Monthly Archives: May 2014

Open to Interpretation

When it comes to ‘studied poetry’, we explore the poets’ backgrounds and examine the context in which the poems were written in order to inform our analyses.

I understood that at secondary school. It was expected. Paper II of the Leaving Cert has just one ‘unseen’ question, and of the time we spent on Paper II most of that was, of course, devoted to the studied texts.

While I enjoyed the poetry and other studied texts (though, admittedly, after a while the theme to Cinema Paradiso piqued sighs of irritation and it took a long time to get over that), a problem arose – one which I didn’t immediately understand.

At Junior Cycle I developed a love for poetry. I loved reading poems and creating my own connections to them. The more I read them the more I understood that no two readings were always the same: whatever meaning or associations we create can be dependent on emotions, thoughts, memories, events…

During fifth and sixth year I grew accustomed to reading analyses of poems putting forward the same (or, at the very least, strikingly similar) interpretations – each expressed more verbosely than the last – which relied on information such as context and the poets’ beliefs. These interpretations laid the foundations for a certain reading of the poems which I would then draw upon when addressing an exam question. Although each of us in the class answered the questions differently, more often than not the analyses of specific images and phrases tended to be uniform. In other words, originality in answers came in how we addressed the question rather than how we really responded to and interpreted the poems.

Half-way through sixth year I began to notice that the bridge which connected me to poetry began to fall apart, piece by piece, under these foundations, and I felt as though the enjoyment for poetry I had cultivated at Junior Cycle slowly began to wither.

I felt that my connection to poetry was drifting further and further away, struggling to stay afloat in the waters of the Leaving Cert.

My answers to ‘unseen poetry’ questions became a trite affair, deficient of authenticity. I hadn’t forgotten that poetry could inspire multiple, distinctive readings, but in my new-found dependence on others’ readings and my search for the ‘real’ meaning behind the studied poems I began to doubt my interpretations, second- and third-guessing everything and wondering “which reading would get me more marks?”

In my case, it wasn’t my English teacher’s approaches which led to this, nor was it a lack of help which contributed to it; I wouldn’t have become a teacher if I didn’t have the post-primary education I had, and, among others, my English teacher played a large part in guiding, encouraging and inspiring me.

The problem was I had become so focused on the exam that my relationship with texts – particularly with books, stories and poems I liked to read in my spare time – became strained and the effects of this rippled through my school-work.

It wasn’t until the weeks before the exam that I was once again able to let the text itself guide me.

I returned to the basics to try and salvage my connection to poetry. I re-read my favourite poems to reclaim my appreciation of poetry. I read poems which I hadn’t encountered before. Instead of speculating “which reading…?”, I let the words flourish and not be tamed by exam-focused thinking or scrutinising what it was ‘intended’ to mean.

I created my own meaning.


‘Introduction to Poetry’, by Billy Collins.

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Source: The Poetry Foundation. Copyright 1988/1996 by Billy Collins. Personal, non-commercial use only.


As a teacher, I’m aware that, at one time or another, in helping students we may unintentionally strain the relationship between student and text.

I think this is partly because there can be a struggle to balance analysis with engagement, and partly because there is a thin line between analysis and over-analysis; analysing something to the point where it is just a chain of techniques creating a single, almost unwavering, reading can threaten to stifle students’ interest in and enjoyment of texts, and, as a result, genuine engagement.

In our efforts to help students reach a level of understanding and appreciation of a text, our intentions can easily be misconstrued; we may, inadvertently, lead ourselves, and them, towards the so-called ‘right’ or ‘expert’ reading and away from the personal experience of finding and using our own voice to explore a text and create meaning.

The important thing is that we dismantle this trap.

We need to acknowledge that what is communicated to the reader is not fixed. Nor, I believe, it is intended to be. Writing this, I’m reminded of how Jennifer Lee, one of the makers of Frozen, responded to some claims about the film:

“We know what we made. But at the same time I feel like once we hand the film over it belongs to the world. So I don’t like to say anything, and let the fans talk. I think it’s up to them.”

[Source: The Big Issue. My emphasis.]

The text is open to interpretation.

It has been handed over to us, the readers, to create meaning – our own unique reading.

If we always knew what every word, image and expression meant, our encounters with ‘the arts’ in all its forms (literature, music, theatre, film…) would be an isolated shadow of an experience deprived of all meaning, and achieving any semblance of originality or true engagement would be impossible.

World Book Night 2014

World Book Night

This was my second year as a Book Giver for WBN – a fantastic celebration of books and reading which is held on April 23rd, the same day as the UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day (and Shakespeare’s birthday!).

More information about World Book Night can be found on their website.


In 2013 I gave copies of The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde and was delighted with the response.



This year I gave copies of After the Funeral by Agatha Christie, and I made bookmarks and a Padlet accessible only to recipients of the books (post-primary students who aren’t regular readers or who have trouble accessing books). Like last year, feedback on this has been great so far!



Below are some of the posts I included in their Padlet. Suggestions for book recommendations and websites to add are welcome!



There are some websites such as and that might be able to help you decide what to read next.

A long list of recommended reads can be found on (as well as book reviews), but, of course, the best place to look for your next book is in the library or a book store!

The books section of The Guardian website is updated regularly with book reviews, interviews, extracts and news. Recently The Guardian has also put together a list of websites to look at for book recommendations.

The collections of 20 World Book Night books (from 2011 to 2014) include some excellent reads.

In addition to those, here is a list of some other books you may like:

Skellig – David Almond

Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher

Tuck Everlasting – Nicole Babbitt

Noughts and Crosses – Malorie Blackman

The Dare – John Boyne

The Real Rebecca – Anna Carey

My Antonia – Willa Cather

Artemis Fowl – Eoin Colfer

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

The Weight of Water – Sarah Crossan

Series of Unfortunate Events – Roald Dahl

Room – Emma Donoghue

Coraline – Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Once – Morris Gleitzman

Lord of the Flies – William Golding

The Fault in Our Stars – John Green

Theodore Boone series – John Grisham

Marley and Me – John Grogan

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon

Girl Stolen – April Henry

The Outsiders – S.E. Hinton

Alex Rider – Anthony Horowitz

Shadows on our Skin – Jennifer Johnston

Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Jeff Kinney

Into the Grey – Celine Kiernan

Skulduggery Pleasant – Derek Landy

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

Girl, Missing – Sophie McKenzie

Chalkline – Jane Mitchell

Private Peaceful – Michael Morpurgo

Trash – Andy Mulligan

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness

The Wind Singer – William Nicholson

Animal Farm – George Orwell

Wonder – R.J. Palacio

Nightjohn – Gary Paulsen

True Grit – Charles Portis

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

The Scarecrow and his Servant – Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

Confessions of Georgia Nicolson – Louise Rennison

Percy Jackson and the Olympians – Rick Riordan

Divergent – Veronica Roth

Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling

Holes – Louis Sachar

The Boy Who Lost His Face – Louis Sachar

The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer

Zom-B – Darren Shan

The Saga of Darren Shan – Darren Shan

The Demonata – Darren Shan

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Vampire Diaries – L.J. Smith

Stone Cold – Robert Swindells

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

Tales from the Perilous Realm – J.R.R. Tolkien

Machine Gunners – Robert Westall

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak


Free eBooks

You can borrow books from your local library, and some of libraries even offer an eBook service (for example, Cork City Libraries).

Here is a list of websites where you can either freely read books online or download them as eBooks:

Books listed on these sites are free to read/download legally because either the copyright on the books has expired or the authors allowed it to be freely available.

If you need help finding a specific book, selecting something that might like, or help with how to download/read your eBook, just ask!


Free eBook from WBN USA

This year, World Book Night in the US put together a free eBook for everyone to download. It’s a collection of stories and essays by booksellers, librarians and authors.

To download it in EPUB or PDF format, scroll to the bottom of this page and enter your email address. You will be emailed a download link.


Letters Live

One of the events held as part of WBN was ‘Letters Live’, a dynamic performance event which celebrates the enduring power of literacy correspondence.

It was held at the Southbank Centre in London, featuring readings from Russell Brand, Stephen Fry, Caitlin Moran, Clarke Peters, Andrew Motion and Morgana Robinson.

The readings can be watched online by clicking this link to the Canongate website, or by playing the videos below.


Russell Brand reading a letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol.


Stephen Fry reading a letter from Mark Twain.


Caitlin Moran reads a letter to her daughter.


Clarke Peters reads a letter from Louis Armstrong to a fan.


Andrew Motion reads a letter from Ted Hughes to his son.


Morgana Robinson reads a letter from Elizabeth II to President Eisenhower.