For students and teachers
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
The poems 'Brothers' and 'Horse Whisperer' are both featured in the AQA GCSE anthology 'The Moon on the Tides'. Here are the poems, followed by answers to questions that GCSE students have asked.
They shouted for me
when their horses snorted, when restless
hooves traced circles in the earth
and shimmering muscles refused the plough.
My secret was a spongy tissue, pulled bloody
from the mouth of a just-born foal,
scented with rosemary, cinnamon,
a charm to draw the tender giants
to my hands.
They shouted for me
when their horses reared at burning straw
and eyes revolved in stately heads.
I would pull a frog’s wishbone,
tainted by meat, from a pouch,
a new fear to fight the fear of fire,
so I could lead the horses,
like helpless children, to safety.
I swore I would protect
this legacy of whispers
but the tractor came over the fields
like a warning. I was the life-blood
no longer. From pulpits
I was scorned as demon and witch.
Pitchforks drove me from villages and farms.
My gifts were the tools of revenge.
A foul hex above a stable door
so a trusted stallion could be ridden
no more. Then I joined the stampede,
with others of my kind,
to countries far from our trade.
Still I miss them. Shire, Clydesdale, Suffolk.
The searing breath, glistening veins,
steady tread and the pride,
most of all the pride.
Saddled with you for the afternoon, me and Paul
ambled across the threadbare field to the bus-stop,
talking over Sheffield Wednesday’s chances in the cup
while you skipped beside us in your ridiculous tank-top,
spouting six-year-old views on Rotherham United.
Suddenly you froze, said you hadn’t any bus fare.
I sighed, said you should go and ask Mum
and while you windmilled home I looked at Paul.
His smile, like mine, said I was nine and he was ten
and we must stroll the town, doing what grown-ups do.
As a bus crested the hill we chased Olympic Gold.
Looking back I saw you spring towards the gate,
your hand holding out what must have been a coin.
I ran on, unable to close the distance I’d set in motion.
both from Fear of Thunder Flambard 2007
Where did you get the idea for the poem ‘Horse Whisperer’?
While I was waiting for a friend one evening, I started to leaf through a book on ‘Strange Phenomena’ which was lying on the table. The book had a very brief history of ‘horse whispering’. I was fascinated by the techniques the horse whisperer used for controlling horses, but also by the way society’s attitude towards them changed over the years. When our economy was dependent on horses, the horse whisperers were revered, and as the tractor became more widely used they became demonised. At the time, I was experimenting with poems in different voices, and it seemed like an interesting challenge to take on the voice of a horse whisperer. As the poem developed, it became clear that the character in the poem was speaking for all horse whisperers.
Why is the poem written in irregular lines and stanzas?
The poems tries to capture the various stages in the history of horse whisperers, and in order to do this it uses a range of tones, reflected in the rhythm, and the shape of the stanzas. The first two stanzas, where the horse whisperer is talking about his gifts, are intended to be almost chant-like, with their repetition. His anger at their skills being rejected is shown by the speeding up of the poem, with shorter lines and heavier internal rhymes, and the poem slows again for the final lines, which are more of an elegy, where he is thinking of the special bond he had with horses, and missing their companionship.
Do you have much experience of horses?
I don’t have a huge amount of experience with them. I have ridden in the past but not for many years. I am fascinated by them, they are such graceful animals.
I write about animals a lot. One of the things I am interested in is exploring the reactions we have to animals that natural history can’t explain. We may know all about an animal’s feeding and breeding patterns, we may be able to understand its movements scientifically, but as humans we have reactions to them that can’t be explained by that knowledge. I think that’s one of the things that poetry does, tries to answer questions in ways that can’t be explained by other means.
Why did you write the poem ‘Brothers’?
The poem ‘Brothers’ is one of a number of poems based on childhood memories that appear in my first book ‘Fear of Thunder’ (Flambard 2007). I had never really written about childhood but I suddenly found myself remembering incidents very vividly. I started jotting them in my notebook and the more I wrote the more I seemed to remember. The story behind Brothers was an incident where I had behaved very cruelly to my younger brother. My brother does make it into a few other poems in the book where I treat him rather better! There’s a poem called ‘At the Circus With My Brother’ about his early love of animals, and a poem about him as an adult called ‘Critical’, written following a motorcycle accident he was involved in,
The challenge, when writing the poems, was to explore the memory in such a way that the poem didn’t just recount the story. Any good poem should work on a number of different levels. With ‘Brothers’, although the poem uses some very immediate language, to take the reader into the experience, it is set in the past tense. It becomes clear as the poem goes on that this is an adult looking back at childhood experiences, not a child speaking. The implication of the last line, is that this incident has affected the relationship between the two boys into adulthood. There is a whole other story hinted at in this last line.
‘Brothers’ uses long lines. Why did you choose this form?
‘Brothers’ is telling a story from childhood, and the tone and rhythm of the poem is intended to reflect this. The longer line, and the rhythms of ordinary speech, give the poem a more conversational feel. The narrator might be chatting to his younger brother in the pub. As the poem goes on the rhythm becomes more formal, as the implications of the narrator’s actions become clear to him, and by the end he could be talking to himself.
Can you make a living from writing poetry?
It’s very difficult to make a living from poetry. Some poets make a living from activities associated with their poetry, such as teaching or giving readings, but the writing itself doesn’t pay that much. I’m very lucky. I’m a professional Literature Officer, currently working with the Wordsworth Trust, in Grasmere in the Lake District. I organise literature events and festivals and look at ways to support writers. This allows me to make a living in the literary world. It does mean I have to balance a full-time job with writing poetry and associated activities, such as readings, but on the whole I’m very happy with my situation.
Which poets have influenced you?
Poets influence me in different ways. A single poem might set off a chain of thought which makes me want to respond with a poem of my own. Other poets have something in their whole approach to poetry that has influenced me in mine. I regularly return to poets like Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, Simon Armitage and, increasingly, Seamus Heaney, and think that their influence is visible in my poems. I love the excitement of discovering new poets, and I’m always finding new work I want to recommend to people.
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