What do I do in an unseen poetry exam?

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Read the poem to yourself twice in your head. The first time, try and get the sense of the narrative of the poem (the story it's telling). You can note down literary techniques (things like onomatopoeia or rhyme) that jump out at you, but don't go looking for them. 

Your second reading is when you should look for literary techniques.

Some easy things to look for:

- Pay attention to the sounds of the poem. Sounds can give the effect of rhyme, sibilance (hissing "s" sounds, like in the word "sussurus"), and consonance (when things have the same consonants, like in the words "tittle-tattle"). This shows the examiner that you really understand how poetic language works.

- Listen for the meter (rhythm) of the poem. You might have heard of iambic pentameter (when the rhythm of syllables goes unstressed-stressed five times per line, or, da-DAH da-DAH da-DAH da-DAH da-DAH) -- that could be the meter of the poem, or it might be something else like iambic trimeter (da-DAH da-DAH da-DAH) or even trochaic pentameter (DA-dah DA-dah DA-dah DA-dah DA-dah). 

- A good way to analyse any text is to look at who's talking and how. Is the poem in first, second, or third person? Is it in the imperative voice (telling someone what to do)? How about the declarative (talking about what exists; making a statement), or the interrogative (asking a question, like I am now)? This shows that you have a good knowledge of linguistic techniques.

- One last thing I'll give you is a way to look at lexis (word choice). Simply put, are the words boo-words or hurrah-words? What are the connotations? Words can mean the same thing whilst having very different connotations -- for example, "stench" is a boo-word and "fragrance" is a hurrah-word, even though they both mean "smell".

Once you have your list of things the poem is doing (using the tools I just gave you and anything else you know), connect that to the narrative; so, say what the author is trying to make the poem do or make the reader feel, and then say how they do this using literary techniques.

Those are your points! Organise them into a logical order and plan some PEEL paragraphs with them, and then all you need to do is write the essay!

Isabel B. A Level English Literature tutor, GCSE English Literature t...

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