Showing posts with label technique. Show all posts
Showing posts with label technique. Show all posts

Friday, 2 March 2018

Sound must seem an echo to the Sense!

The poetry of Alexander Pope (1688-1744) is sometimes associated with a cramped 'classical' approach to the imagination. However, rhythmic life and energy are bound up in Pope's rhyming couplets. He has an ear for music and movement. In fact, he often speaks about dance or employs its as a metaphor. Rhythm and dance provide a rich vein of physicality. Like Dryden, Pope perfected his ability to hear the inherent musicality of words and their sinewy rhythmic potential. He is a master of the soft rhapsodic cadences of lyric and elegy as much as the harsh, rough music of snarling satire.

Although many of Pope's poems present formidable challenges to modern readers it eill eb apparent that a judicious selection of extracts will repay close reading and recitation. Students should also attempt to write their own couplets as this creative process will enable them to understand the levels of subtlety and complexity that can be achieved.

Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711) was written in 1709 when he was 21. His poem discussed the balance between nature and art; creativity and criticism; freedom and regularity.

Influences: Boileau's Art Po├ętique (1674) and the French critics, Rapin and Le Bossu; Latin verse-essays of Horace, Vida, and two minor Restoration writers, the Earls of Mulgrave and Roscommon. Also borrows form the classical Roman writer, Quintilian. As the final line of this extract on the role of sound qualities and versification also demonstrates, the poet and critic John Dryden was also an inspiration for Pope.

As elsewhere in the poem, Pope practises what he preaches; he explains by doing. In order to grasp his sense of how sound functions in poetry, all we have to do is read the poem aloud. Notice how variously he employs the effects of vowels and consonants.

The common sense notion that sound supports the sense (meaning/ideas) is brilliantly demonstrated as a happy union or balance between the two aspects of poetry. Pope shows us examples of the tedious and repetitive uses of sounds, which he contrasts with more inspiring models of agility and lively expression.

An Essay on Criticism

Alexander Pope

But most by Numbers judge a Poet's Song,
And smooth or rough, with them, is right or wrong;
In the bright Muse tho' thousand Charms conspire,
Her Voice is all these tuneful Fools admire,
Who haunt Parnassus but to please their Ear,
Not mend their Minds; as some to Church repair,
Not for the Doctrine, but the Musick there.
These Equal Syllables alone require,
Tho' oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.
Then, at the last, and only Couplet fraught
With some unmeaning Thing they call a Thought,
A needless Alexandrine ends the Song,
That like a wounded Snake, drags its slow length along.
Leave such to tune their own dull Rhimes, and know
What's roundly smooth, or languishingly slow;
And praise the Easie Vigor of a Line,
Where Denham's Strength, and Waller's Sweetness join.
True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance,
'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou'd like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks' vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Hear how Timotheus' vary'd Lays surprize,
And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!
While, at each Change, the Son of Lybian Jove
Now burns with Glory, and then melts with Love;
Now his fierce Eyes with sparkling Fury glow;
Now Sighs steal out, and Tears begin to flow:
Persians and Greeks like Turns of Nature found,
And the World's Victor stood subdu'd by Sound!
The Pow'rs of Musick all our Hearts allow;
And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.

In The Art of Love, the Roman poet Ovid provides some tips (for women) on the cultivation of voice and the power of song (poetry):
Sirens, though monsters of the stormy main,
Can ships when under sail with songs detain:
Scarce could Ulysses by his friends be bound,
When first he listen’d to the charming sound.
Singing insinuates: learn all ye maids;
Oft when a face forbids, a voice persuades:
Whether on theatres loud strains we hear,
Or in Ruelles some soft Egyptian air,
Well shall she sing of whom I make my choice,
And with her lute accompany her voice.
The Rocks were stirr’d, and beasts to listen stay’d
When on his lyre melodious Orpheus play’d,
Ev’n Cerberus and hell that sound obey’d.
And stones officious were, thy walls to raise,
O Thebes, attracted by Amphion’s lays.
The Dolphin, dumb itself, thy voice admir’d,
And was, Arion, by the songs inspir’d,
Of sweet Callimachus the works rehearse,
And read Phileras’ and Anacreon’s verse;
Terentian plays may much thy mind improve,
But softest Sappho best instructs to love.
Propertius, Gallus, and Tibullus read,
And let Varronian verse to these succeed.

See Ars Amatoria, translated by Congreve, Book 3.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
 and 11+ English 

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The English Exam and the Skills Deficit

The Place to find Exam Skills at work

I hope that your exams (and your results day) have not been as traumatic as mine were at school. I still have minor nightmares about that day!

In this blog, I take a look at the reasons behind exam success and failure.

If you are coming to this blog having faced disappointment, do not despair. Help is at hand. There is a lot that you can learn in order to improve your performance. This blog will help you to start that journey

I will be sharing my pesonal experiences, but you will also find that the research is informed by professional experience, rather than irrelevant educational theories.

In my experience of 30 years of teaching English in Schools and in the University sector,  these are the most common reasons for poor results:

1.    Anxiety based on lack of confidence, poor planning and fear of the unknown

2.    Lack of familiarity with past exam questions

3.    Poor memory skills

4.    Failure to produce model answers in exam conditions

5.    Revision that does not edit and select key points

6.    Revision that does not tailor knowledge to the exam

7.    Answers which are too short, or too long.

8.    Poor awareness of what the examiners are looking for

9.    Not answering the question

10.    Not explaining your thinking processes

11.    Poor range of evidence

12.    Weak communication skills

13.    Not understanding how to plan and structure your answer effectively

14.    Too much time wasted on opening and closing paragraphs.

15.    Running out of sufficient time to complete the required number of well-rounded answers.

The good news is that each of these issues can be addressed.

By reflecting on them and by taking action you will significantly improve your exam performance.

You might even learn to enjoy the experience, and become an advocate for examinations.

If you would like to receive further examination tips and advice please drop me a line.

Let the journey begin!

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Friday, 27 June 2014

Poetry at War with Itself: the Sound of Futility

When student readers struggle with poetry, it's often the relationship between sound and sense that presents a high degree of difficulty. It's very easy to be overcome by pitter-patter rhythms and arcane names for metrical techniques and poetic forms.

But picking sound patterns may help to open up a variety of interpretations. This means shifting from the identification of a local effect to the elaboration of more complex and nuanced semantic possibilities.

The first sonic task for the critical reader involves the spotting of similar sounds such as alliteration. A higher level of creative reading requires sensitivity in order to link these sound clusters to the poem's questions, and its answers.

A great poem holds together, in tight compression, the different elements of form and technique, tones and style, form and content. Critical writing - the exposition and appreciation of a poem - involves a reversal of this process: decompression.

By association, sounds breed other sounds, and suggest other senses. Often the sound elements will help to unlock the key themes in a poem. In fact, sounds may help us to identify the main theme, and also may help us to point out its component parts. Subliminally, perhaps, the sounds also hint at multiple levels and layers of meaning. Packed into a small space, such as a sonnet, a poem is bursting at the seams. The poet binds the elements together using form and technique.

Sound associations help to hold everything together. . Also, sounds help us to focus on a cluster of meanings. They also open up new possibilities for interpretation.

One strategy which I often find productive is to identify the relationship between words with similar sounds and their meanings. This approach combines thoughts and feelings: sound and sense.

In the example that follows, I've selected S as my key sound, in order to unlock the poem in some way, by attending to one element of its sound world.  But I'm sure that you guessed that already, right?
Marconi Wireless (1914)

Let's try this out on a poem called 'Futility' composed by the First World war poet Wilfred Owen (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918):

(What s-words would you associate with war? perhaps your class could compile a list before they read this poem?)

Move him into the sun--
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it awoke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds--
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,--still warm,--too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
--O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all? 

The first thing that you might spot is that it's a Sonnet. Unusually, the poem is presented in two sections, each with Seven lines. Why do you think seven is significant?

Perhaps the most significant alliterative S-words are sun, snow, seeds, star, sleep, seeds, sides, stir, still, sunbeams ...

But note also the s-sounds in France, whispering, fields, its, this, clays, limbs, wakes, rouse, once, so, was, fatuous, earth's ...

The poem's meaning emerges from a variety of oppositions between past, present, and future; between hot and cold; the living and the dead.

The sun is God-like and has the potential for stimulation, animation and creation (in seven days); this moves out into 'seeds' and 'stirs' ... and through 'rouse,' 'whispering' and 'wakes.' This is the poetic of life and arousal. 

In this sense, 'move', is not simply a physical displacement, but perhaps an address to the reader on the possibility of being of being moved - the capacity to experience emotion. But the potential for human warmth of feeling is constantly ebbing away, caught up in the sterility of the poem's title: futility.

Is the whispering a trick? Does the prevalence of s suggest the serpent or the snake (absent from the poem), and the fatal attraction of war? Does this stretch the misreading that is emerging, or does it start to reveal what is masked? Divine light seems like a mockery in the context of widescale madness and universal tragedy. Such, in nihilistic terms, is the futility of life.

Is there a meaning to life? Perhaps we will seek in vain for answers in poems? Is there an answer to war? Doesn't poetry, in fact, thrive on inner conflicts, the tensions in a line, the multiple oppositional meanings at war, all boxed up in a little room, in the stanza, in the sonnet?

Accordingly, the life affirming s-world is balanced by the opposite s-words, such as : sleep, still, snow; this is the poetics of death and extinction.

The first light of morning spins alongside its dark other half: mourning.

Then there are all the half-rhymes that suggest two worlds that don't really fit together. The poem resists harmony and symmetry. Too much formal order, too systematic and rigid an approach, is not what is needed?

The poem has become a cold monument to the living, the supreme art form that mocks life just as it re-animates it in the repetition of reading the words on the page, the lexis of a dead poet.

Like bodies, poems are alive, full-nerved, and warm. But they are also dead things; they are moments eternally frozen in time. That's why the romantic writer John Keats is such a great influence on Wilfred Owen. You recall perhaps the wild frenzy and violence depicted on his Grecian Urn, and its ambiguous first line

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness

Keats imagined a generation wasted by old age; Owen witnessed his generation destroyed by war. Despite finding a deathly cold-pastoral in the immortal object of art, Keat's opted for a judgement that was potentially affirmative

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Owen is perhaps more bitter. The warmth that was there at the outset becomes ironic with the impossibility, the futility of 'kind' and 'know' that terminate the first half of the sonnet. What does he know?

His poem ends with a question, rather than the answer to the situation that he presents.

But there are also sound possibilities than don't find their way into the poem. Why not compare the poem's s- words with your s- sound expectations. Then formulate your own questions...

For me, there were two s-words that did not find their way into the poem.




Perhaps Owen had his reasons?

© Dr Ian McCormick.
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also worth a look: The PhD Roadmap: A Guide to Successful Submission of your Dissertation / Thesis.

Further Resources

A First World War School Activity Day - Programme and Schemes of Work . A Free Resource.
"Ugly Urchin Alliteration: a Poetry Appreciation Primer." Blog.
"Sound must seem an echo to the Sense!" Blog.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Strategies to avoid exam stress and anxiety

As we have noted in earlier blogs on this site, exam stress and anxiety is built into this mode of assessment. That's partly because the exam is typically a two or three hour endurance test in which you are deprived of home comforts and familiar supports. For many students exams present an image of clinical discipline and dehumanisation. Sitting exams may also cause you to revisit similar occasions in the past that involved a traumatic sense of disempowerment, defeat and failure.

But despite the huge potential downside of exams presented in these terms they do mimic real life experiences where you may have to work under pressure, use your wits, or demonstrate that you can plan and manage your time. Exams are here to stay!

Nonetheless, it will be helpful to recognise that there are some common anxieties that exam candidates experience. They may fear that there isn't a question that they can answer, or they may fear being seized with writer's block as they stare at a blank page. In other common cases, students often fear that they have not written enough, or that they failed to complete a section of the exam.

If this type of situation has affected you it is essential to practise your timing, and to write model answers. You can also practise opening and closing paragraphs for essays. Familiarity with key words and phrases also helps to speed up writinng.  These techniques will save you a lot of time.

Don't copy other students who write a book in the exam. My experience has often been that the students who write a 9 page essay, often filling up an entire answer book in the first hour, are typically prone to verbal diarrhoea; they are simply writing down everything that comes into their head, without any sense of structure or agument. Such answers rarely pass! A concise and well thought out response is more likely to be rewarded by an examiner who is tasked with 600 scripts to mark in less than three days.

Several years ago I attended a self-defence course in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. After several weeks of training delivered by an ex-SAS officer it became clear that what we were learning was not how to fight back using martial arts, but rather to avoid conflict situations altogether. By planning and reading the signs of danger, we would avoid actual risk of harm to ourselves. This scenario is similar to exams. The first strategy is to plan your revision early, familiarise yourself with the format of the exam by looking at past papers, and by writing model answers. If there are topics that you do not understand you can check out the solutions with your teacher, if you have begun your revision at an early stage. This approach should allow you to ensure that you have covered a sufficient range of the topics outlined in the course syllabus.

By avoiding the disastrous and always risky 'night-before-revision-stay-up-all-night' policy you will already be on the road to cutting out by far the most common and most significant source of stress that affects those students who leave everything to the last minute.

Another kind of stress exists in the exam itself. By scrutinising past papers it is far less likely that the exam will harbour unpleasant surprises. Andat this point let me also declare that the old-fashioned policy deployed by examiners that involved catching you out seldom applies these days. Rather, examiners want to find out what you have learnt, and want to see you demonstrate your knowledge and understanding. Exams are generally designed as a fair and representative examination of the syllabus.

In terms of general health it is a good idea to practise positive thinking. Remember that there is no such thing as someone who is symptomatically, characteristically, or psychological bad at exams. But there is poor technique and inadequate preparation. As my other blogs have been demonstrating, techniques consist of skills that you can work on and improve.

Another health tip is to practise breathing exercises, light physical activity, and meditation. These will help to calm your mind and body.

Immediately prior to your exam it is not sensible to make sudden life changes. Don't start a new diet or stop smoking, or start learning to bungee jump, or parachute. Stick to sensible leisure patterns, avoiding excess and getting as much sleep as you need. Sleep has a noticeable healing function.

After the exam avoid the temptation with friends to undertake a forensic diagnosis of your performance in the exam. I often experienced a vague sensation that I had not performed well in the exam. Yet the reality was more that I was simply tired, having delivered a high level of concentration for three hours. Worrying about the exam you recently sat will cause more anxiety as your next exam approaches.

Finally, keep a sense of proportion. Often there is an opportunity to re-sit a failed exam. Sometimes 'failure' is a sign that you should change direction. Also many famous and successful people have not passed some exams during their time at school, college, or university. Many academic educational specialists have also argued that exams do not test your underlying academic ability or your potential. So don't let the grade achieved brand you for the rest of your life. It is also true that those who are brilliant at exams do not always fulfil their potential in life.

Just do your best, and do it for yourself. You might even enjoy it!

Dr Ian McCormick served as Professor in the Arts at the University of Northampton. He works as a teaching advisor in educational creativity and participatory methodology. He also enjoys reading literary fiction, and writing about disability and the grotesque. His PhD was in the field of English literature and cultural history.  

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences

(Quibble Academic, 2013) 


Monday, 19 August 2013

What's wrong with using "said" in composition and creative writing?

Let's be clear: it is not incorrect to write 'he said' or 'she said.'

In fact, it may be advantageous to let the dialogue do the work and to leave the specific manner or tone of speech to the reader's imagination. The reader often has an intuitive grasp of the flow of emotions.

Close examination shows that there are many options if you want to replace the word 'said', but sometimes you don't need to use it at all.

The word 'said' also preserves a potential ambiguity. Again this can be helpful in creative writing if you do not want to direct the reader to a specific interpretation. Why not trust the reader to unmask irony and double-meanings in the speech? Often, the writer who lacks confidence wants to fill in all the gaps. Sometimes it is better to be less busy, and to leave some space for the reader to work on the prose. Writing presupposes a partnership; it is not a dictatorship.

The word 'said' can also be complemented by an action, or by a descriptive phrase:

He said, slipping the gold coin into his greasy pocket

Returning the frightened mouse to its cage, she said

This technique helps to develop character or to reveal a new aspect of a situation that contributes to plot development. Remember that readers enjoy hints; they enjoy being taken into confidence and they enjoy moments of revelation. What readers dislike is a unwieldy smack in the face.

Another advantage of the word 'said' is that it is unobtrusive. It does not draw attention to itself. Words such as beseeched or chortled tend to stand out, and they may also sound rather stilted and old-fashioned unless you're writing sensational fiction or romance.

In many cases it is possible to present dialogue without pointing to who the speaker and signifying how they spoke. By repeatedly inserting 'he said' or 'she said'  the flow of speech is interrupted, and the effect may become mechanical and monotonous. Effective dialogue requires pace: too much commentary from the writer is intrusive and tiresome. An irritated reader stops reading.

Excessive use of words other than said also runs the risk of starting to sound ridiculous. Writing should not sound like a regurgitated thesaurus! Sometimes writers try too hard to improve their writing and fall into a new category of error.

Try reading your work aloud if you are unsure about appropriate usage. By listening to your work you will move slowly from the craft of composition to the art of writing.

But if you do want to gain a sense of the rich opportunities for variation afforded by the English language there are more than 107 Ways to Avoid the word "said"

  1. Acknowledged 
  2. Added
  3. Admitted
  4. Affirmed
  5. Agreed
  6. Alleged
  7. Announced
  8. Answered
  9. Appealed
  10. Asked
  11. Asserted
  12. Barked
  13. Bawled
  14. Beckoned
  15. Begged
  16. Bellowed
  17. Beseeched
  18. Blubbered
  19. Blurted out
  20. Carped
  21. Cautioned
  22. Chortled
  23. Chuckled
  24. Claim
  25. Conceded
  26. Concurred
  27. Confessed
  28. Confided
  29. Confirmed
  30. Contended
  31. Continued
  32. Cried
  33. Croaked
  34. Declared
  35. Entreated
  36. Exclaimed
  37. Explained
  38. Fumed
  39. Giggled
  40. Grinned
  41. Groaned
  42. Growled
  43. Grumbled
  44. Hesitated
  45. Hinted
  46. Hissed
  47. Howled
  48. Implied
  49. Implored
  50. Indicated
  51. Informed
  52. Inquired
  53. Insisted
  54. Jabbered
  55. Joked
  56. Lamented
  57. Laughed
  58. Lilted
  59. Maintained
  60. Moaned
  61. Mocked
  62. Murmured
  63. Mused
  64. Noted
  65. Observed
  66. Offered
  67. Ordered
  68. Pleaded
  69. Preached
  70. Proclaimed
  71. Promised
  72. Proposed
  73. Protested
  74. Queried
  75. Quipped
  76. Ranted
  77. Remarked
  78. Remonstrated
  79. Repeated
  80. Replied
  81. Requested
  82. Retorted
  83. Roared
  84. Scoffed
  85. Scolded
  86. Shouted
  87. Shrieked
  88. Snarled
  89. Sobbed
  90. Specified
  91. Spluttered
  92. Stammered
  93. Stated
  94. Stuttered
  95. Stressed
  96. Suggested
  97. Swore
  98. Taunted
  99. Teased
  100. Testified
  101. Thundered
  102. Wailed
  103. Warned
  104. Whimpered
  105. Whined
  106. Whispered
  107. Yelled
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of

The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences (Quibble Academic 2013) 

Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Dr Ian McCormick served
until recently as Professor in the Arts at the University of Northampton. He works as a teaching adviser in educational creativity and participatory methodology. He has recently written a book on Shakespearean Tragedy.