Flag John Agard contemporary (modern) poem.

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1 Flag John Agard contemporary (modern) poem. Questions to think about How does the poet express feelings about conflict in Flag and one other poem from conflict? What does the poet have to say about nationalism and patriotism in the poem Flag and one other from conflict? How does the poet explore ideas to do with national identity in the poem Flag and one other from conflict? What does the poet have to say about personal sacrifice in Flag and one other poem from conflict? Key terms to understand nation, nationalism, patriotism, identity, Nation a group of people living under the rule of the same government and inhabiting the same country Nationalism extreme devotion to a nation or country Patriotism following in the beliefs of your fathers in the support of the country in which you live; pride in your national heritage and your country. (Comes from the Greek word patrios one s father) A patriot is a person with a deep rooted sense of pride in their country. Identity the characteristics of being a particular person or country national identity is the group of characteristics that bind together the people of a particular country. The poet John Agard He was born in Guyana in Guyana is a country on the Caribbean coast of South America. It was ruled over by Britain for 200 years before it achieved independence on 26 May John Agard moved to Britain in Many of his poems discuss ideas about identity, nationalism, patriotism, personal sacrifice and responsibility. He grew up in Guyana learning about British history and culture at school even though he lived in the Caribbean. He was left with a feeling of confusion about his nationality and identity. Overview of the poem Page 1

2 The atmosphere of the poem is very dark, contemplating the negative side of something that seems on the surface fairly harmless. It is an exploration of the true symbolism of the piece of cloth that is a flag and what it has meant to different people over the years. It can be the symbol of: a country the power of one nation over another opposing sides in a battle oppression of one nation by another a lack of a moral compass or a lack of moral judgement victory or surrender organisation that people fight for terror group The poem follows the journey of the questioner and the questioned as they explore the true meaning of the flag, reflecting Agard s own thoughts on what it represents. Structure of the poem The verse structure is regular with three lines in each verse if drawn around the lines make the shape of a medieval flag so the physicality of flags is present in the structure of the poem this reminds the reader that they flag is a visual symbol and this is reflected in the shape that the lines make. A further example of the physical representation of flags is in the three-line structure of each verse that can be seen to reflect the three stripes used in many countries flags. The first line of each stanza is a question this gives the poem the sense of a conversation between two people with Agard offering the answers to the questions. The individual questions in each stanza allow Agard to develop his arguments but also allows for each stanza to have its own self-contained meaning. There is a rhyme scheme in the early verses of the poem: Stanza 1 breeze and knees Stanza 2 pole and bold Stanza 3 tent and relent However, as the poem develops this rhyme scheme breaks down: Stanza 4 field and bleed Page 2

3 Stanza 5 cloth and end A possible reason for this is that Agard wants to show how the relationship between a person and their flag might break down and fall out of harmony (out of rhyme). In this way he can use the structure of the poem to reinforce his ideas about the disconnection between people and their flags. This reflects his own experience, growing up in the Caribbean under a British flag that represents the United kingdom of England, Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland nothing whatsoever to do with Guyana. They questions are simple on the surface but the response they prompt is much more complicated reinforcing the idea that a flag appears to be something simple but is, in fact a very complex symbol. Agard uses contrast between the first and third lines in each verse to make the reader think about the true power of the flag. The answers to the questions start off generally but becomes more specific as the poem progresses nation, men, coward, you, friend. This demonstrates Agard s exploration of the idea of the flag how on the surface it represents a symbol of a nation but becomes much more personal, finally asking about the personal responsibility of the person answe5ring the questions towards their country. Language There are some very powerful verbs associated with the cloth that makes up the flag It can: bring an nation to its knees cause a nation to surrender make the guts of men grow cold cause fear and death dare the coward to relent provoke a person to surrender outlive the blood you bleed outlast the death of an individual blind your conscience to the end make it impossible to see what is right and wrong All of these verbs suggest how powerful and important the flag is. It has the power of life and death and the difference between victory and defeat. Agard also uses these verbs to highlight the negative or destructive power of the flag. The repetition of the line It s just a piece of cloth has a powerful impact on the reader. It is the truth of what a flag is, according to Agard but the power of it cannot be denied. This line would be delivered in a sarcastic tone. He changes the line in the final verse to reveal the true power of the flag: Just ask for a flag, my friend. Page 3

4 Then blind your conscience to the end. The idea of a person s conscience being blinded creates the idea that the conscience of the person can no longer see right from wrong. The conscience is the side of a person that knows whether or not something is morally right or not, like war. Agard is thinking about the fact that in a warfare situation a person may be led to do something in the name of their country that their conscience tells them is wrong, for example torturing someone. The use of the verb blinded suggests that it is now impossible for a person to see right from wrong this is what being in a war does to a person it may also be suggesting that a person s conscience or sight is taken away from them when they join the army to fight for their country they are paid to be blinded from the truth. The idea of blinding your conscience to the end suggest that once a person has decided to fight behind a particular flag they will have to follow it through to the end, even if the end is death when a person signs up to fight for a country death is one of the possibilities they face. The opening line of the poem makes the flag seem harmless enough: What s that fluttering in the breeze? Fluttering is a very gentle verb, suggestive of the movement of a butterfly Agard deliberately start the poem off with an image that is reassuring to the reader just like most people s first thoughts about a flag will be it allows him to build up his ideas throughout the poem to his final, fundamental question. The reply to the question is more hard-hitting and begins to show the real power of a flag that it can bring a nation to its knees. It explores the idea that a nation can be destroyed by the following of a particular flag e.g Nazi Germany rallying behind the swastika. On the first line of the second stanza the flag is described as unfurling opening or spreading out this follows on from the gentle verb about the flag used in the first stanza. The questions are very subtle but the answers become more revealing. In the second stanza it has the ability to make the blood of men grow cold. This idea can be interpreted in two different ways: either that their blood will be cold through fear or through death these things can both be caused because a person supports a certain flag or because they oppose it. In stanza three the image of the flag is flying over a tent this reminds the reader of battles where the army would camp and the flag be raised over the tent of their leader. The final line of this stanza suggests that the flag dares the coward to relent. Again there are two possible interpretations of this line that the pride in a flag may make someone who is not feeling brave, so cowardly, to show renewed bravery and re-join the battle. It may also mean that a soldier who is a coward could surrender to the more powerful enemy flag. Agard makes his answers in these last lines deliberately thoughtprovoking for the reader. Page 4

5 The first line of stanza four refers to the flag flying across a field this a clear reference to the field of battle, where in times gone by the flag of the army would be raised. Nowadays this is a purely symbolic idea. However, in some modern battles the flag or the winning army is still sometimes raised on the field of battle at the end e.g Falklands War. The final line suggests that the flag will outlive the blood you bleed powerfully enforcing the idea that the flag always endures it is much more permanent than any individual who might die in its name this idea also raises the question of whether the blood-shed in the name of a flag is worth anything. In the final stanza the question How can I possess such a cloth is raised. The answer is simple just ask, my friend Agard comes back to the idea that anyone can encourage others to rally and fight under the name of a flag but the power and might of that flag, once unleashed, is hard to control. Page 5

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