Comprehensive guide to approaching GCSE Poetry

April 28, 2016

GCSE English Literature: Tackling Poetry

How do you get to grips with GCSE Poetry?

Every word matters

When completing the GCSE English Literature exam, you need to pay particular attention to the words and phrases used in each question.

For example, are you being asked about specific themes and does the examiner want your personal response? Are you being asked to comment on, analyse, or describe the poem?  

Underline each question’s key words and phrases as you are prepare to write your answer; this will ensure your response is focused on the question asked.

‘Every word matters’ is equally important when considering the actual poetry – particularly when responding to an unseen poem. Because you read an unseen poem for the first time during the exam, it’s possible you won’t understand it fully, yet you still need to compose a convincing response.

To aid your cause, use single-word analysis – analysing the poem at a word level to explore the effect of its most important words – throughout your answer.

Analysing sound and language

It is useful to complete as many past papers as possible to examine the type of questions asked on the use of sound and language in poetry.  

You should understand and be able to communicate the differences between the many techniques used by poets, including similes, metaphors, repetition and other poetic devices.

Consider the rhythm of each poem you read and what this adds to the poem’s overall meaning.  

Form and subject

Form, how a poem is constructed, is another important aspect of poetry and it’s essential to have a good knowledge of this.

You need to look at how the poem is written: e.g. the number of lines, the length of those lines, and the number of stanzas. Is there a connection between how the poem is constructed and its main ideas/overall meaning? 

Other aspects of form/structure to consider are the poet’s use of repetition, both of words/phrases and specific images or ideas.

Your opinion

When asked to give your opinion on a poem, it’s essential to think about the ideas in it, what the poet is attempting to convey and what is happening throughout.  

What is the poem’s tone, type of language used, and general mood?  What are your opinions and attitudes to the poem? What evidence can you use to support these?

Using quotations

To support your statements, analysis and opinions, it’s essential that you use relevant quotations.  These should illustrate your points and arguments and are key to exam success.  

Select an appropriate quotation to evidence your point, then explore the effect of the quotation to elaborate on your point.

Comparing poems

You may be asked to compare two or more poems.  When assessing your answer, the examiner will expect an effective comparative essay where you include your interpretations of the poem and consider both poets’ techniques, attitudes, and use of structure/form.  

Support your answers with quotations whenever possible. Explicitly compare and contrast the poems regularly – ideally in the explanation of each point you make. Use connectives to structure your writing and link the poems. 

Look to write a strong, coherent conclusion, focused on the question asked, to capture the main similarities and differences of both poems.


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