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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.