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No more poetry at GCSE

It seems that the study of poetry is no longer going to be compulsory for English GCSE, following a re-think and slimming-down of the curriculum due to the pandemic. And if it’s not going to be compulsory, my guess is that many schools won’t do it, and many teenagers will miss out on the opportunity to be entranced, delighted, moved and of course annoyed and frustrated by poetry. Which I think is a great shame.

It’s true that teaching poetry for English GCSE is not easy. Students sometimes resent the fact that poets don’t seem to be able to say what they want to say without cloaking it in mystery, metaphor and symbolism. They treat the poems like cryptic crosswords; and it is all too easy to teach them like that too. But if poetry is not taught as a form of puzzle-solving, but instead students are led to pay attention to the rhythms, the rhymes, the musicality, the images, the structure, the way it’s crafted etc, they can learn to appreciate it as a work of art without worrying about the meaning – something that just sounds good and stirs your imagination. (Of course once they’ve been through all this the teacher had better tell them what it means as well; they’ll need to know that for the exam. But by that stage the meaning(s) should acquire a lot more significance for them.)

I still remember with pleasure many, many lines of poetry I learned at school. Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note. Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me. Had we but world enough and time this coyness, lady, were no crime. Go and catch a falling star; get with child a mandrake root. And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds. Do I dare to eat a peach? Tiger, tiger, burning bright in the forests of the night. Clear, unscaleable ahead rise the mountains of Instead. I think we are in rats’ alley where the dead men lost their bones.

If pressed on what any of these lines mean I might be able to dredge up some sort of answer, but that wouldn’t really be the point. They are just lovely, evocative, memorable, mood-changing arrangements of words; and that is what GCSE students who don’t do poetry are going to miss out on the opportunity of experiencing.

bullet-headed

Recently I have been re-reading one of my old William books, William – In Trouble (and by the way, they are called William books, not Just William books – see my earlier post on this issue at https://brandonrobshawtheenglishlanguage.com/2018/01/29/just-sic-william/)  – and in the wonderful story ‘William Among the Poets’ I came across this sentence: ‘Their four bullet heads peered furtively over the window sill of each downstairs window’.

Bullet heads. That’s an interesting expression, isn’t it? You don’t hear it so quite often these days, but once it was in common usage. Richmal Crompton uses it on several occasions, and so too does Frank Richards in his Greyfriars stories. It even appears in a Beatles song, Bungalow Bill: ‘He’s the all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother’s son’. Bullet Head  is also the title of a 2017 heist movie.

But what does it mean, exactly? My Compact Oxford English Dictionary (1994) defines bullet-head as ‘a. a head round like a bullet; b. a person with such a head; in U.S, fig. A ‘pig-headed’ obstinate person’. Online sources such as Collins, Merrion Webster and the Free Online Dictionary give similar meanings. But I don’t actually think this does justice to the word. It might suggest something about the shape – small and roundly pointed – and maybe in America it does suggest obstinacy, but to me it also has connotations of hardness, toughness, with a suggestion of vigour and energy; perhaps not over-burdened with thought. I think you’d be more likely to use it of a boy than a girl; and also of a boy rather than a man. I feel if someone had referred to me as ‘bullet-headed’ when I was a kid I’d have felt vaguely flattered; but if it were said of me now I would be rather annoyed.

I dream of Fanny

I am re-reading Mansfield Park, with much enjoyment and appreciation. No doubt, though, it was juvenile, shallow, utterly crass and pathetically puerile of me to do a Sid James-style snigger at the following speech by Henry Crawford:

It is “Fanny” that I think of all day, and dream of all night’.

But really, I just couldn’t help it.

Them and us

The other day I was having a conversation with my niece-in-law, if that’s a word, and she was talking about applying for a job as a school counsellor. The thing that was giving her pause was having to work with teenagers because, she said, ‘They’re so boisterous’.

I had a sudden revelation, and said, ‘Why use the word they? Why not say “We’re so boisterous at that age”?’

It was one of those epiphanic moments. I’ve always unthinkingly used they to refer to people of other age-groups than the one I myself happen to be in at the time of speaking. Everybody does. But, I now saw, it’s unnecessarily distancing, unempathetic and exclusory; it’s also not true to our experience, because we once were teenagers (and children, and infants) and we know what it was like. We haven’t all been old, but we (hope we) will be; we can both observe and imagine that future state. So we shouldn’t use they/them to talk about the elderly, either – that’s us, a few years down the line. This way of speaking and thinking would surely increase understanding and sympathy between generations.

My niece-in-law agreed. And she’s going to apply for the job. Hope she gets it.

irregardless

I note that the Merrion-Webster Dictionary has included the word irregardless in its latest edition, defining it as a synonym for regardless. According to the Times of India, this has caused an international outcry, because the word irregardless is wrong, a double negative – the prefix -ir is doing the same job as the suffix -less, and if one takes a strictly logical view, the word ought to mean ‘not regardless’. Merrion-Webster has defended the word’s inclusion on the basis that its job is to record usage, not prescribe what’s correct, and millions of people use irregardless. The dictionary does make clear that it is a non-standard form. Its use was first recorded, apparently, in 1795.

Somewhat to my surprise I find I don’t have any strong feelings about this. Maybe that’s because one hardly ever hears it in British English. It’s an American form so I feel it’s none of my business. When I hear the word in my head it’s an American accent (I imagine Abby Lee of Dance Moms saying it) and it sounds rather quaint.

I can see how it came about: -ir is used as a negative prefix in quite a few other cases (irrelevant, irrespective, irreligious etc) and irregardless sounds like a natural member of that group. It has a more emphatic air than plain old regardless. And longer words are always more fun to say. But I don’t think I’ll start using it myself any time soon.

line-up or line up?

I’m still feeling pleased (and relieved) that Tottenham Hotspur managed to beat Arsenal in yesterday’s match at White Hart Lane and this morning I was wallowing in that triumph by reading all the match reports I could find online. While indulging in this pleasurable activity I was brought up short by the following, from John Verrall’s report on the HITC football website: ‘The Portuguese boss opted to line-up in a 4-4-3 formation…’

Those italics are mine, to draw attention to that annoying redundant hyphen. What’s it doing there? Line up is a phrasal verb; it doesn’t need a hyphen any more than come in, go away, lie down, give up, hand over or fall down need hyphens. In fact a hyphen is not just unnecessary but plain wrong, as can be seen from the fact that phrasal verbs can be split up: Verral could have said that Mourinho opted to line his team up in a 4-4-2 formation and where could the hyphen go then?

Line-up could have a hyphen in some cases: when it is used as a noun (it was easy to pick him out from the police line-up). In that case, though, it’s pronounced differently: the stress falls on the first syllable when it’s a noun-phrase, but when it’s a phrasal verb the stress is either evenly-placed or falls slightly more on up.

Verral’s not alone in this error. I am seeing more and more misplaced hyphens. A cashpoint near me has a message telling me I can top-up my phonecard there. No I can’t. I can top it up. Without a hyphen.

This might be a trivial complaint but it’s the sort of thing that sets my teeth on edge. Maybe I should get-out more. I mean get out!

an horrific crime

Here’s Simon Tisdall on the Chinese government in last Sunday’s Observer: ‘the mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang, reportedly including forced sterilisation and concentration camps that harvest inmates’ hair for export as beauty products, is an horrific crime against humanity.’

Amen to that sentiment – but ‘an horrific crime’? What’s with the an? The rule is that an is used before a vowel sound: but horrific does not start with a vowel sound (unless Simon Tisdall drops his aitches.) So Tisdall is breaking the rules – but why? What’s his motivation?

Here’s my hypothesis. Back in the day, it was Received Pronunciation for the word historic to have a silent h. Thus one said an ‘istoric day or an ‘istoric occasion, just as one would say an honest man or an hour ago. But then the pronunciation changed, in the mysterious way that pronunciations often do, and the h in historic returned. But many people who had only ever seen expressions like an historic occasion written down thought there was a convention to use an before the aspirate in this case; it seemed to add gravitas and specialness. I think Tisdall, unconsciously perhaps, is making an analogy with an historic; he thinks an horrific crime sounds more important and noteworthy than a horrific one.

hate

You can’t spend two minutes on Twitter these days without coming across somebody accusing somebody else of ‘hate’ towards some group or other. Not hatred, which used to be regarded as the correct noun form. Just hate. Stark. Uncomplicated. Monosyllabic.

Whence this transition from hatred to hate? My theory is that it came about as an abbreviation of the term hate speech (where hate was being used adjectivally.)

I cannot say I am a fan of the term. It always sounds rather simple-minded to me. It’s a form of begging the question. Of course hating other people is bad, so if somebody has said something hateful, well, then obviously they must be in the wrong. But all too often the hatefulness is simply assumed. Look for it in any specific utterance the accused has made and it is not at all easy to locate.

The casual over-use of hate in this sense has diluted its strength. It now often seems to mean little more than that the accuser disagrees with something that’s been said and is angry about it.

Being angry tends to make one feel righteous but is no guide at all as to whether one is actually in the right. The reverse, in fact. Bertrand Russell perceptively remarked that in cases of disagreement he saw anger in himself as a sign that he might be wrong: ‘If someone says that two and two equal five, or that Greenland is on the Equator, I merely smile, and pity their ignorance. But if someone puts forward a claim that makes me angry, this is a sign that my own certainties are under threat’ (or words to that effect; I quote from memory). Generally speaking, then, I’d say that the angrier party in a dispute is usually the one who feels the more insecure about their position; and that is usually the person hurling accusations of hate.

Poignant-watch

Here’s David Aaronovitch, in a book review in yesterday’s Times: ‘This question [of why people dogmatically stick to errors] becomes even more poignant when you consider what happened long after Galileo’s death.’

Whoa, there. Hold on a minute, Dave. Let’s back up. Poignant? What do you mean?

I’ll answer my own question. By poignant in this case Aaronovitch clearly means something like relevant, important, or on-target – instead of the traditional meaning of the word, which is ‘piercingly sad’ (from the French word for dagger, poignard). But the traditional meaning is withering away before our eyes. More and more writers are now using it in Aaronovitch’s sense. Dictionaries do not yet recognise this new usage but it surely can’t be long before they do so. But what is the reason for this change?

I think there are two. One is that poignant is (or was) a slightly unusual word, not used often enough for its original sense to be kept in good repair. The less often a word is used, the vaguer it’s possible to be about its meaning. The second reason is the similarity in sound between poignant and point. We don’t actually have a convenient single word that means ‘to the point’ but it would be useful to have one – and here’s poignant, under-used, with the right sort of sound-association, waiting in the wings, so to speak.

I have blogged about this change before –

https://brandonrobshawtheenglishlanguage.com/2019/11/19/what-does-poignant-mean-update/ 

 – and it is clear that the pace of it is accelerating. And the new sense of poignant is more useful, suitable to more contexts than the old one, so it gets more outings. I expect I will end up by adopting the new usage myself one day. But not yet. I still have an affection for the old meaning and watching it slowly die is – well, poignant.

Bring me sunshine

The pub choir I sing in is currently rehearsing (not in the pub, sadly, but on zoom) the old Morecambe and Wise number ‘Bring me Sunshine’. For those of my vintage it has a certain nostalgic appeal – but until I had to sing it I never fully realised how utterly shit the lyrics are. It sounds like a nine-year-old made it up during playtime. It’s full of trite, mincing little clichés (‘bring me rainbows’, ‘gather little sunbeams’) and its one attempt at an original simile – ‘Let your arms be as warm as the sun from up above’ – is preposterous. As warm as the sun? 5,000° Celsius at the surface and millions of degrees in the interior? You’ll disappear in a puff of smoke, you fool!

Of course that line is only there because ‘above’ makes a handy rhyme for ‘love’ – and indeed the whole thing is wincingly rhyme-driven. ‘All the while’ is only there because it rhymes with ‘smile’; and ‘keep me singing happy songs’ would not have got in on merit alone had it not happened to rhyme, more or less, with ‘long’.

Over and above the lyrical ineptness there is something grating about the singer’s selfish, peremptory, unrealistic demands. ‘Bring me sunshine… Bring me laughter… Make me happy… Never bring me any tears.’ He doesn’t even say please. And what’s he offering in return? Nothing. The guy just has no idea of what real relationships involve.