Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Sitcom | Chapbook | Vol LII, Keyways: Unlocking Owen Sheers' Skirrid Hill by Phil Brown

Vol LII, Keyways: Unlocking Owen Sheers' Skirrid Hill

Phil Brown (18.5.11)

A commentary on every poem in Owen Sheers’ Skirrid Hill written with revision for A-Level exams in mind and geared towards students of A-Level English Literature. This commentary is meant to enhance the reader’s understanding of some of the ideas in Sheers’ poetry. It is also entirely free.


Appendix I - Lyrics to Susan’s House by Eels

Going over to Susan's House, wandering south down Baxter Street
Nothing hiding behind this picket fence
There's a crazy old woman smashing bottles on the sidewalk where her house burned down two years ago
People say that back then, she really wasn't that crazy

Going over to Susan's House
Going over to Susan's House, I can't be alone tonight

Down by the Doughnut Prince, a 15-year-old boy lies on the sidewalk with a bullet in his forehead
In a final act of indignity, the paramedics take off all his clothes for the whole world to see while they put him in the bag
Meanwhile, an old couple argues inside the 'Queen Bee', the sick fluorescent light shimmering on their skin

Going over to Susan's House
Going over to Susan's House, she's gonna make it right

Take a left down Echo Park
A kid asks do I want some crack
TV sets are spewing Baywatch
Through the windows into black

Here comes a girl with long brown hair, who can't be more than seventeen
She sucks on a red popsicle as she pushes a baby girl in a pink carriage
And I'm thinking, 'That must be her sister. That must be her sister, right?'
They go into the seven-eleven and I keep walking, and I keep walking

Going over to Susan's House
Going over to Susan's House, I can't be alone tonight
Going over to Susan's House

Appendix II – To Speak of Woe That is Marriage by Robert Lowell

"It is the future generation that presses into being by means of
these exuberant feelings and supersensible soap bubbles of ours."

"The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.
Our magnolia blossoms.  Life begins to happen.
My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,
and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,
free-lancing out along the razor's edge.
This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.
Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust. . .
It's the injustice . . . he is so unjust—
whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five.
My only thought is how to keep alive.
What makes him tick?  Each night now I tie
ten dollars and his car key to my thigh. . . .
Gored by the climacteric of his want,
he stalls above me like an elephant."

Appendix III - Some Notes from AQA

Skirrid Hill by Owen Sheers

Skirrid Hill continues to attract an enthusiastic if still surprisingly small following with Sheers vigorous style clearly able to engage and challenge. His anthology presents a reflective, careful reader with many themes that align with the struggle for identity in ways that can be visceral as well as delicate, broad as well as extremely personal. It is important to a successful study of the anthology that centre’s do not pigeon-hole Sheers as simply a nationalistic poet who looks inwards to issues of Welsh identity but one is looking outwards too, taking in those moments in life which can seem paradoxical and bizarre, addressing moments where there is a complex interfacing of life, death and relationships.

Despite his growing published work across all the genres, Sheers remains a relatively enigmatic, restless poet clearly embarked upon a journey of discovery and about whom, significantly fewer biographical studies have yet been made. This works to candidates’ advantage because their focus more clearly rests on the language, form and structure of his verse rather than on the man himself. That said, candidates this time were keener to explore the question that invited a measured, argued response to a general theme rather than the one that began with a focus on a specific poem and invited validation and repudiation of its centrality. A little disappointingly, in response to either poem, some candidates offered little by the way of balanced debate and saw the question as a way of simply explaining the content of two or three poems, broadly linked to a theme.

Question 6

This was by far the more popular of the questions on Scarred Hill, offering candidates the opportunity to explore their own choice of poems from this broadly diverse collection. Whilst there were many strong responses, one examiner wrote that some candidates who had been offered ‘a gift of a question’ then ‘proceeded with ingratitude and uncertainty, attempting to explore different themes in a perfunctory, generalised counter-argument’ or they ‘wallowed in a morass of loss’ without ever really explaining what had been lost and with what consequences.

Perhaps these candidates were truly ‘spoilt for choice’ and could not arrive at satisfactory evaluative comments because of this. The poems that lent themselves most readily to the argument were Border Country, Mametz Wood, Y Gaer, The Hill Fort, Marking Time and Amazon although the poem that received most attention from candidates, interestingly, was Keyways. Counter-arguments usually cited examples of more celebratory poems such as The Equation, inheritance or Stitch in Time with better responses developing insightful comment or challenging the idea of loss at all.

Certain confident candidates were able to convince that Sheers depiction of loss really to revealed what was gained in terms of experience, understanding of self, others and the world. There was evidence that some candidates were trying to shape responses to past papers to fit the requirements of this year’s question with inevitable loss of focus. To this effect some candidates offered plenty of examples of Sheers’ treatment of separations suggesting either directly or by inference that separation equated to loss. Those who were able to suggest in their extension or counter-arguments that Sheers also dealt with moments of elision, repair and coming-together, were to be commended, especially where these moments were expertly pinpointed, analyzed and evaluated.

Successful candidates:

•         Chose highly appropriate poems for the exploration of Sheers’ treatment of loss and its effects or chose equally appropriate poems to validate their counter-argument
•         Analysed Sheers’ choices of form, structure and language
•         Explored a wealth of Sheers’ poetic techniques and articulated his intent in order to create interesting lines of argument and counter-argument

Less successful candidates:

•         Simply offered broad agreement with the statement and struggled to even illustrate loss effectively
•         Ignored the question’s key words
•         Made broad generalisations about the effects produced by Sheers’ choice of form, structure and language often asserting rather than illustrating their points

Question 7

This question had relatively few takers despite the comparatively comforting prospect of exploring a superficially straightforward poem. Interestingly too, there were some responses that neglected the punning title, missing an obvious way into Sheers’ musings on relationships between father and son and their relationship with their environment. Most problematic, however, was the interpretation of the phrase ‘key to this collection’.

The metaphor of the key should suggest an unlocking of something or a focus on some feature so fundamental as to be indispensible to a clear understanding of the anthology. Few such insightful readings were apparent with candidates, instead, suggesting typicality of theme, technique, intent or features. In some respects the named poem is a testament to the permanence of life despite its frailty and smallness, set against a backdrop of the awesome grandeur of natural world.

To validate the idea of ‘key’, links needed to be made to the rest of the collection and here it was obvious that some candidates had a very hazy knowledge of the structure and content of the collection as a whole. The named poems’ central themes of identity, contrasts, endurance, loss and the natural world should have been fundamental to a balanced argument and counter-argument, where the choice of at least one suitable substitute ‘key’ poem should have been possible.

Successful candidates:

•         Produced a balanced debate which considered, developed and agreed or refuted the idea that the named poem is the key to this collection in a thoughtful, engaged, incisive manner
•         Linked Farther to a range of other relevant poems and/or made an arresting case for another poem being the key
•         Explored Sheers’ form, structure and language choice with confidence always citing examples relevantly and with analytical significance.

Less successful candidates:

•         Simply dismissed the idea that Farther could be the key to the collection
•         Wrote basic accounts of the poem and/or others in the collection, with little relevant or developed reference to form, structure and language choice
•         Were unable to move beyond generalisations and assertions.

Appendix IV - Past Questions


Separation between men and women
Striking and unusual imagery
Difficult Issues

Key Poems:

Y Gaer and The Hill
Border Country
Skirrid Fawr (fitting conclusion)

Appendix V - Possible Themes and Patterns:

Man against nature -Domestication
Generation gaps
Modernisation and Americanisation
Playing roles (psychology?)
Everything is like writing
The use of titles to challenge or refute the content - sometimes as part of the poem
Titles often include puns; the duality of meaning at the heart of the ideas
Tercets - not sure really why. Long enough to develop a thread of thought without over-inflating it!
The rhythms of natural speech
Use of real people, places and his family
Natural imagery 
Enjambed lines that create a conversational and fluid movement. Ideas organically develop and weave together to form larger patterns.
Contrasts between beauty and cruelty - a necessary balance and stability, particularly in rural life
Demonstratives to guide the reader to see
Metaphors of theatricality
Images that have surfaces and depths - the darker elements of human life can not always be seen
Incise, probing language
Use of epigraphs or introductory notes
Archetypal characters and rural cast
Gentle rhyme and alliteration to add weight to ideas, moods and feelings
Imagery of cuts and breaks
Poems that begin en media res 
The repeated metaphor of marks to pinpoint moments of transition, growth or change
Poems in clusters or at periodic moments to develop an overarching idea
Use of the first person, though not always the poet speaking
Reclaiming of symbols for use in a different context e.g. the flags
Poetry in dialogue with other art forms e.g. sculpture, photography, song


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