Category Archives: Poetry

Poetic techniques and notes on specific poets.

Let it flow…

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent Written Word supplement on Monday January 2th 2015


Good writers value flow. When an idea works, they grab it, massage it and make it their own. When it doesn’t, they cut it loose and, like Frozen, they just ‘let it go’.

I’m not saying they don’t get writer’s block – they do!

Nor am I saying that words and ideas flow out of them like water from a tap. Their words are just squiggles on a page, the same as the rest of us. And thank god, or we’d have lots of empty taps and sopping wet pages on our hands, not to mention the cost in water charges!

But what good writers understand, in their deep heart’s core, is the importance of generating flow for the reader. Ideas need to be linked to each other; paragraphs need to be sequenced logically and the reader needs to be eased in – and eased out – of the reading experience.

So how, good reader, do you achieve this in your writing?


First and foremost you should do something with that brainstorm your teacher insisted you create! The ideas are there but which one will you start with? Something to really seize the reader’s attention? A quote? A shocking statistic? Now where will you go next? What ideas have something in common, even something tenuous, that will enable you to segue from one to the next so that they seem like logical progressions akin to steps on a staircase to wisdom? And when the journey’s over and the essay is nearly done, how will you loop back to your starting point yet add a depth that did not exist when the reader stepped out bravely on this journey with you?


Secondly, you need a thread which ties everything together. It can help to think of the paragraphs in your essay as the seven dwarfs. Each one has it’s own defining identity: not sleepy or dopey hopefully, but with recognisable features that make it distinct from all of the others. Yet there’s no question that they belong together! You can look from one to the next to the next and see how they all form an inseparable unit that would be weaker if any one of them went missing or was left behind.


Now that you’ve got a plan, a certain amount of flow will emerge from the sequence you’ve decided to implement. However, you need flow within your paragraphs as well as between them. This is where the third vital element of connectives comes in. These are words which form bridges, both within and between sentences. You’ll see a list of examples below but a word of warning here: connectives used well are almost invisible. Used badly, they’re like your Dad at a wedding with his trousers rolled up, wearing his tie as a headband and playing air guitar. They just look all wrong!

Here’s an example of connectives used well:

Ireland undoubtedly has a tradition of neutrality. Clearly this is the will of the people. However, it would be foolish of us to assume that this desire to remain neutral will continue indefinitely into the future. We live in an era of growing global terrorism and were we to be targeted by terrorists we would need to respond, not just for our safety but also for the safety of our neighbours. Furthermore, we are socially, economically and emotionally tied to Europe and so an attack on Europe would also be an attack on us.”

And here’s an example of connectives used badly:

Ireland has a tradition of neutrality. Furthermore this is the will of the people. Nevertheless it would be foolish of us to assume that this desire to remain neutral will continue. We live in an era of growing global terrorism and were we targeted by terrorists we would need to respond. At the same time we are tied to Europe socially, economically and emotionally so to conclude an attack on Europe would also be an attack on us.

Just typing that second example was like scrapping my nails down a blackboard and reading it back is like jabbing hot pokers in my eyeballs.

The bottom line is this: using connectives for the sake of it or because some teacher in the Indo supplement told you to won’t work. You need to understand the words you’re using. You need to know how they work to create flow in your writing.

There is no shortcut to this knowledge. You won’t just innately know how to use connectives properly, unless you’ve been reading voraciously from an early age and engaging in family debates around the dinner table on a daily basis all of your life, so you’ll need to practice. Reading a lot and reading the right kind of material (speeches, debates, newspaper articles, academic essays) will increase your familiarity with connectives and help them to flow more naturally into your own writing.

Sample connectives:

  • First of all…secondly…thirdly

  • In the beginning… then… ultimately…finally

  • Nonetheless, nevertheless, although, even though, however

  • Furthermore, in addition, above all, essentially

  • Thus, therefore, hence, as a result

  • On the other hand… alternatively… besides

  • Clearly, obviously, evidently, logically

So you’ve got the guidelines. You’re good to go. And now, to paraphrase Frozen once more, it’s time to ‘Let it flow, let it flow, can’t hold it back anymore…’

Poetic verbs…

Some verbs should rarely – possibly never – be used when discussing a poem. “The poet tells us” or “the poet says” are problematic because poetic language is always carefully crafted, with every word and punctuation mark deliberately chosen to capture the exact feeling and idea the poet wishes to communicate.

The verbs “tells” and “says” imply that the poet is telling us things rather than hinting, showing, evoking, then allowing us to figure it out for ourselves. If he/she uses colloquial language, yes it will feel as if the poet is simply speaking, but again, this is a conscious decision, not an accident.

You need verbs which are more accurate in analysing what the poet is doing. Here are a few suggestions:

– explores

– describes

– evokes

– celebrates

– reveals

– laments

– confesses

– exposes

– challenges

– creates

– captures


Adventures in unseen poetry

As an experiment with my brain, when I gave my leaving certs an unseen poem last Wednesday, I deliberately selected one I’d never seen before and wrote (well o.k. I typed, cause I don’t really hand-write at all anymore) my own personal response in 20 minutes.

The poem was “A Glimpse of Starlings” by Brendan Kennelly which I have since discovered is on the ordinary level leaving cert course.

A glimpse of starlings

This little experiment proved to be way more fascinating than I originally anticipated. I thought I was just going to put myself in their shoes, and model some good practice. How wrong I was!

As I “corrected” their unseen poetry answers, I was astounded and impressed by the vast array of interpretations we came up with, several of which I’ve reproduced below, none of which we could verify were ‘correct’ as we were responding ‘blind’ to the poem, with no knowledge of the poet’s biography or access to interviews with him asking what the poem’s ‘really’ about!

But this got me thinking about a truth we often whitewash, which is that there is no fixed, immutable meaning. I bring myself to every encounter with language and ascribe meaning to that encounter. It might mean something completely different to the other people in the exchange and I’ve got no control over how they respond to it! Every time I open my mouth, compose a text or a tweet, I know what I intend it to mean. And how often have I found myself saying, to quote TS Eliot “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all“.

We do this don’t we? We get agitated when people take us up ‘wrong’. We re-phrase so they’ll see things the way we want them to. We try to bring them around to our way of thinking; try to control their interpretation of events.

How much distress has this caused the human race down through the centuries? How many mis-understandings and arguments has it engendered? Perhaps that’s why we obsess over achieving clarity in our communications, in our speaking and writing, because we want to minimise any potential gap between what we mean and what people think we mean.

But we need to face up to one crucial truth:

Meaning is not something that exists, it’s something that we create. 

Then perhaps we can acknowledge that, for the most part, people are not deliberately ‘mis-interpreting’ us, they are simply bringing their own truth to the conversation. There will always be a gap between your intention and the meaning as it is received by the reader or listener. You cannot control this. The only thing you can do is try to make your intention as clear and unambiguous as possible.

Of course, poets are a different breed to the rest of us. They deliberately don’t do this. They wallow in the grey areas their art form creates. They LOVE ambiguity. They know that once you put something out into the world, you can’t control it anymore, or to paraphrase a well-worn trope they know that “language is in the ear of the beholder“.

Reading poetry is a complex process; an interaction between the poet’s intentions and the readers’ struggle to impose meaning on what they’ve just read. The annihilation of poetry occurs when we ‘fix’ that meaning. And while we can mock this process …


 … (yeah, the curtains were fucking blue!) we should also acknowledge that there might be something more going on here. Some dance of language between the speaker and the listener; some ever-changing, ever-moving complexity that is, in itself, a pleasurable tango that endlessly entertains even as it refuses to come to a standstill. Poetry makes multiple meanings, complex responses and a multiplicity of emotions possible.

And this is a GOOD THING if you ask me!

This experience also got me thinking about how the poetry textbooks we use, crammed with notes, shut down critical interpretations. They ‘fix’ the meanings of the poems. I’m guilty of this too with my poetry podcasts. In my eagerness to help students appreciate the prescribed poetry on a deeper level, I created mp3s of me discussing the poems, but there’s a danger that if students rely too heavily on listening to me, or any so-called ‘expert’, their own response, analysis and interpretation gets lost or demeaned.

This wasn’t my intention.

I created the podcasts to try and close the gap in time which opens up when you’re asked to revise a poet and write about them in an exam, sometimes a year, or even 18 months after you first study them. It was my intention that they would function almost as a kind of time portal so that the ideas we explored in class could be re-visited to refresh their memories.

But as the old cliché goes “the road to hell is paved with good intentions“.

Of course, this is why it’s important that students write at length and in depth about a poet immediately after they study his/her work. It’s so important their own unique response doesn’t get swallowed up, flattened out, diminished in a sea of notes (and podcasts!) so that it ends up conforming to the ‘norm’ rather than taking flight and becoming a truly original take on the poet in its own right.

So if you’d like to read some truly original takes on Brendan Kennelly’s poem “A Glimpse of Starlings“, have a look below.

Here’s what I typed in 20 minutes:

My personal response to this poem was one of confusion initially. The poet is remembering someone who has died, revealed in the first striking line as he admits “I expect him any minute now although / He’s dead”. There’s something shocking here, something heart breaking about the sad reality that we glimpse the dead continuously in our memories even though they’re not here anymore. I like how the poet made clever use of contrast (distinguishing between his expectation and the reality) to achieve this effect.

The poem does not settle into acceptance, however. Instead we get an atmosphere of gothic horror as we picture the dead man in some kind of afterlife “talking all night to his own dead” but the “first heart-breaking light” of morning brings no release or comfort. Personally I think he’s in some kind of limbo, although that may be me reading the poem too literally, because he’s desperate to know “why his days finished like this” but he gets no answer. As the contrast between what I expect for those who have died (either nothingness or heaven) and what this poem offers (“Daylight is as hard to swallow as food”) washes over me I am filled with despair. The simile of the “questions that bang and rattle in his head like doors and canisters the night of a storm” is so noisy, so ugly, so disturbing that I honestly didn’t want to read on anymore and the metaphor of starvation in the line “Love is a crumb all of him hungers for” is in my opinion the most haunting and heart breaking image in the entire poem, full of torment and longing.

The poet’s uncertainty about what lies beyond death is memorably captured in his allusion to the gates of heaven “The door opening to let him in” as simply being “what looks like release from what feels like pain” but the ambiguity captured in “looks like” and “feels like” leaves us with little comfort.

It is noteworthy, however, that the poem ends with “A glimpse of starlings” and that this is the title he chooses to give an otherwise bleak poem. It’s as if he’s looking for a sign in nature that all will be well, but I’m also reminded that this technique – pathetic fallacy – is called pathetic for a reason, because it is so foolish, illogical and ‘pathetic’ of us, as human beings, to think that our mood can in any way influence the weather or the seasons.

Sample answer 1 from one of my students

The poem’s opening line is in my mind extremely striking due to the poet blurring the lines between the possible and the impossible with the oxymoronI expect him any minute now, although / He’s dead“. The line’s ambiguous nature draws me in and implores me to continue reading.

His unusual description of simple everyday actions such as viewing a picture, as “eating a small photograph with his eyes” lends the poem an originality which I find incredibly refreshing. From the poet’s detailed description of the man in the poem, I believe him to be an extremely complex and troubled man who longs for affection as “love is a crumb all of him hungers for”. Throughout the poem there is a tangible melancholic atmosphere which I feel emanates from the man’s evident misery.

However, the final image of the starlings rising into the sky “a glimpse of starlings suddenly lifted over field road and river” is to me a somewhat hopeful image that there may one day be happiness for this man. Nonetheless, the poet’s simile in the last line “like a fist of black dust pitched to the wind” gives me the impression that this man is lost without any direction in his life. which again gives this poem a mournful, bitter feeling at its conclusion.

I gave her 20/20 because she’s managed a perfect balance of the 3 Ts – Theme, Tone, Technique (also known as ideas, feelings and writing style) with a wonderful flow of language and concrete coherent yet complex vocabulary.

Sample answer 2:

I found this poem to be a very poignant one, whose message – that life is a continuous cycle – remained in my mind long after I had read it. The poet uses simple images of the everyday actions of this man who is now dead to depict the lonely gap that is left behind, as only memories of him remain.

He seems to have led an ordinary life, when alive. We are given a list of his daily actions “sipping a cup of tea, fingering a bit of bread, eating a small photograph with his eyes“. However, the depressing tone that seems to linger in these lines made me feel sympathy for this man. The questions that continuously “bang” and “rattle” in his mind are compared to “doors and canisters the night of a storm“. This image simile is an upsetting one. He seems to no longer have an aim in life and can barely manage to walk down the “concrete path” but awkwardly drags his feet. It is not a life that I would personally like to lead.

The final three lines had an emotional impact on me as I found them to be very sombre and hopeless. The man walks in the door and looks over his shoulder to see “a glimpse of starlings“, flying, carefree, in the air. A simile is used to compare them to a “fist of black dust pitched in the wind“. For me the black dust represents symbolises this man’s ashes as he is now dead. The memory of the man is slowly fading away and will soon have disappeared, just like these starlings in the air.

I gave this student 17/20. You’ll notice two occasions where I crossed out her word and put in a more precise one which would identify the poetic technique being used; so “image” became “simile” and “represents” became “symbolised”. My comment at the bottom of her answer was “use the language of poetry in your analysis. Otherwise excellent

Sample answer 3: 

The poem “A Glimpse of Starlings” by Brendan Kennelly is a poem which contrasts an alcoholic’s life with that of a bird (starlings) roaming free in the wind.

At first reading of the poem this theme suddenly became apparent to me. The alcoholic man is called “dead” indicating to me that he is simply wasting his life. He shares a relationship with “his own dead friends“. This line reminds me of the old men and women who sit all day in my local pub.

Together, drinking, they forget about the rest of the world and it isn’t until the “first heart-breaking light of morning” that the man realises what he has become. Unfortunately he cannot resist his addiction, instead he follows his routine and returns to the pub awaiting the “slow turn of the Yale key“. This man, however, longs to leave his ways behind as “Love is a crumb all of him hungers for“.

As he enters the pub, cinematically, over his shoulder we see birds taking off from a field afar. The comparison symbolism here is that the birds are free while the man feels trapped and locked in his alcoholism. Evaluating this poem, it brings evokes in me a feeling of sympathy and understanding towards those who suffer from addictions. They are trapped, imprisoned by their addictions. This poem allows us to gain respect and understanding for those who spend their lives suffering “like a fist of black dust pitched in the wind“. The starlings drift into the distance continuing with their business as the man begins to drink again.

I gave this answer 13/20. Her interpretation is really original and completely credible from the details included in the poem. However, the one solitary word which nods in the direction of commenting on the writer’s technique is “cinematic“. She didn’t use the word symbolism, that was me. So although she implicitly traces down through the poem as a metaphor, she never mentions that word, or uses any of the ‘lingo’ we associate with the act of interpreting poetry. Whether or not you think she should be penalised or not for an honest response which ignores ‘jargon’ is a discussion for another day. I’m torn on this one.

Sample answer 4:

The poem is an explosion of the senses for me, a contrast between silence and noise, life and death. The first paradox is presented in the first line of the poem: “I expect him any minute now although / He’s dead“. This thought is immediately conflicted in my mind by the verbs following, the onomatopoeia creating a tangibility that clashes with the idea of death (“struggling”, “sipping”, “bang”, “rattle“). I feel relief and a connection when I am told that “he” is as confused as I am: “He doesn’t know why his days finished like this“.

The allusion further down the poem strengthens the connection between me, the reader, and the elusive presence in the poem, with the reference to the “Yale key“, a brand name I am familiar with myself. Symbolism is hinted at in reference to the starlings, connecting him to the birds by referencing “over his shoulder” (meaning unclear…). The ambiguity of the “fist of black dust” gives another layer of confusion to the poem. Is it a fist of triumph thrown up into the air, finally getting in the house, or is it a threatening presence, a reminder of the perils that await him outside the house?

I found this one difficult to grade. There is a deep appreciation of the language of poetry, a bright mind asking as many questions as she answers. There’s an engagement with her feelings and with the feelings in the poem but zero attempt on any level to suggest what the poem might be about. So in terms of the 3T’s, she’s established tone and techniques on a deep level but has only briefly mentioned the theme of the poem (life and death) in her opening sentence. It’s a complete contrast to the answer above which focuses on meaning but ignores style almost completely. 16/20???

Sample answer 5:

Upon reading this poem for the first time, I believe that the speaker is the grim reaper who is patiently waiting for his next victim to drop: “I expect him any minute now“. As the victim struggles tries to perform simple tasks “he is struggling into his clothes” and nostalgically looks at his past “eating a small photograph with his eyes” I feel some deep empathy for him. It appears he is really struggling to go on for an unknown reason, perhaps heartbreak as “love is a crumb all of him hungers for“. It is clear this man is going through a tough time. It makes me think about the cruelty of this world, how death can happily wait for you to succumb as you can barely cope.

His use of the similedaylight is as hard to swallow as food” really speaks to me. It paints an intense picture of how much pain he’s in, that swallowing a simple piece of bread is causing him great pain such distress, alongside his lack of willingness reluctance to go on as the brightness of day kills him inside. The writer’s use of vivid imagery is intense; “like a fist of black dust pitched in the world” really hits me on a personal note. I can almost feel the punch by the fist, like it is the last pang of agony he will ever experience, almost like a sense of relief.

Again, I found it hard to grade this one. On the one hand you have an original and intelligent interpretation, comparing the speaker to the grim reaper. She achieves a good balance of the 3Ts, although I would have liked to see a little more integration/analysis of techniques. The bits I’ve changed above have been altered for the most part because there’s a tendency here to get ‘stuck’ on particular words and to repeat them, instead of using synonyms. The last line takes a literal interpretation of the word ‘fist’ which doesn’t quite follow the logic of the simile it belongs to, but then the word is there for a reason, to make you picture a fist, so I don’t know…. 14/20 ???

A poem doesn’t have a FIXED meaning but it is possible to miss important distinctions if you’re not fully tuned in. A couple of students failed to distinguish between the “I” and the “He” in the poem. The speaker “I” is writing the poem about “Him”, the man he says is dead, the man he observes. They are not one and the same person and a careful reading of the poem reveals this but in the rush to respond, some students conflated the two.

Interestingly, if you google it, this is a poem about grief. So one student, although she did not distinguish between the “I” and the “He” in the poem, otherwise came closer than any of the rest of us to the ‘intended’ meaning of the poem.

Here’s what I wrote as feedback on some of the less successful answers: (it might help you to see where you’re going “wrong”!!!)

“Your job is not to translate the poem into simple English. your job is to examine how the poem communicates with us, how it creates ideas in your mind and feelings in your heart. Offer an opinion, an interpretation, not a line by line re-phrasing”

“You must integrate discussion of at least four techniques in your answer. Examine how she expresses herself as well as what she says”

“Don’t put the quote first and then comment on it. It prevents there from being any flow in your answer. Think of something to say first, then support with a relevant quotation and comment on the effect this quote has on you, if possible identifying the technique as well as the intellectual/emotional impact”

“Zoom in on individual words/lines. Don’t comment in general terms on an entire verse”

“Don’t jump around too much. Stick with your point and develop it fully before you move on”







Personal Response – A Brief History


Personal response encapsulates the absolutely sensible and sound notion that you should not just analyse intellectually but also respond emotionally to texts. Sadly, however, this then morphed into the somewhat happy-clappy notion that you should be ready, willing and able to explicitly relive these emotions when writing about them months (or sometimes years!) later. This is a bit silly really, imho, because when the initial emotional response to any event, good or bad, is over, what we’re left with is the opportunity to analyse it logically and try to figure out what it all meant.

Who was it that said “the unexamined life is not worth living” ? I think it was Plato. Well, to my mind, the unexamined text – be it a poem, a play, a novel or a film – remains a wonderful, oftentimes deeply emotional experience, but without the intellectual rigour of analysis, it remains an opportunity lost for deeper understanding of who we are and how we live our lives as human beings.

By the by, I think ‘personal response’ was an attempt to convince teachers and students alike that how you feel as well as what you think when you encounter a story matters (and it does!). I think it was an attempt to encourage independent thought, originality and debate in classrooms instead of the ‘sage on the stage, top-down, sit in your seats & bow before my superior wisdom’ approach which (we are told) dominated (still dominates?) so many classrooms. I’m not convinced demanding personal response necessarily achieves this but it’s a worthy aim nonetheless. Finally, I think ‘personal response’ was a way of giving two fingers to the grinds schools and the revision books industry who were pumping out generic passive voice academic content for students to learn off so they could ‘fake’ understanding of their texts.

But whatever the intention, the plan soon backfired and the problem soon emerged, particularly in the studied poetry section, that students were basically learning off ONE pre-written personal response essay on each poet. These were essays which they may or may not have written themselves – oh the joys of having an older brother or cousin or sister who could pass their essays down through the generations, like family heirlooms to be treasured and polished and re-used ad-infinitum!  If they didn’t have the good fortune to get said essays from family members they could get them at revision courses or in books or, best of all, they could learn off their TEACHER’s personal response and pass that off as their own (sure weren’t you only doing justice to the ecstasies of enraptured joy and pain and suffering your poor old teacher went through every time he read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”?  Sure you could never respond with such passion and despair and, God help him, that level of personal response deserves an audience and sure he can’t sit the exam again, he’s surely pushing fifty at this stage and a fifty year old man sitting the Leaving Cert English exam – for the fifth time – just for the craic – is just downright sad).

Personal response became shorthand for knowing exactly what would come up on the exam and therefore not having to do any critical thinking on the day, but rather a rote learn and regurgitate exercise that everyone was pretty happy with thank you very much. Until some genius in the State Exams Commission realised that the whole thing had somehow turned into a dumbed down touchy feely personal response nightmare that was encouraging students to fake personal engagement but which was – in most cases – letting them off the hook of having to actually think for themselves in the exam.

So then it all changed again, around 2010, and the airy-fairy personal response questions started to disappear off the exam papers and more demanding, much more focused and academically rigorous questions reappeared.

And that’s where we’re at now.

If the question demands a personal response, get in there, get stuck in, show that you have opinions and you’re not afraid to express them and they belong to you – I I I all the way captain! But remember that close analysis of the text, using a sophisticated vocabulary, is always required for Honours Leaving Cert English. And above all else, at all times, ensure that everything you say is responding directly to the question you were asked.

Passive vs Active voice

Today was a weird day. On a few levels it was, quite frankly, odd. However, rather than bore you with the mundane minutiae of my daily grind, instead let me share with you an insight I had which concerns the perplexing issue of ‘personal response’.


So I’m in my room, correcting; and I’m eating gluten-free chocolate fingers to distract from the fact that I’m correcting because I hate corrections; and I stumble upon a tour-de-force essay on cultural context in Casablanca. A ‘tour de force’ essay is an essay that’s so insightful, so eloquent and so sophisticated, you wish you’d written it yourself.


I get to the end

and I give it an A.

And then I stop.

Something is bugging me.

I re-read the essay title – “A reader/viewer can feel uncomfortable with the values and attitudes which exist in a society.” To what extent did the values and attitudes portrayed in Casablanca make you feel uncomfortable?

Now I go back to the essay. It’s written in the classic passive voice of academia, where opinions are stated as fact and the writer deliberately makes him or herself invisible. I don’t personally have a problem with the passive voice – it’s how I was trained to write in school and at university. But since the new course came in (way back in 2001) there’s been a renewed emphasis, nay obsession, with personal engagement with the texts.

I’m reading phrases like “it is impossible to feel comfortable” and “it’s difficult to watch this struggle” and “it is an unimaginable horror” and “there is little about this society to praise”. Her engagement with and understanding of the text is everywhere evident. Her analysis of the values and attitudes which dominate in this society is sublime. But she never once used the word “I” – she never said “I felt uncomfortable” or “I found it deeply disturbing” or “I found myself turning away from the screen in disgust”. So I start to wonder if she would be penalised in the exam because her discomfort with this society is implicit rather than explicit.

Let me take a little tangent with you for a second, in case you don’t know the difference between implicit and explicit. If something is implicit it is “implied rather than expressly stated”.  So if I say “her choice of outfit for the wedding was… interesting!” I am implying that I didn’t like it but my criticism is veiled: I’m hinting that I disapprove rather than saying it outright.  If I wanted to be explicit I’d come right out with it – I’d say “For the love of God, where did she think she was going in that rotten flamenco pink travesty of a dress?”.

pink 2

Implicit arguments, when subtly and intelligently constructed, can be far more elegant and sophisticated than explicit ones. If I go into school tomorrow and ask my student to alter her essay and insert explicit sentences like those mentioned above (“I feel uncomfortable” “I find it disturbing”) I fear she’ll end up interrupting the flow and beauty of her writing – dumbing it down, in effect, to conform with the demands of an examination system which is dominated by highly specific marking schemes which may not be flexible enough to tolerate the subtlety of her prose. This is where the quality (and attention to detail) of the examiner really becomes vitally important – read closely, her unease with the society is everywhere referenced and evident in her writing; read quickly, or carelessly, you might be tempted to mark her down for “clarity of purpose” – not because she isn’t clear about the task she has been set, but because she chooses to engage indirectly with her discomfort, using the passive, rather than an active and personal, voice.

A related issue then emerged for me, which is the question of whether a student should speak an an individual (“I feel” “I believe” “I was shocked”) or whether a student can reasonably speak on behalf of the entire audience (“we feel” “we believe” “we are shocked”) in which case the student is using what my English teacher used to refer to as ‘the Royal “we”, where he or she writes phrases like “we ask ourselves” “this makes us uneasy” “the reader is shocked that”.

This ‘speaking on behalf of everyone royal ‘we’ (known as the royal ‘we’ because the royal family, like the Queen for example, often say things like “we must see to it that our country maintains the best of its traditions” – she speaks for everyone, not just herself)  is good on one level because it shows you are absolutely confident that your ideas represent the consensus. By speaking for everyone you are creating the impression that you have accessed the ‘truth’ of the matter and people may – possibly – respect your certainty and question you no further.

However, this idea of speaking for everyone is also highly problematic. The person reading your work ends up tempted to shout at you panto style “stop pretending you’re not there!”. Personal response is why blogs have become so popular and why newspapers have had to expand their comment and opinion sections. What sentences which include the word “I” recognise is the truth that there is no ‘truth’ about how ‘the reader’ responds because we’re all different. We don’t all think and feel and respond in the same way. There is no one collective consciousness, there are only masses of unique individuals who all respond to the world and everything in it in a way which is uniquely them. Failing to acknowledge this can mean that you come across as stupid or worse still, as arrogant. If you are a brilliant writer with original intelligent insights we may just about accept your arrogance, because it is well earned. If you are not, we’ll just find you irritating.

So what’s my advice?

Well, it was bothering me a lot so I rang a friend of mine who corrects Honours Leaving Cert English (I don’t correct the state exams because I’d end up eating too many gluten-free chocolate fingers and getting really really fat!!!) and he reckons as long as the student engages directly and consistently with the question, they’ll probably get away with using the passive voice.

However, for any student who’s not an A standard, for a student who’s not going to produce a tour-de-force work of academic brilliance, using the active, personal voice is a better option. Explicitly referencing the question asked, repeatedly and consistently throughout your essay (but vary the phrasing, please?), using the word “I” frequently, if the question demands it (‘what did you like?’ ‘what made you uncomfortable?’) is more likely to keep you on track in responding to the question and to be honest, it’s more likely to get you a higher grade in the exam.