Philip Pullman, recently speaking to a packed audience in Oxford Town Hall, on the county council’s proposals to cut 20 out of 43 public libraries in the region. He makes the very vaild point that it is somewhat insulting to librarians for there to be the ‘Big Society’ idea that volunteers can just take their places.
Our local hospital is pioneering the use of can openers
for brain surgery, hip replacements and bypasses.
This will apparently save the NHS so much money
(they said on Central News) that if successful
every household in the country
is to be given its very own can opener
and trained to perform such operations at home.
The Minister for Health is certain
it will also be possible to remove teeth, warts and verrucas
with can openers that have had only minimal adaptation.
In time the money saved from the entire population
undertaking major procedures on each other in the kitchen
with only negligible rising of mortality rates
will be used to commission a state-of-the-art laser can opener
connected to a computer the size of just one tin of baked beans
which nonetheless will have parts with such precision
your lover will be able to put you to sleep
and open up the serrated edges of your heart.
Yesterday I did my first e-learning visit of the academic year to demo to English Studies colleagues the kind of activities I am describing on this blog. Many thanks to the English team at the University of Derby for the provision of institutional biscuits, coffee and orange juice and their friendly welcome. If you are reading this from another English Department and would like to book me for a visit please contact R.Miles@wlv.ac.uk.
What the visit also meant was that I was returning home to Birmingham, by train, in the middle of the day. I’m rarely in the centre of the city in the daytime so I decided to make the most of the opportunity to go to Birmingham Central Library for a very particular reason. Last term, as part of my MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Manchester Metropolitan University I had a term of workshops with Carol Ann Duffy. There’s no denying that this was a great privilege and I am very lucky to have had such an opportunity as an aspiring poet. Carol Ann has a ‘Poetry Corner’ column in The Daily Mirror approximately once a week. She picked one of the poems I submitted to our workshop to appear in the column. However, I never knew when the poem was going to appear. Trying to contact The Mirror via their website feedback form to find this out was useless. So for quite a number of weeks/months I stalked various newsagents in both Birmingham and Manchester, surreptitiously flicking through entire copies of the newspaper and then putting it back and exiting quickly. This is a practice one can only keep up so long. I was getting to the point where I thought some newsagents could be about to take out an ASBO order on me. On the plus side I got to know The Mirror very well. I’m wondering how they’re holding up without The X-Factor to devote half the paper to… ( I do actually really like the fact that Carol Ann has chosen to feature poetry in this paper of all papers. She says she gets lots of letters in response to poems that appear). Eventually I asked Carol Ann to enquire of her editor for me … only to discover I had completely missed the date, and hence seeing my poem in print.
The Mirror’s Poetry Corner does also appear online. I had also been checking this diligently — religiously — EVERY DAY and my poem had never appeared. Once I actually knew the date it had appeared I tried various ever-increasingly-obscure google searches and eventually found a reference to my poem online embedded in someone else’s blog. By some kind of circuitous route I managed to find my poem on The Mirror‘s site, and this is what they’d done to it. This is what happens when poems get put up online with no formatting. This isn’t what the poem looks like, and it’s why poets are maybe rightfully cautious about what can happen to their work if it gets put online by people who don’t really have a concern for correct presentation.
So … where was I actually to find my poem in print? Had I simply missed the moment? Then a friend suggested Birmingham Central Library, and a check of their website suggested that as they kept back issues of quite a range of national newspapers for up to three months in print form then I would still be able to access it. And indeed I was! Yesterday I saw my poem, ‘Cuts’, in print. I was delighted and set about photocopying it (including in colour). I was so delighted that it was only several hours later that it actually dawned on me that even in the printed version The Mirror had presented it wrong, having removed all the spaces in a poem that was originally written in two-line couplets. This may sound a pedantic point to people not that interested in poetry, but if you write it and teach it, as I do, it MATTERS, MATTERS, MATTERS. There is no such thing as a poem — a good poem — where content can somehow be detached from a consideration of form. Whatever a poem ‘means’, it’s form is part of that.
So to the left is ‘Cuts’ as it appeared on 28/10/2010. In a following post I will put up the poem as it’s meant to appear. I think Carol Ann liked my poem and thought it merited a wider readership because it seemed satirically political — some kind of slightly strange comment on NHS ‘cuts’. This wasn’t at all in my mind when I wrote it, but as we all know, authorial intention is relatively powerless in the face of what readers might make of words once they are ‘out there’.
I got home after my Central Library visit to find a friend had texted me about a news item that had appeared on BBC news earlier in the day about threatened library closures. Carol Ann Duffy speaks in the clip about how she could never have become the poet she has, and hence Poet Laureate, without access to public libraries. The reporter in the clip also implicitly makes clear what the Cameroon notion of ‘the big society’ is all about: valuable community, arts-based and charitable organisations are taking hits in state funding. in order for these organisations to function/remain in future they will need to be staffed and maintained by volunteers. This is called ‘doing our bit’/'the right thing’.
There is a great deal to protest about at the moment. There’s going to be more. In its small way, I’m glad my poem has contributed to the critical voices.
Session F of The Victorian Vision Online follows an in-class session on the ‘fallen woman’. Specifically, we focus on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Jenny’ and Augusta Webster’s ‘A Castaway’ (both published 1870). In many ways these are a dream team of poems to set alongside each other for all sorts of reasons. They can be compared as monologues, with DGR’s being considered a kind of ‘interior’ monologue (as Daniel Harris, 1984, suggested), and can be compared through the lens of gender, with the ‘client’ versus prostitute herself speaking. Many critics (e.g. Joseph Bristow, 1993) have pointed out that Rossetti’s poem, although seemingly emerging from a liberal male standpoint, nonetheless silences and aesthticizes Jenny: it turns her into art rather than having to engage with her as a woman who speaks. The reappraisal of Augusta Webster in recent years — surely a poet who must in future be taught alongside the dramatic monologues of Browning and Tennyson — has meant that ‘A Castaway’ has also become comparatively better known on Victorian Literature courses.
The session itself is in many ways almost a ‘traditional’ seminar, but it takes place in an online space. I give the students a number of questions about both poems — e.g. “What is our speaker’s attitude to Jenny? Does this change as the poem /the night progresses?”; ”What kinds of social analysis of women’s position (fallen and otherwise) does ‘A Castaway’ contain? You might want to think about the topics of work, education and marriage.” — and they are encouraged to make close readings of the poems in their responses. This always works well. The ambiguously placed narrator in ‘Jenny’ still continues to get students going, and although once he might have seemed the height of sympathy for the prostitute’s plight he doesn’t fare so well (in my students’ responses and in more recent critical accounts) alongside Eulalie’s attempt to give voice to the prostitute herself.
I decided to do something I’ve never done before with these discussion forums, and I told the class there would be a prize for the student who made the best contribution to the ‘online penitentiary’ over the week of the exercise. Who would decide this? The students themselves. Their final ‘signing off’ from the exercise at the end of the week was to send me an email telling me who they thought should be the winner and, briefly, why. This they did. Overall they voted for 13/28 different students as their nominee, with a few students receiving multiple votes. There was one student who clearly got more votes than any other but two who came joint second. As I was in a good mood I gave the runners up a small prize too. The winner got a copy of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (reviewed here by Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian).
Here are some examples of what I thought were good comments by the students about their classmates’ postings:
“XX’s own initial posting shows a good insight and is done with close reference to the poem … In her other contributions XX manages to present her own opinion based on her findings in the poem and encourages others to take part in the discussions”.
“I think XX is the winner because in her posts she is very detailed and also she has responded to lots of people’s posts. Her dedication to keeping on replying shows her interest in the topic”.
“XX submitted her first post on Friday and continued during the week. She gave thoughtful and sensitive interpretations of both poems using good quotations that showed close reading of the texts. She also supported them with refs. She continued her own discussion and contributed to others. Her English and grammar were also good”.
“XX’s strands are always informative and very interesting without being too long, or too formal. XX always interacts well with other discussions and you can guarantee a good enjoyable debate with XX, as she always responds to and develops your ideas and opinions”.
In the week of the X-Factor final on ITV there was nothing else to do but be democratic about who determined the winner here. It can perhaps feel risky for lecturers to allow their students to engage in peer assessment, although this was relatively safe (no actual marks involved), and I was pleased by the quality of some of the comments they made on each other’s postings. I was wanting them to pay some attention to what makes for a good contribution to a discussion forum and I felt they did.