‘Head of English’ by Carol Ann Duffy beautifully describes a class taken by the head of the English department of a school. The teacher is in a hurry as is natural with the departmental heads of an educational institution. Moreover, the topic of the day remains a question till the end of the class. What remains answered is that her work pressure holds her back to deliver the topic with perfection. In some instances, the teacher tries to dive into the topic but quickly shifts from the topic. However, one can connect with the poem easily as the person might have seen such a teacher once in his or her life.
The speaker is quite dismissive of the poet throughout the piece and does whatever he/she can to avoid truly praising this person. As Head of English progresses the speaker introduces the poet while also bragging about his/her own achievements and the work that the students are meant to be completed after the talk.
When the lecture finally happens, between the fourth and fifth stanzas, the speaker is unwilling to join the poet for lunch, making an excuse and herding the writer out of the school and back into the outside where they belong.
‘Head of English’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a five-stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines. The poem does not adhere to a particular rhyming pattern but does contain several rhyming lines disturbed throughout the five stanzas. For example, the final two lines of the fourth stanza rhyme perfectly.
This poem is also notable for its more narrative-like structure. It leans towards the prose side of poetry writing in that the single speaker is contained to one long train of thought. It edges close to the stream of consciousness but is slightly too controlled to be placed firmly in that realm. The speaker, who is the head of the English department, is the only character with any agency in the poem.
The entire piece is made up of the instructor’s dialogue as she/he addresses the English students. The whole monologue is about dismissing a visiting poet, as attempting to keep control over the students. It is quite hard to read this poem without feeling talked down to, or amused, at the speaker’s brusque, overly confident, and pompous speech.
‘Head of English’ by Carol Ann Duffy contains several literary devices that make the teacher’s idea more appealing to the students. Likewise, there is a metaphor in the second line. Here, Duffy refers to writing poetry as an ongoing process. In “hot from the press”, the poet metaphorically compares poetry to a food item. It also reflects the attitude of the teacher towards poetry. Moreover, there is enjambment in the last line of this stanza and the first line of the following one. There is irony in the line, “for not all poems,/ sadly, rhyme these days.” There is an onomatopoeia in the use of the word “whispering” in the poem.
Apart from that, there’s an instance of sarcasm in the line, “After all, we’re paying forty pounds.” Moreover, there is an allusion to Rudyard Kipling and John Keats in the third stanza. In the following stanza, the poet uses a consonance in the phrase, “write reams”. Here, the “r” sound gets repeated in the neighbouring words. There is also alliteration in the line, “We don’t/ want winds of change”. Here, “winds of change” is an example of a metaphor. There is also a personification in the line “Applause will do” of the last stanza.
Analysis of Head of English
Today we have a poet in the class.
A real live poet with a published book.
Notice the inkstained fingers, girls. Perhaps
we’re going to witness verse hot from the press.
Who knows. Please show your appreciation
by clapping. Not too loud. Now
In the first stanza of this poem the main character, and the only speaker in the narrative, starts the monologue. It is easy to imagine this person standing up in front of the class and addressing all the students. The instructor begins by stating that there is a “poet in the class” today. The students are receiving an out-of-school visitor who is presumably there to speak about his/her writing.
Duffy’s writing in this poem bounces back and forth between an amusing and commanding tone. At one moment the speaker is saying something so outlandish that one can’t help but laugh, but at other times his minute detailing can be stressful and irritating.
The second line is one of the more humorous moments of the poem in which the speaker seems to be making fun of the visiting writer as well as the concept that his/her published work imbues the writer with the ability to lecture on a subject. Perhaps it is the case that this instructor feels an amount of jealousy towards the poet as she/he has published work.
The teacher tells the girls in class to make sure they take a moment to notice “the ink-stained fingers” of the writer. Duffy has refrained from gendering this poet or the instructor and instead focuses on the pain of the teacher and the myth of the writer.
In the final lines of this section, the speaker asks the students to applaud the poet, but not too loudly. The instructor wants to make sure they show proper respect, but don’t go overboard.
sit up straight and listen. Remember
After all, we’re paying forty pounds.
The instructor’s line of speech is cut off between these stanzas. This is the point in the poem in which a reader will come to understand that no one else is going to have a say or get the chance to speak. The instructor asks that the girls “sit up straight” and listen to what the poet has to say.
Almost as a side note, the instructor reminds the class of a previous lesson in which they learned about “assonance” or the repetitive rhyming in a poem. In this poet’s case, there is no rhyming in their work. A fact that really gets the instructor down. It is clear that there is an amount of disapproval present in the tone.
The teacher has a few more rules to remind the students of. As always, they are not to “whisper,” but they should take advantage of this opportunity to raise their hands and ask some questions at the end. This is not due to any desire to further their educations, but to make sure that the school gets its “forty pounds” worth out of the poet.
Those of you with English Second Language,
and doing Kipling with the Lower Fourth.
The teacher moves on to specifically target the students who are with ‘English Second Language.” He/she asks that these students “see me after break.” The reason for this is unknown, but it does help to make this speech seem more believable as normal school politics are making their way into a planned lecture from a visitor.
Once again the instructor says that “We’re fortunate / to have this person in our midst.” It is almost as if he/she is having to remember not to act too petty or dismissive towards the poet.
Unsurprisingly, the instructor turns the narrative to their own personal poetry, reminding the class that what the visiting poet has done is not so impressive. This also solidifies the previous assumption that he/she might feel an amount of jealousy over the poet’s published work.
Right. That’s enough from me. On with the Muse.
Convince us that there’s something we don’t know.
In the fourth stanza of Head of English, the instructor is really trying to wrap up his/her speech but seems to be unable to. The teacher explicitly says, that is enough talking “from me,” and announces that it is time for the ”muse” to speak. This is another passive-aggressive comment as it is clear the instructor does not really believe this person is inspirational or worth listening to.
The teacher is unable to stop speaking and asks his students to “Open a window at the back.” She/he is searching for another thing to say, or a way to properly end this extremely strange introduction.
This section continues on as the instructor asks that his/her students make sure to take notes, but not too many as there is just an “essay / on the poet’s themes” due.
Finally, in the last two lines of this stanza, he/she allows the poet to speak, asking that you “Convince us that there’s something we don’t know.” The head of English feels undervalued in this situation. As if his/her work and great knowledge is going unappreciated.
Well. Really. Run along now, girls. I’m sure
I have to dash. Tracey will show you out.
In the final stanza, the poet has finished the talk and the instructor is dismissing the students to “Run along now” and go about their day. The speaker states that certainly the talk must have given “an insight to an outside view.” This seems to be the whole reason for inviting this person, at least on the part of the administration. Someone felt it was necessary that the girls hear from another writer, someone who is not teaching them every day.
The students applaud the poet, but not too much. The instructor then thanks the writer for coming to the school and states that he/she does not have time to stay for lunch and must “dash.” It is clear this is a dismissal and an attempt to get the poet out of the school, and out of the realm of the instructor as quickly as possible. Everything will be back to normal after they are gone.