By Debjani Chatterjee
Annie Katchinska’s poem Crash is an example of a dramatic monologue – a type of poetry that has long been popular. Poems in this genre are also called ‘persona poems’ because the poet assumes a character mask or a persona. There is no dialogue but one senses that the narrator is addressing an audience. In ‘Crash’ the narrator offers a persuasive sales pitch in the form of advice on losing weight and keeping fit. One guesses that the audience is a would-be client.
Preparation & Generating Ideas
Have the class read Katchinska’s poem aloud. They should also read some or all of the poems listed below under ‘Further Reading’ and they should try to identify how they differ and what they have in common. Inform them that they too will write a monologue, but first there will be much to be discussed.
- Consider who or what is your poem’s narrator. Will the voice be that of a man, woman, child, animal, insect, tree, a mythical creature or some inanimate object like a walking stick or a crown, or even the voice of the wind? The voice could even be that of an alien or a body part, e.g. the heart, a big toe or a rhino’s horn. In ‘The Last Mountain’ my narrator is a winged mountain.
- Consider who or what is being addressed by the monologue. Its audience will inevitably influence the subject and tone of the poem. Its audience may be living, dead, unborn, singular or plural. If a diary is being addressed, for instance, the narrator’s voice may be intimate and confessional. In Rashida Islam’s ‘Stranger’, the narrator is an unborn child who is eager to come into the world and the monologue addresses the mother in glowing and loving terms. In my ‘Tandava’, the narrator is a serpent who is addressing humanity at large. In Pie Corbett’s poem a mosquito is being addressed.
- Consider what the purpose of the monologue is. The narrator in ‘Crash’ offers a persuasive sales pitch in the form of advice on losing weight and keeping fit. Another narrator may try to enlist the sympathy and support of their audience. Yet another may try to influence and change opinions. The class can be invited to list some of the possible purposes of a monologue. They should try to select a dramatic moment when the narrator speaks. For instance a politician may be giving a victory speech, a tennis player may be arguing with a referee or a child may be insisting that he is not responsible for a broken window.
- Consider the varieties of language that other poets have used and make a list of these. Katchinska uses contemporary street talk. Her language is very conversational in style and direct. Other options could be formal, pompous, sombre, comic, sarcastic and so on. Suniti Namjoshi’s narrator in ‘Among Tigers’ sounds practical and matter-of-fact. Robert Browning’s narrator is a duke who sounds reasonable, a style that contrasts sharply with the gradually unfolding account of his murder of his wife. In writing your monologue, ensure that the choice of style and language fits the purpose.
Drafting a Poem
Divide the class into several groups and ask each group to prepare their own draft poem incorporating a sales pitch or instructions for one of the following:
- Eating a mango / an ice cream
- Passing an exam
- Public speaking without nerves
- Making the perfect pizza or curry
- Getting a haircut
- Harvesting coconuts / strawberries
- Bathing an elephant / your pet dog
- Building bulging biceps
Take ‘Eating a mango’ as an example and work on this as a class. A good way of going about this would be to write down the words ‘Eating a mango’ on a flip chart and invite the class to do a quick brainstorm. Jot their ideas all around the phrase. Some suggestions might be:
- Cutting into the fruit
- Peeling the skin
- Dicing the sweet flesh
- Tasting the orange goodness
- Slippery seed
- Stringy bits sticking in teeth
- Savouring the fleshy fruit
- Sucking the juice
- Licking the orange nectar… and so on
Use different colours to draw lines of connection between some suggestions. For instance ‘Tasting the orange goodness’ and ‘Savouring the fleshy fruit’ might go together. The class could also consider putting their list of suggestions in some order. For instance, ‘Peeling the skin’ might be No. 1 and ‘Cutting into the fruit’ might be No. 2.
The class should incorporate their suggestions in a draft poem, but emphasise the fact that not all suggestions need to be used. Selection is important to a poet. In creating the poem, the class should consider the points that have already been noted, i.e. Who is the narrator? Who is being addressed? What is the narrator’s purpose? Once these are answered, they should also ensure that the appropriate style and language are used.
Look at Katchinska’s language and syntax again. Her narrator’s street-cred speech has distinctive features that help to build the narrator’s character. There is a tendency to use slang, e.g. ‘no worries’ and ‘sooper-dooper’. There are abbreviations of common sayings, e.g. ‘have our cake’; and a habit of repeating certain words, e.g. ‘OK OK OK’ and ‘pumping pumping’. Even the title ‘Crash’ is here short for ‘crash diet’ or ‘crash course diet’. These, plus the clipped ungrammatical speech that resembles a series of short barks, show that the narrator has a rushed lifestyle and perhaps a laziness in speech. The near-complete omission of punctuation also contributes to this effect. Proverbs or traditional sayings can sound clichéd but Katchinska neatly gets around this by leaving the second half of the saying unsaid.
- Make a list of possible abbreviations of proverbs and common sayings. The class should now try to select ones that could relate to their draft poems. For instance, a poem about cooking a curry might include such abbreviated phrases as: ‘Too many cooks’ and ‘One man’s meat’.
The narrator of ‘Crash’ likes to talk in compound or double-barrelled portmanteau words, e.g. “mincepied”, “roastpotatoed”, “goosefatted”. This gives the poem a comic effect.
- Invent some portmanteau’d words that could relate to the poems the class have drafted. For instance, a poem about cooking a curry might include such words as: ‘cinnamonrich’, ‘chillyhot’ and ‘turnipfried’.
Another feature of ‘Crash’ is its list building. In this it resembles a list poem. The narrator begins by asking: “You mincepied? You roastpotatoed? You goosefatted? / You burping in public?” There are other much longer lists in the poem. See if your class can identify all these.
- Build one or more word lists that could relate to the poems the class have drafted. For instance, a poem about harvesting coconuts could have a list of words to describe a coconut tree, e.g. ‘straight and tall’, ‘cloud-kissing’, ‘handsome orchard king’.
- Consider the arrangement of stanzas in the poems drafted. Katchinska’s poem ‘Crash’ is in two unequal halves. This is no random arrangement. It reflects a shift in argument and other differences in the stanzas. Ask your class to identify the precise words that mark this contrast. Now the class should consider the structure that they wish to adopt for their poems. Would it be best with just one stanza or with more? Should the stanzas be of equal length and what is the rationale for having different stanzas? Do they denote a change in content, mood or language?
Tips & Follow-ups for Students
- Consider what tense would best suit your poem.
- Consider the structure of your poem. Do you want your lines to have a regular and uniform length? Do you want short lines that can give a rushed and breathless effect or long lines that are slower in delivery and convey calm and deliberation? Do you want sentences that finish at line ends or ones that spill over into the following line or lines (enjambment)? Try different structures and don’t hesitate to experiment. Then see how your poem looks visually and read it aloud to find how it sounds before deciding on your final version.
- Look out for advertisements extolling some product or service – these can often give you ‘found poems’ or tips for your own work. Advertisements are sometimes interesting for the rhymes, alliteration and imagery they use in order to make their words memorable.
- Drafting and redrafting your poem is an essential process. Think of yourself as a jeweller and the poem as a gem – your editing is the cutting and polishing that will make it sparkle. Part of this process is ensuring that there are no superfluous words in the poem. Consider also if each word, line and stanza is in the right place.
- Pay attention to punctuation, spelling and grammar. If necessary, ask for help in getting these checked. Some people think that modern poets need not bother with such things, but they are wrong. If your poem has spelling and grammar mistakes, this should be for a good reason such as helping to build the narrator’s identity as an ill-educated person. Similarly, if there is no punctuation, this should be because the poem requires it. Katchinska’s poem is mostly punctuated, but in some places (e.g. “… Nothing you couldn’t work out with a piece of paper / and a brain and some time but never mind this is prettier”) the punctuation breaks down. This gives the impression of a narrator who is chattering away in a hurried manner and without much thought to what she is saying because she is repeating a well-rehearsed patter.
- Put away your poem for a while and then return to it afresh. This will give you a measure of objectivity when rereading your poem.
- Monologues make wonderful performance pieces. Each time you draft your poem, think of how your narrator might sound. What would the voice sound like and which words might the narrator choose to emphasize? Enjoy performing your poem to the rest of the class. Try recording your voice reading it and listen to yourself in an objective way. Also ask others to read your poem aloud and note any changes in the way that they read it.
- Write a monologue in response to Katchinska’s narrator or the narrator of your own poem. This can help you to better understand the original monologue that you wrote and you may discover some possible changes that you feel would improve your original monologue.
Clare Pollard’s lesson plan, Shopping for poems
A selection of monologues:
Robert Browning – ‘My Last Duchess’
Sylvia Plath – ‘Lady Lazarus’
Catherine Benson – ‘The Chinese Dragon’
Debjani Chatterjee – ‘The Last Mountain’
Debjani Chatterjee – ‘Tandava’
Suniti Namjoshi – ‘Among Tigers’
Rashida Islam – ‘Stranger’
Gareth Owen – ‘Jonah and the Whale’
Jack Mapanje – ‘Now that September 11 Should Define Mr Western Civilisation…’
Pie Corbett – ‘Message for the Mosquito Who Shares my Bedroom’
T S Eliot – ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’