‘Effects’ is a poem by Alan Jenkins which explores the idea of loss, and the lasting impact it can have on an individual both physically and emotionally. Jenkins was born in London and went to the University of Sussex. He has also worked for The Times Literary Supplement as deputy editor, and for The Observer and Sunday Independent as a poetry critic. Loss is a concept which he has explored across a wide range of his poetry, along with the idea of reminiscence, with the two themes often being strongly linked.
This poem is part of the set of prescribed poems that could be included in the Edexcel English Literature exam, meaning that it is important to study, understand and revise this poem. This poem was an examined poem in the 2017 A Level Exam. Click here to see all the prescribed poems from the ‘Poems of the Decade’ collection.
Interpreture gives ‘Effects’ a difficulty rating of 3, meaning that it is deemed to be of average difficulty. The structure is likely to be the element that students find most difficult due to it all being a single stanza, which in turn can make it more difficult to appreciate the meaning and analyse language. That said, it is still relatively straightforward to understand the meaning, helped by the easier identification of themes.
The title is a somewhat informative choice because it has connotations of change, development and impact. As such, a reader is likely to infer that there will be a transition of some kind described in the poem, with particular attention to how the change has affected something or someone. The pronunciation of ‘Effects’ may be interesting to a reader for the way in which it is a relatively ‘drawn out’ word, due to the double ‘f’ and the ‘s’ to form a plural, which could be interpreted and indicating the idea of lasting effects and impact.
A reader’s initial impression when they first see the poem is potentially one of intimidation, or a sense of being overwhelmed, as a result of the long single stanza which makes up the poem. As such, a reader may interpret this as a representation of the huge range of ‘Effects’ that occur and need to be considered, potentially coming to this viewpoint before even reading a single word from the poem. Alternatively they may develop this viewpoint part way through the poem, which is likely to be even more effective because it can be related directly to the descriptions in order to create more empathy.
Various forms of punctuation are also used in the poem, with more variety than most in the Poems of the Decade Anthology, with caesura in the form of commas and full stops along with hyphens, brackets and inverted commas. This mix of punctuation may make a reader consider how it is arguably more ‘story-like’ and descriptive than a typical poem, with lists of objects and a more natural sense of speech and opinion communicated. This would be particularly noticeable for text in inverted commas, as this indicates a different tone of voices, which would help to emphasise the terms being used, even more so if the poem is read aloud. A similar effect would also be achieved with the use of hyphens, with the extended pause also helping to place emphasis on the items such as “the scotch”. Despite this range of punctuation, there are only two full stops, which would be very effective at building on the existing ‘overwhelming’ feeling that a reader may have as a result of the single stanza.
Some readers may also feel a sense of confusion from the poem due to the wide range of descriptions, which would be further emphasised by the lack of consistent rhyme scheme. If a rhyme pattern were to be used then this would have brought a more predictable rhythm and greater sense of order to the poem, so the fact that the poem lacks one would encourage a reader to consider the reasoning behind this. One interpretation could be that this perhaps represents a confused mental state of the mother (inferred from the inclusion of “before I was born”), or alternatively the confusion that can come with grief. It is also important to notice how the rhyme scheme does become more consistent towards the end of the poem, which can be interpreted as showing the greater sense of clarity which the narrator is achieving.
Repetition plays an important role in adding extra emphasis to specific descriptions and aspects in ‘Effects’ – in particular the way in which diacope is used (when repetition of a word is broken by another word), for example, “drink after drink” and “night after night”. This is a very effective use of repetition because some readers are likely to feel a sense of hopelessness or despondence, particularly as both “night” and “drink” can have negative connotations. As such, a reader is likely to have a much more emotional connection with the poem, making it more memorable and effective.
Similarly, adjectives and verbs play an important role in the poem so as to further emphasise the descriptive and story-like nature of the poem. The added description and imagery which these provide, such as “cheap cut” or “faded snapshots” not only improve the ability of a reader to accurately imagine and picture the situation, but it also adds subtle extensions of understanding due to the connotations of these words; in particular with these examples the indication that the family was not overly well off when growing up and faced various struggles, evoking more sympathy.
Also of note is the use of first person descriptions throughout the poem so as to build a more personal connection. Some readers may not see this as initially important, but when it is considered how different the tone of the poem would be and the corresponding reader response if it was written in the third person, it can be realised how important it is. It also makes the ending of the poem much more emotional because a reader is able to apply the sense of loss to a specific individual, rather than a more abstract group or entity.
“I held her hand, that was always scarred”
The alliteration of the ‘h’ sound in the opening of this sentence would be quite effective as it is at the very beginning of the poem, perhaps being interpreted as demonstrating a strong feeling of emotion. The idea of something being “always scarred” is also emotive, and while it is given a greater sense of normality on the next line by being linked to work in the kitchen preparing meals, it still would show the sense of sacrifice which the mother has made in order to help provide for others.
“the scotch // That, when he was alive, she wouldn’t touch”
The inclusion of alcohol would be effective due to its various significant connotations, particularly through how it is seen as being ‘off limits’ when her husband was alive. This emphasises the sense of loss and the negative ways in which a death can impact an individual, perhaps indicating a similar reaction for the narrator by the end of the poem. It is also interesting to consider the use of “touch” because this action shows a very personal connection, a clear reminder of the distinctly human aspect of this poem.
“The last words she had said were Please don’t leave“
An already simple yet highly effective line is made even more important due to the italicised text so as to place additional audible and visual emphasis on the plea of the mother. This is likely to be very effective for a reader because it is a natural desire that could easily be related to, but then mixed with the inevitable demands of everyday life, showing the hard decisions people regularly have to make.
‘Effects’ Key Themes
- Family: ‘Effects’ closely relates to family through the way it directly explores the current relationship between an ill mother and their child, with the inclusion of references to the mother’s husband. It could be very emotional for readers who may have had similar experiences, enabling them to strongly emphasise with the descriptions.
- Childhood: Similarly, there are numerous references to childhood experiences of the narrator while with his parents (specifically his mother) and the way that they are reminiscing now helps to demonstrate to a reader the long lasting impact of an upbringing.
- Identity: The theme of identity is present throughout ‘Effects’ although arguably relates most strongly to the title, through which the mother’s identity is summarised through the physical and emotional impact that she has had on others.
Quick Focus Questions
- Could some phrases in the poem be seen as humorous? How could this make ‘Effects’ more or less effective for a reader?
- Why is the single stanza an important structural technique in this poem?
- How is the title effective for a reader, and what is the significance of the use of ‘Effects’ in the final line?
As with other poems in the collection such as ‘On Her Blindness’, ‘Effects’ is a very emotional poem which is likely to be memorable for a reader through the way in which it effectively generates a considerable amount of empathy. However, it can be challenging to analyse (particularly the language choices) due to the very dense nature of the poem. As such, the structure is a great place to start for analysis and comparison of this poem, perhaps with ‘An Easy Passage’ due to the similar structure, or the very different structure but similar themes used in ‘Out of the Bag’.