What do you think the poet is saying about some teachers of English and the way they mark a student’s book in the poem “English Book” by Jane Weir? How does the poet present her opinions? (18 marks) Jane Weir seems very unimpressed by the way her son’s English teacher marks his book. She is describing her visit to a Parents’ Evening and starts by plunging straight in with the pronoun ‘they’ to begin the poem in the middle of the consultation. The first two lines express her surprise that they seem unaffected by their years ‘in a classroom’, all sitting ‘upright’ and correctly to meet the mother.
She lists the procedures that teachers have to go through and the words ‘or so they say’ suggest she has little respect for ‘the latest thinking’ or belief in the criminal checks that are made to protect children. One particular teacher, probably the boy’s English teacher, shows the mother his English book, her eyes showing ‘a length of pity’ that the boy’s spelling, punctuation and general presentation are so weak. The mother is appalled that his writing has been ‘butchered’ by the teacher’s red pen.
The teacher has very little understanding that (according to the mother) she is killing the child’s creativity by concentrating so much on his technical mistakes. The poet, probably writing from real experience, cannot get the teachers to understand that her son has ability with words and that they are not appreciating or encouraging his ideas. The whole poem is full of imagery. The teachers are compared to books: ‘they bear no tide mark’ and have ‘perfect spines’ probably unlike the condition of the exercise book that the mother is about to be shown.
Later metaphors (lines 13 to 15) seem to describe textiles, in the same way that Jane Weir weaves fabric imagery into her poem ‘Poppies’ – ‘selvedge’, ‘rolls out’ ‘flecked with heartfelt’ – perhaps to express the situation from a woman’s point of view. The mother is obviously very angry at the way her son’s written work has been treated and an extended metaphor compares the teacher’s marking to the violent acts of a butcher reducing a carcass to lumps of bloody meat.
Red punctuation marks have chopped up his words; circles around his misspelt words are ‘nooses’ to hang his confidence; ‘her pen’ is ‘an axe’ to destroy his sentence structures. The resulting page is ‘piled with offal’. After the butchering, only the inedible (unreadable) parts are left, nevertheless the mother believes her son is very intelligent. She sees ‘the oracle in his entrails’ and ‘the jazz /of his sequencing’ would seem to describe a lively imagination at work.
From the mother’s point of view the excessive emphasis on the importance of technical accuracy is harming the boy and the teacher makes little effort to listen to the mother’s concerns or to see anything worth praising in the boy’s writing. Described metaphorically as ‘a starved lion-cub waiting for a word kill’, this final image presents a child, waiting hungrily to experience and enjoy language, but being ‘starved’ by a teacher who cannot see ‘what beats at (the) centre’ of his writing.