rise, I rise.’ The repetition on ‘I rise’ is so pertinent, so determined, so hard won and sought for. When the poem is heard rather than read, that repetition really ends the poem in an optimistic place, which unfortunately may be yet to come.
Our third poem for this session was Funeral Blues (Stop All the Clocks) by WH Auden
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
The session participants recalled this poem either from their school days, higher education studies or a certain movie where it was used in a very moving scene to great effect (if you don’t know, that movie was Four Funerals and a Wedding, 1994). A session participant also shared that it was once quite a traditional thing to do to stop the clocks in the house to mark a loved one’s moment of passing, and only start them again after the funeral.
The poem was written in the 1930s and was originally part of a play titled The Ascent of F6. In the session we had much discussion over who the poem was written for – was it a close friend or companion who passed away? Was it written from the perspective of a widow who lost her husband in the Great War? As a group we pondered about whether we need to assume the gender of the person who has died? Grief is grief, and loss is loss…
What was agreed on was the poem’s sincere expression of sorrow, beautifully expressed and with such powerful visual language to help the reader identify the seeming futility of life without their partner, their ‘noon, midnight, talk and song’ or their ‘working week and Sunday rest’. My favourite part of the poem is the last verse, the images of the stars being taken down, the moon being turned off, the ocean being drained and even the wood being swept away, such sadness and loss of hope so visually expressed.
John talked about the use of hyperbole in poems such as this, when a poet uses exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally. Our next poem or sonnet demonstrates the use of larger than life truths.
Our fourth and final poem for this session was Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18) by Shakespeare
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
This poem, with a very well-known first line, is full of grandiose statements, packed with exaggerated metaphors that present a lover’s passionate declaration of their partner’s beauty and temperament, stating how the passing of the seasons won’t change their loveliness or attractiveness. The session participants talked about the humour in this sonnet – the possible insincerity of the lover. Shakespeare is using a lot of hyperbole in this poem, ‘too hot the eye of heaven shines’, ‘thy eternal summer shall not fade’. We talked about Shakespeare and his use of language that sometimes can be unrecognisable and challenging to understand.
We discussed how much we have enjoyed the Shakespeare plays released by the Globe, the National Theatre and the BBC in this lockdown season (Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Coriolanus, Much Ado About Nothing and Anthony and Cleopatra) and how these performances have renewed a love of Shakespeare and allowed many of us access that we might not ‘normally’ have had to the arts.
As the session drew to a close, many of us shared poems that meant something to us, or were worth sharing. Here are some poets and recommended poems:
- Christina Rossetti –Remember, Months
- John Keats -To Autumn
- Benjamin Zephaniah- Luv Song
- William Blake-The Tyger
- Clive James-Japanese Maple
- John Donne-The Flea
- Andrew Marvell-The Garden, To His Coy Mistress
- Robert Frost-The Road Not Taken
- Claude McKay-If We Must Die
- Dorothy Parker –Interview
- Adrienne Rich-What Kind of Times Are These
- William Wordsworth- Composed Upon Westminster Bridge , I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
Many of us don’t get to often spend an hour on a Tuesday afternoon talking about poetry, however, this student and staff drop-in session allowed us the chance to learn new things, and enjoy that learning with each other and the session participants expressed how much they enjoyed the session:
- Thank you! I loved the last hour
- That was a really good session – enjoyed that
- I feel I’ve learnt so much, and loved exploring this topic like this
- I really enjoyed this session. I could have listened to you read poetry for another hour!
- Thank you – I so enjoyed the session
John gave the session participants a challenge to write a poem, or if that feels like too much of a task, he encouraged us to write a Haiku. A Haiku is a poem of Japanese origin, which has seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five, traditionally evoking images of the natural world. Here are some examples:
|“The Old Pond” by Matsuo Bashō
An old silent pond
|“A Poppy Blooms” by Katsushika Hokusai
I write, erase, rewrite
|“A World of Dew” by Kobayashi Issa
A world of dew,
And within every dewdrop
A world of struggle.
|“Over the Wintry” by Natsume Sōseki
Over the wintry
Forest, winds howl in rage
With no leaves to blow.
|Sonia Sanchez “Haiku [for you]”
love between us is
|Ravi Shankar “Lines on a Skull”
life’s little, our heads
sad. Redeemed and wasting clay this chance. Be of use.
If you would like to have a go at writing your own Haiku, please add one to our Padlet. Open Programme Poetry Haikus. If you need a little bit of help or a starting place, why not have a go at this poem haiku generator.