It is all very well knowing a lot about famous poets and the canonical forms of poetry (like poems by Keats or sonnets by Shakespeare) throughout the centuries and literary movements, but do you know how to approach poetry reading and analysis in your exam and how to gain those top marks for your criticism?
It is no good simply researching all of the poets whose works you have studied on the curriculum (although it also won’t do you any harm to know historical context and personal information relating to these individuals or groups), you need to closely engage with the texts in question and respond to the form and structure of the poem as well as the vocabulary, manners of speech and other techniques used to convey mood and meaning.
You can’t get top marks for just saying a piece of writing is a “good poem” either, you’re meant to be using your imagination as well as deducing the literal meaning rather than giving your opinion on their style of writing!
If you don’t understand a poem, then still do your best to find meaning and to focus on the elements of poetry you do understand, like grammar and punctuation and examples of assonance, onomatopoeia, similes, etc… the chances are that they are there for a reason and by identifying you will be one step closer to understanding the overall theme.
One thing, above all else, to consider when going into your exam revision is what type of question the exam will ask you. How else can you be prepared to know how to even begin writing an exam essay on the subject if you don’t know what is expected of you?
If you have done your research, then you will already know that both the standard GCSE and A Level exams in Britain ask you to compare two poems, normally of different genres. A comparison essay is very different from a direct poetry analysis so below we have listed some tips to help you to successfully write a critical comparison of two (at times) selected poems.
During your exam, you will be asked to compare two or more poems. Photo credit: ccarlstead on VisualHunt
Let’s just get down to it, the real reason that you are reading this post is not because of your inexplicable love of poetry or to learn how to write a poem yourself, it is because you want to know who to tackle this part of your exam and be in with a chance of a good grade in English Literature, right?
So, this is why we have done our best to set out some of the key terms for any poetry student to have in their repertoire, and have distinguished the differences between analyzing poetry for a GCSE exam and an A Level assessment.
We aren’t saying, however, that it is unlikely you will love poetry. Far from it, in fact, a lot of people absolutely love ancient and modern poetry because of the freedom of interpretation they offer, especially when it comes to contemporary literature.
Yet it can be this freedom of thought that scares students, thinking that just because there is no explicitly correct answer when it comes to decoding the words and phrases in a poem then they won’t be able to give a good enough answer. It’s important to remember, though, that poetry analysis is as much about trying to figure out its meaning and the story being told in your own unique way so it really doesn’t matter if you feel a different way about a passage in a poem than your peers.
First of all, it’s important to know that the below list is just a snippet of the terms that you will come across during your poetry module and not every poem will include examples of each. That said, these are some of the more common poetic techniques and ones that should feature wherever possible in your poetry analysis and comparison.
A couplet is a pair of successive rhyming lines that are usually the same length. A couplet can be described as closed when the lines together form a full, grammatical sentence.
Free verse is best described as non-metrical and non-rhyming lines, whereby the poet does not adhere to any metrical rules in the composition.
The word genre is used to group together a class or category of texts that share similar traits, i.e. in form, style of subject matter. Genre isn’t a fixed definition as it can change over time and texts can interact with more than one genre at once.
Iamb is a metrical foot made up of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one.
Meter is the rhythmical pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in verse. The different meters in English poetry include accentual-syllabic, accentual, syllabic, and quantitative.
While meter can be determined when reading the words in a poem, it often helps to go to readings so that you can get a feel for the rhythm. Photo credit: summonedbyfells on Visual Hunt / CC BY
A parody is a comic imitation of another piece of work or style.
A pastiche is a patchwork of lines from another writer destined to be like an imitation. Or, it can be an original composition that mimics another’s style in a spirit of respect as opposed to satire.
A rhyme is the repetition of syllables, usually at the end of a line in a poem. The different types of rhymes include Eye rhyme, End rhyme, Feminine rhyme, Identical rhyme, Internal rhyme, Masculine rhyme, Monorhyme, and Pararhyme.
A stanza is a group of lines that are separated from others in a poem. In prose writing, you would describe this as a paragraph marking a shift in time or mood.
Stress is used to describe a syllable uttered in a higher pitch, or with greater emphasis, than others.
Tone, or mood, refers to the poet’s attitude and is interpreted by the reader. A combination of things can affect tone such as vocabulary, syntax, language, rhyme and metric regularity or irregularity.
Verse is a line of poetry, typically used to refer to poetry that possesses more formal qualities.
For more guidance on poetry terms outside of the classroom, why not read through a poetry magazine from time to time to improve your literary analysis or get involved in national poetry month?
A Norton Anthology featuring a collection of poems, if you have one, will be very useful to you as well as a book offering an introduction to poetry being quite necessary if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
As you now know, you will be asked to compare two or more poems in your final GCSE English exam. You have a choice about which poem(s) you write about, but in some instances, one or more of the texts is set out for you. When it comes to the question, this will usually be something quite broad as in the presentation of themes, characters or places.
As with any poetry essay, you must make use of your knowledge of language, literary techniques and the effect of form. The BBC Bitesize website offers a very useful piece of imagery (note the poetry term here!), likening a comparative essay to a sandwich with multiple fillings.
They suggest that the first slice of bread should be your new point, with each filling that follows being an example of how one of the chosen poems illustrates the point you are making.
The other slice of bread which completes the sandwich is your concluding point on the matter. By keeping this method in mind, it reminds you to keep on referring to all of the poems throughout your essay, rather than splitting your essay into two or three chunks each dedicated to a poem. Examiners like to call this process cross-referencing.
BBC Bitesize suggests you should think of your comparative essay as a sandwich, with the bread being an introduction and conclusion and the fillings being the different points you are making. Photo on Visualhunt
The five criteria that you should keep in mind during the course of your examination and which the examiner will want to see you engage with are:
-attitudes and tone
-structure and form
-techniques used by the poets
One of the first things you should do before you actually start answering your essay question is to write down a series of relevant quotes or notes, linking them where possible to one of the five criteria. You might like to do this in table form or simply scribble down your ideas – whatever works best for you and the time that you have spare to plan.
Good essays link the poems together in a logic and fluid way, using connective words and sentences like:
-‘Each of the poems demonstrates…’
-‘While the first poem is in rhyming form, the second poem…’
-‘The two poems differ in the way that they…’
Don’t write predominantly about one poem and make tiny, irrelevant references to the other(s). Also, remember to complete your points with the final piece of the sandwich, your concluding point that brings all of the preceding points made together.
Quotations are important to support your ideas as you express your views, but don’t forget to focus on those all-important poetry techniques as they have a place and meaning in their line, stanza or verse.
Finally, remember to offer your own personal response to the poems, explaining how they make you feel and what message you get from them. If you don’t show a connection to the content or style, then there will be a big piece missing for the examiner and he or she won’t be able to award you the best mark.
Much of the information above applies to your A Level assessment. However, in your A Level exam, you may be asked to compare two unseen poems.
The simplest way to approach this type of question is to write down a list of the initial similarities and differences you notice before you start writing. Then, try to remember why you are being asked to compare the two poems – are they from different eras, are their styles or contents dissimilar? These are just some of the things you should be aware of before you attempt your answer.
Ensure that you start your essay with a clear introduction, setting out what you intend to focus on in your comparison. You might like to offer a brief outline, made up of a line or two, of each poem being discussed.
Some pupils find it easier to write their introduction at the end (ensuring they leave themselves enough time), as then they have a clear idea of the journey on which their essay has gone. This isn’t easy if you are hand-writing your essay, as it is hard to know how much space you will need.
Unless stated otherwise, you should be writing about each poem evenly, so you should not spend ages writing about one poem then barely having time to cover the other(s). If your poetry essay only focuses on one of the poems, the examiner has to reduce your mark. This is particularly hard if you understand one poem better and feel more confident answering questions about it.
Just like with the GCSE exam, it is vital that you conclude your thoughts after each point made and sum up the main points of the comparison clearly. To achieve the best possible grade, spend time revising poetry and practicing how to write strong conclusions as this is where many of the marks are made.