Identity - 'In my country' by Jackie Kay and 'Timer' by Tony Harrison

Julie Blake


These two poems offer different takes on the theme of identity, and the way that we become aware of it in interactions with other people very different to us. In Kay's poem this other is a stranger, in Harrison's his father. Belonging and not belonging, class and race, optimism and pessimism provide plenty of juicy food for classroom thought.


For students to: Develop and adapt active reading skills and strategies Understand and respond to ideas, viewpoints, themes and purposes in texts Experience poetry aurally in the high-octane form of the two poets' recordings

Resources needed

Poetry Archive recordings of Jackie Kay reading 'In My Country', and Tony Harrison reading 'Book Ends' Whiteboard or screen linked to the Poetry Archive website for viewing the texts of the poems (or individual hard copies of the poems for students)

Teaching sequence of activities


Lesson 1: In My Country Show the poem's title: 'In My Country'. Invite responses to this: what does it make you think or feel? Then talk students through an imaginative sequence, inviting them to imagine themselves into the situation, jotting any notes they want to. This is a good chance to practise silent individual reflection, but if that's beyond the reality of the class, quiet talking in pairs is okay. Repeat each point a few times until students get into the imaginative zone. The sequence goes like this: You are out walking 'in your country'. Where are you walking? What is it like? Someone passes round you in a slow, watchful circle. Who is it? Why are they moving slowly? Why are they watching you? Why are they circling you? They finally say...... What do they say to you? You say..... What do you say in response? Now pair up students up, or pair up the pairs, and let them talk about the situations they imagined. Have a short plenary to compare the ideas generated and to think some more about 'in my country'. Lesson 2: Book Ends Present students with the phrase "books, books, books". Give them a few minutes to try out different ways of saying it, in different tones, with positive meaning and with negative meaning, figuring out who might say this and in what contexts. Then listen to the recording of the poem and invite discussion of what it means here.


Lesson 1 Read and listen to the recording of Jackie Kay's poem 'In My Country'. Note that their guided imaginative sequence was modelled on this. How does Kay's poem compare with their developments of the situation? Listen again to the poem, and note Kay's introductory framing, and adapt the questions as follows for discussion in small groups and/or written responses: The speaker is out walking 'in my country'. Who is s/he? Where is s/he walking? What is it like? Someone passes in a slow, watchful circle. Who is it? Why are they moving slowly? Why are they watching the speaker? Why are they circling her? What does the watcher say to the speaker? Why? How does the speaker respond? What do you think of this response? How else could the speaker have responded to the question? What do you think of the response presented in the poem? Which words most powerfully evoke the watcher's attitude to the speaker? Lesson 2 Listen to Tony Harrison's poem again and have the text available for reading too. Re-establish focus points for exploring a poem: speaker, situation, setting, theme, mood, style, structure. Then divide into small groups to produce a Venn diagram, using these focus points, showing similarities and differences between 'In My Country' and 'Bookends'.


Lesson 1 Review the ideas raised by the questions then consider what other titles the poem could have been given as a way for students to summarise their ideas and responses. Lesson 2 Give groups a few minutes to prepare their Venn diagrams, then invite each to feed back what they consider to be the most significant similarity between the two poems, and the most significant difference. What do these two poems have to tell us about identity?

Extension Activities

The first activity could be extended into improvisation of short narratives for the dramatically oriented, or into creative writing using this framing as the stimulus. The Venn diagram activity could be used as the planning for a comparative essay.

Further Reading

Try 'Brendon Gallacher' by Jackie Kay for more thinking about identity.

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