The Butcher’s Shop
The pigs are strung in rows, open-mouthed,
dignified in martyrs’ deaths. They hang
stiff as Sunday manners, their porky heads
voting Tory all their lives, their blue rosettes
discarded now. The butcher smiles a meaty smile,
white apron stained with who knows what,
fingers fat as sausages. Smug, woolly cattle
and snowy sheep prance on tiles, grazing
on eternity, cute illustrations in a children’s book.
What does the sheep say now?
Tacky sawdust clogs your shoes.
Little plastic hedges divide the trays of meat, playing farms.
playing farms. All the way home
your cold and soggy paper parcel bleeds.
I wrote this poem to explore my feelings of horror as a child, when my parents took me to shops like this one to buy meat. I enjoyed eating meat, despite the fact that I felt repulsed by how it looked on display. The iconography of the butcher’s tiles was just like my alphabet books, and all the nursery rhymes and baby games were in my head as well: ‘what does the sheep say?’ And yet we were eating these animals. There was something nasty about it all, yet I loved meat and I still do. The poem was in a collection which was centred around the theme of time, and looking back. The collection was called The Way We Came and it was published in 2007.
Remember for the Lang/ Lit examination (Unit 1), you have to compare two texts which relate to the steer, so try to look at the poem as something you will compare to another text. My attitude towards meat is rather ambivalent, whereas other texts might have a very clear attitude.
A general tip when writing about poems in general is to look at how the form might support the structure, or sequence of ideas. The child’s glance here moves from the dead pigs hanging up above her head, to the butcher with his stained apron, behind him to the tiles, then down at the saw-dusted floor and the meat on display in between plastic hedges (I used to love playing farms with little moulded plastic animals, using the carpet for fields) . The poem ends with the child and parent leaving the shop and taking the meat home for tea. Compare that with the structure of the other piece, the comparison one.
Also, look out for sound effects like assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia and alliteration. Why did I choose not to rhyme this poem? It bears some features of sonnet form, so look at that as well.
Good luck to all AS students, and remember to choose your texts according to the steer, and compare point by point using the bullet points you are given.
31 responses to “The Butcher’s Shop Poem – Advice for AS students.”
Your comments illuminate your poem and assist students (and myself) to access poetry. I love hearing poetry.Are there any recordings of this poem?
I love giving readings, and have been considering making a CD of some of my poems. Where is your school? I do go into schools and do workshops for students. I also give readings up and down the country.I have books of my poetry available also.
What does the title of The Butcher’s Shop mean? (In related to the poem of course).
Exactly what it says. It is a poem about going to the butcher’s shop.
I was just wondering what the relevance of being a sonnet has to do with the butcher’s shop? And why it doesn’t rhyme?
Form and subject are two separate things. The poem itself dictates the form for me. Sonnets are useful often for discursiveness. It doesn’t rhyme because I didn’t want it to be comforting and harmonious, or glib. It’s about real conflicting feelings. These days poets experiment with traditional forms, but despite the refusal to rhyme in a pattern (but there are lots of examples of other types of rhyme within) it does have the quality of being sonnet-like in its argument and turn at the end – that meat is bought to be eaten despite the conflicting emotions concerned with the presentation of it in the butcher’s shop. Please acknowledge that I said this if you quote it. Thanks for the interesting question.
Thanks Angela, this has really helped 🙂
What would you the genre of the poem is?
It is a lyric poem, about my personal experience and feelings.
Hello great poem but I have been wondering what do you mean by “their porky heads voting Tory all their lives, their blue rosettes discarded now” ?
Well it’s funny you should ask about that! It’s a kind of joke, really. We used to say that, round here, in deeply Conservative farming country, they would vote for anything so long as it was wearing a blue rosette. Also rosettes ussed to be demarcate prizewinners in country shows. It’s an anti-Tory joke I suppose. I am a lifelong Labour voter. The poem is full of things adults used to say. Apply irony to the poem – it helps.
Thanks for the help and reply it must be quite strange to think that your poem is being used all over the country as a part of the English Lit/Lang A-level course. 🙂
What year did you write ‘The Butchers Shop’?
It would have been around 2005-6.
I was wondering if you had a specific audience in mind when writing this poem? 🙂
Thank you very much for writing this extra insight into your poem. I have my English exam tomorrow and so I am very grateful for finding it! It’s hard enough trying to guess what a person’s intentions are when they might have been dead for a hundred years – hearing it ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ has given me more confidence for this exam!
I really love your poem as I was really taken back by it when I first read it, and it certainly has made me double take when walking past the butcher’s. I just hope I get the opportunity to compare your poem in the exam tomorrow.
I am so glad the post helped. Thank you for your kind words about the poem. It means a lot to me. And I hope your examination goes well. The Lang Lit A level is a lovely course.
You say in your commentary you are ambivelent towards meat. However, the tone on the poem seems very critical, did you intend the poem to sound so blunt?
I don’t see it as blunt, Sophie. It’s a childhood memory. I love meat. But I am ambivalent about the way it is produced. And as a child it puzzled me that butcher’s shop’s presentation of meat was quite sentimentalised. And how that presentation conflicted with the horrible reality. It’s a poem of contrast: see the hanging carcasses juxtaposed with the sawdust on the floor to catch blood.
Sonnets have a specific rhyme scheme, how can you say the butcher shop is a sonnet when it doesnt rhyme?
Firstly, I didn’t say it was a sonnet, I said it has some sonnet-like features. But of course poets do play with these forms, for example Tony Harrison writes brilliant 16 line sonnets, and there are also broken sonnets (I have a 12 line one in which the last 2 lines of the expected 14 are silence (because it’s about a sudden death). Try not to be too rigid in your interpretation of forms.
I can spot some examples of assonance, consonance and onomatopoeia, but how could i comment on these and say what effect they have? have you included them in order to put emphasis on certian words?
Feature spotting is not a helpful way to approach a poem. If all you are doing is identifying a literary device, it is not going to earn you many marks. Poets don’t include literary devices, they write what sounds right to them. Literary devices are just a way of labelling what the poet has done. What you need to do is look at meaning, what is being said, and see if you think the language chosen helps and supports the meaning. How does the language help to create the right tone? There are not right answers, there are ideas, so don’t be scared to express your own ideas. Responding to a poem can be a creative exercise. And remember you are comparing pieces in the exam so you can look at the contrasting music of the two pieces. Hope that helps. In a nutshell, don’t divorce MEANING and LANGUAGE. They ARE each other.
hi there my name is steph.I am struggling to find examples of assonance in your poem?Also was wondering if your reference to “children’s books” and “playing farms” symbolizes how butchers shops used to hide the gruesome reality of killing animals for meat by the fairy tales in childrens books?Sorry to ask another question but was also wondering what you meant by “they hang as stiff as sunday manners”….i thought this could symbolise that similarly Sunday manners(which are stiff, controlled,polite) the pigs have not
control they are dead and are silent as if being polite?- sounds really wrong 😦 Thanks
Steph, I am not sure why you are looking for examples of assonance. Don’t seek to label literary devices but rather look at what is being said and how the language choices support those things.
I’d agree with your thoughts about ‘stiff as Sunday manners’.
Even as a child I was struck by the irony of the cute animals portrayed in the way these shops were decorated. I don’t think it was conscious on the part of the shops. But you are thinking for yourself, which is good, and provided you can back up your points in the exam and relate them to the question and the compared text, you should do well.
Greetings Poet Topping.
We would ask a question of great importance: Can we infer anything more from the character of the Butcher? Such as it being a metaphor for humans taking too much pleasure in the Slaughter of animals when it should be for survival or indeed anything else?
No, please avoid reading into the poem in such a grandiose way. It is mostly how such a person would appear to be rather sinister in the eyes of a child.
Hi Angela. Our class were discussing the line ‘they hang stiff as Sunday manners’, we were wondering whether the word ‘stiff’ is a play on words for ‘a corpse’?
of course, and there is humour in the poem. It’s good when someone sees the wit in my work.
When In the butcher’s shop, did you feel guilt at all?
No I didn’t. I felt revulsion. I am not a vegetarian by the way. I still eat meat. I doubt I had even heard of vegetarians at the time of this memory. I was also puzzled by the cuteness contrasted with the violence of the presentation of the meat. Hope that helps – and remember in the exam you are comparing texts.