My twitter timeline has pulsed with tearful teachers reaching for their tissues – and I don’t blame them. This poem, a feature of the AQA anthology for GCSE is hard and seemingly impenetrable for many teachers, let alone students. In a closed book environment, it seems particularly testing and possibly a poem which will be approached by memorised ideas rather than a felt response. The poem is printed at the end of the article.
At first glance there is much one can say about the structure and form, yet it becomes trickier immediately to offer any coherent explanations for the assertions:
We can see at a glance a 10 stanza poem comprising 9 quatrains and a single line stanza (always interesting, though also often echoed in student writing in an effort to sound ‘deep’). There is no obvious rhyme scheme but much assonance and alliteration and semi-rhyme and there is an iambic tread at times, but not enough to make this clearly an iambic poem – lines like ‘Maps too. The sun shines through / their borderlines, the marks…’ are a clear iambic trimeter with spondeic substitution in the first foot, yet others such as ‘and never wish to build again with brick’ are a perfect iambic pentameter… humph.
So where do we go? The CGP guide to AQA Power and Conflict offers a series of questions to engage the reader, based around basic comprehension and awareness of context, yet the 5th question: why do you think the poet chose to call the poem Tissue seems to me to require rather more than the 3 lines allotted for the response. There is an essay question suggestion about the presentation of the fragility of human power, but for many, the poem must remain incomprehensible. Sadly.
Get out the tissues.
Let’s offer some comment on the structural ideas noticed above before we start:
the poem looks into the fragile and transient nature of tissue – paper or skin. Possibly the underlying iambic tread reflects this – the constant echoes of a regular heartbeat which is often disturbed and fragmented by the slightest touch seems to me to be in keeping with the subject of the poem – the fragility of humanity in the face of nature. Likewise we note an internal structure which places the opening sentence across the first three stanzas, establishing a reading of ’tissue’ before indulging in a hypothetical position in the middle three stanzas, before concluding in the final stanzas and single line. The quatrains – so often a feature of ballad form possibly suggest the simplicity of the message and the unencumbered thinking, free from added complexity, which might lie at the heart of the message: stop developing and overdeveloping: the earth, humanity itself is fragile – love it and respect it and acknowledge its transience.
The opening section – stanzas 1-3 present a long involved sentence in which the persona, later given the first person ‘I’ presents an idea directly to the reader ‘you’. The idea is that something is wrong with the world and that ‘paper… could alter things’. Not just any paper, but paper which ‘lets the light through’. The image of light will recur and possibly suggests a benevolent deity or a life force for the good, as yet we cannot be certain, but the reference to the ‘Koran’, a sacred text, suggests the former and creates a direct link to Dharker herself who was brought up in Scotland though derived from Pakistani heritage. She address the reader and assumes knowledge of such texts which contain not just the word of God but also family histories – the repository of ‘who was born to whom/ the height and weight, who/died where…’ the enjambment is lovely here and sets up a slight surprise or shock as we realise that death has come to the putative child born one line earlier. This is a human and private record keeping – not a state birth certificate, but the logging of lives which belongs to a simpler time – a time of paper and respect for the extended family – a better time, illuminated by ‘the light’. These are ordinary people, not the self-appointed rulers, movers and shakers, but families.
Stanza four opens with ‘If’ a clear signal that the persona is presenting a hypothetical position: If ‘buildings were paper’…’Maps too’ suggest that in an ideal world, the structures of civilisation are currently not fit for purpose and need to be touched by the light. If this were the case, she suggests, we might see their ‘shift’ and recognise their inherent fragility. Perhaps we might not take our civilisation for granted, after all, nature, in the form of the ‘direction of the wind’ is always waiting to overcome this created world as easily as by a ‘sigh’ – the ‘capitals and monoliths’ of stanza 8 may seem immense and powerful, but ultimately humanity is weak and needs to be protected (by the light). [Ozymandias anyone?]
In terms of the maps, maybe the point is the light which shines through, borderlines and rivers – often liminal markers of countries imposed by conquerors – as the light shines, so we see the futility of claiming ownership or seeking to impose our mechanised world onto this innocent planet. In this world, the ‘fine (thin yet also signifying status) slips’ might fly our lives… fly means to leave as well as to control in flight. This is a tricky notion. In this new paper world there might be no need for the all-knowing till receipt and this sense of control over us by the unseen hand of commerce is thus removed and turned into images of freedom and beauty – kites. Yet kites are still tethered to the owner and there still lurks the idea that in a world of commerce, we are not free from our contracts and financial arrangements – ultimately we will have to pay for what we use.
The final section of the poem develops the hypothesis by suggesting a practical outcome of this realisation. An ‘architect’ might build with paper and allow light – goodness and godliness to enter our world, the light breaking through the ‘shapes that pride has made’ as our new realisation of our relationship to the planet creates a willingness to build for beauty and betterment, rather than to memorialise power, greed and ‘pride’ until this ‘grand design’ becomes indivisible from our own living tissue – an idea of Creation – which acknowledges our weakness and celebrates our transient relationship with the world in which we live.
The paper and skin become one – both forms of tissue – to be smoothed and stroked, and as we realise this, we review the imagery from earlier: the sense of old age thinning paper echoes the increasing transparency of old skin and the natural ageing process. The same idea is seen in the maps – tissue as the skin through which we can see the markings of veins, arteries, bruises and so forth. We recognise our fragility and we accept through the power of the ‘light’ our fragility as a boon and no longer seek to create false structures to prolong life. Life is memorialised in the ‘sepia date’ in the sacred book, and that is enough.
In the last line Dharker focuses the whole poem and refers directly to the reader – ‘your skin’. It is as though she looks straight into our eyes and offers a kind of direct challenge: Are you going to accept this proposition and work to create a better world? Are you so vain that you will seek memorials in stone or seek to claim ownership over swathes of the natural world? Will you accept your time on this earth as a glorious but short-lived time and not seek to intervene to claim more than is rightfully yours?
This is a very complex poem and I respect all the 15/16 year olds engaged with it now. The very best of luck to you all. And to your teachers. I hope this is useful and does not sow further confusion in your minds!
Paper that lets the light
shine through, this
is what could alter things.
Paper thinned by age or touching,
the kind you find in well-used books,
the back of the Koran, where a hand
has written in the names and histories,
who was born to whom,
the height and weight, who
died where and how, on which sepia date,
pages smoothed and stroked and turned
transparent with attention.
If buildings were paper, I might
feel their drift, see how easily
they fall away on a sigh, a shift
in the direction of the wind.
Maps too. The sun shines through
their borderlines, the marks
that rivers make, roads,
Fine slips from grocery shops
that say how much was sold
and what was paid by credit card
might fly our lives like paper kites.
An architect could use all this,
place layer over layer, luminous
script over numbers over line,
and never wish to build again with brick
or block, but let the daylight break
through capitals and monoliths,
through the shapes that pride can make,
find a way to trace a grand design
with living tissue, raise a structure
never meant to last,
of paper smoothed and stroked
and thinned to be transparent,
turned into your skin.