Unseen Poetry Essay Questions

Section one

The question for the poetry section of the Unit one English Literature exam will be the same every year, but the poems will always be different.

For higher tier, the question is: Write about both poems and their effect on you. Show how they are similar and how they are different.

For foundation tier, the layout of the question is as follows: Write about both poems and their effect on you. Show how they are similar and how they are different.

You may write about each poem separately and then compare them, or make comparisons where appropriate in your answer as a whole.

You may wish to include some or all of these points:

  • the content of the poems – what they are about
  • the ideas the poets may have wanted us to think about
  • the mood or atmosphere of the poems
  • how they are written – words and phrases you find interesting, the way they are organised, and so on
  • your responses to the poems, including how they are similar and how they are different

The poems will be contemporary and will be linked together, usually by topic, although they could approach this topic in very different ways.

There will be a brief description of what the poems are about above the question – you must read this carefully as it is there to help you.

Example question:

Section two

Spend about one hour on this section. Think carefully about the poems before you write your answer.

In the first of the following poems, Names, a woman’s life is described through the different names that she uses at different times. The second poem, In Oak Terrace, describes an old woman who lives on her own.

Higher tier and lower tier: Write about both poems and their effect on you. Show how they are similar and how they are different.

You may write about each poem separately and then compare them, or make comparisons where appropriate in your answer as a whole.

You may wish to include some or all of these points:

  • the content of the poems – what they are about
  • the ideas the poets may have wanted us to think about
  • the mood or atmosphere of the poems
  • how they are written – words and phrases you find interesting, the way they are organised, and so on
  • your responses to the poems, including how they are similar and how they are different

Names

byWendy Cope

She was Eliza for a few weeks

when she was a baby –

Eliza Lily. Soon it changed to Lil.

Later she was Miss Steward in the baker’s shop

And then ‘my love’, ‘my darling’, Mother.

Widowed at thirty, she went back to work

As Mrs Hand. Her daughter grew up,

Married and gave birth.

Now she was Nanna. ‘Everybody

Calls me Nanna,’ she would say to visitors.

And so they did – friends, tradesmen, the doctor.

In the geriatric ward

They used the patients’ Christian names.

‘Lil,’ we said, ‘or Nanna,’

But it wasn’t in her file

And for those last bewildered weeks

She was Eliza once again.

In Oak Terrace

byTony Connor

Old and alone, she sits at nights,

Nodding before the television.

The house is quiet now. She knits,

rises to put the kettle on,

watches a cowboy’s killing, reads

the local Births and Deaths, and falls

asleep at ‘Growing stock-piles of war-heads’.

A world that threatens worse ills

fades. She dreams of life spent

in the one house: suffers again

poverty, sickness, abandonment,

a child’s death, a brother’s brain

melting to madness. Seventy years

of common trouble; the kettle sings.

At midnight she says her silly prayers,

And takes her teeth out, and collects her night-things.

Making a start

You should spend up to 15 minutes reading the poems and planning your answer, then 45 minutes writing your response (allowing some time to check through your answer at the end).

Start by reading the poems twice and asking yourself the following questions:

  • What are the poems about?
  • How do the poems make me feel?
  • Are the poets trying to make me think about a particular issue or give me a message about something?
  • Are the poems positive or negative overall? In what particular ways?
  • What kind of mood or atmosphere is created in the poems? How is this done?
  • Are there any words that stand out as creating a particular effect or feeling?
  • How are the poems organised? Why might this be? (For example, is this linked to the mood or content?)
  • What do you think of each of the poems?
  • How are the poems connected?
  • Are they giving the reader the same type of message?
  • Are the themes linked?
  • Do they use language and imagery in similar or different ways?
  • Do the poets use form and structure in similar or different ways?
  • What type of mood or atmosphere is created in each poem? How do these compare? Have the writers used similar or different techniques to do this?

Seeing an unseen poem and having to analyse it in an exam can be very scary, and it was always my least favourite part of the exam. I am going to teach you a way to approach the question that will hopefully calm your nerves.

So let's imagine you're sitting in the exam...when you reach the unseen poem question I would advise you to read the poem through at least 3 times as calmly as you can, and it this point try not to even think about it in relation to the question. At this point just try and figure out what the poem is about and what the tone is, or the 'mood'.

So I'm going to put a poem up on the screen now that comes from the exam paper, you have a read through it a few times and let me know when you are finished.

What came to mind when you read this poem? Did anything stand out to you? These are all things you can use when answering the question.

So after I had read the poem a few times I would then read the question. I'm going to put this on the screen now: In ‘To a Daughter Leaving Home’, how does the poet present the speaker’s feelings about her daughter?

So what comes to mind here? What kind of feelings are we seeing expressed in the poem about the daughter? Is it an angry poem? Is it sad? Trust your gut instinct.

Secondly, I would ask myself how is the poem creating this sense of sadness and nostalgia? What poetic effects are being used? In order to get the top marks, it is really important that you explain not just what the poem is about but also how the poem is expressing these things. Some things you could mention are the use of the long structure to create a sense of a journey and the daughter growing up, or the use of vulnerable imagery such as ‘wobbled’, ‘smaller’, ‘breakable’ to suggest the mother's sadness. Can you think of anything else? You might want to write MITSL on your paper - this stands for meaning, imagery, tone, structure, language - these are things that could trigger some ideas.

The key way to practice for this question is just to read and analyse as many poems as possible. Although no two poems are the same the more poems you read the better you will get at spotting poetic techniques.

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