Tales from the Classroom: A 'souper' idea for interpreting poetry

Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Valentine” is one of the most commonly taught poems in our schools and now that the current poet laureate features as one of the specified writers in the Scottish set texts section in the new National 5 exams, it is being studied by a new readership.

For those who do not know the poem, it centres on a speaker who forgoes traditional Valentine’s gifts and presents their partner with an onion on the 14th of February. The speaker goes on to attempt to show how this unusual present actually symbolises a truly meaningful and loving gift. The poem, however, has a rather dark and menacing tone running through it and it can be read as having a rather sinister and threatening ending.

The problem that I (and I am sure other teachers) have had is that when I ask a learner what the poem is about I often get the answer, “It’s about an onion.” The pupils have missed the point that it is actually about a relationship that seems to be becoming rather dangerous. 

In an effort to demonstrate this further and to help with later analysis of Duffy’s poem, I commandeered a Home Economics room for a couple of periods and set out to help my S4 National 5 section create their own “poem about onions.”

Armed with a copy of Gordon Ramsay’s book Healthy Appetite, I set to work recreating his Persian Onion soup and asked the pupils to make notes on the following as I cooked up a storm:

  • The cookbook: its glossy cover, it pictures, its recipes
  • Gordon Ramsay and his persona
  • The action of preparing the soup: the sights, the sounds, the smells etc.

Next, I gave the budding poets a narrative framework on which to hang their poem: a woman waiting for her husband to come home. The wife is making soup for him that she hopes he will like. The partner comes home after obviously been drinking. He eats the soup in a disgusting fashion and then is very rude to her.

The class thoroughly enjoyed this hands-on approach to creating their own poems and, in addition, they have got the message that Duffy’s poem is not about an onion, it is about a darker side to relationships.

I am attaching poems written by three of my learners and I would urge you to read and comment on them – they are absolutely stunning pieces of work from S4 pupils. 

Click the titles to download the poems:

Persian Onion Soup by Shannon Glover

Onion Soup by Steven Knox 

Valentine poem by Dionne

Gordon Fisher

Gordon Fisher is the Principal Teacher of English at Lochend High School.