IGCSE Unseen poem support: John Rice – ‘Careful with that…’

Careful With that…. An unseen poem response.

Before I begin to write about the poem, this is taken from the Examiner’s Report for January 2020:

All students need to look at this list and recognise the importance of hitting these bullets.

One thing to remember about an unseen is that the perfect response does not exist: there is simply not enough time in 35 minutes to hit everything. That said, 35 minutes, or thereabouts, gives you between 5 and 10 minutes to prepare your thoughts, having read the poem – once for general effect -annotate for obvious elements – anomalies of structure, form or language and elements relating to the bullets which leap out at you, and once for a more detailed response, with the aim of establishing a ‘meaning’.

The format of the IGCSE paper precludes the use of the SCASI model, and students are advised to use the bullets given in the paper as their basis for organisation of the response:

  • Descriptive skills (figurative, sensory, colour etc)
  • Language choice (this might hit tone and also poetic devices as well as use of voice)
  • Form and Structure (no rewards for Maths – don’t count the stanzas, offer opinions as to why the poem is divided in this way (if it is) and justify comments about form – if free verse, give an example of the effectiveness of the freedom to place words and create sudden short lines, for example.

My take aways to plan the essay on this poem in the 5 minutes, in no particular order:

  • Free verse -stanzas grow in length until the last stanza
  • Direct address – to reader?
  • Speaker has knowledge
  • Childish language – explanations are simplified
  • Colour imagery
  • Sense of uncertainty – ‘hazy on the outside’
  • Planet Earth is delicate and a thing of wonder
  • The High – a deity of some form
  • Imperatives and gentle instruction
  • Message of final line  -why ‘sad’?
  • View from space
  • Message to readers about dangers of global warning
  • Look there. A moment of clarity

That’s enough to begin to write.

I always like to use a very brief intro to nail form and to show some form of understanding of the poem:

John Rice’s poem considering the view of Earth from Space is written in free verse, allowing him to alter structure to create effect and also to place specific words or phrases in the poem with no need for rhyme or rhythmic patterning. An example of this comes in the short line 29 in which the rhetorical question ‘it’s name’ forces the reader to make the jump in recognition that this is our planet and that we might be the childlike beings addressed by the ‘alien’ of the title.

Since I have begun with structure, this will be my focus for the first section, regardless of the order of the bullets:

After the initial single line stanza which calls the reader/listener to attention, the poem is divided into 7 further stanzas, which grow in length as the information becomes both clearer and more detailed. The choice of a 7 stanza structure may relate to the idea of God creating the World in 7 days – it is almost as though we are being warned that the destruction of the world could be as swift. (This is an idea which came as I wrote – it uses my contextual thinking and derives from a wish to offer meaning as I go along. Remember that you can’t lose marks, so an idea, even if not fully formed, is worth sharing.). As the stanzas progress the tone shifts from care – the exhortation to be ‘careful with that, strengthened by the use of ‘oh’ to show the intensity of feeling of the speaker – to advice about how to care for the ‘flimsy’ planet as the reader is urged to act ‘gently now’. The short last stanza is direct and delivers a harsh message to the reader. The final message is that the Earth is a ‘sad’ place. A place of suffering and of grieving is a message which delivers the idea of the potential destruction of the planet with monosyllabic brevity and impact.

Now to Bullet 1 – the descriptive skills:

Rice has couched his advice in a childish register as though the teacher is needing to explain in simple terms for the first time. He uses the childish form – ‘blue bits’ and ‘green bits’ referring to what we know as sea and pasture or vanishing forest and in doing so emphasises the visual beauty of the planet as seen from space. However it is clear that the view is not clear since it is ‘hazy’ due to the ‘protective coating’ generated by the ozone layer. Again the use of metaphor helps to create a clear image which can be understood by a child or, indeed, anyone who does not necessarily grasp the scientific imperative facing us all.  It is clear that the planet is a thing of exceptional beauty, not only is there a semantic field of fragility created in words such as ‘delicate’, ‘flimsy’, ‘fragile’ and reinforced by the gentle imperatives requiring extreme care  – ‘gently now’ -and the warnings of potential ‘damage’, but also the child/learner is going to be ‘really amazed!’ by what they see. The exclamation mark emphasises the sense of wonder.  (Keep an eye out for punctuation, it is always worth writing about the anomalies).

Now to wind up the essay by catching as much language as possible in the limited time allowed:

The speaker, a teacher of some sort, given the didactic nature of the poem (you know this idea – it is the same as the tone of Sonnet 116 in Anthology C) is clearly knowledgable and experienced, after all he can ‘remember being fascinated’ by the vision in front of us, yet he is secondary in knowledge to ‘The High’ – an anonymous title, presumably of some form of deity. This deity does not necessarily have human form, one might even recognise the deity as a personification of scientific knowledge, suggesting the form of deity made possible by Darwin and scientific research. (A long shot, but one which offers personal POV and analysis of the use of the proper noun that may be credited).  The High is able to warn of the danger of damage to the moon – simplified as the ‘little white thing’ and possibly here suggests a warning against human attempts to colonise Space.

This poem is a clear warning to the reader about human damage to the planet, couched in the idea of an alien addressing its young. The vision matches that first seen from space when manned flight reached the moon. The awareness of the holistic beauty of the planet in the first colour pictures of the whole planet from space drove the movement to protect the Earth from global warming and destruction of habitats. This poem carries that message and leaves us with an emotional sensation as we respond with sympathy to this beautiful ‘sad’ place.

The similar poem set in the Jan 2020 ELit paper is discussed here: The Concerned Adolescent: notes