Sunday, March 28, 2010

How to blag a poem in the exam

Dear Alan,

Many pupils go into the Literature exam with heavy hearts because they don’t know all the poems, and they’re worried that they will get caught out by the questions – and they despair in the exam when they are!

Don’t worry. Anybody with half a brain can blag a poem in the exam, even if they haven’t seen it before. You just have to know the rules, and there is plenty of time to make a decent stab at it in the exam, without any preparation!


Comparing two poems
If I were comparing two pupils, I might say: ‘Well, Peter has black hair; by contrast Alicia has fair hair. Peter is intelligent, and similarly Alicia does well in her studies.’

I have chosen two categories of comparison (hair-colour and brain-power), and systematically compared them. You will notice the key comparison-terms ‘by contrast’, and ‘similarly’.

This is all you need to compare two poems, except that your comparison categories are:
• Content
• Feelings
• Structure
• Language

You will simply write your answer in four sections:
• Poem 1 is about … by contrast/similarly … poem 2 is about …
• In poem 1 the poet feels … by contrast/similarly … in poem 2 the poet feels …
• The structure of poem 1 uses … by contrast/similarly … poem 2 has the structure …
• The language of poem 1 includes … by contrast/similarly … poem 2 uses …


What can you write?
OF COURSE you are going to miss some of the more sophisticated points if you have not studied/revised the poem beforehand! But if you simply keep your head and look for the basics, you will be easily able to make a number of sensible, simple points.


Content
Easy! Read the poem. Unless you are totally thick, surely you can say what it is saying.
Start with a sentence saying what the poem is about in general terms (‘war’, ‘an argument’ etc). Put a suitable comparison term (by contrast/similarly) and say what your second poem is about. Thus will be particularly easy, because the exam question has almost certainly told you what topic you had to choose a poem about.

Then, simply go through the poem, briefly summarising what it says (‘It starts in stanza 1 by talking about …, then next it reminds…’ etc.) Don’t take too long, but make sure you address the whole poem. Then put a suitable comparison term (by contrast/similarly) and summarise your second poem.


Feelings
Easy! Read between the lines and infer what the poet feels about the poem. What words and phrases show you that they feel this way? Write about the poet’s feelings, quoting (and explaining) the words and phrases which show this. Then put a suitable comparison term (by contrast/similarly) and do the same for your second poem.


Structure
This, also, is a lot easier than you might think if you just keep your nerve.
Remember also that, as well as recognising a feature, you need to explain the intended effect – why did the poet use this feature and what effect did they want to have on the reader?

Here are some of the things to look for:

Stanzas
How many, of how many lines? Are they regular (the same number of lines) or different?
Poets often use different stanzas for different aspects of the poem – stanza 1 is about…, whereas stanza 2 talks about...’ etc. Explain how the poet has used the structure of the poem to display its content.

Line length
Short and powerful, or long and reflective? Regular or different?

Rhyme
Describe the rhyme (if there is one) using the normal notation (aa-bb etc.).

Rhythm
It should be obvious if the words have no rhythm. As for the others, try to remember iambic (di-dum) and trochaic (dum-di) – they are the basic (some say the ONLY) two patterns. If you see a rhythm, see if the poet has used it for a reason – a poet will often mirror the thing he is describing in the rhythm of the words he is using (for example, by using a diddly-dum rhythm to describe a train).
Even if you get it wrong, it is worth having a guess at this – the sentence-scaffold is: ‘the poet uses the ??? rhythm to suggest…’.

Enjambment
This is another feature which is really easy to see. Just pointing it out and giving examples will earn you brownie points, but it is worth also trying to suggest why the poet has done so.
The effect of enjambment is to create a pause after the word of the line before, and to emphasise the first words on the next line.
So can you think of any reason the poet would want to pause there, or a reason why he would want to emphasise that word? Again, even if you get it wrong, it is worth having a guess at this – the sentence-scaffold is: ‘the poet uses the break to…’.

Irregular features are used in modern poems, to give the idea of a ‘stream of consciousness’ – a poet just musing down a line of thought he is sharing with the reader. Older poems are regular more often, and the author uses the form to make it more formal, and to create a certain effect (just say what the feeling of the poem is – sad, military etc.).


Language
This, also, is a lot easier than you might think if you just keep your nerve.
Remember also that, as well as recognising a feature, you need to explain the intended effect of the poet – why did the poet use this feature and what effect did they want to have on the reader?

Here are some of the things to look for:

Images and metaphors
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the difference – the words are almost interchangeable.
Can you see anything in the poem which creates a strong visual impact in your mind’s eye? Write about what the phrase makes you ‘see’, and have a stab at explaining why the poet used this image. It is ALWAYS to make his point more powerful/ more impactful.

Similes
Again, easy! Look through the poem and see if you can find the words ‘like’ or ‘as’. Say you have found it, and try to explain why the poet used this image; again, it is ALWAYS to make his point more powerful/ more graphic.

Alliteration
Again, easy! Look through the poem and see if you can find two words beginning with the same letter. Say you have found it, and try to explain why the poet used this; again, it is ALWAYS to make his point more powerful/ more graphic.
Some of the more common ones are:
• Explosive sounds (p, b, m) give the idea of surprise, impact, shock.
• Warm sounds (w, s, h, l, r) give the idea of gentleness and calm.
• Nasty sounds (k, g, t) give the idea of cruelty and violence.
But really, you can work backwards by thinking what effect the poet wanted to create and simply saying that that is the effect!

Repetition
Are any words or phrases repeated? This is just to emphasise the point.

Onomatopoeia
(Where a word sounds like it is – ‘woof’.) These are really hard to see, but if you find one, mention it, and say that it is to emphasise the feeling of the line.

Words
And finally, just look through the poem and choose some powerful words. Any words that ‘leap out’ to you will do!
Again, poets use words in different ways:
• Specialist words give a poem authority, and make it feel ‘real’/ 'there'.
• Simple words can make it sound childlike or ‘normal’.
• Nasty words can convey hatred or violence.
• Gentle words convey calm or pleasant.
But you need not worry too much about ‘getting it right’. Simply mention the word and explain how it makes YOU feel – the sentence-scaffold is: ‘when I read this word it makes me think of… and it makes me feel…’.

There are other language devices that poets use – personification to ‘bring something to life’, clichés to make them seem humdrum – but the above are the main ones and the easiest to find.



Writing the answer
So, if you find yourself in the position of being asked about a poem you have not studied, do not panic. Simply spend a short time reading it and look for:

• Content – what is it about/ summarise it.
• Feelings – how does the poet feel about this (prove with quotes and explain).
• Structure – look for stanza, line length, rhyme, rhythm and enjambment (illustrate with quotes and suggest the poet’s intentions).
• Language – look for images, similes, alliteration, repetition, onomatopoeia and specific words (and illustrate with quotes and suggest the poet’s intentions).

This is SO much easier than you think, and you might want to choose short poems from the Anthology and have a few practices.


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