Parents - 'Eden Rock' by Charles Causley and 'Timer' by Tony Harrison

John O'Donoghue

Introduction

Students will study two poems that deal with the theme of parents and bereavement. They will then be asked to write a story imagining the history of either poet's parents before the poets were born.

Objectives

To analyse and explore two poems that recall memories of the poets' parents To understand the ways poets use language to create meanings beyond the correlation between word and object To develop greater emotional awareness through scrutiny of these two poems

Resources needed

Poetry Archive recordings of Charles Causley reading 'Eden Rock', and Tony Harrison reading 'Timer' Whiteboard linked to the Poetry Archive website


Teaching sequence of activities

Starter

Students are asked to think about parents. They write down five words to describe mothers, five to describe fathers. The teacher tells the class that this lesson will focus on parents, and the various ways poets describe their relationships with their parents. Both poems in this lesson touch on themes of mortality, and use imagery and rhyme to create careful portraits of those closest to the poets.


Development

The eacher hands out copies of 'Eden Rock' to read, and plays the Poetry Archive recording. Students are asked to note their initial impressions of the poem under three headings: Tone, Language and Imagery. Teacher then leads a discussion of Eden Rock: What is the dominant image in the poem? (The 'stream-path'). What does the 'stream-path' symbolise? (It's symbolic of what separates life from death, like the River Styx). How does the language of the poem work to keep the poem grounded in reality, while allowing it to lift off into some other realm at the end of the poem? Does the poem rhyme? (It uses half-rhymes). How does this ground the poem's language? (Full rhyme would perhaps be a little more artificial; half-rhyme is somewhere between rhyme and free verse or prose - it’s therefore closer to a normal speaking voice). What about the unusual image of the 'three suns'? Is this a Christian image - The Trinity? (NB Charles Causley was a Christian). If not, why three suns? Is the image at all ambiguous, in that the three suns could refer to other trinities - mother, father, son; life, death, afterlife? Does this image evoke something alien, suggesting the idea of another world far away? How are Charles Causley's parents portrayed? Teacher asks one pair of students to sum up the discussion, and write major points on the whiteboard. The teacher then displays Tony Harrison's 'Timer' on the whiteboard, and plays the Poetry Archive recording, once again asking for first impressions of the poem: Tone, Language and Imagery. The teacher then leads a similar discussion: What is the dominant image of this poem? (His mother’s wedding ring). What is the wedding ring symbolic of? (Eternity, a love that is stronger than death, a memento mori). The poem works through a number of contrasts: the gold ring, and the intimacy of marriage; the buff envelope and the impersonal process of cremation the father's request that the mother be cremated with her ring on; the returned ring, that 'wouldn't burn' 'eternity' (the father's name for the ring, but also 'eternity' as the afterlife); 'time', and the homely image of the egg-timer the mother, and the 'relics' of her list of clothes; the mother as a body, and the list of her remembered physical attributes the 'surety' (note the double meaning) of the father's belief in an after-life; and the poet's own silence on the subject The teacher asks students to look for some of these contrasts, and leads them to any they might miss. Discussion then focuses on the language of the poem: in what ways is the language similar to that of 'Eden Rock', and how does it differ? eg Similar in that rhyme/half-rhyme is used; and a rough pentameter Different in that Causley uses half-rhyme (rather like a minor key in music, half-rhyme perhaps creates a feeling of melancholy and incompleteness) Causley locates his parents in a natural, outdoors environment, whereas Harrison locates his in the city and the family home, the kitchen where the egg-timer used to fascinate him as a boy Both poets eschew any kind of deliberately high-flown or traditionally elegiac language. What is the effect of this? (Perhaps it renders the poignancy of experiences recalled more effectively through restraint?) This discussion leads to a major observation: poems make meaning not just through the words used, but through their patterning, register, and ambiguities. Following the discussion of the two poems, the teacher asks students to write a short story called 'Before They Had Me', about the parents depicted in either 'Eden Rock' or 'Timer', set in the time before the poets knew their parents, when they were courting or had first met. Causley's parents would have met in the Twenties; perhaps Harrison's parents met in the Forties or Fifties. Suggest that they give the parents secrets which emerge during the course of the story, e.g. the father in 'Timer' served abroad in the Army and was wounded; the parents in 'Eden Rock' have eloped because their parents object to their seeing each other.


Plenary

Selected stories are read to the class, and feedback given.


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