Tag Archives: Poetry


In a recent blog post I commented that for me, the major difference between mood and atmosphere comes down to this: a mood exists primarily within a person; an atmosphere exists primarily in a place.

Now it’s time to turn my attention to tone. The first thing that springs to mind for most people is ‘tone of voice’. You can tell how a person is feeling by the way they say something, how loud or soft their voice is, how fast or slow they speak, by the words they choose and of course if you’re in the same room as the speaker you tune in to their body language and facial expression as well.

Tone in writing is a more complicated beast.

You are trying to figure out the writer’s attitude and feelings towards the topic at hand but the clues to figuring out how they feel are often more subtle than spoken language and the reader must establish the tone without the help of body language, facial expressions, volume and speed of delivery.

So let’s do a little experiment.

Imagine the school receives a phone-call from a parent complaining about some aspect of my teaching. I decide to reply in writing. I have almost endless options open to me in terms of the tone I adopt when I reply – and for the record I don’t buy into the notion that text messages inherently have no tone. They can capture your feelings if you are careful enough when you compose them!

Now look at several potential replies below. To protect the anonymity of my fictional accuser I’ll just refer to them as ‘parent’!

1. Dear Parent,

I wish to apologise unreservedly for accusing your daughter of cheating. I realise that she is a diligent student who simply wished to have the ‘right’ answer, hence her decision to pass off internet research as her own work. However, if she wishes to improve her mastery of this subject and her overall literacy, in future she will need to use this material to write her own responses rather than relying entirely on other people’s expertise.


Ms. O’Connor


2. Dear Parent,

I am writing in response to your recent complaint that I unfairly accused your daughter of cheating. To be precise I accused your daughter of plagiarism as the homework assignment she submitted two weeks late was copied word for word off the internet. All it takes is a simple google search with one sentence of such plagiarised material to reveal the truth, which is that your daughter did in fact cheat. I suggest in future you spend more time assisting your daughter with her homework and less time phoning our school with baseless complaints which are a waste of my time.

Yours etc,

Ms. O’Connor


3. Dear Parent,

Following your recent communication with school management about your daughter’s homework, I wish to arrange a meeting with you, your daughter and if possible your partner to discuss this issue. I realise that not everyone understands the seriousness of plagiarism but I believe this is an important issue that all of our students need to understand, particularly in this era of ubiquitous content freely available online. 

Yours faithfully,

Ms. O’Connor


4. Dear Parent,

Following consultation with my union and their legal representatives, I will not be responding personally to your complaint about my teaching. However, my solicitor will be in contact shortly in relation to slanderous comments made by you in the comments section of our school’s website and on facebook.

I look forward to resolving this matter fully,

Ms. O’Connor

Now ask yourself, what tone have I adopted in each fake letter? Belligerent? Rude? Arrogant? Apologetic? Conciliatory? Defensive? Aggressive? Patronising? Are some of the letters a combination of different tones? Why did I use different methods of signing off in each example? If this really did happen, which tone should I adopt?

Being aware of your tone is really really important in life, no matter who you are or what job you do. If you come across as arrogant and belligerent people simply won’t like you as a person. On the other hand if you assume that you are always the one in the wrong when conflict arises then people may simply walk all over you!

The important thing is to tune in to your own tone particularly when writing because once it’s published you can’t take it back. Be self-aware and perhaps even get someone else to look over your work before submitting it into the public domain. The fact is other people do make judgements about you based on the tone you adopt both in spoken and written communication so the better you become at identifying and controlling tone the better.

Here’s a link to a very good powerpoint with various examples of different tones in writing:








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.


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”

Poetry vs. Song Lyrics

Once upon a time, long long ago, a song and a poem were published side by side on the Junior Cert exam paper, unseen poetry section. Students were asked to discuss the difference between the style of writing in songs and poems. I stumbled across this question in my first year of teaching and thought it was incredibly  unfair to ask something so difficult of 15yr olds. I fancied myself as a singer-songwriter when I was a teenager and as an adult had dabbled in writing poetry but I still had to think long and hard to verbalise the difference between the two. I knew the difference but found it hard to put it into words. In the end I decided the best way to become fully conscious of the differences was to change a poem into a song and then look at how the language changed.

So here’s the poem we chose:

Funeral Blues
W.H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.


Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead,

Put crépe bows round the white necks of the public

Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.


He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song,

I thought that love would last forever: ‘I was wrong’


The stars are not wanted now, put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

We decided that a song would need simpler imagery, everyday slang /direct speech, repetition of key ideas for the chorus, short snappy phrases to create a regular beat/rhythm, end-rhyme, and a bridge before the second chorus. With the help of a rhyming dictionary we butchered it, removed the essence (and lost the beauty). Here’s what we came up with:

Funeral Blues Song Lyrics

All of this noise keeps dragging me down to a place I cannot go,

All of these noises echo in the emptiness of my soul,

Clocks ticking. Phones ringing. Heart beating but I feel so low,

See his face when I close my eyes but then I realise

He ain’t never comin’ home


I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong, I was wrong.

I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong, I was wrong.

I put my faith in love but I was so naive

Now he is dead and gone and I can only grieve,

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.


Everyone’s life keeps trundling on but I’m here frozen in the street,

You gave me direction, without you I’m lost & lonely & incomplete

The stars burn out. The sun fades out. Oceans weep from my swollen eyes.

Try to find some will to fight on but then I realise

He ain’t ever comin home.


And nothing now can ever come to any good.

And nothing now can ever come to any good.

I trusted in forever – I misunderstood

And nothing now can ever come to any good.


I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong, I was wrong.

I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong, I was wrong.

I put my faith in love but I was so naive

Now he is dead and gone and I can only grieve,

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.


I think the comparison illustrates the difference well but something (a lot in fact) does get lost in translation. The sheer force of Auden’s pain is brilliantly captured in the final verse where he imagines the entire universe as a empty house to be abandoned and left behind “pour away the oceans and sweep up the woods” now that his lover is gone. I think a better songwriter than me might be able to keep the beauty of that imagery and still create a catchy love song/lament. I also think that the impact of the desolate final line is lost if you keep repeating it over and over. It’s much more effective to just hear it once and let the sadness sink into your bones.