We’ve been together for a long time. For over a decade now, you’ve been a part of my life: reliable and reasonable, dependable and decent, occasionally formidable but consistently fair. As in most relationships, there have been periods where my affection for you has waned. There have, I must admit, been times when I’ve considered leaving you. Periods when I’ve gazed with yearning at WJEC’s saucy little grade boundaries. Times when I’ve had dalliances with Cambridge and her wantonly appealing iGCSE. Days when I’ve thought I might have to get to know OCR and find out what she’s all about. Welsh board put me off with her indifference to my advances; she went two whole weeks once without returning my calls. I left message after message. Maybe she sniffed my desperation for an answer. Cambridge, if I can speak frankly, turned out to be a big mistake. Finding out what she was up to, and getting a straight answer out of her, left me pining once again for your straightforward charms. The walls of Kafkaesque bureaucracy she built up around her had me, and many others by the look of it, running back into your matronly embrace. Yes, I’m sticking with you. We’re in it for the long haul. So, I am going to be honest with you; you once told me you appreciated my opinion, and I’m sure you weren’t just saying that to get me to like you more. To speak plainly, you’ve done something that’s upset me. I’m not alone by the comments that people have been saying about you behind your back. Well, I’m going to give it to you straight, as real grown ups do when their partner does something that causes them pain. It might seem like a little thing to you but, I’m sure you’ve been around the block enough times to realise that these seemingly minor things can escalate. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about: one minute your partner’s nose-picking is a mere irritant, the next thing you know you’re sleeping in separate bedrooms and muttering the d word under your breath. What is this minor crime that causing major friction then? It’s time we had a serious talk about…’Tissue’.
To those fortunate enough to be uninitiated, ‘Tissue’ is a poem by Imtiaz Dharker that features in AQA’s new Power and Conflict poetry anthology. I’m going to quote it here, in its entirety, for ease of reference. If you have a weak heart or strong aversion to very “poetic” poetry, you may want to drink some whisky or antifreeze first:
by Imtiaz Dharker
- It’s utterly incomprehensible. Yes, it’s clearly about paper but the extended metaphor is as shaky as a gold-miner’s sieve. I consider myself pretty decent at understanding and analysing complex ideas about poetry but this one has got me stumped. Lots of colleagues, in school and on Twitter, (some of them much cleverer than me) have admitted feeling the same. It is impossible to comprehend (etymology: ‘grasp’ and ‘together’ and none of us can). I feel it’s my duty to tell you that others – on TES forums and eduTwitter – have been very unkind about the poem. I wouldn’t ever do that kind of thing in public, of course. Someone called it the ‘worst poem ever’. Somebody else said it was ironic that it was called ‘Tissue’ because they wouldn’t wipe a certain part of their anatomy on it. I recently bumped into a colleague in my department who was purple in the face and swearing at the wall. I thought he’d split up with his wife or had been assaulted by a child. No, he said, he’d just had to teach ‘Tissue’.
- It’s pseudo-profound codswallop. This is the kind of thing normally associated with juvenilia. Deeply philosophical but totally superficial outpourings of multi-layered guff. And I say that as someone who otherwise respects Dharker’s skill. I’ve enjoyed teaching’This Room’ and ‘The Right Word’, both complex but accessible, well-written poems that have appeared in previous AQA anthologies. Certain parts, such as ‘An architect could use all this…and never wish to build again with brick’ are hard to read aloud with a straight face, which isn’t helpful when the audience is 26 Year 11s.
- Nobody knows what it means. Ok, this is pretty much the same point as one and two but in what way is paper an effective metaphor for life? It wears away and disintegrates? It gets old? No, it turns into skin: you and the paper become one. We always say poems don’t have to mean anything but we know that’s largely bollocks of course. We like them to have some sort of conclusion and message, no matter how tentative and enigmatic. This one doesn’t even tantalise, it merely mystifies, regardless of however many times you scrutinise for hidden symbolism.
- It’s not really a poem about Power. Or Conflict. Unless it is and I’ve missed the point (see points 1, 2 and 3).
- It’s too difficult for GCSE. Someone – go on, be brave – may be able to convince me that they understand what it’s about. But they still won’t be able to convince me that it’s an appropriate choice for the exam. Especially on a new tier-free paper. In the old days you only had to subject your top pupils to ‘next to of course america i’. Now my pupils with a grade 2 forecast (not that that means anything of course) will have to steel themselves for the prospect of this Bernard Matthew’s style turkey of a poem.
- Is it (whisper it) perhaps something of a tokenistic gesture to get more ethnic minority voices into the anthology. I have no issue with that. You just picked the wrong poem my love. How about something like… erm… ‘The Right Word’ by Imtiaz Dharker instead?
- There’e no escaping it. With the choice of questions, last year’s cohort could have one Get Out of Jail Free card, to enable them to duck a poem – just one mind – that they found to be not to their liking. If this turns up as the named poem – good god, just imagine! – they have no hiding place. Those old apocryphal tales of pupils committing hari kari by ramming pencils into their eyeballs might start to come true.
But you wouldn’t do that to us, would you, my dear old AQA? This is not just the rantings of a disgruntled teacher who can’t stand a particular poem. Since time immemorial, English teachers have enjoyed whinging about certain poems they hate. Think ‘On the Train’ by Gillian Clarke. Or ‘I love to See the Summer’ by John Clare. We all have our personal bete noires. This is not what this letter is about. The poem shouldn’t be there. Someone made a mistake. We’re human: it happens. So, go on, admit you ballsed up and take action. That promiscuous rival of yours, Edexcel, did this just the other day: she admitted she’d been foolish to include 28 poems on the Poems of the Decade A level anthology and, after ‘feedback’ from her clients, hacked the collection back to a more shapely 20.
Come on, my old friend, let’s do it. I’ll stand by your side while you make the necessary arrangements. Although, actually, you don’t have to go public on this. It’s ok for us to have our little secrets. I know it would cost a fortune to reprint and distribute new anthologies. Let’s just nod and wink, and tap our noses, and say we’ll not make it the named poem. Ever. You could put a mysteriously unexplained asterisk next to it on new editions of the anthology.That way we can all just ignore the damned thing and get on with teaching challenging but worthwhile texts like Ozymandias. We’ll go through the motions of course. We’ll teach it on a wet Wednesday in November, then forget we ever did. Everybody wins: me and you stay together, Imtiaz Dharker gets paid, pupils’ eyeballs remain intact.
UPDATE: The good natured folks at AQA English provided a humorous and, ahem, phlegmatic response to my blog. I’ve attached that below, along with my reply:
We’re not going to lie, your recent letter took us by surprise and we have to confess to being a little hurt. Yes, your eyes have wandered in the past but we have, and always will, value our long and trusted relationship. During those moments when you were tempted by those glossy offers, we reflected and did our best to step up and be the ideal companion. We’d like to think we’re continually growing and doing the best we can by offering you support and fair, quality assessment for your students. Our question papers will always be accessible and we have designed the mark schemes to reward students for what they can do, rather than penalise for what they can’t. You may call this a matronly embrace, but we call it fair.
You have been honest with us and we’d like to be honest with you. The linear GCSE English Literature is untiered and so we need to provide an anthology that contains a broad collection of poetry that will challenge the full ability range. Tissue isn’t just your 1-ply cheap option; think velvety 3-ply and you’re getting close. You’ve asked us to own up to making a mistake. We’re an honest bunch and would hold our hands up if we were in error, but we love Tissue and know of many students that do too. But isn’t that variance of interpretation and opinion one of the things that we both love about literature? Life would be boring if we all liked the same things so why not embrace that difference?
One thing’s for sure, we’re dependable as we’ve always been and we’re not going anywhere. We aren’t going to let a small difference of opinion get in the way of our flourishing relationship. We love to talk about literature and would be more than happy to arrange a time to discuss the multiple interpretations of Tissue. We don’t mean to be overly forward, but our phone number is 0161 953 7504 and our email address is English-GCSE@aqa.org.uk if you did want to get in touch.
The AQA English Curriculum Team
P.S. But more seriously, thank you for raising your concern with us. We always value feedback from teachers about how students are engaging with our choice of set texts and use it to inform the resources and support that we can develop in future.
Remember that the questions in the exam will seek to allow students of all abilities to interpret a poem like ‘Tissue’ in their own way and select evidence from it to support their own insight of the theme ‘Power and conflict’. The mark scheme does not presuppose any particular view or interpretation of a poem.
Dear AQA English,
It was jolly good of you to get back in touch. Exam boards are not known for their sense of humour, but your heartfelt response explains why I fell for you in the first place. I’m glad that we’re on intimate terms again; time – and half-term – is a great healer. So is not having to teach ‘Tissue’ for at least a week. But I do appreciate your efforts: as the tragic travails of Kylie Minogue and Nigel Farage have made it all too painfully aware, the strongest relationships need to be worked at. I still do take issue, or take ‘Tissue’ rather, with a few of your points:
- You said that the aforementioned poem ‘isn’t just your 1-ply cheap option’ but is more ‘velvety 3-ply’. I must, I’m afraid, continue to demur. Rather than seeing a luxurious, deeply layered and comforting tissue, I instead perceive the thinnest and scratchiest absorbent paper known to all mankind. Think of the industrial standard bog roll that used to be found in hospitals, lunatic asylums and secondary school toilets in the 1980s.
- Despite my desperate pleas for reason, you insist that you ‘love Tissue and know of many students that do too’. I understand why you feel the need to defend the honour of ‘Tissue’ – once you’ve invited it into the family, as with racist brothers-in-law and little puppies that defecate all over the carpet, you feel obliged to stick by it. But please don’t drag the innocent children into this too. I’ve yet to find a pupil who hasn’t physically recoiled after encountering ‘Tissue’ and am shocked that you claim to have unearthed ‘many’ that are fond of the monstrosity. Who exactly are these students? Please produce examples of their work and sworn affidavits that they weren’t paid to knock out a couple of PEA paragraphs.
- Life would indeed ‘be boring if we all liked the same things’. As I said in the original blog, however, this one’s not about personal preference. I’ve taught many a stinker over the years but this transcends whether I like it as an individual. It’s not going to allow pupils ‘of all abilities’ to access it. It doesn’t fit in with the rest of the cluster. It ultimately lacks genuine meaning. If it was just me, I would have received plenty of stick for my blog. English teachers on Twitter are not shy at coming forward to lambast idiots who slag off quality pieces of work. I’ve copped my fair share at times, usually with good reason. Yet, the English teaching public have spoken: it’s not exactly scientific but you’ll have noticed that the blog attracted many comments on Twitter. Over a hundred in fact, which is a decent sample (as well as over 2500 views of the blog itself). Apart from 4 masochistic souls, all of them were united in their strong aversion to the text. There was a near consensus: not only is it a bad poem, it will strongly disadvantage lower ability candidates should it, god help us, appear as the named poem. You end by reminding me that ‘the mark scheme does not presuppose any particular view or interpretation of a poem’. It will be interesting to see if any pupils, given that their teachers are genuinely flummoxed, can come up with any view or interpretation of the poem.
It was good to hear from you. Do keep in touch. The next time we meet though, let’s perhaps not talk about ‘Tissue’. The hurt may be too much. I may cry. Just in case, you bring the Kleenex and I’ll bring a 100% cotton handkerchief.
Yours with affection,