One of the things I’ve found most difficult when moving from GCSE to A-level within the subject of English Literature is how to advance essays accordingly – particularly unseen poetry essays. There’s no opportunity to prepare which means that you need to practise beforehand. Assessing whether or not you feel able to do this can really help you to decide if English Literature A-level is a good option. Therefore, I’ve included a sample essay below focusing on “The Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled” by Leontia Flynn (from the Forward Anthology) and “The Cheapjack” by Jacob Polley (a sample unseen poem from his anthology Jackself). The question follows the standard structure of an Edexcel poetry paper; it includes a poem from the anthology and another which is unseen. The question itself is general enough that many perspectives can be given.
Compare the methods the poets use to present outsiders and those on the periphery of life.
Both “The Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled” by Leontia Flynn and “The Cheapjack” by Jacob Polley convey the sense of desperation and the desire to connect felt by those on the periphery of life. Additionally, they suggest the missed opportunities and limitations they have experienced due to being an outsider. However, while “The Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled” has a slightly more optimistic tone – perhaps suggesting that the small impact that the narrator has been able to make on the lives of others is still worthwhile – “The Cheapjack” finishes with no sense of resolution (which may suggest the narrator’s inability to act, despite their frustrations), which could convey the differing attitudes towards being an outsider.
The titles of both “The Cheapjack” and “The Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled” convey the isolation felt by outsiders. The use of the definite article to describe the “cheapjack” suggests their separation from the wider community; they feel defined by their profession (and potentially even ostracised due to the derogatory connotations of “cheapjack”). Interestingly, while “cheapjack” may just denote a profession – traditionally someone who peddles cheap goods – it can also be used as an adjective to describe something of inferior quality. Polley may be suggesting that the narrator views themselves as a person who is below others due to their role on the periphery, perhaps emphasising the social inequality prevalent within society – particularly when based upon profession. In contrast to this, Flynn suggests the isolation of her narrator through the first person pronoun “I”, which initially implies her lack of connections, as well as her distance from others, defining her as an outsider. The use of the superlative “furthest” conveys the extent of this separation while “I’ve” utilises the past tense to suggest the focus on the past rather than on any future progression, perhaps suggesting that these “distances” span time as well as space; “distances” being a plural stresses that this issue has impacted multiple relationships – it is a consistent issue. The ambiguity of “travelled” leaves the reader to decide if the narrator is deliberately on the periphery – avoiding connections for their own purposes – or if it isn’t a matter of choice, which may intrigue the reader. In contrast to this, Polley makes it clear that his “cheapjack” wants to connect but cannot through his desperate tone.
Both “The Cheapjack” and “The Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled” suggest the negative emotions associated with being an isolated outsider; however, while Polley presents the intense desperation of the narrator, Flynn implies that narrator is more ambivalent towards her status on the periphery – although still dissatisfied. Polley’s use of a dramatic monologue suggests the deep impact that such isolation has had upon his narrator; it is typically used when depicting intense emotion. The use of this form could also suggest the lengths that the narrator is willing to go to in order to be listened to – he even threatens to “slit his own throat / and dump myself dead in a doorway. The harsh and plosive‘d’ sound reiterates his despair; it could also implies his anger with those who have caused him to be an outsider – even if his “profligate tongue” is truly to blame. Interestingly, “slit” could be an allusion to an abattoir. The narrator may be suggesting that this death is humane – compared to a slow death caused by remaining on the periphery – or even useful for those around him. Polley also presents the narrator’s desperation through the use of asyndetic listing in the second stanza, describing the “daffodils, bird whistles, bobble hats… trick plastic dog-shit / conniptions, predictions and God’s own fire” he has attempted to sell. The asyndetic listing emphasises the range of these items, juxtaposing them against one another and perhaps suggesting the extent of the narrator’s attempts to connect as he evokes the natural world through “daffodils”, utilises the attempted humour of the “trick plastic dog-shit” (the use of an expletive may reiterate his frustration with himself for not connecting, however it could also just be slang to suggest the dialect of the speaker) and conveys the spirituality of “God’s own fire” which was often used in the Bible to create covenants and to guide his chosen people. The narrator could be suggesting that he feels let down – his covenant has been broken – and cannot find direction. By filling an entire stanza with this list, Polley can truly convey that the narrator feels defined by his profession but cannot truly succeed in one area of it. Instead, he flits from one item to another. This inability to connect with goods may represent the speaker’s failure to connect with others. However, Polley also allows the reader to empathise with those around the “cheapjack” – the list of items is tiring to read (which is suggested through the length of the sentence) which could imply how bored the prospective customers are of the speaker attempting to sell such goods.
In contrast to this, in “The Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled”, Flynn focuses purely on her narrator’s perspective, leaving only the “souvenirs” to suggest the past connections between the speaker and others. “Souvenirs” suggests that they are treasured and special; however, it could also be interpreted as a reference to novelty gifts bought on holiday (reiterating the theme of travel utilised throughout the poem by Flynn) which may imply that the narrator recognises that any relationships were temporary and doesn’t regret that entirely. However, Flynn still suggests the negative emotions which are commonly associated with being an outsider by describing the mundanity of her day to day life; she is going to “this post office with a handful of bills / or a giro” rather than heading to a “Western Union / wiring money with six words of Lithuanian”. Each of these possibilities span one and a half lines, suggesting the balance between the two possibilities and reiterating the dichotomy. The initial focus on the more exciting – but dangerous – trip to “a Western Union” suggests that this may have been her initial dream and that she would have loved to have immersed herself in travel but the final focus on the “bills / or a giro” suggests the mundanity and sensibility of her everyday life. However, “bills” may imply American money as well as simply the unpaid bills she may have accrued: perhaps the speaker has managed to intertwine some adventure into her normal life. The use of an indefinite article to describe “a Western Union” conveys the range of locations and therefore the endless possibilities while the specificity of “this post office” drags the narrator back to earth and normal life. This may convey the distance that the narrator feels she is from her imagined life. However, she doesn’t romanticise a life of travel – her “six words of Lithuanian” suggest her ignorance and potential vulnerability. This inability to communicate may reflect a greater inability to connect and communicate with others in her everyday life, causing her to remain “holidaying briefly in their lives”. However, the traditionally positive connotations of “holidaying” create an optimistic, or even slightly hopeful, tone – maybe this experimentation with relationships and movement towards the periphery is her own way of finding adventure, even within her normal life.
Both poems explore the desire to interact with others; however, while “The Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled” utilises the motif of a trip abroad to convey the excitement and effort of such a task, Polley conveys the frustration of the narrator. Polley’s use of direct address in the final stanza creates an accusatory tone within a frantic plea – the speaker is “begging you now: my life for the lot.” This could suggest that it is the reader who is to blame for the speaker’s distress. “Begging” implies the extent of his desperation to interact with society and move away from the periphery (even at the cost of his own life), while the use of a colon suggests that a deal is being proposed – linking to the speaker’s profession and the persuasiveness required. The regular form of the poem may reflect how these deals are usually set up (alternatively, it could suggest a cycle of despair which the speaker is unable to escape from – it may even suggest that the speaker’s frustration is following the expected course which may link to societal judgement). With the trade involving the speaker’s “life for the lot”, it seems almost Faustian; Polley might even be implying that the reader – and society as a whole – is the ‘devil’ which is to blame for this bargain. The speaker’s despair is also shown through their attempt to “sell you the scraps / the loose skin, the slack”; sibilance combined with consonance creates a harsh cacophony of sounds, reflecting the internal conflict of the speaker and their role as an outsider as well as their inability to connect. The direct address reiterates the sense of accusation which remains throughout the poem. In contrast to this, there is no direct address in “The Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled”, perhaps suggesting the speaker’s lack of direction and their passivity; they are an outsider due to their lack of movement – they have not lived in the “Siberian white / cells of scattered airports” or caught a Greyhound from “Madison to / Milwaukee” (the enjambment reflects the physical movement which can be juxtaposed with the speaker’s comparative stillness). “Siberian white” suggests both the colour of the airports and the coldness of the isolation she is inflicting upon herself while “cells” may suggest imprisonment – she may feel trapped in her normal life – or that she is a part of a larger organism, creating a sense of synergy and unity which contrasts with the speaker’s status as an outsider. “Scattered” implies carefree movement – unlike the “routine evictions” of cleaning (which may suggest that the “souvenirs”, like the failed relationships she has experienced, have no right to be in her life anymore), potentially suggesting the worries and duties of being an outsider. Flynn also presents the speaker as wanting to connect through her statement that “in restlessness, in anony / mity: / was some kind of destiny”. “Restlessness” may represent the crowds of people around her and the potential connections, while “anony / mity” could suggest both the isolation of the speaker and her desire to reach out to others and connect – however, she is split as she is not satisfied with her normal life but unable to reach her aspirations. “Destiny” suggests that the speaker may be displacing her responsibilities and blaming fate – rather than herself – for her inability to connect or act.
To conclude, “The Cheapjack” is a melancholy and frustrated reflection on life as an outsider with a regretful and accusatory tone which explores the isolation and desperation of the narrator, while “The Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled” also acknowledges the difficulties of being on the periphery but utilises a more ambivalent tone, suggesting the mundanity of being an outsider who – potentially – has not fulfilled their potential.