Teacher Diaries: Ms. Willow – The Poem I Love

In my primary school, we learned several classic poems, and one which I still remember very clearly and fondly is Cargoes by John Masefield. Each stanza describes a different type of ship and the cargo it carries.

Every detail of this poem evokes the individual feeling of the different ships, right down to the word length, and the rhythm of the lines. Compare the ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir’ with the ‘Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack’ and even without knowing all of the words, you can get a clear feeling of what these two boats are like.

I study this poem often with my students, in order to show them how English conveys meaning in far more ways than just through the definition of the words they read. The musical, unusual sound of the long word Quinquireme can conjure up something that is almost out of a dream. The description of the final ship’s salt-caked smoke stack has the chugging rhythm of an old steam train, and we feel its small, grubby industrious sensation from the short words which are packed with hard-edged sounds.

This is a wonderful poem to read in order to get a sense of the music of English. It’s especially good to hear it read aloud. Watch a video of Joanna Lumley talking about the poem here, and her reading of it at 2:50: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbgP6LBVBk4

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