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Poetry Live!

Year 11 English trip to Poetry Live in Bath

“But what if the writer didn’t mean that?” This is quite possibly one of the most common questions we get asked here in English. “What if the red door doesn’t symbolise death?” or “Maybe the poet wasn’t thinking of that?” Of course, these are perfectly understandable and natural things to wonder. After all the pupil could be right, maybe the poet did not mean that. However, this type of response tends to lack analysis and, therefore, regardless of right or wrong, it is unlikely to score very highly.

Thankfully, on Friday 25 January 2019 we embarked on our annual pilgrimage to Bath to attend the Poetry Live! event. This is an invaluable forum where Year 11 GCSE English Literature pupils can hear from and question the poets whose work they have studied (those who are still alive anyway).

poetry live

The day began with Peter Buckroyd, Chief Examiner. He was on hand to share his wealth of knowledge on how to tackle the difficult questions pupils can face, along with a plethora of examples from different grades, in order for the pupils to see exactly what it is they need to be doing in the May exam.

Following this we were treated to a Who’s Who of some of the greatest poets alive today: Gillian Clarke, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Daljit Nagra, Simon Armitage, Imtiaz Dharker, Owen Sheers and John Agard all graced the stage to both read and talk about their poems. Many of the pupils commented on how simply hearing the poem read aloud as it was intended, allowed them to gain a deeper understanding of how it was structured - as momentary pauses on the page suddenly became pivotal points of reflection, anxiety, drama, or clarity. Each poet provided us with an deeper understanding of their ideas and an invaluable insight into what it was they were trying to say.

The thing that stayed with me most from the day was during Imtiaz Dharker’s talk, when a pupil put up a hand and asked if her use of the term ‘architect’ in the poem Tissue was actually meant as a reference to the poet themselves. Her answer, I think, will also serve perfectly for our original question - “But what if the writer didn’t mean that?” - “It does now.”

Some of our Year 11s commented:

"Hearing the poets discuss their work has really helped me understand the deeper meanings behind them, thus helping me with GCSE poetry." Ellie S

"A great and engaging insight into the poetry anthology and extended reading. Two words: John Agard!" Olly

"The poets offered insightful meanings behind their work which will definitely help me in future work." Poppy S

"The day helped me understand the poets' perspectives and their telling us there are never-ending ways to interpret these texts." Lucy


Is your child in Year 11? If you don't know Imtiaz Dharker's poem 'Tissue' (or any of the 15 poems they have to study), why not read it below and then ask your child to explain their understanding of the poem to you?

Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker

Paper that lets the light
shine through, this
is what could alter things.
Paper thinned by age or touching,

the kind you find in well-used books,
the back of the Koran, where a hand
has written in the names and histories,
who was born to whom,

the height and weight, who
died where and how, on which sepia date,
pages smoothed and stroked and turned
transparent with attention.

If buildings were paper, I might
feel their drift, see how easily
they fall away on a sigh, a shift
in the direction of the wind.

Maps too. The sun shines through
their borderlines, the marks
that rivers make, roads,
railtracks, mountainfolds,

Fine slips from grocery shops
that say how much was sold
and what was paid by credit card
might fly our lives like paper kites.

An architect could use all this,
place layer over layer, luminous
script over numbers over line,
and never wish to build again with brick

or block, but let the daylight break
through capitals and monoliths,
through the shapes that pride can make,
find a way to trace a grand design

with living tissue, raise a structure
never meant to last,
of paper smoothed and stroked
and thinned to be transparent,

turned into your skin.