Category Archives: Studied poetry

Notes on studied poets.

Why introductions matter…

Scenario 1.

We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You’ve figured out in advance how we’re going to get to our destination so I can sit back and enjoy the journey because it’s clear that you know where you’re going and that inspires confidence in me and helps me relax.


Scenario 2.

We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You really have no idea how we’re going to get to our destination but you’ve driven some of these roads before and you’re happy to make it up as we go along and see what happens. Because you are gifted at improvisation and have a particular talent for marking every signpost along the way we do get there in the end and I’m pretty impressed even though I was nervous to begin with because I wasn’t entirely sure you knew what you were doing.

Scenario 3.


We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You really have no idea how we’re going to get to our destination. You have to just make it up as we go along because you really didn’t prepare for this journey in advance and now you’re sweating. We both know we’ve got a deadline and we’re both nervous that we’re not going to get there on time. We end up getting lost a bunch of times, you spend far too long on the first leg of our journey, you double back a few times and when the deadline arrives you don’t know what to do. Keep going in the hope that you’ll get there eventually or start your next journey, which also involves a time limit? The experience is frustrating and demoralising for both of us and in the end we give up without ever reaching our destination, which is disappointing.

Scenario 4.


We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You’ve planned our journey carefully in advance but suddenly I spring the news on you that we’re not going to the exact destination you expected us to. Stunned by this news, you start driving anyway because you feel there’s no time to improvise a new set of directions and you end up on autopilot, just driving the roads you already know, following the directions you had planned in advance. We reach a destination just as our time is up but it’s not where I asked you to go. I’m annoyed because I clearly stated what our new destination was and you’re annoyed with yourself because even though we’ve arrived in time, we’ve arrived in the wrong place. You know it, I know it but it’s too late to do anything about it. We’re both frustrated and disappointed.


Scenario 5.

We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You’ve planned our journey carefully in advance but suddenly I spring the news on you that we’re not going to the exact destination you expected us to. You hide your disappointment from me, confident that the new destination isn’t a million miles away from our original plan, and you quickly sketch out a new route. You rely on your prior knowledge but also improvise a certain amount and we get there on time. I’m delighted with you, you’re delighted with you, we have a real sense of achievement and you can move on to your next journey with the adrenaline pumping, ready for the next challenge.

What does it all mean?

Scenario 1 is unlikely to happen. If an essay title (destination) comes up exactly as you’ve prepared it, fair play, happy days, off you go. Pay really close attention to the address however. Ballymoe and Ballymote sound similar but they are not the same place…

Scenario 2 is really where gifted students come into their own. Despite seeing the essay title (destination) for the first time when they sit into the exam (car), they are completely unfazed. These people write beautifully all of the time; they have a good knowledge base to start off with and they are utterly fearless when it comes to improvising on the spot even under time constraints. To be in their presence is to be in awe of their brilliance. Not too many people fall into this category – lucky you if you’re one of them!

Scenario 3 is the student who either doesn’t really know their stuff or who panics and draws a complete blank. I feel sorry for the blankers. I do not feel particularly sorry for the bluffers who don’t know what they’re talking about, particularly after I’ve gone on a torturous journey with them through their essay and still ended up no-where. The whole thing will have been a frustrating waste of my time and theirs. But I repeat, I do feel sorry for those who blank under exam conditions.

Scenario 4 is perhaps the most frustrating of all. It’s also the most common. It’s clear that they have a good knowledge and if they’d just focus and apply that knowledge we might actually get to where we want to go. Yes we might have to take a few shortcuts along the way in order to get there on time, but isn’t it better to take shortcuts and get to where we want to go rather than include everything we’d planned in advance and end up in the wrong place?

Scenario 5 is where it’s at. Use what you know but be willing to improvise a certain amount. Think quickly on your feet but don’t panic. Remind yourself that the same basic knowledge can be applied no matter what the essay title (destination).

Remember, the examiner (and your teacher) would like to go on a journey with you which is calm and focused on getting where you need to go. If you have to leave out a few stops along the way that’s fine. It’s not as if you’re expected to cover every single road in the province on this one journey – you will not visit at least 80% of the roads/knowledge available to you. The important thing is that you get where you’re going on time without too many false starts, detours or speeding fines near the end!

p.s. this only applies 100% to critical essays – single text, poetry, comparative. Short stories and personal essays allow you to take detours – sometimes this is what makes them great! Newspaper articles ask you to jump to the end, then go back on yourself and fill in the journey in reverse.

Poetry essays

General advice on poetry essay:

  1. Length of your essay = absolute minimum 3 & a half pages (some people can and will write more in 50 minutes).
  2. It’s ok to deal with four poems (not all six you’ve studied) in your essay BUT KNOW at least 5 – it depends on the question asked which poems you’ll choose to discuss.
  3. Your essay MUST deal with WHAT THE POET SAYS (themes/ideas) and HOW THE POET SAYS IT (techniques). What techniques has the poet used in the quotes you’ve included AND WHY!!! (effect of the technique on the poem/reader).
  4. Focus on answering the question – first and last sentence of each paragraph must connect (what you will discuss/have discussed) to the question asked.
  5. Opening sentence of your essay – please don’t simply parrot back the question word for word. You must respond to the question immediately but there are more subtle ways to do it! “I agree fully” sentences are a yawn-fest for the examiner.
  6. Final sentences of your essay – personal response. What insight or wisdom have you gained from studying this poet. What feelings did his/her poetry evoke in you.

Good luck!

Writing about poetry

Don’t tell the story of the poem, appreciate the ideas it expresses.

Don’t point out techniques, rather discuss the effect each technique has on the reader.

Don’t state facts, instead aim to capture your emotional response.

That is all.


Introductions & Conclusions

Think of your introduction as a road map. You have been given a destination (the question) and there are lots of perfectly acceptable ways of getting there. In your introduction you lay out clearly what directions you’ll take in your essay. Your conclusion is where you look back on the highlights of your journey and recap on what you have learnt along the way!

INTRODUCTION: MAKE SURE TO USE THE WORDS FROM THE Q – but don’t begin by simply parroting back the question word for word. There is nothing worse than the predictable “I agree 100% that…..”. You could begin with a quote and/or with a dramatic statement and you must engage with the question asked.

Each introduction needs the following:

  • Thesis (main idea) = eg. Plath’s poetry is filled with the fears we all share.
  • Main topics to be discussed = (1), (2), (3)
  • Answer the Question = PR – my personal response (sentences using “I” or “me”)

Imagine the question is “Plath’s poetry offers us a frightening yet fascinating insight into her personal demons

Sample introduction:

(Thesis) Plath’s poetry captures the fear in the heart of us all. Fear of failure, fear of unhappiness, fear of hitting the bottom and being unable to claw our way back to sanity. (1) In the poems “Morning Song” and “Child”, Plath is afraid that despite her best intentions she is will not be a good mother to her children. (2) In “Mirror” and “Elm” she fears that her depression & disappointment with life will destroy her. (3) In “Pheasant” and “The Arrival of the Beebox” she worries that power corrupts people in frightening ways. (PR) I found this exploration of human fears and insecurities in her poetry both fascinating & disturbing.

CONCLUSION: MAKE SURE TO USE THE WORDS FROM THE QUESTION but don’t simply repeat what you said in the introduction and don’t introduce new ideas.

Each conclusion must:

  • Link the last paragraph to the first.
  • Repeat the thesis (main idea) but rephrase it.
  • Taking each idea in turn (1. motherhood, 2. depression, 3. power) say what you learned from studying each issue & this poet in general. By doing this you will be showing how you have proved your thesis/answered the Q

 Sample conclusion:

(Thesis) Thus we see that Plath’s poetry begins in fear and ends in fear. Yet studying her poetry and getting an insight into her personal demons was for me an uplifting as well as a depressing experience. (1)I personally admired her determination to provide only the best for her children and learnt that parenting can involve many difficult challenges. (2)I found her exploration of the loss of youth in Mirror and the loss of love & sanity in Elm truly disturbing, but in a positive way these poems encouraged me to avoid putting pressure on myself to be ‘perfect’ in appearance and behaviour. (3) Finally, Plath’s poetry challenged me to avoid exploiting the power I have over nature and to have a greater respect for the environment. Accompanying Plath on her journey to the bottom was not easy but I learnt a lot about life on the way and I would strongly recommend her poetry despite it’s difficult subject matter.

Some obvious things that need to be said:

Don’t put in the bits in bold/brackets – I’m just putting them in to make it really obvious what each sentence is doing.

This is a good introduction and conclusion FOR THIS PARTICULAR ESSAY TITLE. But don’t be rubbing your hands together in glee, saying ‘yey, I’ll just learn off this introduction and conclusion and write them if Plath comes up‘ – you can’t write a definitive introduction and conclusion in advance because you don’t know what the question will be until you open the exam paper. And you MUST answer the question. And there’s also the not so small matter of plagiarism to consider!

Studied poetry: mistakes.

  1. Ignoring the question: if you are asked for a personal response to a poet’s work, every paragraph must contain at least two sentences which include the word “I”. If you are given a statement to discuss, keep using the words from the question (and synonyms) and showing how what you’re discussing is relevant to the question asked. Don’t just rewrite the question at the end of every paragraph and hope this will do – it won’t!

  2. Writing the name of the poem incorrectly (or worse getting the name of the poem wrong!). When you write the name of a poem, use capital letters and quotation marks eg “The War Horse”, “A Constable Calls”

  1. Lack of quotes! The sure sign of a bluffer. Quotes provide proof that you

    (a)know the poems and (b) can back up any statements you make with concrete evidence.

  1. Quotes at the beginning of sentences/paragraphs. Never write down the quote and then comment on it. This suggests you’re just throwing the quote on the page and then making up something to say about it. Bad idea! The rule is statement FOLLOWED by quote. This way you show you are in control of what you want to say.
  1. Telling the STORY of the poem – sum up what the poem is about in ONE or two sentences. Leave it at that. Your job is to analyse the way the ideas are expressed (techniques), the feelings the poem contains & creates in you, the way ideas recur and develop from poem to poem. Comment on the ideas rather than just saying what ideas the poem contains.

  1. Lack of personal response! You need to show that studying this poet has changed your perspective on life, taught you something valuable, opened your eyes to an issue you had previously ignored, provoked an emotional response, connected to something in your own life. Your job is to convince the reader that this poet is worth a closer look. However, don’t ramble off on a tangent about yourself (there was this one time, at band camp… yawn!). Ultimately you are offering a detailed analysis of the poetry, not a diary of your life. A good rule of thumb is to confine personal response to two sentences per paragraph.

  1. Long rambling sentences, paragraphs that sprawl to over a page, pointless repetition. Try to form the sentence in your head before you write it down. DO NOT vomit onto the page. If you can say what you need to say neatly and concisely in 2 sentences instead of 6 – DO. Try to avoid saying the same thing a couple of different ways. Make your point and move on. The examiner is looking for economy of language: each sentence is crammed with information; no idea or quote is ever repeated; essay is carefully structured into neat paragraphs; linking phrases are used to create flow from idea to idea and from paragraph to paragraph.
  1. Poem by poem analysis which doesn’t establish links between them – you are giving an overview of the poet’s work, showing how the poems fit together, analysing common themes or recurring techniques. Do not just write three mini essays on individual poems. Link them! Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence. This topic sentence can be thematic, stylistic or tonal.

e.g. THEMATIC = “Boland explores historical events from a deeply personal and individual viewpoint”

e.g. STYLISTIC = “Eavan Boland makes wonderful use of contrast in many of her poems, to bring each issue she deals with into sharper focus”

e.g. TONAL = “Boland masterfully evokes the depth of human suffering in her poems”