What’s the quickest signal to an examiner that a pupils doesn’t really understand a poem? Pronouns. Or rather, to be more precise, overuse of pronouns. Pronouns, as I often tell my pupils, are not your friend.
Let’s look at a typical example of a pronoun-heavy analytical paragraph:
Power is presented in ‘Storm on the Island’ through the memories of the damage that nature has done. This is shown through the declarative ‘we are prepared’, which suggests that nature has a history there and that they are ready for them. The adjective ‘prepared’ implies that they are ready for the storm to come as it is a frequent occurrence there and they know natures capability for destruction. This makes the reader feel impressed with their ability to deal with a future storm because they have such powerful memories of the damage from the past.
Now some of this resembles decent analysis: focus on key words, technical terminology identified, awareness of effect on reader. But what prevents it from displaying real clarity, real understanding, real knowledge is the imprecise use of pronouns (and adverbs). You can tell that the pupils has some appreciation of the poet’s methods and the wider themes. But the vagueness and ambiguity caused by certain pronouns belies a hazy, insecure feel for the poem.
An examiner will find themselves mentally muttering the following questions:
- ‘This is shown…’ (What is shown?), ‘This makes…’ (What makes?)
- ‘They are ready…’ (Who is ready? The poet? The speaker? The people on the island? The people of Ireland?)
- ‘has a history there’ (Again, where exactly is there?)
In ‘Poppies’ loss of power is presented through images of separation. The metaphor ‘the gelled blackthorns of your hair’ conveys the sense of the barrier between them. The noun ‘blackthorns’ indicates the defence he has erected to keep her at bay. She feels as though she is losing her control over him, causing the reader to feel sympathy for her plight.
Not being specific with the last two pronouns usually shows that the pupil is unsure whether the poem is autobiographical or not (it isn’t: Jane Weir has adopted the persona of a mother whose son is going off to war – not that you’d know from this woolly response).
This morning, I’ve marked a frustrating number of mock papers that fall into this trap. It may be a question of writing skills: pupils are perhaps just being sloppy in their explanations. I suspect otherwise. I think this is usually a tell-tale sign of a lack of revision, a giveaway that students only partially get, or half remember, the themes and ‘meaning’ of the poem. As a result, context is unsurprisingly weak and comparisons are basic at best.
So pronouns are not pupils’ friends. But they are helpful (depressingly helpful) symptoms for the teacher who is trying to work out which poems to go over again.
Thanks for reading,