Thirteen, you’ll tell him: you’re thirteen.Caleb Femi
Join us as we deconstruct the poetry of AQA World and Lives at GCSE level. This Thirteen poem analysis takes the spotlight today, with the following explorations:
Thirteen Poetry Analysis – Background
Thirteen is a narrative poem in which Femi recounts his real-life experience of being questioned by police for the crime of a man when only 13 years old.
The poem explores the structural racism that sees an innocent young Black boy demonised by the forces that are supposed to be there for our protection.
The dawning realisation that he will not be treated like ‘the biggest and brightest of stars’ that the same policeman had told a school assembly they were just a couple of years previously represents both a loss of innocence and a growing social awareness.
The poem ends by looking into the void created by dying stars becoming black holes, symbolising the bleak prospects facing people from the poet’s background but also challenging people to speak on the issue and to help bridge the abyss.
Caleb Femi was born in Nigeria in 1990. He emigrated to the UK at the age of seven and lived on London’s North Peckham Estate, which is the inspiration for his debut collection of poetry and photography, Poor (2020).
The estate was the scene of ten-year-old Damilola Taylor’s racially-aggravated stabbing in 2000. Taylor was walking home from the library when he was killed and Femi recognises a kindred spirit.
He has said ‘I think about the estate that shaped me… Nobody should have to live in fear for their lives on a daily basis.’
A love of garage and grime music germinated into a love of language and Femi taught English at a Tottenham comprehensive until he realised that the syllabus was stifling his students.
He instead saw poetry as a means to help young people find a voice and from 2016 to 2018 served as London’s first Young People’s Laureate.
Form and Structure
The poem is written in free verse and split into four uneven stanzas with an irregular meter. The constant variation reflects the object of the poem’s changing cognizance, while the lack of structure reflects their lack of control and power.
Its conversational narrative form meanwhile captures the musicality of colloquial speech and urban cultures that represented Femi’s reality.
Age and innocence: Childhood is supposed to be carefree but the oncoming of a person’s teenage years typically brings more emotional baggage.
Here we see childhood abruptly curtailed and an uncomfortable adulthood begin at 13.
Racial discrimination: Femi draws attention to the experience of Black boys.
He never explicitly references race but readers will recognise from reported data of stop and search and the poet’s African surname that the subject of the poem is being ‘othered’ and placed under suspicion because of their skin colour.
Authority and power: The questioned 13-year-old is rendered powerless.
However, the speaker is in control of the story and Femi is able to reclaim some authority by telling it from his perspective; his recount is made more powerful by placing the listener in his shoes via the use of a second-person address.
Culture and community: The police are supposed to be pillars of the community but the prejudicial actions of the officers in Femi’s narrative reveals the pillars to be unstable.
Similarly, their involvement in an educational setting shows the instability to be institutionalised. The teacher expanding on supernovas could be seen as a reinforcement of these community power structures or a subversion of it in their explanation of the reality.
Femi’s poem is rooted in the reality of his own culture and community.
Linking to other Poems
- England in 1819 – Percy Bysshe Shelley
- Homing – Liz Berry
- Like an Heiress – Grace Nichols
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