189. Your Attention Please: Peter Porter

One of the hardest units to teach is one you grew up with.

Our 8th grade was Columbus to the Reconstruction after the Civil War. Fine. In 10th grade they picked up the baton and ran through World War II (9th grade was civics). Mr. Curtin pushed us into the minutia of the Progressive Era, the finer points of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and the various alphabet agencies Roosevelt rolled out. After World War II, history kind of petered out.

Our teachers were veterans who earned their degrees and certificates through the GI Bill. Some were in World War II, while others fought in Korea. Having lived them, they did not teach them the same way they taught the Spanish-American War. Mr. R. ended one class showing a photo from Life magazine of Mussolini hanging from a lamppost. As we neared the Cuban Missile Crisis, the school year neared its end. One teacher dismissed the entire Vietnam War in a single compound sentence.

At the time, we joked that they hadn’t updated their lesson plans since they began teaching. They left no time for Eisenhower, the Great Society, Watergate or the goings-on in the Middle East.

Trying to teach the Cold War now, I find myself at a loss of how to do it. How to teach a topic that you grew up with–that’s instinctual–in a few weeks? Ronald Reagan means nothing to them, but I’ve got eight years of daily emotional investment in that one historical figure. The Civil Defense films of duck-and-cover seem silly, in hindsight. They were a terror at the time.

Of course, the War on Terror has obvious parallels, which makes using Cold War poems a nice access point.

“Your Attention Please” is an example of using the cold mechanical government apparatus to create a mood. The collection of Civil Defense films used in “Atomic Cafe” does this to great effect. So does Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen.”

Have your students find other examples of such pronouncements in their lives. It could be from the news, the administration or their own essays. Then, see if they can subvert them. Use their observations to take apart Porter’s work. How does it work? Is their own version effective?

Here’s a music version of the poem.  I can’t seem to embed it, so you’ll have to click here.  It’s a “Two Tribes” Frankie Goes to Hollywood type thing, but based on a known poem.


Your Attention Please
Peter Porter

Your Attention Please
The Polar DEW has just warned that
A nuclear rocket strike of
At least one thousand megatons
Has been launched by the enemy
Directly at our major cities.
This announcement will take
Two and a quarter minutes to make,
You therefore have a further
Eight and a quarter minutes
To comply with the shelter
Requirements published in the Civil
Defence Code – section Atomic Attack.
A specially shortened Mass
Will be broadcast at the end
Of this announcement –
Protestant and Jewish services
Will begin simultaneously –
Select your wavelength immediately
According to instructions
In the Defence Code. Do not
Take well-loved pets (including birds)
Into your shelter – they will consume
Fresh air. Leave the old and bed-
ridden, you can do nothing for them.
Remember to press the sealing
Switch when everyone is in
The shelter. Set the radiation
Aerial, turn on the geiger barometer.
Turn off your Television now.
Turn off your radio immediately
The Services end. At the same time
Secure explosion plugs in the ears
Of each member of your family. Take
Down your plasma flasks. Give your children
The pills marked one and two
In the C.D green container, then put
Them to bed. Do not break
The inside airlock seals until
The radiation All Clear shows
(Watch for the cuckoo in your
perspex panel), or your District
Touring Doctor rings your bell.
If before this, your air becomes
Exhousted or if any of your family
In critically injured, administer
The capsules marked ‘Valley Forge’
(Red Pocket in No. 1 Survival Kit)
For painless death. (Catholics
Will have been instructed by their priests
What to do in this eventuality).
This announcement is ending. Our President
Has already given orders for
Massive retaliation – it will be
Decisive. Some of us may die.
Remember, statistically
It is not likely to be you.
All flags are flying fully dressed
On Government buildings – the sun is shining.
Death is the least we have to fear.
We are all in the hands of God,
Whatever happens happens by His Will.
Now go quickly to your shelters.


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