A very useful source of information and discussion on the prescribed poems from Poems of the Decade for Pearson Edexcel A and AS Level Students is to be found at:
Go to RECENT FORUM POSTS and click on POEMS OF THE DECADE.
My poem ‘Please Hold’, which satirizes robotic phone menus, has been made a set text for A and AS Level English Literature from 2015 by the Pearson EdExcel Examinations Board. It's one of twenty-eight poems selected from Poems of the Decade: An Anthology of the Forward Books of Poetry to be studied in a new module on post-2000 Poetry.
On this page of my website, I am giving some information about my poetry which may be helpful to students of the EdExcel programme of A and AS Level English Literature in particular, but may also be relevant to general readers of my poetry.
First of all, a link to Poetry International Rotterdam:
This link gives a short essay by Patrick Cotter of the Munster Literature Centre based on an interview I gave him regarding my poetic development. It also has audio versions of four of the six poems I have published on Poetry International Web.
I think this link is very useful for students studying ‘Please Hold’. It doesn’t have an audio version of that poem, but importantly, it discusses my general attitude to and my use of irony and satire.
Secondly, I’d like to refer those still interested to a review of my latest poetry collection, which I have pasted on to my blog . You can find a link to the blog at the top of the page.
This blog post contains a review by Eamonn Grennan in The Irish Times of 26/06/2010. It is a review of my collection Life Monitor (2009) and a collection by Philip McDonagh. The assessment is interesting in a general way, showing a reviewer's preference for a different, more lyrical, aspect of my poetry, while acknowledging the force of the satirical and surreal aspects.
Thirdly, you can find a few other poems of mine on this link to the Molossus Website:
And finally, here is a YouTube video of me, reading ‘Please Hold’.
The reading takes place in a pub called The White House, in Limerick. The background is noisy because there is no partition between the site of the reading and the main part of the pub, where people are engaged in their own loud conversations. But one person (at least) is enjoying the poem: I clearly recognize her laugh!
A Note on the Interpretation of ‘Please Hold’
It has come to my notice that a number of people have missed the point of the German phrase ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ in my poem. It is important to know that ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ (which means ‘a little night-music’) is the name of a popular piece of classical music by the famous Austrian composer Mozart, and crucially that this composition is used as ‘holding music’ on telephone systems worldwide. So therefore Mozart’s charming opus has become associated in the minds of many people with waiting for long periods on the telephone before they get through to an actual person.
Not knowing the relevance of this German phrase to the theme of my poem has led to over-fanciful and irrelevant interpretations.
‘PLEASE HOLD’ ACKNOWLEDGED IN COMMUNICATIONS BUSINESS
Interestingly, a number of pundits in the business of telecom communications have commented favourably on my poem, seeing it as ‘a cautionary tale’ for themselves as they try to develop more user-friendly and sensitive ‘Interactive Voice Responses’ (IVR for short).
See, for example, ‘A Cautionary Tale... ouch’ in the link below, especially the remarks by Mary Constance which appear beneath the text of the poem:
A Level English Literature
RESPONSE TO A STUDENT'S QUERY REGARDING 'PLEASE HOLD'
thanks for getting in touch with me about ‘Please Hold’ and I note that you have been
given a research task of analysing my poem. I can certainly offer you an insight into what I
was meaning when I wrote the poem, but I don't think that's enough for a literary analysis.
So what I'm going to do is firstly describe my experience which was the raw material of the
poem and secondly give you a few pointers as regards the analysis of the poem proper.
What I send to you may well benefit other students, seeing that the Pearson post-2000
poetry course is absolutely new and there are few enough resources to help students
available as yet, in the case of some at least of the prescribed poems. So I hope you don't
mind if I upload the relevant contents of this e-mail on my A/AS Level webpage. It will
remain anonymous, of course.
(1) THE EXPERIENCE THAT LED TO THE POEM
The experience was that of trying to cope with the new phone systems introduced in the
late 1990s or early 2000s (I forget exactly when) in which, instead of a human receptionist
at the other end of the line, the caller got an automated computer-programmed
receptionist (the 'robot' of my poem). The computer programme allowed for only a very
limited set of voice responses on the part of the caller: 'You can say Yes, No, Repeat or
Menu'. Sometimes the automated receptionist couldn't understand my pronunciation of
even these few words.
Also the itemized Menu meant that if you had questions about more than one item (e.g.
Sales, Repairs, Tech Support, Account Details, etc), you'd have to take them one at a
time, whereas in the old set-up, once you got through to a human being, you could ask
him or her all the questions you wanted to ask about any item. You could spend a long
time on the phone in the new set-up, and between being switched from one automated
menu to the other, you'd spend a lot of time listening to 'holding music', and no matter how
much you liked this music previously, you'd begin to hate it in its digitalized squeaky form
after your experience of having to wait for ages... and ages....
This experience was a kind of watershed for me, in which I realized I wasn't getting any
younger, and also that I was being passed out by the development of events, and
furthermore that the development of events had a rather sinister aspect to it of reducing
human interaction to a robotic kind of simplicity. So that was the experience on which the
poem was built, and I found the experience very annoying and frustrating and also, on
tranquil reflection, very funny, and on further reflection, rather sinister in its possible
implications for future human society.
So that was the experience which led to the poem, but it's important to realize that the
poem itself is a different matter. You have not analysed the poem if you just talk about the
experience that led to it, as I do up above. But I hope that me telling you the experience
will help you understand the poem better.
(2) ANALYSIS OF THE POEM
This is the bit where you're on you own and I cannot write your essay for you, but I can
give you a few pointers that might be helpful.
The first thing I'd say is begin with your own reaction to the poem, and as you told me in
your e-mail that you considered it very funny, have a think about WHY you thought it funny.
What was it about the poem that made it funnier than the prose description of my
experience I have given up above?
Secondly, I would ask you to consider why the poem isn't just funny but expresses a very
strong feeling – what kind of feeling does it express? The poem also has another, darker
dimension to it. What is that?
When you have answered these questions for yourself, then ask yourself how the poem
achieves this condition of being funny and at the same time expressing this very strong
hostile feeling and also having a sinister dimension. In answering this, the use of literary
criticism will be very relevant, concepts such as SATIRE AND PARODY, IRONY, THE USE
OF REPETITION, DRAMA, DIALOGUE, RHYTHM AND PACE and so on, which I'm sure
your teacher has dealt with or will deal with.
OK, to finish I'll give you one little insight into my own view of my own poem. Others will
have different, equally valid views, but I think PLEASE HOLD is, structurally speaking, a
quite unusual poem, a departure from the normal idea I used to have of how to go about
writing poetry. The poem is full of theatrical elements and bears some resemblance to a
short drama sketch. There's a crazy kind of non-dialogue going on between several voices
or characters – me, the robot, my wife, my so-called 'translator', the music (‘Eine Kleine
Nachtmusik’), and finally another voice in the last three lines, a kind of summer-upper of
the whole shebang. This makes it a lively piece, probably accounts for a lot of the humour
and makes it good as a performance poem.
REPLY TO STUDENT QUERY #2
“I am currently studying my AS level and I have just started studying your poem 'Please Hold'. I was just wondering if the punctuation and form of your poem (as it is quite interesting) has any significance to the tone or theme of the poem?”
Thank you for your very interesting query. The relationship between form and content is of course at the heart of literary criticism and analysis. And punctuation is very much part of literary form, especially in a culture where literary works are read rather than listened to. Very often, however, what looks like gibberish on the page comes to life in all its clarity when spoken well.
I can give you some background literary history here, and also some pointers and suggestions about the relationship of punctuation and other formal aspects to tone or theme in Please Hold.
The absence of punctuation, or else the use of unusual methods of punctuation, are features of much modernist writing. Look up Google for 'Top 10 Authors Who Ignored the Basic Rules of Punctuation'. You'll find James Joyce there who, even in his earlier novel 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', did away with quotation marks for speech; and in his later work, 'Ulysses', the final 50 or so pages (known as 'Molly Bloom's Monologue') have no punctuation at all! There's also a very interesting poet mentioned there, e. e. cummings, who never used capital letters, even for his name.
The modernists in literature and poetry were trying to break old boundaries and create new forms of literature. One of their most famous literary discoveries is known as 'the stream of consciousness': in other words, they wanted their writing to present people's everyday thoughts and speech as they really were, not neatly tucked into grammatical sentences, but broken, interrupted and hopping from one thing to the other. This is known as 'free association' and is different from logical step-by-step thinking. One of the things they did to achieve this stream of consciousness was to do away with or minimize punctuation.
The absence of punctuation mirrors the unstructured free association of everyday thought and conversation, the looseness and here-and-thereness of it. In poetry, what is called Free Verse developed as a breakaway from traditional structured forms such as sonnet, rhyming couplet, regular meter, etc. This breaking away from tighter forms was seen as a way of 'freeing up' thought and writing to be more spontaneous and less artificial.
But it would be a mistake to think Free Verse was just a matter of cutting up lines of prose. It has its own 'unwritten rules' which are very much a matter of intuition.
One commentator on Please Hold said: 'For me it conveys so much of what it feels like when experiencing a lot of "customer service" technology. And I like how it gives a sense of being in the caller's stream of consciousness...'
The punctuation in Please Hold seems to me to be quite regular except for two things – the absence of speech quotation marks, and the fact that many sentences begin with the conjunction 'And'. (Eight sentences in the poem begin with 'And' and one with 'Or'.)
The fact that I always begin directly reported speech with a capital letter (e.g. And my wife says This is the future) may have led one commentator to mistakenly speak of 'erratic capitalizaion'. I don’t think my capitalization is erratic; all I did was take away the quote marks and leave the capital letter there!
Do you think these ungrammatical departures should be corrected, or would the modernist approach to literature provide good reasons for them? Have a think about that.
It has just occured to me that it might have been a good idea to do away with even more punctuation than I did, to convey the chaotic mental state of the poetic voice and the general chaos in the poem. A lot of the early modernist writers had great difficulty getting published because the publishers thought their writings were illiterate and/or insane! But in fact the writers were creating new literary forms to show a more comprehensive picture of human nature and psychology.
There is also the fact that Please Hold is written in Free Verse rather than in any more structured form such as rhyming couplet or regular metrical line. Its Free Verse is very loosely based on Iambic Pentameter, but also on the ebb and flow of conversation (or should what goes on in the poem be called non-conversation?). Free verse also adapts more easily to variations such as the surges of emotion and the mechanical emotionless voice of the robot.
Have you noticed how, in ordinary conversations, a huge amount of sentences begin with 'And'? And she said to me... And then I said to her... And then she goes.... And then I go... This would be frowned on, of course, if you were writing an essay. I was told in primary school 'You must never begin a sentence with And.' (Or any other conjunction.) But for a writer who wants his writing to be conversational rather than formal, beginning a sentence with ‘And’ is a great help!
Repetition of key words and phrases has a strong part to play in establishing the rhythm of Please Hold, and also, I think, contributes to the tone. What kind of tone do you think the repetition establishes? And then there is the string of thumping rhymes at the end: what effect do you think these rhymes have?
DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF ‘PLEASE HOLD’ IN DIFFERENT EDITIONS OF POEMS OF THE DECADE
Depending on whether you have the edition of Poems of the Decade published in 2011 (the grey one with the wonky-looking figure 10, made up of books, on the cover) or the edition published in 2015 (with the classier cover featuring an urn) you will find the following difference in line 18 of my poem ‘Please Hold’:
This call is free of charge, says the mind-reading robot. (2011 Edition, page 142)
This call is free of charge, says the robot. (2015 Edition, page 132)
The reason for this change, which first appeared in my collection Life Monitor (2009), was that on reflection I thought the humour was quite obvious in the situation where the narrator is ranting about ‘paying a robot for doing nothing’ and the robot immediately responds with ‘This call is free of charge.’ Dropping out the word ‘mind-reading’ was a close call for me, however, as it could be considered to add to the surrealism of the atmosphere!
However, I understand from the Exam Board that students can discuss the poem according to either the 2011 Edition or the 2015 Edition, whichever they happen to have studied. Also I am told that the Exam Board intends to alert all examiners to the fact that there are two versions of this line.
There are also a few other poems in Poems of the Decade where changes have been made by the poets between editions, and the same allowance applies in all such cases.
As Claire Haviland of Pearson EdExcel says: Examiners will be fully briefed about the differences between the versions and will be ready to accept responses to either.