Wednesday 7 January 2015

A Poem by Josephine Corcoran


Christmas is now behind us, and just before the holidays I received a copy of Josephine Corcoran’s new pamphlet TheMisplaced House, published by tall-lighthouse. Having been an avid reader of her fantastic blog And Other Poems, an on-line magazine crammed with poets and poems, I was eager to read a new collection of her poetry.

The Misplaced House is full of poems themselves like the rooms of a house. Some poems deal with personal history; Josephine had a Catholic upbringing, was born in Southport, Lancashire and spent her childhood there as well as in South London. Some of the poems deal with more political issues such as representations of terrorism in ‘You Say Drone’ and sometimes both aspects are brought together in poems such as ‘I Remember the Fear of Forgetting’. That poem is set in the exam room where ‘Archduke Franz Ferdinand / and Sophie, his pregnant wife, are hiding / in my pencil case’. Throughout the pamphlet there were plenty of stand-out arresting lines and images which immediately appealed. For instance in ‘How to Keep Spare Keys’ a deep sense of loss inhabits everyday items and I found this image stark and emotive:

            Find the names of unborn children
            on the backs of lost receipts.

In this entry I’m sharing the first poem in the pamphlet, ‘Stephen Lawrence isn’t on the National Curriculum’, which Josephine has very kindly given me permission to feature here. The first time I read it felt as if my body physically reacted to it. It made me sit up and take notice. Not least for those crushing, sad details, such as Stephen’s age, his future aspirations and the mention of the ‘130 yards’ he staggered after being stabbed.  Stephen was a young man with a future, but his name became remembered in one of the most shocking and indeed most frustrating of racist murder trials.

This poem achieves something which is very hard to do, it is serious, clear-sighted and emotional without ever once being vague or sentimental. All the detail is real.  The poem is knitted together with lots of subtle internal rhymes which bring out its emotive power. Next time I need to show students an effective and controlled example of a political poem I’ll use this one. Parenthood is also key to the poem. I felt there was a connection between the mother in the poem and Stephen’s parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence. The poem begins with a child being tucked up after bedtime stories, after the mention of the ‘long ago and far away.’ The mood soon turns from sweetness to painful honesty. It’s time for a terrible lesson in recent history to be taught (as the education system won’t teach it).

At the time of Stephen’s murder, I was a teenager in West London.  Local communities didn’t trust the police’s handling of the black teenager’s murder. The McPherson Report, the public enquiry into the killing, suggested, among other recommendations, that to guard against such incidents from happening again, there had to be: “consideration of a revised national curriculum to prevent racism and value cultural diversity.” Although some cultural diversity is taught in schools, it’s arguably limited.  Josephine says “My own children, for instance, who’ve been at Secondary School since 2010, have never been taught about Stephen Lawrence, for example. “

            It’s been famously said ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ but in this instance I think Josephine’s poem expresses something very important about loss; the waste of a young man’s life and also addresses the need for a wider cultural education. Before I share the poem with you I’ll leave the final words to Josephine who puts it very succinctly: “I thought that there was nothing NOTHING I could ever do for Doreen and Neville Lawrence and I would never be able to say anything to them to tell them about how sorry I am for their loss.  But I thought at least I could remember Stephen and tell my children about him.  So that's how I came to write the poem.”

Stephen Lawrence isn’t on the National Curriculum

I tuck you in
with long ago and far away,
pull the blanket of it wasn’t us, it wasn’t here
around your heart, although I know
that five inches is 13 centimetres,
that 130 yards would cost a lot
of blood. There’ll be Rosa Parks
and Martin Luther King for homework,
and someone saying it’s good
we teach them that,
but no-one has a map of South-East London,
and today your teacher didn’t say his name.
I teach you this: He spelled it with a ‘PH’
not a ‘V’. In 1993
he was eighteen.
He wanted to be an architect.
He was waiting for a bus.

This poem first appeared in The Morning Star in 2013 and can be found here as well.


  1. I feel helpless in the same way as Josephine does about Jyoti, the Indian girl who was raped so brutally on a bus in Delhi, more recently. I am not Indian but I grew up there and this makes it more difficult, somehow; not wanting this for girls there; hurting for her parents. Hello Maria, I would like to follow your blog but can't see a 'follow' button. Can you help?

  2. Hi, thanks for your comments, Lesley. A very painful subject. Also, I think there's a 'Join This Site' option if that helps. Not quite sure myself really! Best wishes, M.

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  4. I missed something, so I deleted my first comment. First, I agree. The poem is moving without descending into sentimentality. It is strong also.

    But here is what I said re the comment which is almost a mis quote from Auden's (great I think) poem on the death of Yeats:

    Richard16 September 2016 at 04:02
    Re that comment by Auden in his poem about Yeats, Jack Ross of Auckland pointed out that Auden goes on to say or remind us of what comes next: " will survive in the valley of its going..." the implication being that Auden feels that probably not much happens through poetry, but it adds to the "discussion".

    However, it is questionable whether any political poetry "works" very well. There are exceptions. There is a US poet called Mark Nowak with his 'Shut Up Shut Down' writes political poetry in a subtle way that does address issues of coal mining disasters (in Virginia) and unemployment etc (not all his view of industry etc is negative though). So some thoughts.

    Here is what Auden actually said:

    For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
    In the valley of its making where executives
    Would never want to tamper, flows on south
    From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
    Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
    A way of happening, a mouth.

    So poetry survives, and becomes or is a "way of happening, a mouth" which is a lot. Of

  5. It is indeed a good way of approaching this. We all have mothers, and many have sons or daughters, so these are political but more than "political" they are deeply moving issues. As a father I can feel through this poem. Good comment on this blog.

  6. Sorry to keep on this but I think it is important for poets to examine these things carefully. Yeat's poem also mourns a death and it is 1939 (admittedly Auden was probably in the US by then, but so be it!) and in fact his lines resonate:

    In the nightmare of the dark
    All the dogs of Europe bark,
    And the living nations wait,
    Each sequestered in its hate;

    Intellectual disgrace
    Stares from every human face,
    And the seas of pity lie
    Locked and frozen in each eye.

    Follow, poet, follow right
    To the bottom of the night,
    With your unconstraining voice
    Still persuade us to rejoice;

    So not only do they not or perhaps not teach about the young man killed (perhaps not because of any deliberate decision not to) but this aspect of "pity, locked and frozen in each eye" and a great moral crisis about to unfold seems relevant. Of course Auden's is a more "public" and rhetorical poem while Corcoran's is in some ways more subtle.