Carol Ann Duffy: ‘War Photographer’ Mr Bruff Analysis

Carol Ann Duffy: ‘War Photographer’ Mr Bruff Analysis

January 15, 2020 100 By Peter Engel


Hello everybody and welcome to this video
where I’m going to analyse the Carol Ann Duffy poem ‘War Photographer’. Now, as always,
when we’re analysing poetry, we begin by looking at the poet themselves. There is a risk to
just write down lots of things about the poet, but we really just want to look for details
from the poet’s life that prove important in helping us to understand the poem itself. So Carol Ann Duffy was born in 1955 and is
currently the Poet Laureate, which is a very prestigious role appointed by the Queen to
be sort of the nation’s photographer. The first female Poet Laureate and, also, the
first openly bisexual Poet Laureate as well. ‘War Photographer’ was published in 1985.
Now, in some ways, that makes it quite an old poem from Carol Ann Duffy who, considering
she’s still writing today, is very, very popular today. This is one of her older works – over
30 years old – and that helps us to understand one of the contextual details about what’s
going on with the photographs in the poem. And I’ll talk about that in a second. But
the method of developing photographs was something that not many people today, perhaps, would
know about. Carol Ann Duffy was friends with Don McCullin
and Philip Jones Griffiths who were two photographers who were famous for their war photography,
their pictures in war zones. In fact, this picture is one of the pictures – the top
picture – from Don McCullin. And these were two very well-respected photographers who
did lots of types of photography but specialised in war photography. Now, Carol Ann Duffy was in a program for
Channel 4 in 1998, and she said in that program that what interested her in writing the poem
was the photographer and the difficult decisions he or she might have to make while taking
pictures in a war zone. Before we go any further, I’ll just explain
the bottom picture here, which is a darkroom. Today, we tend to take photographs in a digital
format. That might be on our iPhone or on an SLR camera, and we’ll plug them into
the computer and edit them. But, at the time that Duffy was writing in the 80s, it was
a different process. A process which some people still use today, but which, I’m sure,
many students perhaps won’t understand. So I’ll explain it here. The idea was that you would take a picture
on a roll of film, and, then, you would have to go into a dark room because, if any of
that film was exposed to light, it would ruin the pictures. And in the pitch black of a
dark room, or with this red light as you can see here, you would actually put the film
into this solution which would develop the picture, and, then, it would gradually appear
in front of you as it developed. And that’s a very important process that we need to understand
when we’re looking at the poem. So, in the 1998 program Password on channel
4, Carol Ann Duffy said, “Those photographs are in the background but I’m more interested
in the photographer… in the dilemma of someone who has that as a job… to go to these places
and come back with the images.” Now, that’s really important; that Duffy’s
saying, ‘Look, it’s not about analysing the specific images in the photographs, but
more thinking about the person taking them and the dilemma of being a war photographer.’ And there’s a nice line of metaphor you might
want to explore between the war photographer and the poet; somebody who creates a representation
of life as they see it, that everybody else then looks at and explores. But Carol Ann
Duffy is interested in the dilemma that is faced there. So, I think the best way to think of the theme
of this poem, if we’re looking at it on the AQA exam board in terms of the cluster on
power and conflict, is to see the theme as the impossibility of presenting the true horrors
of war or conflict. And that ties in nicely with Ted Hughes’ ‘Bayonet Charge’. This
idea that people try to present the horrors of war, but it’s impossible to do so.
Now, in ‘Bayonet Charge’, we might say that Ted Hughes, among other things, couldn’t
find the vocabulary to express the true horrors of war. But in ‘War Photographer’, the
photographs expressed the true horror of war, but the impossibility comes in people refusing
to acknowledge or accept, beyond a very superficial level, the reality of what war is like. So
it’s a similarity in theme, but a difference as well, which is really, really important
when you’re comparing poetry. So let’s begin with a sort of line-by-line
translation or verse-by-verse translation about the literal meaning of what’s going
on in this poem. In his dark room he is finally alone
with spools of sufferings set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows, as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass. Belfast, Beirut, Phnom-Penh. All flesh is
grass. Now, what’s that verse about? Really, stanza
one is saying that the war photographer is coming home from a trip. He’s finally alone.
He’s in his darkroom to develop his pictures. And he just talks about the different places
that he’s been. He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands, which did not tremble then though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat. So verse two or stanza two is really saying
that he’s beginning to develop the pictures, and he’s reminded of the contrast between
the war zones he’s been to, taking these photographs, and rural England that he returns to when
he comes home. Now, you’ll notice that this poem is filled
with rich and vivid visual imagery just like photographs. And I’m not going to analyse
a lot of that in this analysis. I want to focus more on the structure because I think
everybody goes for the language and the images. And I want to give you something a bit more
complex because, in an exam, you want to be able to write not just about language but
about structure as well. Also about form, but this poem doesn’t follow a particular
poetic form so there’s not really anything to say about form. But what’s lost in form
is made up for in structure where there are lots of things to say. Verse three:
Something is happening. A stranger’s features faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must and how the blood stained into foreign dust.
So what’s happening in this stanza? A picture is beginning to develop – remember I said
the picture would slowly kind of fade into view – and it reminds him of the death of
the man the photograph was taken of and the cries of the man’s wife.
A hundred agonies in black and white from which his editor will pick out five or
six for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s
eyeballs prick with tears between the bath and pre-lunch
beers. From the aeroplane he stares impassively at
where he earns his living and they do not care.
So, in this final stanza, he’s saying the people in England who look at these war photographs,
which are going to end up in the Sunday newspaper, will be sad for a moment but, then, forget
and carry on with their life again. And the poem ends with the war photographer going
back out to a war zone. So let’s talk about structure. Interestingly,
this poem has a very tight and controlled structure. There are four verses. Each verse
or stanza has six lines. The rhyme scheme, as you can see on the left here mapped out,
is very similar all the way through ABBCDDEFFGHH… It goes on and on and on. And everything is tightly controlled. And
this is interesting because there are lots of ways you can interpret the tight control
of the structure in the poem – through the lines per stanza, through the uniform rhyme
scheme. You could say that it reflects the war photographer’s job, who is trying to
impose order on the chaos of war; is trying to make it palatable so that we can look at
it, be temporarily moved, and, then, forget about it. You see, suffering in war cannot be controlled
and neatly ordered. And there’s a real juxtaposition here – a juxtaposition is putting two opposite
things next to each other to exaggerate the difference – because we’ve got a very tightly,
neatly ordered and controlled structure, but a theme or a topic of the poem which is the
chaos of war. So, the two contradict each other here, and
the contrast is something we see throughout the poem. It seems that, throughout the whole
poem, there’s an unending message of what we see and think about war and the reality
of war, which is impossible to understand. So, we could say the unchanging structure
also shows how the war photographer’s efforts are futile. Nothing changes. He’s trying to
make us realise the reality of the horrors of war, but everything just carries on as
normal – represented by verse after verse carrying on like the previous one – and
his efforts are futile. What else is there to say? Well, Rural England
is between two full stops. This is a structural device. It’s caesura which is where we are
forced to pause or stop – in this case, from full stops – within the line of poetry.
But Rural England is, therefore, separated completely from the descriptions of the war
zones by two full stops. And this is like how the people in the poem are able to separate
what they see from the reality of the situation. It’s all about the fact that we would look
at these images of war and be temporarily moved, but fail to really grasp the true horrors
of war, and, then, just carry on with our life. This is also represented through the half
rhyme in the line ‘with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers’. So, if you have
a look down in the final verse, there’s the half rhyme, the mid-line rhyme of ‘tears’
and ‘beers’. And that actually quickens the pace in this final verse. And I think
it represents the speed at which people forget. So, the idea is they look at these pictures
and they’ll be sad for a second. But isn’t that true? Isn’t that what happens to us?
We’re overloaded with this sensory imagery, aren’t we? And we’re very sad, but, then,
we might forget about it. So the rhyme of ‘tears’ and ‘beers’
– the rhyme within the lines – speeds up the pace of this line and reflects the
speed at which people forget the horrors of war. And there is also a cyclical structure in
the poem. It begins with the war photographer coming back from a trip. In his dark room,
he is finally alone. And it ends with him going back out on another trip from the aeroplane.
And there’s this idea of a cyclical structure that it ends where it starts again with this
journeying to and from a war zone. And any time a poem has a cyclical structure
like this, where it ends where it begins, it links to the theme of fate – as if everything
is predetermined and set; there’s no escaping it; it’s just going round in a loop – and
the sort of futility of the war photographer’s job – in that he’s trying to make an impact
and make people realise the true horrors of war, but how people are just sort of sanitising
it and taking it as a quick two-second glimpse of sadness and, then, carrying on with their
very ordered and structured lives and forgetting about it – and how that’s such a futile
endeavor. So, those are some points to do with structure
– the fact that there are four stanzas, six lines per stanza, very ordered rhyme scheme;
and how that reflects the fact that the war photographer, in some way, orders or tries
to impose order on the chaos of war; but how that’s a juxtaposition because, structurally,
this is order, but, thematically, war is chaos, we cannot order it; and how the unchanging
structure, tied in with the way that it begins and ends in the same way, shows the futility
of the war photographer’s job because people just don’t care, as represented by the half
rhyme in the final verse which shows how quickly people forget. Now, let’s have a look at some things to do
with language. There’s loads of language in this poem. I’m not going to go through it
all because I’m sure this is some of the things that people will pick up straight away or
be covering in class. Some symbolism in the first verse. So, we’ve
got the ‘dark room’, and we’ve got the red light. And both of those have very sinister
sort of evil connotations. And that contrasts greatly with, in the same verse, the religious
imagery of church and mass. And I think this is quite interesting because
you could say the religious imagery suggests that there’s a serious solemn role to his
work. But there’s the contrast between the evil, sinister imagery of dark room and red
light and, then, the religious sort of sanctified imagery of church and mass. A seeming contradiction. And contrast and contradiction, as I’ve just
gone through in the structure part of this video, is really important in this poem. The
idea of two things that are opposed; the idea of trying to make order out of something which
is chaotic. And I think the imagery in verse one backs up that contrast. Imagery that is quite interesting as well,
‘the spools of suffering set out in ordered rows’. Well, the ‘ordered rows’ reminds
us of war graves. And there’s an interesting thing in war graves where, again, it tries
to sanitise it. Everything is very structured and organized, but, of course, that isn’t
what war and conflict and real suffering is like. We try to sanitise it and make it pretty,
but it is anything but pretty. ‘All flesh is grass’ is an interesting
line. It actually is an intertextual reference to the Bible. It’s found in the Book of Isaiah
chapter 40 verse 6. And what is being talked about in Isaiah is the sort of transitory,
fleeting nature of human life. But it’s also the name of a Christina Rossetti poem which
is about the same topic. That life comes and goes in an instant. And you could say that the poem, in its reference
to Isaiah or/and the Christina Rossetti poem, is just highlighting the fragility of life.
And that the fragility of life, through the Rossetti poem and, then, through the biblical
scripture, is something people have been writing about for thousands of years. Yet, still,
somehow, we ignore it like we ignore the war pictures in this poem. We might think about
it for a second, but we don’t fully acknowledge the fragility of life as represented through
the intertextual references that are so historic here. It’s almost like this has been going
on forever, but we still hide away from it. What else is there to talk about? Some interesting
plosives in line six. Now, a plosive is where we have a consonant that is produced by stopping
the airflow using the lips, teeth, or palate. So [p] and [b] sounds are two of the plosives,
and we’ve got them all here – ‘Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh.’
And these plosives have this kind of quick-fire pace, a bit like gunfire. So the plosives
break the piece of what went before and give us this quick blast of ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, sort
of gunfire. But, also, there’s a structural device here,
a caesura. Again, because the full stops break up the lines. And what we would like to do
here is, probably, just read these place names and move on. But the full-stop forces us to
stop and think about Belfast, about Beirut, about Phnom Penh. And the whole poem, of course,
is criticising how we don’t stop and think about the reality of war, the reality of conflict
and suffering, so the structure here makes us stop and think about just that. Another strong image in the poem is this idea
of ‘a half-formed ghost’. And this is an ambiguous phrase. It can be seen in a lot
of ways. You can think that, perhaps, it’s half formed because, as the picture is developing
in front of the photographer’s eyes, it’s starting to fade into existence and come into
existence and, therefore, it’s half formed. Or ‘half-formed’ could represent how this
person was injured in whatever way it was that he was mutilated. And it could even mean
that it’s half-formed because it’s half a memory. It’s not fully remembered. Finally, the last line of the poem talks about
‘he earns his living and they do not care’. And there’s an ambiguity here. Who is the
‘they’ who doesn’t care? Is it the public who look at these pictures in the newspapers
and quickly forget? Is it actually the wider world who’s apathetic about others’ suffering?
And is it us, as the readers of the poem, who would read it and, then, quickly move
on and forget? So, in terms of the cluster of poetry – the
power and conflict idea – I think the poem is really about the futility of being able
to try and express the reality of conflict. But, like I said, a lot of the poems are about
that. A lot of the poems try to express something and sort of come to the conclusion “I can’t
express this”. So, Ted Hughes tries to express the horrors
of war and, in doing so, has to borrow from Wilfred Owen because he can’t, in his own
words, express the true horrors of war. Whereas what we have with Duffy’s poem is, actually,
there is the ability to express the true horrors of war, but it’s almost just as futile as
everything else because people don’t fully engage with it. They give it a fleeting look
and, then, move on. So, I hope you found this video useful, guys.
What I’ve tried to do in this one is not go through every kind of photographic image in
the poem because it’s so visually rich, but just to go through some of the things that,
perhaps, most people might not spot. So, I hope you found it useful.