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improve your poetry grades!

 

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  • If you find poetry difficult then you're not alone. For many people, it's the most difficult aspect of the English course. But...fear not as help and a higher grade are within reach. Read on!

  • Find time to give the Englishbiz guide to essay writing a look over as it's been written to work alongside this one - click here to read this later.

  • If you need help with a specific poet or poem, click here or on a link below. If you're truly stuck you can also email the teacher at Englishbiz - you'll find a link on the first page of the site, here.

REVISION SITE

REVISION SITE

STUDY GUIDES

 

What really must be covered in your coursework and exam answers?

okay!

Interpretation
  • At the core of any and every answer or essay about poetry must be your own interpretation of the poem or poems you are writing about. It is this alone that attracts the majority of marks. In a nutshell, the more subtly you interpret a poem - and give support for your interpretation - the higher your marks, and grade, will be.
     

  • Poems are rarely to be taken at face value. It is never the literal meanings that will gain you any marks - it is exposing and discussing the poem's 'deeper meanings' that bring in the marks every time. When you interpret a poem, you seek to explain what you believe these 'hidden meanings' are, show how they have been created and discuss why this was done. Remember: the meanings you seek exist 'between the lines'.

betwee_the_lines
 

  • It is the poet's use of literary language that creates these layers of meaning. Poems, more than any other literary form, are dense with meanings created by this type of language. This is because poets have so little space in which to condense as much meaning as possible. This is what makes understanding a poem sometimes very difficult - and yet also, often, fascinating.

    Just why do poets do this? Is it just to make their poems 'hard to understand'? Not at all. It's because poetry is an art form and the poet is an artist who wants to express not only meaning but also feeling and emotion. Such is the power of a truly fine poem that it can sometimes manage to 'say the unsayable'.
     

  • Let's get one thing clear: interpretation never deals in facts. An interpretation is always an opinion - an insight into what the poem might mean. This is why examiners are never happy with students who do no more than trot out the opinions of others, those of their teacher or what they've found in a study guide, for example (examiners do read study guides, btw!). Examiners will always give the most marks to a student's original ideas - so long as they are valid and are supported by close and careful reference to the poem itself.
     

  • Whilst it is your own ideas that are needed, it is invariably easier to uncover the layers of meaning in a poem by discussing it with others. Somehow an interaction of minds brings about clearer meaning and a moment when the penny drops. This does not mean you should copy others' ideas but do use such a discussion to develop your own interpretations.
     

  • You might be one of the many who feel discussing poetry is not cool. Well, keep in mind that it's your grades that are at stake. The exam is not a practice and you need to get the highest grade you can. So, what to do? For once, ignore being 'uncool' and get boosting those exam grades...

not_cool
 

  • KEY TIP!!
    Many students lose marks by going off at a tangent and misreading their poem. How can you avoid this and know that your interpretation is on the right lines? Here's a very worthwhile tip.

    Most poems are unified and coherent - and keeping this in mind can help more than anything else. All it means is that the poet will be using the poem to develop a single central (or 'controlling') idea or theme. This means that when you interpret what you think one part of the poem means, you need to be quite sure that, in some clear way, what you think fits into and adds to the overall idea being explored by the poem. If your interpretation doesn't fit, the chances are you've found something that isn't there. Misreading is a trap to avoid - and one you can avoid by applying this acid-test! Once again, discussing the poem with a friend is an excellent way to avoid misreadings!
     

  • How does all this work in practice? Below is an example to help show you. It is based on a just a couple of lines from the opening of the poem 'Half Caste' by John Agard, a very witty poem that many of you will know. Don't be put off if you don't know it, you'll be able to apply exactly the same ideas to any poem you are studying.
     

    • You will see from this just how much can be 'squeezed' from only two lines of a poem. This is a key thing for you to appreciate.
       

'Excuse me standing on one leg I’m half-caste
Explain yuself wha yu mean when yu say half-caste...'

Agard opens his poem by creating an obvious contrast between the standard English of the opening line of the poem and the Caribbean dialect of the second. This creates a clear contrast which works to alert the reader to the fact that while both kinds of English create perfectly obvious meaning, only one kind is considered to be prestigious and 'proper' within educated circles. Ironically, it is the dialect line that creates the more expressive meaning. In this way, Agard manages to open his poem and introduce a key theme. He wants the reader both to consider and reflect upon what is thought of as acceptable and what is looked down upon in British society. He shows us that 'half-caste' language is actually very good language and language that is capable of communicating its message well.

 

 

Poetry
Poetry has, as has been said above, been called the art of 'saying the unsayable'. Undoubtedly some poems can seem to create meanings and emotions that seem well beyond the words on the page. Language can be a very mysterious and wonderful thing!

Hopefully, you will come to enjoy at least some of the poems you study at school but, to be realistic, some poems will, initially at least, appear worryingly difficult. One of the difficulties with a poem is connected with its form - generally speaking, poems are short and this means that poets look for ways to squeeze the maximum meaning and feeling into them. Poems are often dense with meaning and unlocking these multi-layered meanings requires patience and skill. But it can be very satisfying - a poem can be like a riddle, fun to crack!

This englishbiz guide will help you 'unpick' a poem and enable you to work out just what the poet is trying to say, how the poem is 'working' and why this is being done - the poet's purpose. Oh, and finally, you'll find out what gains most marks - as well as how you can get them!


Reading for Meaning
Quite a useful thing to do when you first begin your work on analysing a poem is to... forget it's a poem! Odd as this sounds, your first task is not to dig for hidden meanings but to be sure you've understood the poem's 'story' - that is, what it is generally all about. This can be called the poem's 'big picture'. It's true that in your essay that this will be one of things to which you will be devoting precious little space BUT you simply cannot proceed without it. So, when you first read any poem, first of all, read it for meaning. These questions will get you on your way:

Try this:

Click here to listen to John Agard reading a part of his poem, Half-Caste. Notice the slow and emphatic nature of his voice.

  • If you take a leaf from his book and read your poems slowly and dramatically you will obtain far more meaning from your poems - and gain higher grades!

John Agard

 

Writing your essay
Writing
an essay about a poem needs the same skills that apply to all essay writing. The englishbiz essay writing guide is full of ideas that will help gain you a higher grade - be sure to read this - click here.


What is your teacher or examiner actually looking for in your essays?
Whatever the essay question or title, marks are always awarded according to how well you show your abilities in three key areas:

INTERPRETATION

LANGUAGE

STRUCTURE

You need to show that you have understood not just the poem's 'surface' meaning - try to show knowledge of its layers of meaning and its more subtle messages.

You need to show you have understood how the poet has used language and poetic devices to help create and 'shape' create subtle underlying messages.

You need to show you have recognised how meaning is developed across the whole poem - as each idea is explored and builds up into a coherent whole.

How to do this to gain high marks...

 

ADVANCED TIP!

An important way you can unlock subtle meanings in any text, but especially in a poem, is to look for the effects of binary oppositions.

  • Click on the hyperlink if this idea intrigues you.

  • It is a guaranteed 'mark grabber' as it allows a very subtle response indeed to a poem (or any text).

  • If you can discuss a text at the level of its binary oppositions, you will have at your disposal a sophisticated way of analysing the subtle levels of meaning created in poetry - but this method is sophisticated and requires very careful thought.

FOR A FULL GUIDE TO THIS FASCINATING ANALYTICAL TECHNIQUE - CLICK HERE

 


Some more ways to unlock the meaning of a poem


Some Important 'Poetic Devices'

DOWNLOAD A FREE POETRY GUIDE

MORE ON POETIC DEVICES AND TERMINOLOGY

 

TOP TIP

In your mind, 'become' the poet and ask yourself these revealing questions:

1. What is 'your' poem about generally (e.g. 'war') and in particular (e.g. 'the horror of fighting in trench warfare').

2. What is your
attitude towards this subject matter - the deeper layers of meaning or understanding you want your reader to share (e.g. 'that the war has gone on too long and the truth of it needs to be told...')? This is why you wrote the poem - its big picture.

  • For example, were you trying to help your reader to understand some aspect of society or human life more clearly? What was your intention or purpose?

3. What motivated you to write about such a subject? Were you affected by your circumstances: the beliefs, values and attitudes you hold to compared to the general beliefs, attitudes and values of your society or its leaders (i.e. your society's dominant ideologies)?

4. Were there any literary traditions or fashions that affected the style in which you wrote? Why was this?

5. What effects did you try to create using the form and content of words - their shape, sound and meaning?

 


COMPARING POEMS

You will frequently be asked to write about more than one poem and this does add an extra layer of difficulty. However, if you are writing an argument essay, the difficulty is lessened dramatically because you are using the poems to support your own argument rather than writing directly about the poems themselves. Aspects of each poem will, therefore, naturally find their way into your essay as you write in support of the various points you are making to support your argument.

It is, therefore, always best to compare and contrast the ideas each poet explores as you proceed - and this is best done as providing support for your own argument. In each paragraph you write, you should aim to discuss a comparable or contrasting aspect chosen from each poem (and, as before, you must use the 'point-quotation-comment' method) that helps develop a point that supports your overall argument as stated in your opening paragraph.

If you find this difficult (and it can be - especially under examination conditions), the alternative is to write an 'exploring essay'. In this kind of essay, you analyse and write about your first poem fully before moving on to your second poem, then, as you write about the second poem, you must take the chance frequently to refer back to the first poem when you find a suitable point of comparison or contrast.

  • Never forget to compare and contrast! This is a part of the mark scheme in this type of question.

MORE ON THIS

READ A GOOD POETRY ESSAY

READ A POOR POETRY ESSAY

 


FIVE TOP TIPS FOR SUCCESS

1. Know your poems well
Most exams allow you to write about poems you have studied in class. Never leave your class until you are sure you know the poems well - ask your teacher for help if you don't. It's their job to help you and they will.

2. Analyse closely analysis and develop subtle insights
Only a close analysis of the poem will allow you to develop subtle insights into the poet's reasons and methods. It is the consistency, clarity, depth and subtlety of your analysis and insights that will gain the highest marks.

SET GCSE POEMS

MORE ON ANALYSIS AND INSIGHT

3. Use the P.E.E. method of analysis
Using the POINT - EXAMPLE - EXPLAIN method will make sure you support your point with a quotation then follow this with an explanation of the EFFECT of the quotation and the PURPOSE intended - always making sure you comment on the qualities of the poet's choices of language in the quotation and the relevance this has to the overall purpose or theme:

MORE ON THIS

SEE P.E.E. IN ACTION!

A STUDENT'S ESSAY

4. Never look for and find what isn't there!
Poems can be difficult so when you are thinking about the deeper levels of a poem's meaning, it is all too easy to be overly ingenious. Do not find meanings that are not really there.

5. Be yourself
The examiner wants to read the writing of a sixteen-year-old, not a sixteen-year-old pretending to be some kind of middle-aged professor of English!


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