by Gillian Clarke
It was a winter afternoon. Catrin and her brothers had been roller skating in the street. They wanted to go back out after tea. Because it was dark I said no. Catrin was cross. An argument followed, the sort that happens in every family. She was about 11 or 12, and beginning to dispute all grown-up’s decisions. I wrote the poem because the words ‘skating in the dark’ came into my mind. The phrase summed up the dangerous beauty of being young, a girl’s romantic wish to skate under the starry winter sky, and a parent’s fears for her child’s safety. This poem is not just about me and Catrin, but the changing relationships between all parents and children.
How to read the poem for its content:
Read the ‘story’, and then ask yourself some questions:
- Whose voice is telling the story?
- How do you know? Which words are clues?
- Who is Catrin? What relationship is Catrin to the poet? Quote your evidence.
- What sort of place is described in verse 1? Which words give you the clues?
- Catrin was being born in verse 1. About how old is she in verse 2? How do you know?
- What happened in verse 1?
- What happens in verse 2? (Note change from past to present)
- Can you find words and images which connect the two verses?
How to read the poem for its form:
Form is Shape and Sound.
Shape, lines, line-endings (lineation*) and verse-breaks help you to read a poem. Sometimes the lines break after significant words, like ‘child’ and ‘white’ at the end of lines 1 and 2, and the words at the ends of the last 5 lines of the poem. Their placing puts them in the spotlight.
Sound. Words that rhyme* draw attention to themselves. This poem doesn’t use rhyme at the ends of the lines, but it uses internal rhyme. Words like ‘there’, ‘hair’ and ‘glare’ in lines 21, 23 and 24, rhyme with each other. So do ‘strong’ and long’ in line 22. Another kind of sound you might hear in poems is alliteration*, the repetition of letters like the ‘t’ sound in ‘taking turn at the traffic lights’. (Look for other examples.)
How to read the poem for its language:
Notice the words and phrases. In the first verse, the place where the baby is born is ‘hot’, ‘white’, ‘square’, ‘blank’, ‘disinfected’, a ‘glass tank’. These words describe a hospital. Some students have suggested the glass tank is an incubator. You can say it makes you think of an incubator, but if you read the line again carefully, you’ll see that both mother and baby are involved ‘in the struggle in the glass tank’. If they are both inside it, it can’t be an incubator.
- Ask yourself why huge windows are like a ‘glass tank’?
- What kind of creature lives in a tank?
The relationship between mother and baby, mother and daughter, includes both ‘confrontation’ and ‘love’. Catrin is ‘rosy’, ‘defiant’, has ‘strong, long brown hair’, which tell you she is a fierce and lovely girl. Her birth is ‘fierce’, but also ‘wild, tender’.
There are more examples for you to find for yourself.
A favourite poetry trick is metaphor*, as when the umbilical cord between mother and baby turns into a ‘tight red rope of love’, and, in verse 2, into ‘that old rope’. Students tell me the rope could be a tightrope, a tug-of-war, a leash, a chain of DNA, a rope tying a boat to a harbour wall, or it could be about letting go. Metaphors leave room for your ideas too. Think also about ‘the heart’s pool’.
If an idea is not in the words it’s not there at all. However, students often find something I missed. The best example of this is in the last 2 lines of ‘Catrin’. For me, those lines literally meant Catrin’s request to skate in the dark, with the extra meaning of the beauty and danger of being young, But one student asked me if it could be the baby asking, ‘May I skate in the dark (of the womb) for one more hour’, before being born?’ It’s a brilliant question. My reply to that question was: ‘It didn’t mean that before, but it does now.’ I’m sure he must have seen an image of a baby ‘skating in the dark’ on the screen of a scanner. That student added to the poem its very best metaphor. When Catrin was born, and later, when the poem was written, they didn’t scan babies in the womb. Now we all know what the baby looks like before birth. This proves that poems are not set in stone, and that an image can change as the world changes.
* See my A-Z of poetry terms for explanations of alliteration, assonance, metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, simile etc, with examples from my and other set poets’ work.
Look at some of Seamus Heaney’s poems and ask the same questions as you’ve asked yourself about ‘Catrin’. Try the questions out on ‘Digging’, and maybe ‘Follower’. How do those poems resemble ‘Catrin’, and how are they different from ‘Catrin’? Look at Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his own poems.