How to Approach Unseen Poetry - Part One

May 3, 2017

Tackling Unseen Poetry

How to tackle Unseen Poetry!

Sometimes understanding an unseen poem and responding to it meaningfully can be a difficult task for GCSE English students, but with every poem and question, there are a number of techniques you can employ to ease your worry and focus your response.


1) Demonstrate your poetic knowledge

Remember, the purpose of this question is for you to show the examiner that you have learned the basic skills and poetic techniques a poet uses. You should be able to:

  • Identify a poem’s poetic techniques (basically the poet’s style within it) and give your opinion on them.
  • Identify a poem’s theme and respond to it
  • Identify a poem’s tone and comment on its impact on both your reading and the poem’s overall meaning
  • Engage with a poem and offer a personal response to it

2) Remember that the examiners always ask similar questions

The examiner will likely ask you to discuss how the poet presents a specific character, setting, or theme in some way. This basically means you should refer to specific examples of the language and structure the poet uses to present the focus of the question.

You may find it easier to analyse the poet’s language-use, but look to include some structural techniques – rhythm, the poem’s shape, the title, etc. – because, after all, this is a literature rather than language exam.

3) Back yourself

Finally, remember that, overall, your opinion is the one that counts. Within reason, there is no wrong answer or interpretation of any poem’s meaning and/or effect, once you respond to the question asked, give specific examples from the poem to support your poems, and analyse the effect and significance of your chosen examples.

4) Give the examiner what they’re looking for

Every year, examiners feedback to exam boards with what students did well during the exam, and what they could have done better.

“Most answers engaged well and used apt illustration effectively. However, specific reference was often absent in less successful responses.”

  • Successful answers must be specific in their responses. In other words, be clear and specific with your explanations with clearreference or quotation to support your point.
  • Although candidates found it easy to select an interesting line or phrase, some had difficulty in justifying their choice.” Always, you must explain; give reasons for your choices.
  • "In responding to poetry questions, students should consider the poet’s style (‘how’ the poem is written) as well as the interpretation of his/her subject matter (‘what’ is being addressed)”
  • "While the majority of answers engaged with the text in a positive way, some merely paraphrased the poem or offered undeveloped responses.”

5) Examine what other people do to succeed

Here’s an excerpt from one of our expert-written sample answers:

In ‘To a Daughter Leaving Home’, how does the poet present the speaker’s feelings about her daughter?

At the beginning of this poem, the poet uses the verb ‘loping’ in the phrase, ‘loping along / beside you’ to show that the speaker was bounding ‘along’ or running with long, bounding strides beside her ‘daughter’ as she cycled for the first time. This description of the speaker’s movement suggests that she was happy and excited for her daughter’s first experience of riding a bike, and proud that she had reached a sort of milestone in her young life.

Soon after, when the speaker recounts how her intended audience, her ‘daughter’, ‘wobbled away / on two round wheels’, we get the image of the daughter’s initial, unsteady movements, ones that must have been a concern for the speaker. Like any caring parent, she would have worried for her daughter’s safety, and been afraid that she might fall and injure herself. Yet, she holds back, and allows her daughter to pursue the activity that is making her happy.

Subsequently, we learn that the speaker is surprised at her daughter’s success, ‘my own mouth rounding / in surprise when you pulled / ahead’. On an initial reading, this seems as if the mother’s expectations have been subverted: she thought her ‘daughter’ was likely to fall, or that she, at least, would need her mother’s help in getting started.

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