‘Genetics’ is a poem by Sinéad Morrissey which looks at the idea of how even with the breakdown of a marriage or relationship, children act as a permanent union, and an ever-lasting reminder of what once was. Morrissey is a poet from Northern Ireland, who has travelled to various places around the world, living in countries such as Japan, New Zealand and Ireland at various points in her life. She won her first award in 1990, and recently won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2014 for her fifth collection of poetry called “Parallax”.
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 ‘Genetics’ a difficulty rating of 3, meaning that it is deemed to be of average difficulty. The language and structure of this poem aren’t particularly difficult, but some elements could be more challenging to understand for some students, and the arguable lack of ‘obvious’ points could make it harder to find comparison points in an exam.
Being a single word, there is only a limited amount of information that can be inferred from the title, however it is more specific than other titles within the ‘Poems of the Decade’ anthology and has a range of interesting connotations to consider, such as science and research. It can also be interpreted as linking to family and children, with a reader perhaps wondering what would be the cause of such a focus on a more obscure aspect of family life and inheritance. The use of three syllables could be interesting to some readers, who may interpret this (particularly after reading the poem) as relating to the idea of a family unit of three people.
‘Genetics’ has a notable rhyme scheme, with the final word of each stanza typically rhyming with the final word of the first line in the next stanza, creating the idea of a link over the gap of the stanza. This would be quite noticeable to a reader as the poem continues, and would likely to be thought of in relation to the idea of a joining factor, in this case the narrator, which still exists despite the separation of the parents. However, while this rhyme scheme does exist, some readers may feel that it is somewhat ‘forced’ because of the repetition of the same words in order to make this pattern, perhaps realising that this link between the mother and father is likely to have not been maintained without the narrator.
There is also a relatively even structure in terms of stanzas in the poem, with only small exceptions to the consistent line lengths and stanza lengths. For example, the fourth stanza has a notably short second line, which is roughly half the length of the majority of others lines in the poem; this helps draw the attention of the reader. In this case, it could be seen as a transitional point into the second half of the poem, particularly with the idea of movement in “turn over”. The other notable exception to the regular structure is the final line of the poem, which acts as fourth line in the final stanza, and could be interpreted as representing the idea of continuation and personal growth, through the way in which it extends the stanza and poem.
Another key structural technique is the use of end stopped lines throughout the poem, with the majority of lines either having full stops or commas at the end of them, helping to create a more even rhythm and pace to the poem. This is particularly noticeable between stanzas, when full stops are used five times, and a comma the remaining sixth, which helps to emphasise the break in the flow of the poem. Readers may interpret this as alluding to the idea of separation and ‘breaks’ within a relationship, maybe even to the extent of the transfer of the narrator from one parent to another.
There is frequent repetition in the poem, most notably with “fingers” and “palms”, but also with a range of other words. The effect of this on the rhythm of the poem is considerable, because some readers may feel that it begins to form into a childlike rhyme or song. This would be very effective because it may in turn be associated with something religious or spiritual, highlighting the significance of the ideas that are being communicated, and also the relationships which exist between the narrator and their parents.
Despite ‘Genetics’ considering the loss of a relationship, there are a large amount of possessive terms in the poem, such as “my” and “I” which communicate the ownership that the narrator has over their body, and also in the characteristics which they have inherited from their parents. In addition, the use of “my” often precedes either “mother” or “father” which further demonstrates the way in which the narrator is bringing the two together, both in reality and also in the poem itself, with the frequently small visual space between the two words emphasising this connection.
Verbs are used regularly in the poem, with examples such as “lift” “made” and “take”. These are effective in their simplicity because they add a feeling of continuation and movement to the subject matter of the poem, which could be quite effective for a reader at showing the continuation of this connection and relationship. This technique also demonstrates how this connection can be seen as ‘everlasting’.
“repelled to separate lands”
The idea of being “repelled” can be seen as having negative connotations, both through the idea of backing away and retreating, and the actual actions which would encourage an individual to do so. Interestingly, the word is often used for different circumstances, such as war, or something physically rather than emotionally based. Also referring to locations as “lands” indicates extreme distance, demonstrating the extent to the breakdown of the relationship. These multiple layers of this line make it one of the more interesting examples of language in the poem, and overall very notable for a reader.
“who quarry for their image”
Using “quarry” may initially seem a strange description, but can be interpreted as sounding similar to ‘quarrel’ which can in turn be understood as referencing the impact of the relationship breakdown on other people, such as their friends. The idea of arguing over, or even searching and trying to discover “their image” shows how these people are perhaps searching for something that was once present, as in the relationship, which can no longer be found or agreed upon.
“I shape a chapel where a steeple stands”
An important part of ‘Genetics’ is the relation to ideas of the church and marriage, including this description of the narrator making a shape of a steeple using their hands, which originates from the ‘Here is the church’ nursery rhyme and actions. This childlike behaviour would perhaps create more sympathy for the narrator from a reader, as it shows that separation can impact on an individual no matter their age, and can have a lasting impact.
‘Genetics’ Key Themes
- Family: Relationships within the family are clearly an important consideration in ‘Genetics’ as this is what the majority of the poem is based around. It is interesting though to see Morrissey looking at aspects of family life that are typically avoided or glossed over, perhaps recognising that such important events should be acknowledged.
- Identity: Similarly, the narrator uses the experience of family and their parents as a basis to consider their own identity, and how it relates to their parents. This is most notable in lines such as “My body is their marriage register.”
- Society and Culture: As mentioned for the family theme, the poem could be seen as considering the way in which society and culture as a whole has been changing over time and how separation of parents is more common today than before, but presented with more positive tones than may be expected.
Quick Focus Questions
- How may a reader response to ‘Genetics’ differ depending on their personal experience of marriages or divorces?
- In what ways is the ‘shift’ in the final stanza of the poem effective for a reader? Consider the way that the use of pronouns changes.
- Why may metaphors have been used in ‘Genetics’, rather than other language devices such as similes?
‘Genetics’ is an interesting element of the ‘Poems of the Decade’ collection because it acts as a contrast compared to the structures and techniques of many other poems. That said, it could be challenging to directly compare to another poem if there are limited clear similarities, so it may be worth paying particular attention to the structure and language of this poem, rather than poetic devices. To that extent it may be interesting to compare with ‘Effects’ or ‘Out of the Bag’.