English - Rhyme and revelation

21st September 2012 at 01:00
Sharing a Second World War love poem is a poignant pleasure

My father, James Monahan, said writing poetry kept him from becoming a casualty of the Second World War. It filled his off-duty time, awaiting hazardous missions while capturing in verse the pleasures of life on leave: times with my mother and the minutiae of family life. His poetry was well-received: two volumes appeared in 1944 and 1948. The second, After Battle, was dedicated to Siegfried Sassoon, who had written to him in praise of the first, Far from the Land.

It has been one of the joys of my 20 years of teaching that occasionally I have been able to use his poetry in class, most recently in my sixth-form workshops geared to the AQA "Love through the Ages" topic.

My father had an amazing life, and an interesting war. Between 1942 and 1944, he helped to train X-Troop, a secret commando unit composed entirely of German and Austrian Jews, all refugees from Hitler's Europe. Later, he would parachute into France on a Special Operations Executive "Jedburgh" mission to orchestrate French resistance behind enemy lines. He was betrayed, but managed to evade capture, ending up having a whale of a time in newly liberated Paris. At least, that's how he told it: only emphasising the elements of pleasure and farce in the story. There was clearly another side to his wartime exploits, given that he was mentioned in dispatches in 1945. Exactly why remains a mystery.

In November 1985, finally in retirement following a hectic, multifaceted career that included senior BBC jobs and directing the Royal Ballet School, he typed a five-page proposal for a book about X-Troop. That was as far as he got. A few days later, following surgery, he died suddenly from septicaemia.

Happily, that synopsis is not the only record of those times. His poetry remains and I love to teach it. One poem in particular has proved very successful: Albertine Asks For a Poem.

It was written in August 1943 and as well as being a love poem, it is very much a war poem, its sensuality and intimacy both a product of a time when little could be taken for granted. The main conceit - likening writing poetry to digging graves - must have had a special poignancy. While quite conventional in terms of its male observerfemale object and its resemblance at times to "blazon" poetry cataloguing a lover's physical qualities, it contains lots of surprises. Its "narrative" is particularly varied, with opening and closing verses of direct address to the woman, enclosing two very different reminiscences, one eroticmythic and the other domestic.

Unifying the whole is a firm but not rigid metrical structure of iambic tetrameters (four feet) and a pattern throughout of open heroic couplets. How ideal for a poem suggesting that there is a cost attached to capturing something precisely in rhyme - an interesting discussion point in itself - and that the process can somehow have a momentum of its own, just as the frequent enjambements allow the sense of the poem to travel across the couplets. It is great that in finally cutting off the stream of poetry, Dad manages to interrupt the neat couplet structure that has reigned throughout.

I am often reticent about revealing its more personal elements to students in case this inhibits them. It may be my father writing a poem to my mum, whose nickname was Albertine, but in publishing it Dad clearly wanted it to enjoy an independent life free of its immediate emotional moorings. It is a great (and secret) pleasure for me to give it continued life, sharing it with fresh generations of young readers.

Jerome Monahan is a teacher and education writer. He delivers workshops and Inset nationally and internationally.


[BX] Read the poem by Jerome Monahan's father, James Monahan (pictured below). bit.lyJeromepoem

Help pupils to appreciate poetic language with a poetry guide from TESEnglish.



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