Lesson on 'Ceasefire' by Michael LongleyWayne Spence
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin described the twentieth century as the most terrible in Western history, a period during which there were an estimated two hundred million victims of wars and genocides. Not surprisingly, contemporary poets engaging with their life and times, have been drawn to the genre of War Poetry going back in historical time to Homer's 'The Iliad'. From the poets of the 1914-18 World War, Owen, Sassoon and Brooke to the present day work of Carol Ann Duffy, the theme of war continues to exercise the moral imagination of poets. Michael Longley, born in 1939, studied Classics as an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin. In the poem titled 'Ceasefire' Longley draws on Homer's 'The Iliad'. In 'Ceasefire' Longley makes an inter-textual allusion to King Priam's request to Achilles for the release of the dead body of his son Hector killed in battle during the Trojan Wars. ('The Iliad' Book XXIV). Longley's sonnet was published in 1994, the year which saw important Republican and Loyalist para-military ceasefires in the Ulster Troubles. 'Ceasefire' has often been read in the context of political events in Ireland known as 'The Peace Process'. Instead of Homer's use of the epic narrative genre, Longley chooses the shorter, more intense personal lyric of the 14-line English sonnet form (three quatrains and couplet).
To attend to the language of the poem through active listening to aural readings of 'Ceasefire' by the poet, individuals and by peers By drawing attention to literary historical contexts of poetry to foster among students an awareness of how contemporary writers draw on the work of earlier poets as part of a 'living tradition' To engage with some key concepts about poetry including context, genre, narrative and lyric form
Poetry Archive recordings of Michael Longley reading 'Ceasefire' Whiteboard or screen linked to the Poetry Archive website for viewing the texts of the poems Hard copies of the poem for each student
Teaching sequence of activities
Give out a copy of the poem to each student and a highlighter. Ask the students to read 'Ceasefire' aloud to one another and then silently into themselves. Ask the students to highlight the words or phrases which stand out to them as they make their own and listen to other readings of the poem.
Ask the students to get into groups of three or four people and to bring their copies of 'Ceasefire' with them. In the groups they are going to prepare a performance of the poem. Make the students aware of the range and possibilities of their individual voices (volume, tone, and pace) and then the possibilities of combining voices. Ask them why would they combine voices when reading aloud? What would the effect be of a single voice after a range of combined voices? Ask the students to get into groups of three or four people and to bring their copies of ‘Ceasefire’ with them. In the groups they are going to prepare a performance of the poem. Make the students aware of the range and possibilities of their individual voices (volume, tone, and pace) and then the possibilities of combining voices. Ask them why would they combine voices when reading aloud? What would the effect be of a single voice after a range of combined voices?
Equally, make students aware that individuals, or the group as a whole, are expected to create freeze-frames of the poem. The classroom activities should be a freeze-frame per section of the poem as the group reading is being conducted. The frame should be held until that section of the poem has been read.
Now give the students time to discuss with one another what parts of the poem they highlighted. This will give them a method to choose parts of the poem which need attention in the way that students use their voices and as possible freeze-frames to be held during each section of the poem. The groups should then rehearse and perform their readings and freeze-frames.
As a whole class listen to and watch each group's performance of 'Ceasefire'. After each group has performed its freeze-frames ask the class to identify what part of the poem was being performed.
Using the Poetry Archive listen to Michael Longley's reading of 'Ceasefire'. As a whole class of readers and listeners ask the students would their performances have been any different if they had listened only to Longley’s reading? Why?
Use the plenary to allow the students to tell you what freeze-frames they have remembered. As many of the groups will have used the same moments of 'Ceasefire' to create their freeze-frames, this will give you as the teacher the opportunity to point out those freeze frames which are significant moments in the poem. What do the chosen freeze-frames have to do with the meaning of the word 'Ceasefire'? Draw students' attention to the way in which Longley in the sonnet uses tender, intimate, domestic, familial words, images and actions in order to define the personal relationship established between Priam, King of Troy, and Achilles the Greek warrior. In doing so Longley depicts the traditional epic hero figures of Homer's grand narrative as respectful, friendly, empathetic human beings rather than the hostile, warring enemies of classical mythology. For example, quatrain III's lines 'When they had eaten together, it pleased them both / To stare at each other's beauty as lovers might'. These poetic effects arise as a result of Longley choosing the personal and intense lyric voice of the sonnet form for handling his war theme. Invite student comment on the meaning of the final couplet. How and in what ways might the episode from Homer's 'Iliad' help Longley as poet engage with the 'Ulster Troubles' and we, as readers, with other political conflicts and wars taking place in the world today?
Poems exist out there in the everyday world and to some extent take on a life of their own. Read Longley's comments (below) on 'Ceasefire' to the class. Invite students to describe the different reader responses made to the poem on its publication. Why does Longley return to Homer's 'The Iliad' and the killing of Achilles in the Trojan Wars? Why did Longley feel the need to write the poem 'All Of These People' to accompany 'Ceasefire'? Longley's title 'Ceasefire' marks a pause, not an end to conflict: "because at that time we were praying for an IRA ceasefire, I called the poem 'Ceasefire' and, hoping to make my own minute contribution, sent it to the Irish Times. It was the poem's good luck to be published two days after the IRA's declaration. Almost always a poem makes its own occasion in private. This was an exception, and I still find warming the response of several readers, some of them damaged or bereaved in the Troubles... "Since August 1994 I have read 'Ceasefire' many times in public. But only once or twice have I pointed out that the truce is temporary, that after the ceasefire the Trojan War is resumed and Achilles himself is killed. I suppose I was trying not to tempt fate. "I did certainly have misgivings. In my poem as in my political attitude, was I pressurising those who had been bereaved or maimed to forgive before they were ready to forgive? Was I in my presumption suggesting that widows, widowers, orphans might kiss the hands (as it were) of self-appointed murderers and torturers? "I was also sickened by the so-called punishment beatings. (The 400th took place in Belfast 2 weeks ago.) So last December (1995) I wrote a lopsided eleven-line poem to accompany my sonnet 'Ceasefire' - an amplification; a qualification." * * Michael Longley's poem titled 'All Of These People'. Quoted by Fran Brearton in Reading Michael Longley, Bloodaxe, 2006, page 212.
Wilfred Owen's 'Strange Meeting' offers a war poem relevant for study alongside 'Ceasefire'. (Longley's father served in the British Army during the 1914-18 World War). For more information about 'The Troubles' see the Wikipedia entry for this topic.