The unseen poem is one of the traditional pitfalls of this exam. Students always seem to approach it like Robert Muldoon approaches that velociraptor in Jurassic Park – half expecting another raptor to emerge from the undergrowth and slice his belly open.
But actually, it’s not that scary – or it doesn’t have to be. Here’s a simple guide to taking on any unseen poem.
- Read the question.
This may seem obvious, but some students repeatedly forget to do it, so don’t be one of them.
1a. No, actually READ it.
Don’t just look at the words and think you’re done. Work out what the question wants from you. There isn’t a definite pattern to the question (in the way that there is for the Language paper, for example) but here are some words or phrases that often crop up:
– “How do you think the writer feels about…”
– “How does the writer present these feelings…”
– “What do you think…”
The crucial point here is that the question will help you and will guide you towards the right things to talk about.
- Look at the title
In recent years, there have been poems called ‘A Marriage’, ‘Advice to a Teenage Daughter’, ‘Children in Wartime’ and ‘The Sea’. These don’t tell you exactly what the poem will be about (well, ‘The Sea’ pretty much does) but they do give you a starting point. Look at what you can learn from the title. For example, ‘Advice to a Teenage Daughter’ gives you a narrator from the start: a parent. It also gives you an audience: a teenage daughter. ‘Children in Wartime’ gives you an immediate juxtaposition. Children are young, naive and innocent and Wartime is an adult creation that brings death and destruction, so there’s an effective contrast from the start. What does the title give you?
3. Read the poem – what’s it about
You will need to find techniques, and identify ideas and themes in the poems but you don’t need to do it on the first reading. You do, however, need to know what the poem is about. Does it change mood? Does it change message? Does it even have a message? If so – what is it? This will almost certainly relate to the question, and so is really important. If you spot a metaphor in the first line and then get sidetracked, you might miss something important later on. Also, the first part of the question is often quite general. For example, the first part of the question on ‘A Marriage’ was “What do you think the feelings are about marriage in this poem?” You can’t answer this by saying, ‘the poet uses similes’. That’s not what you were asked. So work out what the poet is trying to say.
4. Look at the Language (the actual words in the poem)
The second half of the question on ‘A Marriage’ said “how does the poet present these feelings to the reader?” Remember, there is only one answer to this question, because there is only one option open to the poet. How do poets present their feelings? Through their choice of Language. If you’re lucky, the question will specify this by saying something like “How does the writer use language to present these feelings” and if it does, then you need to answer it! Remember, poets have a limited time in which to convey their point, as poems tend to be short (for this question at least) therefore they have to craft their language carefully for maximum impact. So, structure your answer by saying ‘The poet feels that mother/daughter relationships are complicated, and shows this by using the simile…’ That way, you avoid feature-spotting but still discuss the techniques used to convey ideas.
4a. Look for words with connotations.
A really good word to use in your unseen poetry analysis (or any poetry analysis at GCSE) is ‘connotations’. Connotations (simply) are the ideas or thoughts that are conjured up when you hear or read a particular word. For example, the word ‘home’ has connotations (hopefully) of warmth, safety, comfort, family etc. Think of the words ‘young’ and ‘immature’. They both effectively mean the same thing, but ‘young’ has connotations of innocence and helplessness, whereas ‘immature’ has connotations of silliness or stupidity. Look for connotations in the title of your poem, but also in the words themselves.
5. Look for poetic techniques.
You’ve got to be able to find some of these – is there simile? Is there metaphor? Is there alliteration? Is there onomatopoeia? Is it an extended metaphor? ‘A Marriage’ and ‘The Sea’ both use this technique, so keep an eye out for it. The list seems endless (well, that list doesn’t, but let’s be honest, we all know there are more poetic techniques out there and I’m just cutting the list at five to be polite. The key thing here is this: Do these techniques actually make a difference? I’m sick to death of reading things like ‘the poet uses alliteration in this line to make the poem more emotional.’ I’m not saying it’s impossible, but is alliteration really likely to make a poem more emotional? If it doesn’t help, don’t point it out. There’s no point being able to spot that three words start with the same letter if you can’t make a decent point out of it. So, find a few helpful techniques, and explain why they help the poet to express their feelings.
6. Look at structure.
Poems don’t look like that by accident. So, have a look at the way the poet has set their work out. Are there any words on their own? Why? Are there any stanzas that are longer or shorter? Why? Are there any changes of pace? Why, and how are they created? That’s structure.
7. Don’t panic
There’s a cliché that in English, there’s no wrong answer. I’ve rarely, if ever, heard such utter rubbish. However, that doesn’t come without caveats. You are being given a poem you’ve never seen before and are expected to make sense of it in a relatively short time span. The examiners know this and they understand that you can’t always unravel every sub-level of meaning in a poem in that short an amount of time. They also understand that people read poetry differently, and there isn’t always a clear right answer. The question often asks you what YOU think – so as long as you make a point and back it up sensibly using quotes from the text then you will be given credit for that. Don’t panic. Read the words, talk about what they say to you, and you will be fine!
– Don’t use too many quotes. You don’t have time, so pick ones you can talk about a lot. The key here is ‘say a lot about a little.’
– Practise! There are, like, a million poems or something on the internet. Find one, annotate it, talk about it, give it to your teacher, see what they think! Even if there’s no markscheme, they will be able to give you feedback.
– Make it easy for yourself. If you see a phrase such as “the warm silk of sleep”, chances are that you will be able to talk about how the words ‘warm’ and ‘silk’ make ‘sleep’ sound comfortable. If you see the odd word you don’t know or understand, ignore it. You can still get the gist of the poem, and talk effectively about it