You are on page 1of 4

Head of English by Carol Ann Duffy

Any profession can be done well and any profession can be done badly and teaching, like being a
footballer, a banker or a refuse collector, can be done in both excellent and abysmal ways and I
guess, most of us fall somewhere in between.

Carol Ann Duffy seems to comment upon


teaching in her poems and to be fair to her, she is at times rich in praise and at time damning in
criticism. 'Head of English' falls under the latter category and tells the story of her visit to a school
back in the 1980s [1985 was when the poem was published]. She wrote the poem on the train home
from a particularly disenchanting experience. J.K. Rowling is fond of a bit of train-writing also;
perhaps the rhythm of the journey is an elixir for the imagination. I took a rare trip on the train today
myself - from Seaford to Falmer - but the potential for creative output was hampered by some
teenagers discussing the rights and wrongs of throwing dogs off cliffs; to be fair to them, the general
consensus was that it wasn't a good thing to do.

As we pondered upon the poem in class today, I could see the irony today in teaching it - a poem
that warns us not to break it down into 'themes' or focus on techniques such as 'assonance' is now a
poem sat in the middle of an anthology, so that if students are to be successful in their exam, they
kind of need to do some of the stuff we're warned not to by an angry Duffy.

The poem as a whole is a scathing criticism of a teacher who treats Duffy and poetry poorly - the
teacher is given a dramatic monologue in which to dig her own professional grave as Duffy uses the
persona to criticise all sorts of things:

The attitude poetry is easy to knock out: "Perhaps we're going to witness verse hot from the press."

Breaking poetry down to techniques: "Remember the lesson on assonance."


The simplification of poetry: "not all poems, sadly, rhyme these days."
The controlling nature of teaching: "Whispering's, as always, out of bounds."
The patronising attitude of the teacher: "After all, we're paying forty pounds."

Racism: "Those of you with English Second Language, see me after break."
Old-fashioned attitudes: "Seasons of mists and so on and so forth" ['Seasons of mist' is a quote from
a poem by John Keats, a Romantic 18th century poet].
Lack of courtesy: "Unfortunately I have to dash. Tracey will show you out."

These are just some of the ways in which the teacher undermines herself. However, as my class
turned this poem into drama, it seemed that it was Duffy herself who came off worst. I hadn't really
considered this angle, but when the boys in my class (and it was boys who seemed to revel in the
role of Duffy) created her, she came across as arrogant and her criticisms seemed almost elitist as if
this lowly English teacher who was introducing her was beneath her. This seems a harsh criticism to
make of Duffy, but not one that lacks any validity, the argument being that if she had criticised one
person for a poor attitude, then that would be fair enough, but by titling the poem, 'Head of English' -
an impersonal title - she is being critical of a whole profession. Considering her praise of teachers in
other poems, it is difficult to believe that Duffy doesn't value teachers, but taking this poem in
isolation can paint a negative image of Duffy as this poem does, although I think the boy who
donned lipstick and a hair flower in order to become Duffy painted her in a far more negative light.

The criticism of this unnamed teacher as a patronising, out of date poetry-


squisher is one thing, but lying just below the surface is a more serious criticism of this teacher:
racism. The obvious evidence for this is when the teacher says, "Those of you with English Second
Language see me after break" and whilst this could, at a stretch, be seen as a way of ensuring that
students in this category are catered for, the subtext seems to more clearly be, "You foreigners won't
understand this stuff". That in itself is narrow-minded, but then Duffy uses poets of the past and a bit
of intertextuality to drive the racism knife deeper. Firstly, she references John Keats and Rudyard
Kipling who both represent poetic history which is largely dominated by dead white men. Kipling has
frequently been criticised for racism himself, particularly for his poem, 'The White Man's Burden' -
this poem encouraged people to pursue the colonisation of Africa, an act now seen as oppressive
and racist. Some attempt to defend Kipling, saying that his poem is satirical, but whether it is or isn't
is impossible for me to judge, but more importantly for this poem, it seems likely that Duffy used him
as a symbol of white racism. The issue of colonisation is explored further when the teacher says,
"We don't want winds of change". This is a direct quote from a Harold McMillan speech [former
English Prime Minister]. The 'winds of change' referred to ending colonisation and giving freedom
back to Africa. By making the teacher say that they don't want winds of change, Duffy seems to be
suggesting that the teacher wants racism to continue to exist. These things together create a far
more serious criticism of the teacher and perhaps squash the arrogant Duffy argument as we'd
surely prefer arrogance over racism any day.
Model Village, Carol Ann Duffy
See the cows placed just so on the green hill.
Cows say Moo. The sheep look like little clouds,
don’t they? Sheep say Baa. Grass is green
and the pillar-box is red. Wouldn’t it be strange
if grass were red? This is the graveyard
where the villagers bury their dead. Miss Maiden
lives opposite in her cottage. She has a cat.
The cat says Miaow. What does Miss Maiden say?

I poisoned her, but no one knows. Mother, I said,


drink your tea. Arsenic. Four sugars. He waited
years for me, but she had more patience. One day,
he didn’t come back. I looked in the mirror,
saw her grey hair, her lips of reproach. I found
the idea in a paperback. I loved him, you see,
who never so much as laid a finger. Perhaps now
you’ve learnt your lesson, she said, pouring
another cup. Yes, Mother, yes. Drink it all up.

The white fence around the farmyard


looks as though it’s smiling. The hens are tidying
the yard. Hens say Cluck and give us eggs. Pigs
are pink and give us sausages. Oink, they say.
Wouldn’t it be strange if hens laid sausages?
Hee-haw says the donkey. The farmhouse
is yellow and shines brightly in the sun. Notice
the horse. Horses say Neigh. What does the Farmer say?

To tell the truth, it haunts me. I’m a simple man,


not given to fancy. The flock was ahead of me,
the dog doing his job like a good ‘un. Then
I saw it. Even the animals stiffened in fright. Look,
I understand the earth, treat death and birth
the same. A fistful of soil tells me plainly
what I need to know. You plant, you grow, you reap.
But since then, sleep has been difficult. When I shovel
deep down, I’m searching for something. Digging desperately.

There’s the church and there’s the steeple.


Open the door and there are the people. Pigeons
roost in the church roof. Pigeons say Coo.
The church bells say Ding-dong, calling
the faithful to worship. What God says
can be read in the Bible. See the Postman’s dog
waiting patiently outside church. Woof, he says.
Amen, says the congregation. What does the Vicar say?

Now they have all gone, I shall dress up


as a choirboy. I have shaved my legs. How smooth
they look. Smooth, pink knees. If I am not good,
I shall deserve punishment. Perhaps the choirmistress
will catch me smoking behind the organ. A good boy
would own up. I am naughty. I can feel
the naughtiness under my smock. Smooth, pink naughtiness.
The choirmistress shall wear boots and put me
over her lap. I tremble and dissolve into childhood.

Quack, says the ducks on the village pond. Did you


see the frog? Frogs say Croak. The village-folk shop
at the butcher’s, the baker’s, the candlestick maker’s.
The Grocer has a parrot. Parrots say Pretty Polly
and Who’s a pretty boy then? The Vicar is nervous
of parrots, isn’t he? Miss Maiden is nervous
of Vicar and the Farmer is nervous of everything.
The library clock says Tick-tock. What does the
Librarian say?

Ssssh. I’ve seen them come and go over the years,


my ears tuned for every whisper. This place
is a refuge, the volumes breathing calmly
on their still shelves. I glide between them
like a doctor on his rounds, know their cases. Tomes
do no harm, here I’m safe. Outside is chaos,
lives with no sense of plot. Behind each front door
lurks truth, danger. I peddle fiction. Believe
you me, the books in everyone’s heads are stranger…