Updated: Aug 5, 2021
The first in a series of posts about unseen skills and techniques for English Literature students.
English GCSEs are made up of lots of different components, from work you’ve studied for months, to texts you see for the first time when you open the exam paper. Of all the students I’ve taught, not one has ever initially felt confident about the unseen areas of the exam, and the worst of all is unseen poetry. I’m one of those terrible people who actually really likes analysing a new poem, so I thought I’d get together a toolkit of how to do it, and hopefully ease some of the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding that area of the exam.
The first thing to do, and it sounds painfully obvious, is to actually read the poem. Don’t scan it for techniques, don’t pick key words out, just read the poem. If at all possible, try and ignore the exam setting and enter into the world of the poem. Hear the voice of the speaker, see the images you’re being shown, and enter into the story. There is no better way to immediately gain an understanding of and appreciation for a poem than to sit with it for a couple of minutes, treating it as a literary work rather than an exam text.
Once you’ve done that, then it’s the time to start pulling things out. With the question in mind, I would start with just jotting down everything that occurs to me as I reread it: whether that’s a powerful image, a strange word choice, an odd jolt in the rhythm, or a sudden twist in the story, I write down things I notice. These will be the basis of my essay, as it’s much easier and more fluid to write about things you naturally notice, than forcing things out of a poem to support an artificial point.
It’s really important to not just write about the poem’s story, what it’s saying on the surface. Of course the content is vital to your understanding of the poem, but it’s also the most easily accessible, and not much different from prose. Look at linguistic techniques, picking out metaphor, assonance, personification… And notice structural and formal choices: how many lines does the poem have? What length are they? Is the poem a recognised form, like a sonnet or a villanelle? Does it rhyme? Is the rhyme regular? Do any words or lines repeat? Is there a regular rhythm? Where do the stressed beats fall? Are there any surprises? So many students only write about content and language, and miss everything to do with structure and form, and therefore miss out on exploring so much of the magic that makes a poem a poem. More practically, answers that demonstrate an understanding of poetic form and structure are often marked highly, as few pupils write about it, and it shows a strong understanding of how poetry differs from prose.
Always say why a poet has made a choice. The poems didn’t spring into being, arbitrarily using enjambement on one line and then end-stopping the next. A poet made a deliberate choice to create a certain effect. You get so many more marks for explaining what effect a technique has, and how that links to the overall message of the poem, than just pointing a technique out and saying what it’s called. Knowing technical language is great, knowing why it’s been used is much more important.
Often the question asks you to compare and contrast two unseen poems, or one poem you’ve studied and one new one. So, once you’ve read through both, and then been through them both again, noting down key words, phrases, and ideas that jump out at you, it’s time to compare them and see what the poems have in common, what feels similar, and what feels completely different. Try and arrange these into groups that work together: what aspects of the different things you’ve noticed add to your impressions of the poems? For example, if both have a very simple, childlike rhyme-scheme, but one feels sweet and innocent, and one feels creepy and uncomfortable, that’s a really great paragraph, including a similarity, a difference, a point about structure, and a point about mood and tone.
Quotes are really useful to support your point, but keep them short – ten words maximum is probably a good guideline. The examiner will know the poem inside out and back to front by the time they get to your exam script, and copying out huge stanzas will only waste time.
Don’t panic if you can’t include everything! Good poems include layers and layers packed into concise, precisely chosen lines, and you don’t have a huge amount of time. It’s much more important to get through everything the question asks of you, write a conclusion, and check your work, than it is to squeeze in one more example of a simile.
Some exam boards ask for your personal response to a poem. Here, it’s vital again to explain why, to back up what you’re saying with evidence – find examples of what you’re saying you like or don’t, and explain how they made you feel what they did. You don’t have to be completely honest here: it’s almost certainly not helpful to write a blistering attack of how much you hated the poem – it might be the examiner’s favourite… You don’t have to pretend you loved it, but try and pull out things that you thought worked well, or moments you did like, as well as discussing things you didn’t.
Finally, do your best to relax and enjoy it! I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s one area of an exam where you haven’t had to revise for hours and memorise a thousand quotes. Everyone is on a level-playing field when they first turn the page and see the poem, and it’s a great chance to stretch your wings and develop your own ideas, rather than regurgitating a textbook or your teacher’s notes. So breathe, relax, and good luck!
Blog Post Crafted by Rebecca
Background: Rebecca is one of our most popular tutors, with a degree in English from the University of Cambridge and hundreds of hours of private tuition experience in 7+, 11+, English and Maths. She is also an assessor for Titanium Tutors, observing the mock lessons taught by potential tutors and deciding whether or not they meet the high standards of the agency.