Tag Archives: Studied

Studied poetry – questions

When the new course began in 2001, the type of questions that came up were pretty predictable and mostly revolved around giving a personal response to a poet. Since 2007 (and the public debate around grade inflation/rote learning) the questions have become more specific and ask you to discuss particular aspects of a poet’s work. What this means in effect is that you need to know the poet – it’s not enough to just learn off a personal response essay and write it in the exam. You MUST respond to the question asked and use an appropriate style (are you writing a speech? an article? a letter? a critical analysis?) and tone (who are your audience).

Let’s look at the more predictable Q’s (which were entirely absent from the 2010 and 2011 papers)

  1. Personal response = expected to include sentences which use the pronoun ‘I‘. Talk about how the poems made you feel. Identify what they taught you, how they made you look at an issue(s) in a new way. Discuss what you enjoyed in the poet’s style of writing. Explore how these themes are relevant to your life.
  2. Discuss the feelings the poet creates in you. They have on occasions specified certain feelings. For example, unhappiness in Larkin’s poetry, tension in Walcott’s poetry, sadness in Frost’s poetry, Plath as ‘intense & disturbing’. So make sure you know both what feelings the poet expresses in their work and what feelings the poems create in you.
  3. Relevance for the modern reader. This came up in 2002 as a specific question on Bishop.
  4. Appeal of a poet  – what you like and/or dislike about their poetry. Very similar to personal response.
  5. Introduce a poet to new readers giving an overview of their themes & style and explaining why you think they would enjoy reading these poems. This could be in the style of an article or written as a speech/talk for classmates. More informal style.
  6. Write a letter to the poet. You might want to ask them questions, where their inspiration come from etc…
  7. Choose a small selection for inclusion in an anthology & justify your selection. You would choose maybe 3 poems, one to represent each major theme in their ouvre.

Ultimately, however, no matter what the question you are still expected to demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the poet’s themes & style of writing, supporting this with detailed quotations.

There is one more type of question and this is the one which has dominated since 2010:

       8. A specific statement about the poet which you must discuss.

Since 2007, more and more questions have started to appear which demand that you respond to a specific question, discussing to what extent you agree or disagree with it or asking you to prove the truth of the statement (a lot like what you do for the Hamlet question). In 2007 two of the four questions did this (Frost & Plath) while two were personal response. In 2008, two of the four again made a specific statement you had to discuss (Donne & Mahon) while two were more personal response (Larkin & Rich). In 2009 only one was very specific (Walcott) while the other three just specified that you discuss BOTH themes and style in your answer (they talked about a ‘clear’ style for Keats & Montague and a ‘unique’ style for Bishop). As an aside, they keep mentioning the style of writing because a lot of students focus too much on themes (what the poet says) but forget to comment on techniques (how the poet says it) which is vital in any discussion of poetry – including your unseen section.

In 2010 ALL FOUR QUESTIONS mentioned specific aspects of a poet’s work. For Yeats it was real v’s ideal, for Rich it was themes of power and powerlessness, for Kavanagh it was transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary and for Eliot it was troubled characters in a disturbing world. In 2011 ALL FOUR QUESTIONS mentioned specific aspects of a poet’s work. For Yeats it was challenging style and subject matter, for Dickinson it was original startling and thought-provoking poetry, for Boland it was insights and precise language, for Frost it was deceptively simple style with layers of meaning. If you learn off an essay and stick to it rigidly you will not be answering the question (or not be able to answer the question) and the only way you can get a good grade in poetry is to answer the question. In other words, you need to really understand what the poet is about. I hate when students ask me if it’s true that you don’t need to discuss 6 poems in your essay. The simple answer is yes. But if you only know 3 poems by a poet you might not be able to answer the question that comes up. It all depends what appears on the day.

Poetic techniques & terminology


Rather than alphabetical, the following list is organised from simple basic terms & techniques that you must be able to identify and discuss, to more complex ones of which a passing knowledge is sufficient.

  • THEME= the message of the poem; the point the author wishes to make.

eg. In “September 1913”, Yeats points out that Ireland has become a greedy, soulless country & laments that the sacrifices our ancestors made in pursuit of Irish freedom have been forgotten.

  • TOPIC= what the poem is about (the ‘subject matter’).

eg. The topic/subject matter of “I wake and feel the fell of dark” by Hopkins is depression. Sometimes the subject matter of a poem is revealed in the title (“Child”, “Spring”) or alluded to (“Mirror” deals with the topic of vanity & identity).

  • TONE = the attitude of the writer towards his subject matter.

eg. Yeats’ tone is bitter and resentful in “September 1913”; Hopkins tone is awestruck and accusatory in “God’s Grandeur”; Plath’s is both celebratory and cautious in “Morning Song”. The tone can vary; many tones can be contained within a single poem.

  • MOOD = feelings expressed. Includes what the writer/speaker feels AND how the reader feels when they read the poem. May also be related to the atmosphere created..

 eg. In “Felix Randal” the mood varies from relief, to sympathy, to impatience, to acceptance, to comfort, to admiration, and ends with a triumphant and fiercely energetic mood in the space of 14 lines!

NOTE: Tone & mood are closely related. The tone of voice used will often influence the mood/atmosphere. Yeats’ uses a sarcastic tone to reveal his anger and frustration when he says “For men were born to pray and save” in “September 1913”.


Largely through their choice of words:

  • Colour – white suggests purity & cleanliness; red – passion & sometimes blood/violence; black – darkness & despair; green can suggest envy or nature/new growth; yellow – sunshine or sickness (jaundice); purple – royalty or bruises; grey – depression or poverty; brown – dirt & decay; orange – glow & happiness.

 Obviously, the context in which the colours appear will influence your interpretation of their meaning. “Her yellow face moaned & writhed” suggests illness, pain. “Yellow rays played upon her face” suggests sunshine, energy.  

  •  Positive or negative adjectives – tremendous, delirious, fabulous, heavenly V’s heavy, ugly, rusty, terrible, horrific.
  •  Positive or negative verbs – to shine, to gather, to spring, to capture, to sooth, to comfort, to light, to brood, to bloom, to fill, to meditate, to sing, to skip, to brighten, to build V’s  to flicker, to seep, to swarm, to wring, to fumble, to shiver, to weigh, to scatter, to thread, to fight, to moan, to cry, to ooze, to mock, to break.
  • Rhythm & sound effects – a fast rhythm can suggest excitement, danger or anger (depending on the poem). A poet creates a fast rhythm by (a) using lots of short words (monosyllabic = single syllable), (b) using words which contain the narrow vowel sounds ‘e’ & ‘i’ and (c) repeating guttural ( g ‘guh’ / greed, r ‘ruh’ / riot), harsh ( h ‘hah’ / hate,  c/k ‘kuh’ / cry) or explosive consonants ( b ‘buh’ / bite, p ‘puh’ / pinch) eg. “There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s Barn tonight” eg. “Why do men then now not reck his rod?

A slow rhythm can suggest relaxation, sadness or disappointment (depending on the poem). A poet creates a slow rhythm by (a) using lots of long words, (b) using words which contain the broad vowel sounds ‘o’, ‘a’ & ‘ee’ and (c) repeating soft consonants ( s ‘ss’ / soft, l ‘el’ / lovely). eg. “When weeds in wheels shoot long and lovely and lush” eg. “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore” .

  • IMAGERY = the picture the writer creates using words. eg “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish” (Plath, “Mirror”). “And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell” (Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”). “Coming with vivid faces / From counter or desk among grey / Eighteenth-century houses” (Yeats’ “Easter 1916”)


In order to discuss imagery, you must be willing to comment on the writers choice of words (what does a word suggest to you?) and to describe the picture that is created in your mind by the phrase/image. (In other words, your imagination must be active and at work as you are reading!)        

eg. Plath creates a clear picture of childhood when she says“I want to fill it with colour and ducks / The zoo of the new” Immediately the reader is reminded of bright primary colours, rubber duckies from bath-time, and thrilling trips to the zoo to see exotic animals for the first time.

You may also want to comment on the feelings that this image creates in you. From the example above, my answer might continue…

The emphasis on innocence (everything is “new”) and abundance (when Plath uses the verb “fill”) creates a very optimistic and joyous mood. The use of the word “colour” completes our sense that this is a bright and carefree celebration of the child’s potential to experience everything positive the world has to offer. Finally, the poet’s desire to provide this for her child comes across when she says very simply “I want.

Notice that of the 14 words in the quote, I have commented on 7 of them. I describe the picture the image created in my mind. I comment on the atmosphere (innocence & abundance) and the mood (optimistic, joyous) the words create. I identify both verbs in the sentence (‘fill’ & ‘want’) and the feelings they suggest. Finally, I link this image to the theme of the poem (the overall point Plath makes – that she wants her child to ‘experience everything positive the world has to offer’). 

 Imagery & the senses…

We experience the world through the five senses – taste, touch, sight, smell and sound. If a writer wishes us to feel that we are there beside him, in the experience, he must give us details of smells, sounds, and textures as well as describing what he can see. Look at the following example:

“The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard /And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood”

We can hear the sound of the saw because the poet uses the onomatopoeic words ‘buzz’ ‘snarl’ & ‘rattle’. We can see the exact size of the logs they are cutting because the poet includes the detail ‘stove-length sticks’. We can almost taste and smell the dust in the air.     

Images can be VISUAL – we can see them

Images can be AUDITORY – we can hear them

Images can be TACTILE– we can touch them 

Images can be OLFACTORY – we can smell them

Images can be SENSUOUS – we can feel/taste their texture

Handy phrases:

The image is particularly striking / unusual / eye-catching because……

The writer offers a vivid image of ………….

The poets choice of verbs (‘rush’ & ‘charge’) adds energy & movement.

The description is particularly remarkable because ………….

The poem is full of bright, colourful imagery. The poet uses the words….

The poem is full of dark, haunting images of death and destruction…..

The auditory images in the poem are particularly loud, due to the poets use of onomatopoeia in the line “the buzz saw snarled and rattled”

The image is very sensuous, in its description of “silken velvet thighs”.

The imagery of spring creates a sense of possibility, of new beginnings.

The imagery of winter suggests that the end is nigh / that life is difficult.

The image of the scarecrow suggests poverty & frailty; a pitiful creature.

The image of the Holy Ghost as a mother hen protecting her nest is extremely comforting. It also offers us an interesting perspective on how small and insignificant man is when compared to God.


  • REPETITION = repeating a word or phrase to emphasise its importance/ create a regular rhythm.

eg. “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone /It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”

The poet repeats the most important point over and over. The line remains lodged in our brains long after we have finished reading (like the chorus of a song). The repetition of this line at the end of every verse makes the poem resemble a ballad, and creates a strong rhythm. This repetition also emphasises the poets certainty.

Effect? Emphasis. Certainty. Rhythm. Idea becomes memorable, lodges in the brain.

  •  PERSONIFICATION = describing an object/idea as though it were alive. Giving it human qualities.

eg. “I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions / Whatever I see I swallow immediately” 

Plath uses personification in the poem “Mirror”. What is the effect? The relationship between the poet and the object comes to life. The sense that one can be devoured by vanity is contained in the word “swallow” and the mirror is likened to a bottomless pit.

Effect? Object/place/idea which is personified becomes a ‘character’, and the poet’s relationship with this object/place/idea takes centre stage. 

Object can appear in a positive (friendly, bright, comforting) or a negative (destructive, cruel, ferocious) light, depending on the description. Idea of objects coming to life can be frightening. Personification can help us to look at an object/place/idea in a new light (see Roddy Doyle’s brilliant use of personification in the short story ‘Brilliant’)

  •  CONTRAST = placing 2 very different things side by side

eg. “Like a trapped bird she hid behind her hair / Confident buxom girls crowded the corridors”

The girl’s isolation seems emphasised when it is contrasted with the friendship these crowds of girls enjoy. Her shyness contrasts with their confidence. Thus, the poet uses contrast to emphasise that this girl is an outsider and doesn’t fit in.

eg. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God / ……Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil…”

Much of Hopkins’ poetry makes use of contrast. The beauty of God’s creation and  man’s destructive disregard for nature are placed side by side. The effect of using this technique is that man’s sins seem even more heinous, and nature’s power to renew itself seems even more admirable.         

 Effect? (a) allows writer to emphasise differences between two things        

           &    (b) highlight the unique characteristics of each. 

  • SYMBOLISM = a word becomes a sign of something other than simply itself.

 e.g. The heart is an organ that pumps blood around the body but it is also a symbol of love. The scorpion is an insect but it can also be a symbol of poisonous evil. A mirror is an object that reflects peoples appearances but it can also be a symbol of vanity. A lion is a dangerous animal but it can also be a symbol of courage.

 e.g. In “September 1913” John O’Leary is a real person who Yeats was friendly with, and who fought for Irish freedom, but he also becomes a symbol of bravery, self-sacrifice and devotion to your country.

Effect? This is a powerful device because it encourages the reader to read deeper layers of meaning into the poem. It also allows the poet to evoke an idea (vanity) without naming it directly. Writers consider this important because they don’t like stating the obvious, or saying things in an overly direct and childlike way.

  •  SIMILE = where the writer compares 2 things using the words ‘like’ or ‘as’.

 eg. Plath says of her bees “It is the noise that appals me most of all, / The unintelligible syllables. / It is like a Roman mob

Often, the writer will compare two things that on the surface are very different – at first we think that a box full of bees is nothing like a mob of poor people from ancientRome. However, both are dangerous when upset, both find strength in numbers, both can create a buzz of anger and unease, and both feel mistreated by those with power over them.          

 When discussing a simile, first state which two things are being compared; next explain the link/similarities between them. A good simile helps us to understand something more clearly (eg. the bees) by comparing it to something else (the mob). Writers try to avoid similes that are used in everyday speech, however, as they lack originality and have become clichéd – for example “as black as coal”, “sweet like chocolate”, “run like the wind”, “as strong as an ox”.

Effect? Helps the reader to form a vivid picture. Reader can quickly understand what an object is like by linking it in their minds to something else.

  • METAPHOR = where two things are said to be the same.

eg. Seamus Heaney in “Bogland” declares “The ground itself is kind, black butter”. Obviously, the bog is not made of butter, but by saying that that the ground IS butter, instead of saying the ground is LIKE butter, the comparison becomes more direct, forceful, and certain. In other words, many writers prefer metaphors to similes, because they think they are more powerful!   

Other examples which should help you to clarify the difference between metaphors and similes e.g. “a blanket of mist” instead of “mist like a blanket” e.g. “the eyes are the mirror of the soul” instead of “the eyes are like a mirror” e.g. “the yellow smoke…licked it’s tongue into the corners of the evening” instead of “the yellow smoke was like a  tongue”.    

Effect? Helps the reader to form a vivid picture. Reader can quickly understand what an object is like by linking it in their minds to something else.

NOTE: Similes/metaphors make a poet’s imagery more vivid / effective.

  •  ALLUSION = where the writer makes reference to ‘well-known’ figures or events from literature, history or mythology.

 eg. In “Easter 1916” Yeats makes reference to Padraic Pearse: “This man had kept a school / And rode our winged horse”. In “Spring”Hopkinsrefers to the biblical story of Adam & Eve’s fall from grace, and the subsequent infection of the world with sin: “A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning /In Eden garden…”

Effect? The writer gives the impression that he is very educated and knowledgeable, and as a result the reader is more likely to respect his opinion and believe that he has something important to say. By connecting his work to previous important events and famous works of literature, the writer indirectly suggests that his work belongs on a par with them. The meaning of the poem also gains a greater depth and significance through reference to similar historical/literary events/figures. If the reader is unfamiliar with the reference, this can rouse his/her curiosity. However, if a writer uses allusion too often, or refers to obscure or difficult sources, the reader can become confused & frustrated, and begin to feel stupid, because they don’t ‘get’ it.

NOTE: Lots of television programmes now make extensive use of allusion. “The Simpsons” frequently makes reference to well-known celebrities, historical figures & historical events. “Killnaskully” recently based an entire episode on the story of the John B. Keane play “The Field”. If you ‘get’ the reference, the episode (or poem) becomes funnier or more meaningful. If you don’t, it can be hard to make sense of it and thus excessive use of allusion can be frustrating for the reader – but you can always find out what it means and then the poem has another layer mof meaning for you to access.

  •  HYPERBOLE = the deliberate use of exaggeration.

eg. Wordsworth, in the poem “The Daffodils” says “ten thousand saw I at a glance” in order to emphasise their sheer number and create drama for the reader. Hyperbole can also add humour – “he had an arse like an elephant and a personality to match” or emphasise the strength of a person’s feelings  – “football isn’t just a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that”. However, if used too often, it loses its effect.

Effect? Adds drama, humour and/or emphasis.

  • AMBIGUITY = where words/sentences have more than one meaning/ are open to numerous interpretations.

 eg. Kavanagh, in the poem “Inniskeen Rd…” says “A road, a mile of kingdom I am king / Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.” 

In this example the word “blooming” creates the ambiguity because the word can mean ‘to grow’ – so he is king of every growing thing in nature OR the word “blooming” can be a curse – so he is king of every bloody thing! This makes it difficult for the reader to decide if he is happy or upset.

Poets often make their poetry ambiguous (open to various interpretations) deliberately. In this example, Kavanagh was happy to be left alone on the road because it inspired him – what ‘bloomed’ or grew from the experience was this poem. Yet he was also sad that he didn’t fit in, that he was always alone – and that is why he curses. Thus, the writer uses ambiguity to explain to us that he felt TWO WAYSabout this experience – both happy and sad.

Effect? Poems can mean different things to different people. Writers use ambiguity to point out that our feelings, our experiences, and our words are not always simple and straightforward – sometimes they mean more than one thing to us! Writers can express the complexity of their feelings or ideas by deliberately creating an ambiguous statement. For example, Yeats’ attitude towards the 1916 Rising: “a terrible beauty is born”. The violence & bloodshed is terrible, but the rebels’ devotion to Irish freedom and their willingness to fight for what they believe in is beautiful.        

  • RHETORICAL Q = a Q that doesn’t require a response (a statement disguised as a question). 

eg. Yeats asks “Was it for this the wild geese spread… /For this that all that blood was shed?” but the unspoken, implied answer is emphatically NO.

Usually, the tone of rhetorical questions is one of outrage and disbelief “Are we barbaric enough to bring back capital punishment?”

 Effect? By asking a rhetorical question, (and suggesting that the answer is so obvious that no-one need even answer), the writer implies that anyone who disagrees with him is a fool.


  • ALLITERATION = the repetition of the same letter at the beginning of a series of words. Eg. “Billy Brennan’s Barn”

Effect? Depends on the letter – see above.  Our eye is drawn to the repetition of the same letter, and our ear perks up when we hear the same sound repeated. Used for emphasis, and for the musical effect it creates.

  • ONOMATOPOEIA = words whose sound imitates their meaning. eg. “buzz, tinkle, rattle, stutter, whisper, bang”

Effect? The reader can hear what is being described. Auditory images (those which appeal to our sense of hearing) bring a description to life.

  • ASSONANCE  = the repetition of similar vowel sounds.

Effect? Alters speed/rhythm of the line. See above (fast/slow rhythm).