This is a piece of model writing that I used with an S4 class recently- it deals with the first two sections of the poem “My Grandmother’s Houses” by Jackie Kay, one of the set texts on the Scottish National 5 English curriculum
5. Choose a poem which describes a person or a place or an event in a memorable way. By referring to poetic techniques, explain how the poet makes this poem so memorable.
The poem “My Grandmother’s Houses” by Jackie Kay takes the reader to a very specific place: the houses that her grandmother lived in towards the end of her life. The poet adopts the personna of her younger self and looks at these place through the eyes of a child. By doing this, she gives a compelling insight into the places she describes but also into her own personality and her grandmother’s character. The poem is memorable because of the vivid language that describes unusual things, helping us to learn about these people and the places that they inhabit.
The poem is split into three sections and each section describes a different house and set of experiences. The poem begins with the lines:
“She is on the second floor of a tenement.
From her front room window you see the cemetery.”
This is a small detail, but the opening line perhaps foreshadows the grandmother’s death, which is more strongly hinted at in the concluding lines of the poem when the grandmother is living on the
“…ground floor of a high rise.
From her living-room you see ambulances,
screaming their way to the Royal Infirmary.”
Looking at the beginning and the end of the poem in this way, with its hints about the grandmother’s death suggests that the central sections are an attempt by Jackie Kay to recover the memories she has of her grandmother and of herself as child.
If this is the case, then she does so very successfully by using a range of images, ideas and language techniques that evoke the life of both the grandmother and the young girl. In the first section of the poem we discover that that the grandmother has a strange compulsion: she has taken every gift that she has been given since the second world war, wrapped it in newspaper and stored it in her bedroom. The young girl is fascinated by this behaviour as it creates a strange playground for her:
“At night I climb
over all the newspaper parcels to get to bed,
harder than the school’s obstacle course.”
This strange image suggests the extent of the grandmother’s hoard of newspaper wrapped presents and makes the reader wonder what it is about her personality that has led to this rather obsessive and impractical behaviour. The child-like and non-judgmental way in which this strange behaviour is described allows the reader to start to think about why the grandmother behaves in this eccentric manner.
Jackie Kay then also us a long list of small luxuries and useful gifts that the grandmother has been given:
“I spend hours unwrapping and wrapping endless
tablecloths, napkins, perfume, bath salts,
These small things would make her grandmother’s life just a little more pleasant yet she refuses to use them and hides them away in this almost obsessive way. Showing us this small detail about her grandmother lets the reader speculate that her grandmother may once have suffered from hardship and this hoard of luxuries is something that she is caching away like a squirrel to alleviate some imagined hardship in her future.
We also see how the eyes of the child notices every detail of the grandmother’s habits. She is aware of her grandmother’s routines, watching her closely as she goes to the newsagent, buys a paper, and chews sweets. We learn that the grandmother regularly goes to,
“The newsagents next door which sells
hazelnut toffees and her Daily Record.
Chewing for ages over the front page,
her toffees sticking to her false teeth.
The imagery creates a sense of the grandmothers regular habits comes through strongly here. Moreover, we also get the idea that the grandmother struggles to read, “chewing for ages” with this image implying that the grandmother is not a fluent reader- working her mind slowly over the words just as her teeth slowly work away at the toffee. However, she reads well enough to understand a letter telling her that she is to be rehoused in a newly built house:
“When she gets the letter she is hopping mad.
What does she want with anything modern,
a shiny new pin?”
The grandmother’s contempt for anything that will break her habits and routines comes through in these lines which seek to recreate her voice. Her rhetorical question that dismisses anything new, anything different, is scathing and contemptuous in tone. She is utterly dismissive of anything modern entering her life.
However, she does move and the details that the poet selects about the high rise block in which she is rehoused show how her grandmother was deeply traumatised by the experience. We learn that this older women, who is very settled in her ways is now located on the twenty fourth floor of a high rise block. The lift is faulty and even so high up they can hear, “noisy children”. The calm certainty and routine of her old life is gone and what is left is a sense of alienation and strangeness. Routine is re-created by the grandmother making “endless pots of soup”. This reminds us of her obsessive, repetitive habits with the piles of newspaper wrapped gifts heaped in her bedroom. When faced with stress the grandmother will try to create a routine to make sense of life. However, the Jackie Kay’s child’s eye view of the situation captures how unsettling the experience is by selecting an unusual image to focus on:
“a bit bit of hoch floating inside like a fish”
This is a small detail but the description of meat bone in the soup seems to evoke the image of something out of place, wrong and adrift. The child’s view point and selection of a strong image seems to suggest the grandmother’s alienation- being, in a sense, a fish out of water, in her new environment.
The grandmother is made of strong stuff though and eventually she learns to cope with her new environment and even enjoy some of the basic comforts that are new to her:
“finally she gets to like the hot
running water in her own bathroom,
the wall-to-wall foam-backed carpet,”
She has an abilty to endure and it becoming clear that her stubborn ablity to stick to a routine is key to her surival through times of hardship. One of her routines is religion and the grandmother tries to pass this habit or belief onto her granddaughter. The stubborness of the grandmother in doing this is shown in the word choice:
“goes to church on Sundays,
dragging me along to the strange place where the air
is trapped and ghosts sit at the altar.
The grandmother has no hesitation in forcing her granddaughter to do to church: clearly seen in use of “dragging” a word that suggest force on the old woman’s part and reluctance from the child in return. It would seem that the child is as stubborn as the grandmother. The description of the church shows that the grandmother’s efforts have been in vain. The child feels as alienated in this “strange place” as the grandmother did in her new flat. Additionally, the word choice that describes the church where the atmosphere itself is “trapped” suggests force and imprisonment and emphasises how uncomfortable the young girl is in the church.
However, despite the fact that the grandmother has failed to make her granddaughter feel any sense of real religion we do see that they are linked in their stubborn refusal to adapt to things around them just because they are expected too.
In conclusion, it is clear that this poem uses vivid description of setting and events to explore the characters of the grandmother and the granddaughter. The child eye view of the world allows selects descriptive details and uses language to allow the reader see how they both react to change in the environment in which they live.