In this blog Holly sets out some clear solutions to the issues posed by the unseen poetry question in the 13+ English exam, alongside some tips for those aiming for Scholarship. Understanding some of the easier ways to approach poetry will give your child a chance to shine in this component of the exam.
The unseen poetry component of the 13+ English exam can often be a concern for students who find poetry difficult to understand: at Scholarship level this can be magnified by a question which requires the comparison of two poems or even an opportunity for the student to write their own poetry. Poetry is often seen as unfamiliar territory to today’s 12 and 13-year-olds and in addition can present challenging vocabulary, structures and even punctuation. Some, although not all, students also find it easier to write about imagery, as they have practised this when analysing prose text (novels, non-fiction etc).
Ask your child to name a few of their favourite pop songs. The likelihood is that these will have a clear structure with a chorus (repeated) and a clear subject (often emotional – love, or friendship perhaps). The verses will probably have a set (short) number of lines, or they might be more of a ‘rap’ style with a lengthy narrative in which the singer explains how she or he feels about something.
Poetry is very similar. The poet (singer) is trying to across a message to his or her audience (listeners). He or she has either a standard structure with stanzas (verses) or a more fluid (free verse) structure. The latter is much more common at Scholarship level as the examiners are looking for students who can interpret the structure alongside the meaning. A simpler structure with either one long stanza or a few of the same short length will undoubtedly fit into one of the standard forms, and these can be easily learnt – sonnet, ode, haiku etc.
If your child prefers Maths (a common situation), they are in luck! Poetry is easily approached mathematically if we focus on the structure (the meaning will come later). Not every student finds it easy to read between the lines, but everyone can count the lines. Start by writing down how many lines each stanza (verse) has and how many words each line has, and then try to work out if there’s any symmetry or consistency. Is this a standard form, and if it is, what might that suggest about the meaning? Sonnets suggest Romance, Odes suggest Nature etc. Scholarship-level poems will often require you to compare the structure of two poems, and this is a great way to start and gives you an easy opener.
Next, think about context, and this will bring even more meaning to the poem. At 13+ the exam paper will nearly always contain a line or two in bold at the top of the poetry question which gives a little more information. There will also usually, except perhaps in Scholarship papers, be a glossary (an explanation of words which may be unfamiliar). Use both of these to understand the background of the poem. For example, it may tell the student that the poem was written during a time of war, or by a poet from an unusual background. Look at the date and the information and brainstorm anything that can be recalled about this date or country. Use this to help with the meaning.
Finally, focus on the language of the poem itself. Unfamiliar words can often be worked out by looking at the words which surround them; this needs to be practised as there is unlikely to be access to a dictionary/ Google in the exam. Terminology such as simile, metaphor, personification and caesura can now be used to annotate the poem (or pair of poems in a Scholarship exam) – my advice is to cover the poem with as much annotation as possible.
When you’ve done all this, it’s time to write a response. By now the words will be flowing freely and there’ll be a lot to say. Remember to use a PEE (Point, Evidence, Explanation) structure and to include a brief introduction and conclusion which outlines the meaning of the poem (the conclusion should remind the examiner that you know what the poem’s about. I’d recommend three paragraphs but you might be able to write more. For a Scholarship-level response remember you are looking to say something unusual about the poem alongside the standard response.
Remember that poets, like pop artists, are writing for an audience – for the student. They want their meaning to be obvious. They love it when their poetry is compared with others (so students should enjoy that Scholarship question knowing they are doing something positive!) It’s also important to think about the fact that by putting their art in the public eye, they are accepting possible criticism from their audience, so if the student thinks something doesn’t work about the poem, they shouldn’t be afraid to (briefly) say it. Good luck and enjoy!