Lesson on 'The Hill Fort (Y Gaer)' by Owen SheersNicola Onyett
In this poem, as in many others in his 2005 Skirrid Hill collection, Owen Sheers creates what he calls 'a dialogue between poetry and place' which reveals his passionate interest in the topography of the Black Mountains, a group of hills which occupy an area of southeast Wales and cross the Wales/England national border into Herefordshire. Sheers' own Welsh/English identity makes this an extremely powerful and evocative exploration of landscape, identity and memory.
- To explore how a poet uses language to evoke the themes of landscape, identity and memory
- To compare and contrast a pair of poems designed as companion pieces
- To evaluate a critical response to two poems
- Poetry Archive recording of Owen Sheers reading 'The Hill Fort (Y Gaer)'
- Copies of 'The Hill Fort (Y Gaer)' and its companion poem 'Y Gaer (The Hill Fort)' for each student
- A selection of visual images linked with the poems, either taken from the further reading suggestions below or sourced appropriately from the internet
- A handout for students to annotate which contains the following additional lesson materials: Sheers' own comments about poetry and place for the starter activity, Seamus Heaney's poems 'Follower' and 'Digging' for the development phase and Olivia Coles' response to Sheers' poems for the plenary
Teaching sequence of activities
Display visual images of the landscape being described while students listen to Sheers read 'The Hill Fort (Y Gaer)'. Then display what Sheers himself has said about the poetry of place:
"When I look out over the Black Mountains ... what I see before me seems to embody and define a multitude of vaguer sensations and thoughts about the place: about the relationship between humans and nature in this half-farmed part of the world; about Wales's defensive history; about the sweep of geographical time in the glacier-carved valleys, and the shorter arc of historical time in the concentric rings of a hill-fort on the opposite ridge. In both landscape and poetry, therefore, a vast array of abstract associations are delivered in concrete form and presented as a coherent whol... I would argue, however, that that image can be 'translated' or explored further and, most effectively, in a poem - a medium that acknowledges and is driven by the same metaphoric qualities we derive from the original landscape. (In 'Poetry and place: some personal reflections', 2008)
Sheers deliberately placed 'The Hill Fort' and its companion piece 'Y Gaer' facing each other at the very heart of his 2005 Skirrid Hill collection. Now ask your students (working in pairs or small groups) to read both poems, noting their impressions of both and thinking about the extra layers if meaning which emerge from viewing them together.
Students should then go on to investigate key aspects of the two poems such as:
- How Sheers uses free verse and internal rhyme
- Why Sheers embeds the father's unsaid feelings in the middle of the poem
- How Sheers shows past, present and future as inextricably linked
- How Sheers analyses the cyclical patterns of humankind and the natural world
- How Sheers uses visual imagery
- They then present their findings to the whole class. Many students will have already looked at Seamus Heaney's poems 'Follower' and 'Digging' at GCSE, and working in pairs or small groups they can compare and contrast the ways in which Heaney and Sheers capture aspects of the father-son relationship and the timeless links between people and their land.
Display critic Olivia Coles' comment that 'every time I would go for the startling, hollow free fall of the end of the first poem, in which a bereaved father throws himself into a stupidly hard feat, walking in the storm... over the pat proclamation that ends its companion poem'. Ask your students to discuss Sheers' possible reasons for partnering the two poems and why and how they seem simultaneously linked and separate in the light of Coles' view that 'Y Gaer' is more powerful than 'The Hill Fort'.
Compare these poems with Bruce Chatwin's evocation of Sheers' chosen landscape in his 1982 novel 'On The Black Hill'.
Students could also look at Raymond Williams' description of the area in People of the Black Mountains (see below for link).
Owen Sheers’ own 2008 article 'Poetry and place: some personal reflections' contextualises the impact of landscape upon his writing.
The Wikipedia entry 'Black Mountains Wales' provides an excellent discussion of many aspects of the geology and geography which underpin many of Sheers' poems.
The BBC website 'Prehistoric' gives a very useful description of the network of defensive Bronze Age hill forts dotted across Sheers' border country.
For Olivia Cole's 2005 review of Skirrid Hill see 'Review'