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Unseen poetry

Generally speaking you can answer one 20 mark question or two 10 mark questions so we’ll deal with them separately here.

The 20mark question usually goes a little something like this:

  • Write a personal response to this poem, highlighting the impact it makes on you.
  • Describe the impact this poem makes on you as a reader.

As with studied poetry you are expected to include sentences which use the pronoun I.

  1. Talk about how the poems made you feel.
  2. Identify what they taught you, how they made you look at an issue(s) in a new way.
  3. Mention how these themes are relevant to your life.
  4. Discuss what you enjoyed in the poet’s style of writing

Remember though, no matter what the question, you are expected to quickly figure out the message/theme of the poem, identify some techniques, and comment on the feelings created in the poem and in you. DO NOT go off on a long rambling tangent about how this poem reminds you of this thing that happened to you once. Mention the poem’s relevance to your life in passing but stay focused – your job is to discuss and interpret the poem and how the poem affects you emotionally/intellectually not to talk about yourself (you can do this in Paper 1 QB and essay).  

10 mark questions

Questions on the mood/feelings/atmosphere (see poetic techniques & terminology)

  • What is the mood of this poem and how is it conveyed?
  • How does this poem make you feel? Explain by detailed reference to the poem.
  • How well does the poem capture the boy’s sense of excitement and hope?
  • Choose two phrases which best capture the girl’s feelings. Give reasons for your choices.

Questions on the setting (see language of narration / descriptive writing)

  • Do you like the world that the poet describes in this poem? Give reasons for your answer.

Questions on the imagery/ style of writing (see poetic techniques & terminology)

  • Choose one image/line from this poem that appealed to you. Explain your choice.
  • The poem uses beautiful imagery to capture an ugly reality. Discuss.
  • The poem makes effective use of irony – discuss.

Questions on the poet/speaker/characters in the poem

  • What impression do you get of ….. the poet’s father – the father/son relationship? (see list of character traits).
  • What impact does this childhood experience have on the poet/speaker?
  • What kind of life do you think the speaker lives?

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.

Broadsheets vs. Tabloids


  • Sometimes use PUNS eg. “SUPERMARKET SORRY 4 MIS-STEAK”
  • Sometimes use CLICHES eg. “CAN’T BUY ME LOVE”
  • Sometimes use RHYMES eg. “SIMON’S AGE RAGE”

A pun is a play on words eg. “Hole found in nudist camp wall. Police are looking into it.”

A cliché is an over-used/well-known phrase: “Good old days” “Monkey see, monkey do”




Hamlet – typical questions

It’s difficult to predict what questions will come up for the Shakespearean play. A couple of years ago a lot of multinational companies in Ireland complained that graduates were increasingly finding it difficult to critically analyse data – in other words, to think about large amounts of information and pick out what mattered. Simultaneously, concerns were raised about grade inflation – the number of people achieving high grades in school and college exams kept increasing. The population weren’t getting any cleverer, so the exams must be getting easier.

The examinations commission responded and as a result the more predictable (‘there’s always a character Q’ or ‘personal response’ in poetry) questions are disappearing. There is no need to despair however. You know plenty – you just need a strategy to pick out what matters on the day.

If you figure out how to do this then you’ll also have developed a skill that will last you a lifetime, and one which multinational corporations will be looking for when you graduate college and are looking for a job. So it’s not all a big waste of time even if it feels like that now!

First of all let’s look at the broad categories questions usually fall into.

  2. THEME
  3. OPEN
  4. STYLE

You must be able to discuss the following when it comes to characters:


  • his state of mind (mostly revealed in soliloquies)
  • his ‘madness’
  • his delay (procrastination)
  • his nobility (is he a good man?) / strengths & weaknesses
  • a tragic hero or an anti-hero?
  • his relationship with Claudius (the struggle between them)
  • his relationship with women (Gertrude & Ophelia) & treatment of them

CLAUDIUS  (a good king? a villain? or an admirable villain?)

GERTRUDE (a good mother despite her flaws? a negative portrayal of women?)

OPHELIA (an innocent victim or a weak and foolish girl? a negative portrayal of women?)

I seriously doubt (please don’t let this come back to haunt me) they’ll ask you to discuss one of the minor characters like Polonius or Horatio, but be able to write one paragraph on each as they would be relevant in discussing good versus evil or loyalty and betrayal. You also need to be able to write one paragraph on Fortinbras and one on Laertes for the theme of revenge.

The major themes in the play are:

  • Revenge (and justice)
  • Good versus Evil
  • Loyalty & Betrayal
  • Appearance versus Reality (Deception)
  • Power & Corruption
  • Death
  • Love

For each theme – no matter what the wording – ask yourself

  1. WHO does this theme apply to?
  2. HOW / WHY does this character have to deal with this issue?
  3. Do they CHANGE over the course of the play?
  4. Are there any SCENES which highlight this theme specifically?
  5. What are our FINAL IMPRESSIONS of this issue?

Asking these questions – and being able to come up with answers yourself – is what critical analysis is all about. Also, anything you take the time to figure out for yourself sticks in your brain. Reading someone else’s ideas just isn’t quite the same!

Open questions ask you to discuss the entire play – not the plot, but your experience of watching/studying the play.

  • Favourite / most dramatic scene.
  • Relevance to a modern audience.
  • Although Hamlet is a tragedy, it is a play with many memorable comic moments – discuss.
  • Hamlet is a dark, depressing and pessimistic play – discuss.

Style questions are quite difficult and pretty rare in the new course (so far) – they ask you to look at how the play is written.

  • Language & imagery.
  • Dramatic function of various characters (how they make the plot more compelling).

No matter how the question is phrased on the day, you must stay calm. Keep using the words from the question and synonyms.

Write down the 5 key Q’s – 1. WHO? 2. HOW/WHY? 3. CHANGE? 4. SCENES? 5. FINAL IMPRESSIONS?

You must quickly plan your 6 paragraphs.

As you are writing, if one paragraph gets too long, turn it into two, no big deal.

Beware of just starting to write and writing until the hour is up (writing whatever comes into your head without doing any planning). This stream of consciousness approach tends to lead to waffle, plot summary and lots of irrelevant information which has nothing to do with the question.

Keep the question in your mind at all times as you write. Remember you must demonstrate that the information you are including is relevant to the question being asked.

If any of the questions above freak you out why not try to figure out what you might discuss now, rather than on the day? You don’t have to write the full essay, you could just plan your 6 paragraphs and think about what quotes you might include.

Good luck!

Comparative Modes


Cultural context looks at the society the characters live in – the unique world mirrored/created in the text.

It also looks at how your culture can affect your behaviour and your opportunities.

Think about where and when each text is set.

Think about the values and attitudes that matter to these characters and about how they formed these beliefs – did their culture influence them?

The most powerful forces in a society include religion, gender roles, attitudes towards sex and marriage, social status/class, job opportunities/emigration, (wealth/poverty), politics, authority figures, stereotypes/ethnic identity.

The culture we live in can have a huge effect on how we live our lives. Our culture can shape our attitudes and behaviour. It can also limit our freedom.


  • the view of life offered by the writer AND
  • the way the reader/viewer feels as they read/watch the text.

We already have certain expectations of a text once we know what genre it falls into – if it’s a tragedy, we expect the vision to be dark/sad/depressing. If it’s a comedy, we expect a lighthearted vision. If it’s a romance we expect a hopeful view of love. However, few texts fall neatly into one category -you can have moments of comedy in a tragedy, romances which don’t end in happily ever after, comedies which reveal sad truths about life.

You may want to ask yourself if the text is positive or negative

  • in the view of humanity it offers?
  • in the view of society it offers? does change seems possible?
  • in the way it ends? (the end leaves the most lasting impression)

Also ask yourself how you feel as you read/watch the text. Does it make you laugh? or cry? feel frustrated? or outraged? Does it leave you feeling like you have to challenge injustice? Make the world a better place? Or do you feel satisfied that all is well in the world?


This one is pretty self-evident. Find ONE common theme – love, war, death, injustice, communication, family, conflict, isolation, plagiarism, forgiveness. Then look at how the theme is introduced, how it is developed, what our final impressions of this theme are.


Literary genre deals with how a story is told. On a basic level, the texts tell their stories differently depending on whether they are a novel, play or film. For the novel, this involves the use of descriptive prose with a narrator(s) forwarding the plot. In the play the story is told through the dialogue and stage directions. While we may study drama by reading its text, it is often easy to lose sight of the fact that playwrights intend for their work to be performed on stage and not simply read in a classroom. In this light, the performance of actors and indeed the production will be as critical as the text. This also applies to film-although interestingly we don’t study a film by reading its screenplay. However what distinguishes film from the other media is the ability of a director to use different camera angles and more elaborate sets/locations to tell a story.

The following aspects all contribute to how the story is told:

  • CHARACTERISATION: how are the character’s personalities revealed to us? how does the writer make us care about them and sympathise with them? All of the elements mentioned below contribute to characterisation.
  • NARRATION: Who narrates the story? Is there a narrator? Are there multiple narrators? If so, are they reliable? If not, how is the story advanced? How does the choice of narrator effect our attitude to the characters and our level of sympathy for them?
  • FLASHBACK: Do flashbacks fill in backstory and offer us a deeper insight into the characters? Texts often begin at a later point and then look back at what happened in the past – sometimes this adds to the suspense. We are literally filling in the blanks between then and ‘now’ (the point where the story began). Sometimes stories come full circle. This can be positive (so that’s how it all happened!) or negative (that’s so awful, all that effort and nothing has changed). Flashforward is used to jump forward in time and is very effective at keeping the reader/viewer engaged. Because we only get a partial glimpse of what lies in store for the character, we become very curious to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Foreshadowing is a technique which just hints at what lies in store and this creates a sense of foreboding for the reader/viewer.
  • MUSIC & LIGHTING – this applies mostly to films and plays although some novels do make reference to songs that hold a special significance for the characters. Both are used to create and/or enhance a particular mood or atmosphere.
  • IMAGERY AND SYMBOLISM – are there any ideas that keep cropping up over and over again? What significance do they have? What do they represent in the journey the main character is on?
  • DIALOGUE – the writer can make use of local dialect, spell words phonetically (so the person’s accent is captured) or use varying degrees of formal and informal language both to reveal the characters social status/level of education and to show how comfortable or uncomfortable they feel with other characters.
  • COSTUMES/MAKE-UP/HAIR/PROPS – all of which reveal personality and inform us as to the era in which the text is set. Clothes can have a symbolic importance, reflecting how at ease characters are in their own skin and how well off they are. Hair and make-up can reveal emotions – wild or greasy hair reflecting laziness or depression, carefully groomed hair the desire to impress.
  • PLOT – CLIMAX/TWIST/RESOLUTION – how a text ends is enormously significant. This influences our feelings, our outlook on the themes and characters and the lasting impression the text leaves us with. Predictable endings can leave us feeling a bit left down (the ‘I could have written that myself’ syndrome!).