To All the Little Black Girls With Big Names

Really interesting piece of performance poetry by Sha’Condria Sibley. A very powerful response to the way some people respond to her ‘ghetto name’. She makes us question the way names can be used to stereotype, to judge and to shame.

“But, you see, a book can’t be judged by its cover nor its title, and the story beneath your name can’t be contained beneath the tide.”

A Dream Deferred

Sanya Richards features in this 2008 Nike spot, “A Dream Deferred.”

Danny Glover narrates this powerful ad, with lines straight from a Langston Hughes poem, “A Dream Deferred”:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Writing about unfamiliar poetry in the exam

This post is about how to approach an unfamiliar poem in an exam situation.

  • Read the poem through very carefully several times before starting to write about it.
  • Avoid rushing into hasty judgements about the poem – I know that is hard in exam conditions – but you must think before you write.
  • I know many of you rely on discussion to be able to understand a new poem but you won’t be able to do that in an exam. Close reading of the poem is essential!
  • After you have read the poem, make notes. You can mark lines, underline words – whatever helps.
  • You will be writing in exam conditions but don’t rush! The marker will be aware of the constraints that you had to work under. Remember – quality not quantity will get you the higher grade.
  • Try to write logically. Do not write your comments in a haphazard way. Try to organise your ideas under one main approach, depending on what you feel is the most important aspect of the poem.

The Ballad of Calvary Street

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We have looked at ‘High Country Weather’, ‘Rocket Show’ and ‘The Ballad of Barney Flanagan’ in class this year. Last week I mentioned ‘The Ballad of Calvary Street’ which was written in 1960 and have posted the poem below.

Ballad of Calvary Street

On Calvary Street are trellises
Where bright as blood the rose bloom,
And gnomes like pagan fetishes
Hang their hats on an empty tomb
Where two old souls go slowly mad,
National Mum and Labour Dad.

Each Saturday when full of smiles
The children come to pay their due,
Mum takes down the family files
And cover to cover she thumbs them through,
Poor Len before he went away
And Mabel on her wedding day.

The meal-brown scones display her knack,
Her polished oven spits with rage,
While in Grunt Grotto at the back
Dad sits and reads the Sporting Page,
Then ambles out in boots of lead
To weed around the parsnip bed.

A giant parsnip sparks his eye,
Majestic as the Tree of Life;
He washes it and rubs it dry
And takes it in to his old wife –
‘Look, Laura, would that be a fit?
The bastard has a flange on it!’

When both were young, she would have laughed
A goddess in her tartan skirt,
But wisdom, age and mothercraft
Have rubbed it home that men like dirt:
Five children and a fallen womb,
A golden crown beyond the tomb.

Nearer the bone, sin is sin,
And women bear the cross of woe,
And that affair with Mrs Flynn
(It happened thirty years ago)
Though never mentioned, mean that he
Will get no sugar in his tea.

The afternoon goes by, goes by,
The angels harp above a cloud;
A son-in-law with spotted tie
And daughter Alice fat and loud
Discuss the virtues of insurance
And stuff their tripes with trained endurance.

Flood-waters hurl upoin the dyke
And Dad himself can go to town,
For little Charlie on his trike
Has ploughed another iris down.
His parents rise to chain the beast,
Brush off the last crumbs of their lovefeast.

And so these two old fools are left,
A rosy pair in the evening light,
To question Heaven’s dubious gift,
To hag and grumble, growl and fight:
The love they kill won’t let them rest,
Two birds that peck in one fouled nest.

Why hammer nails? Why give no change?
Habit, habit clogs them dumb.
The Sacred Heart above the range
Will bleed and burn till Kingdom Come,
But Yin and Yang won’t ever meet
In Calvary Street, in Calvary Street.

– James K. Baxter.

This poem also looks at the theme of the ugliness and sterility that Baxter saw behind the respectable front of New Zealand middle-class society in the 1950s. Note the use of religious references throughout the poem. What do they make clear about the life of the couple? Baxter had converted to Catholicism shortly before he wrote this poem so think about why he chose to use Calvary in the title.

How leaf we are

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How leaf we are;
At first, all furled in separateness:
Peeping out with little vanities and hopes, also vanity;
Perhaps the last vanity, holding us to that green world
Our life shall be; believing ourselves
So individual, we all reach, being identical.
Shall the prodigal gardener weep?

How leaf we are:
At last, all seared in brittleness
Curled up with tiny fears and hurts, also fears;
Perhaps the last fear, tethering us to that dry twig

Our life become; then knowing what we are
Enumerable, we fall, expendable, all.
The gardener is blind. He will not sweep.

How leaf we are
Like waves we do become; first urged, then merged.
That gardener is a fisherman;
That fisherman’s asleep.

Ronald Duncan

Ronald Duncan was a poet, playwright and journalist. His poem, How leaf we are is an interesting one to use for a close reading exercise.

Now, I realise that I am being ridiculously optimistic but I would like some discussion of the poem. Who can explain how Duncan developed the extended metaphor? What is the theme? How about explaining the effect of the poetic devices used?

Any honest efforts would be welcomed.

To help you with your analysis have a look at this Guide to Close Reading from MIT, I hope all Scholarship candidates will read it.