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Modern Poetry

Quick revise

After studying this section you should be able to understand:

  • that modern poetry often deals with modern themes and issues
  • how the different elements of a modern poem work together

Many things to do with life are universal and are not solely the preserve of modern poetry but, very often, modern poetry uses the kind of language with which we are more familiar and frequently deals with themes and issues relating to modern life and experiences.

Read the poem My Grandmother by Elizabeth Jennings.

My Grandmother
She kept an antique shop – or it kept her.
Among Apostle spoons and Bristol glass,
The faded silks, the heavy furniture,
She watched her own reflection in the brass
Salvers and silver bowls, as if to prove
Polish was all, there was no need of love.
And I remember how I once refused
To go out with her, since I was afraid.
It was perhaps a wish not to be used
Like antique objects. Though she never said
That she was hurt, I still could feel the guilt
Of that refusal, guessing how she felt.
Later, too frail to keep a shop, she put
All her best things in one long, narrow room.
The place smelt old, of things too long kept shut,
The smell of absences where shadows come
That can’t be polished. There was nothing then
To give her own reflection back again.
And when she died I felt no grief at all,
Only the guilt of what I once refused.
I walked into her room among the tall
Sideboards and cupboards – things she never used
But needed: and no finger-marks were there,
Only the new dust falling through the air.

Many of Elizabeth Jennings’s poems explore themes of family, relationships, suffering and loneliness. In this poem she explores a very personal memory of the guilt she still feels about the way she behaved towards her grandmother on a particular occasion.

Make a note of your response to the poem and the ways in which Jennings explores her theme and creates her effects. Think about the structure, theme and language of the poem.

Here are some ideas:

Structure

  • The poem is divided into four stanzas, each of which develops the idea further:
    • Stanza 1: describes her grandmother
    • Stanza 2: describes the incident which causes her guilt
    • Stanza 3: shows her grandmother in retirement
    • Stanza 4: after her grandmother has died, the poet reflects on her grandmother’s life and her own memories

 

Themes

  • The poet explores her own feelings of inadequacy in dealing with her memories of her relationship with her grandmother.
  • In a broader sense, the poet seems to explore the difficulties in relationships and with people’s feelings as opposed to the inanimate objects her grandmother collected around herself.

 

Language

  • The language used appears simple and straightforward, using ordinary words and phrases.
  • This conceals the complexity of the feelings it explores.
  • The image of dust is used in the final stanza and carries connotations of death.
  • The language is descriptive, e.g. ‘faded silks’, ‘brass salvers’, ‘silver bowls’.

 

Think about the ways in which the different elements of the poem work together to create the overall effect.

Now read The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Think about the poem and write down your ideas about it.

At the centre of the poem is the idea of reaching a crossroads in life and choosing the direction to take. To explore this idea, the whole poem becomes a kind of extended metaphor. Here are some points to think about:

  • What does the poet look for to help him decide which path to take?
  • What does the poem show about the poet’s individualism?
  • Do you think the comment ‘with a sigh ’ indicates any feelings of regret?
  • Note the ambiguity of the last line: ‘…that has made all the difference’
  • The language of the poem is simple, using straightforward vocabulary.

 

Writing down your initial thoughts and responses to a poem can help you to order your thoughts and plan your answer or analysis of the poem.