Category Archives: Studied poetry

Notes on studied poets.

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


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.

Sample Poetry Paragraph

What are the essential ingredients you should try to integrate when discussing poetry? To me, they are

  • Themes / ideas
  • Techniques
  • Feelings – poet
  • Feelings – reader / personal response
  • Quotes
  • References (paraphrased)
  • Links to other poems
  • Linking phrases (to create flow)
  • Context and/or biographical detail (where relevant)

Now check out this sample paragraph of critical analysis and see if you can figure out which colour refers to which of the elements listed above.

(ps. If you were in my class when we did this exercise today, just a quick warning, the colours are different so don’t allow that to confuse you when you’re poring over this trying to do your homework…)

Living in Sin” offers a fascinating exploration of male/female  relationships. As with “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”, the poem is built around a series of contrasts but this time Rich embraces free verse;  the entire poem flows down the page in a series of lengthening run-on lines. The woman in the poem (presumably Rich herself) soon finds dust upon the furniture of love when she moves in with her lover. Her preoccupation with household chores (she pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found a towel to dust the table-top”) is cleverly juxtaposed with his laid-back demeanour; he shrugged at the mirror, rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes”.  She brilliantly evokes her frustration as she focuses obsessively on dripping taps, grimy windows, empty beer bottles and leftover food (in many ways this reminds me of my own mother!). However, rather than simply blame the man (as she had previously done in AJT), here she begins to question the deeply ingrained gender roles which programme women to notice clutter and dirt. I love how she also recognises that obsessing over housework is somehow foolish (she is being jeered by the minor demons”) and she admits that she envies his ability to prioritise his creativity (she admires his paintings, particularly hiscat stalking the picturesque amusing mouse”). Ultimately however, her anger and resentment at being reduced to nothing more than a ‘housewife’ boil over (like the coffee pot on the stove). I found the final image in the poem haunting and terribly sad, as depression sets inthroughout the night she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming like a relentless milkman up the stairs”.

Seamus Heaney RIP

to grab your sorrow by the throat

to grapple with it and lunge it heaving from your chest

and force it into words

is no easy task.

we spent hours together you and I.

you never saw me,

we never spoke,

now, we never will.

but in my mind I knew you –

and in your words, you knew us all –

and that,

my friend,

is enough.



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