‘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 a number of 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 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. You can read the full poem Head of English here.
Summary of Head of English
The speaker is quite dismissive of the poet throughout the piece and does whatever he/she can avoid truly praising this person. As Head of English progresses the speaker introduces the poet while also bragging on 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 stanza, 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.
Analysis of Head of English
In the first stanza of this poem the main character, and only speaker in the narrative, starts the monologue. It is easy to imagine this person standing up in front of the class 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 staying 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 jealously towards the poet as she/he have any 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 for the poet, but not too loudly. The instructor wants to make sure they show proper respect, but don’t go overboard.
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.
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.
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.
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 to 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.