Saturday, July 04, 2015

A fraudulent teacher attempts to analyse a Bruce Dawe poem

Tip: when analysing a poem, read the entire poem first.

Here I am, armed with sticky notes, reading Bruce Dawe's Sometimes Gladness on the middle Saturday of my winter two week break. This anthology is part of the Identity and Belonging Context which we are teaching in Year 11 English this year. I've never really studied Bruce Dawe, apart from three poems that I recall - Enter Without So Much As Knocking, The Not-so-good Earth and Life Cycle - back in the mid-seventies, perhaps in form 5.

The best thing to do, I tell myself, is start, not with the internet, but with the actual text. So I did. Read Dawe's introduction to the sixth edition of the anthology. Found something in common with Dawe. "...we write out of a need to come to terms with some concern, something 'bugging' us - the popular American expression fits well here for that inward feeling which we need to get out there, where we can come to terms with it, where it can be seen to have a shape, a character." (xvii) And there, I suppose, all similarity between me and Mr Dawe ends.

I've never taught English literature so am unsure of the methodology of teaching poetry to VCE students. (Which is ridiculous, given how many years I've been teaching English, BTW.) So I decided to approach Dawe in the way I'd approach teaching using language to persuade. That is, what is the writer's main contention? What is the writer saying? How is he saying it? Then, basically, let's look for 'interesting' language and consider how it prompts us to take a particular point of view. Fair enough.

But the point of this post, that 'inward feeling which [I] need to get out there where [I] can come to terms with it', is how I went up my own backside trying to analyse a poem. Somehow, my close analysis meant I became stuck in the trees, taking quite a while to see the wood. The poem I was reading was The Flashing of Badges. Between the title, and the term 'dead-beat' in the first line, I got lost.

On my pink sticky-note I've written: dead-beat, very negative; flashing of badges - establishing of credentials. Sounds like a know-all.

Furthermore, I've noted: the dead-beat always has a stake in everything, pretends to be on the same side; religious? so's he/she?? Student/academic? - dead-beat says he has some literacy in his background, trying to impress.

By the second stanza I've realised the dead-beat is collecting money. That was a light-globe moment.

My notes continue: And 'you' want to donate but he won't stop talking. Is he a beggar? I've asked myself.

Whoah. The penny drops.

By the time I'd arrived at some sort of understanding of the poem, I actually thought it was really amazing; a very compassionate portrait of someone clinging to the last scraps of what it is to be human. But my misinterpretation of the term 'dead-beat' led me a merry dance.

I read the poem aloud to Al, my old man. Asked him what he thought. It's about a street beggar, he immediately responded. I'll put it down to me having read it aloud to him, with appropriate inflection bringing it to life, rather than accepting that I'm actually quite slow.

Can't find a transcript on line, so rather than heading out into the bleak Melbourne winter, I'll transcribe it here for your reading pleasure. (Trust I'm not transgressing copyright. If so, please let me know.)

The Flashing of Badges by Bruce Dawe

The first thing the dead-beat does
Is flash his badge...
                               If you're in uniform,
I'm an old digger myself, he says. If coming from Mass,
He's Catholic of course and loyal as hell,
While if you're wearing corduroys, carrying books,
He'll grimace towards learning's obscure god,
And - like a child opening its hand revealing
A pet frog for your wonderment - disclose
Literacy squatting somewhere in his family.

Which makes you wish to God he'd only stop
Long enough for you to acknowledge freely
(Via your pocket) the world's rank injustice,
Yet if by such magnanimous means you should
Cut him off halfway through some bleary anecdote,
You do him double harm, since what sustains him
In that Tierra del Fuego which distinguishes
Dignity's southern limits is the faith
That somewhere still, in a sheltered corner of the bleak
Island, in the lee of the storm, it's possible
For a frail personal herb of deception
To take root and survive where awareness shrieks
Nothing but wintry truths from year to year
And value, the essential topsoil, sluices
Seaward with every small indifferent stream.

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