Updated: May 14, 2019
Our advice for how to revise for Seen Poetry in GCSE English Language.
Often, the unseen poetry questions at GCSE are the questions that people panic about. It is easy to forget about the seen poetry, but remember: learning how to revise your seen poetry question will be excellent preparation for the unseen question also.
The beauty of seen poetry, however, is that the panic of rapidly scanning through a new text is taken away: you have the opportunity to revise each poem in your anthology thoroughly, knowing the basic themes and techniques in the poem beforehand, so all you have to do in the exam is come up with an argument in relation to the question.
Extensively studying poetry can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences that GCSEs can give you – it is your chance to bring in your own interpretation of a text, without having to memorise or read lengthy novels to do so. Even so, revising poetry certainly comes with its challenges, so this blog will give you some hints and tips on how to approach revision.
Revising difficult poems
When starting to revise, you might have a few poems that you really struggle with. This is completely normal — poems span many different themes and time periods; just as some people don't like science fiction novels, not everyone gets on with Wilfred Owen’s war poetry, or Tennyson’s poems from the Victorian era.
The best way to approach revision is to identify these difficult poems early on: choose the ones that you have struggled with the most. To start with, print the poem off on a fresh piece of paper, ideally with doubled line spacing if you can. You can probably find a free copy of your poem on the Poetry Foundation website.
The ‘who, what, where, when, why’ approach for analysing poems
Now, with the extra space from the double spacing, you have plenty of room to annotate and make notes on the poem. If you struggle to get the basics of the poem, a great way to go about this is to really start from the very beginning. Read the poem once, keeping an eye on the pronouns, and any indications you might get of who is speaking. Note this down, and then go through the poem again, working out who the audience is this time.
It may be that either of these things is left ambiguous; it isn’t always obvious, particularly in contemporary poetry, who is speaking, or who they are speaking to. But asking the question is still important, because saying that there isn’t one distinct narrative voice is still a point in itself. You can still think about what effect this has when you are reading the poem.
Now you know who is speaking, it is time to move on to what. What theme is coming up the most? What literary techniques can you find hidden in the text? Perhaps a good way to approach this part would be to start with a list of literary techniques, and find try to find each one in the text. This will not only help you to get to know the poem more, but also to get some more literary vocabulary under your belt too!
After this, try to address the where of the poem: where is it set? Does it have any allusions to particular countries, or areas in England? Is there a certain dialect present in the style? Make the same sort of observations for when – look at the dates of the poem, as well as whether there are any allusions to any other time period.
This is the point where your context comes in. You’ve probably done some work on the context in school, so look back at your notes and add any relevant context onto the sheet, and do a bit of research online about the poet and their context. Top tip: while Wikipedia isn’t a source you want to be using in coursework, to get a quick summary of a battle that happened, or to learn more about a tribe or monument, Wikipedia can be very useful. To learn more about the individual poet, try the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Next – you guessed it – we’ll be moving onto why. This is often the trickiest question to answer, but it will be the element that really gets your essay to a top level. An easy way to approach this is by looking at each of the techniques that you have pulled out of the poem, and asking yourself why the poet would have used these. If you can, try to make a link between the content of the poem itself, and the context. Maybe there is an allusion to Greek mythology that gives an extra dimension to the theme of love in the text, or maybe the semantic field of a battlefield advances the theme of despair. Feel free to take a bit of extra time when thinking of why, and it is often a case of thinking outside the box. You can always check it with your English tutor before the exam if you are unsure.
After you have gone through all of the steps, your page will hopefully be colourful, and annotated to the max. Some excellent websites that may help you out if you get stuck are Sparknotes and Schmoop – check out their poem pages to see if they can give you some extra ideas, or some interesting context.
If you’re worried about remembering everything you have found in your observations, leave that poem for a couple of days, and then print another blank copy. With no notes in front of you, time yourself for 10 minutes and see if you can make the same annotations you had the first time. This will give you a good idea of the planning time you will have in the exam. You may even think of something new!
Blog Post Crafted by Genevieve
Genevieve is currently working towards her bachelors in English Literature at the University of Warwick.
Born in Coventry, she now tutors English SATs and GCSE in her free time, as well as working for the university as an outreach ambassador in local schools.
She also enjoys playing piano and flute, and often performs as a backing singer at local gigs.
Whenever she has a moment to spare, you might find her driving to the beach or catching up on her reading!