How can I effectively analyse an unseen poem in exam conditions?

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Under high-stress conditions, such as an exam, the most important thing is not to rush in and panic. Read the poem all the way through once or twice without making any annotations. Once you feel that you have a grasp of the poem and it's subject, read it through stanza by stanza and underline/annotate any poetic techniques which you immediately recognise. For example, metaphors, similes, enjambment or alliteration. The more that you can spot the better. Next, think about how these techniques create an effect, such as the diction and the sound of the words or perhaps why exactly the poet has chosen to use particular words or images. Think about how the poem makes you feel and how it achieves this through poetic techniques.

The form of the poem is always a good way to start. Look at how the poem is on the page, the number and length of stanzas. Do any of the stanzas run into one another? Is enjambement used? Secondly, think about what the poem is about, or if there is a message in the poem. In exam conditions, if there is any part of the poem which you do not understand, it is better to move on and focus on what you do understand. If you don't get it, forget it!

Another helpful technique when analysing an unseen poem is using your own reaction to it as a starting point. For example, does the poem conjure any images in your mind? Does it make you feel happy or sad? You can then use this to spot techniques; which line in particular conjures these feelings? Why and how does it do this? 

When writing about a poem in an essay a useful techniques is PEED - Point Example Explain Develop: Make a point about the poem, then follow with an example, such as a line from the poem (make sure this is not too long) and then explain how the quote proves your point, usually  with a technique you have spotted. For a higher mark, you can further develop your point by linking it with the rest of the poem, and how it adds to the poem's overall effect. Through using PEED you can build the structure of your essay, checking you have explained each point fully. Remember, quality is preferable to quantity.     

Chloe S. GCSE English Literature tutor

About the author

is an online GCSE English Literature tutor with MyTutor studying at Exeter University

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