WWII: Workshops and a Sonnet for Portsmouth

Last week I delivered a workshop to a youthgroup at The Charles Dickens’ Activity Centre, in Lake Rd. The young people who engaged were receptive and photographs I’d taken along invoked discussion about the experiences of people like themselves, and their families, at times of such distress. A number of poems/songs were drafted, with one young person hoping to use their piece as GCSE coursework. Their work will also feature in a celebration of youthclub culture, at The Central Library, later this year. (Date/times to be announced.)

It is wonderful when archive material generates such creativity. I’ll be visiting Paulsgrove with a similar workshop next week and have other plans, in my role as Poet in Residence, in the offing. The materials used with the group have also inspired me. I posted an earlier Portsmouth Blitz poem, written before I had access to all the records. The following, a sonnet, was written in response to the photographic images, Council Corporation Records and post-war arial maps (available to view in Portsmouth Library History Centre) which show the level of destruction Portsmouth endured.

A sonnet which traditionally deals with large themes such as Love, War, the Sea, has a precise form with three main variations. It is always 14 lines in length and, most usually, of iambic pentameter. I chose to begin the piece in the classic style, with an Octave made up of two (ABBA) quatrains. This Italian format is normally followed by a sestet of six lines, but I chose to switch to the Shakespearean version – a further quatrain (CDCD) finishing with a rhyming couplet (EE). I did this to accommodate and better reflect the switch from negative to positive within the poem arc.

A change of tone is standard within sonnets, but the shift can come at different points. Having begun with an earlier, European, construct it seemed pertinent to adopt the English variation for the more uplifting final six lines – especially in the Portsmouth at War context. I’ve added an analysis section at the bottom of the post, to explain the use of assonance, alliteration and other language choices within the piece.)

AG (1st March 2019)

Portsmouth at War: a Sonnet

On Portsea’s worn down dock and Naval seat:
the clank of battleship and whirr of mill
saw workmen crank the cogs with tiring skill,
to craft a warring store against defeat.
Then came bombs that targeted the fleet.
Incoming planes, dropped mortars keen and shrill,
strategic placement, designed to maim and kill:
annihilation met each pretty street.
Resurgence saw her through until repose:
rebuilt with blasted-brick and sooted breath,
from literal ashes this fair island rose,
determined push, spurning the pall of death.
This city jewel set in a ring of sea
a bastion, still, of freedom and the free.

Amanda Garrie
Poet in Residence: Portsmouth City Council, Library and Archive Service.
(Feb. 2019)

Analysis of language choice:

Quatrain 1: ABBA rhyme pattern.
Repetition of w/r sounds suggest the machinery of war, whilst onomatopoeia, ‘clank’ and ‘crank’, add to the sense of harsh industry. In addition, the combination of that alliteration and assonance allow internal rhyme, assisting the rhythm. The words ‘worn down’, ‘tiring’ and ‘defeat’ begin the semantic negativity we might assume in a poem about war.
Quatrain 2: ABBA rhyme pattern. The percussive alliteration of ’t’ and ‘k’ sounds, and the plosive alliteration of ‘p’, are suggestive of gunfire, whilst he sibyllic whistle of ‘s’, soft ‘c’ and the ‘sh’/‘fl’ digraphs are redolent of mortars falling, as are the assonant long e/ee/ea/y. Words such as ‘Bombs’, ‘mortars’, ‘maim’, ‘kill’ and ‘annihilation’, enhance the negativity, bringing intensity and evoke the experience of war. The proximity of ‘annihilation’ to ‘pretty’, embeds the injustice and sense of shock, but using the synonym for beauty towards the end of the octave signals the uplift found in the final segments.
Quatrain 3: CDCD rhyme pattern.
Here, the sounds become softer, ‘r’ mostly combined with long vowels and a lulling ‘l’. ‘Rose’ reverses the echo-sound ‘war’, connoting a flower (beautiful/feminine), and denoting resurrection. ‘Fair’ similarly links the city to beauty and the feminine. The ‘b’, ‘bl’, ‘br’ and ‘p’ sounds represent the industry of building. Beginning with the word ‘Resurgence’, energy is introduced showing the fight back. ‘Her‘ is at once a personification of the city and a representation of the people left within it. It is important to note that although the tone in this quatrain has shifted into the positive, there are remnants of negativity in ‘blasted’, ‘sooted’, ‘ashes’ and ‘death’. These indicate the desperate situation that must be overcome.
Rhyming couplet: EE. The words ‘jewel’ and ‘ring’ were chosen to show durability and worth, as well as echoing the geographic shape of Portsmouth/Portsea. The word ‘Bastion’ layers both a military defence, of which Portsmouth historically had many, and the last remaining home for something – in this case, as stated, being freedom.

If you’d like to leave feedback, it would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you for reading!

AG (2019)



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