Saturday, 29 June 2013

Crushed Stetson – Explanation, and Moderate Diatribe

Not exactly crushed, but a little worn and dirty.....

At the time of writing, 13 people would appear to have read my posted poem Crushed Stetson, though this number refers to ‘page views’ so I am not entirely sure it means that number have read the poem, or indeed read the poem with any interest, intended or otherwise. I know two friends have read the poem as they have commented to me directly, which is appreciated.

I know the poem is probably impenetrable to most if not all. This recognition is in itself interesting, I would have thought, because it begs the question about the motivation for writing. Without exploring that too much, I will say that I never intend to be obscure and am not a huge fan of poetry, or the writing of it, which has that as a purpose. I have no problem with writing work that requires thought and working at. As a reader I can be quite content with the sound of and/or the implications in a poem without ever ‘understanding’ it, therefore writing similar is not a problem.

That said, I’m writing this to explain a little further what this poem does mean, for anyone interested, and also – as it has a relevance – because it is another break from my exam marking. This ‘relevance’ is the fact that the poem is about exam responses, in this case GCSE English Literature responses, a paper I am currently assessing.

The context for the poem is crucial: having been an examiner of GCSE English Literature for over 25 years, I have considerable experience. Every year, without fail, I am overwhelmingly impressed with the understanding and expression of this written in exam responses by 16 year olds. This year has been no different. When I expressed a similar feeling last year, or the year before, one reader of the blog, who was also clearly a Daily Mail reader, challenged my view of this consistent quality, but that person was quite simply wrong.

I stress this context because the poem Crushed Stetson is critical of some student responses. It is critical of those alternative but ultimately wayward interpretations one reads, sometimes occasionally, and sometimes quite often because that particular interpretation has been taught by a well-meaning though misguided, or just misguided teacher [so you can get a similar whole school response]. Such interpretations can also get posted on the web either as general revision advice or more specific individual views which get accessed, and then regurgitated by countless students. One such example from the past, though I forget the actual details as it happened many years ago, was large numbers of students knowingly aping the reference to a type of metrical line in a particular poem, a named metrical line that didn’t exist.

One other contextual feature I want to stress before the explanation, but which constitutes a ‘moderate diatribe’, is that I fully recognise the phenomenal coaching and training given by teachers to prepare students thoroughly for examination at this level. It is quite impressive. Students improve each year it seems to me in terms of being relevant and sustaining this, providing textual reference to support interpretation, genuinely engaging with and understanding quite complex ideas, and demonstrating independence in the articulation and exploration of this [the exam I assess is an H tier paper with a grade range of D to A* so the qualities I mention are obviously relative, but generally impressive - as I am outlining - relative to any point in that range]. However, with the education and examination target culture established over the past two decades, but exacerbated by more recent political strictures, that coaching and training can take on a demonstrative inclination fashioned by the fear and paranoia of failure generated by that target culture. This clearly isn’t the cause of a taught nonsensical interpretation, but I think it can on the one hand fuel the search for ever-increasing alternatives [as familiar texts are taught and examined year on year], and on the other, encourage over-zealous adherence from students to these interpretations, whatever the cause of their existence.

I think it is now time to use references to lines from my poem to further illustrate my concerns. But please [anyone who is still reading this far in!] do not forget the positive context of my overall view on student responses. The criticism I am about to illustrate gains its impetus from wanting to oust what is being criticised from that positive whole.

The title Crushed Stetson refers to the hat carried by Slim in Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. In a current exam contextual question, students are asked to respond to Steinbeck’s presentation of Slim. In the extract, Slim is carrying his work hat and it has been crushed, probably by the carrying but also because it is a work hat and he works hard and he’s worked hard with this hat for many years. But for many students, taught this by their teacher, this hat is a metaphor for the ‘crushed’ dreams which are a theme of the novella, and there is no denying that the book’s major theme is the futility of the American Dream. I wouldn’t penalise a student at all for thinking this is what the hat represents [and such penalising isn’t in the spirit of the assessment objectives] but I still think the hat is crushed because Steinbeck visualised, from experience, that’s what a hat would be like when a jerkline skinner wears it every day and then takes it off, still crushed, to carry it. Maybe one of the mules stood on it one day. And then another.

In Of Mice and Men some characters are introduced standing in doorways and as they do they cut off the light behind them and this can, and probably does, represent the blocking of people achieving their dreams. In An Inspector Calls, at the end of the play there is the absolutely conventional stage direction ‘the curtain falls’ which signals the end of the play, in this case having a significant dramatic effect and importance, but nonetheless it is simply the end of the play. For quite a number of students this year, taught so by their teachers, it represents the French guillotine and the cutting off of the heads of the bourgeoisie. In my poem, ‘red flows’ is the imagined blood from these imaginary severed heads, and the ‘lust is layered’ refers back to OM&M where Curley’s Wife is introduced to the reader in varying descriptions of wearing red which symbolises feminine lust and danger [quite a conventional and accurate interpretation, for that time]. The ‘cherry ink’ is my red pen assessing this mix of familiar and unfamiliar and plausible and probably quite unlikely interpretations. Making sense now?

In OM&M, Slim combs his wet hair and it’s probably because it needs combing after being washed clean, but....... The ‘walking and talking’ refers to exactly what it states but for some students taught by teachers who somehow have further corrupted what the literacy strategy [see previous diatribes] corrupted of its own volition, these words are not words but language constructs with grammatical labels that mean much more than what the words themselves quite simply mean, and what the author intended.  And if I read another explanation of how an author uses a ‘list of three’ for the precise purpose of its precise tripling effect I will have to write another obscure poem trying to embrace my anger over this but doing so in what I hope is an appropriate figurative frame [though mentioning ‘frame’ itself smacks of literacy vernacular] that has a sound and feel that shapes genuine meaning.

The ‘fog and fear’ refers to one student’s analysis of an extract from Susan Hill’s Woman in Black where the student’s linguistic analysis of the pathetic fallacy used fails to mention the critical fact that what is being described is ‘fog’! It is the consequence of a teaching and learning that cannot distinguish between woods and trees.

The final paradox is, of course, that students deserve to be taught about figurative intentions and meanings in writing. The concept of Metaphor should for me be at the heart of the entire school curriculum. And I understand only too well the dilemma I have placed in the final three lines of my poem about how teachers must teach but also allow students freedom to learn for themselves. I do think there are a few bonkers teachers out there, and pseudo-teachers who post on the web – always has and always will be – but I also think the target culture mentioned and some aspects of language analysis born out of an erroneous notion of the ‘science’ of English teaching play the largest part in this relatively rare [don’t forget the context] but increasing and annoying development in responses I read.

And my poem says this in 14 lines.

1 comment:

  1. I loved the poem and I concur entirely with this post, which articulates so many of my own feelings on both the teaching and examining of English.
    If only Mr Gove had this insight.....