Poetry Exam Tips

Oh my, I completely forgot to update this page and it has been serving as a soddy FAQs section for too long!

Remember I am not the messiah and thus don’t have all the answers, but this page is filled with information that I think a lot of kids miss or get in a muddle about when it comes to writing essays about texts.

What should each paragraph contain?
POINT – does your paragraph’s first sentence explain what it is about?

EVIDENCE – this should be a quotation of between 1-5 words (particularly if you’re doing the extract question) and once chosen you need to ask yourself the following questions: is this well chosen? Do you actually know what it means and does it support the point you are making? Can you also use another one to back it up?

EXPLANATION – have you explained exactly what you think the quotation means or how is it significant? Really? (You can also use any relevant contextual details to help explain if it makes sense)

ANALYSIS/ANCHOR – go on then, answer the question.

Now some examples to help explore this a little bit:

In response to this question:

How does When I Was Fair and Young deal with the concept of time and mortality?

Example of a good paragraph
The poem details how time causes significant changes in our lives and how we should make the most of our youth and beauty (clear point and addressing the question directly). When Elizabeth was young she was clearly desirable, she puts this down to her beauty, but obviously her position as Queen was also very attractive to potential suitors (neatly integrated contextual info). However, for various reasons both personal and political she never married or experience a fulfilled love and reached an age where she felt she was no longer an attractive prospect as a lover or wife. When she says ‘Venus’s son’, Cupid, has ‘pluck[ed] [her] plumes’ (quotations neatly integrated into sentence, rather than just lumped in and then commented on) she is literally referencing her fading beauty as she gets older as a bird losing its feathers and beautiful feathers would also lose its appeal to potential mates. In the poem she blames this faded beauty on her own arrogance and cruelty to those who sought her affections and thus a just punishment from the god of love; however, it is clear that it is the progress of time that has caused the change and left her regretting never having taken any of the opportunities presented to her in her youth (yes! yes! yes! explanation and analysis is detailed and explores the significance fully rather than just glossing over meaning). Thus the poem presents time as slowly diminishing our beauty and youthful joy, but doing so in such a way that the transition is unnoticed until it is too late (possibly not needed here, but last sentence makes sure it is clear to the examiner how the paragraph answers the question posed).

Example of a horrible paragraph 1
When it says ‘But I did scorn them all’ (using evidence before you’ve even stated the point) you get the impression that she has not used her life well (quotation has not been explained at all – what does it actually mean? why do you get that impression?) (what is the point? how is it answering the question?). It as if she wishes that she could do this again as she says ‘I did repent’ so she doesn’t like what she’s done with her life (again, what does the quotation mean? little explanation to show your understanding). If she was more thankful for her beauty when she was young maybe she wouldn’t be in this position. Could it be that she wants us to think that we should make the most of our lives and live for today? (the examiner expects you to answer the question, not ask questions) It is as if she feels like she is being punished (last three sentences are not clearly related to aspects of the poem).

Example of a horrible paragraph 2
It is clear that time has left Queen Elizabeth behind and she is no longer pretty (clear point, if a bit simplistic). She says Venus promised her ‘I will pluck your plumes’, so that she is no longer beautiful (basic understanding, but why does Venus do this to her and what does the quotation actually mean?). This means that she won’t be as happy and fulfilled (does it? support with more ideas from the poem) and she is thinking back to a time when she felt both these things. The poem is clearly full of regret and she wishes that she had spent her time and beauty more wisely while she had it (clear anchor/analysis, again a little simplistic).

Example of a horrible paragraph 3
‘How many weeping eyes I made to pine in woe; How many sighing hearts I have not skill to show.’  (I hate you! This quotation is too long (understatement!!! you may as well have just rewritten the poem for me) and doesn’t allow for your comments and analysis to be close or precise, but rather general. ALSO it’s not bloody well integrated into your sentence and thus disrupts the fluency of your analysis and makes you sound as dense as a cheese board!)

This quotation (which bit, word or phrase?) makes it clear that she was nasty to those who tried to seduce her because they end up crying and sighing, which are signs of heartbreak and misery (too obvious and too simplistic for detailed exploration really). She repeats the same basic phrase and it rhymes, which makes it all the more significant (did I mention I hate you? Don’t comment on structure if you can’t explain why it is significant to your question or our overall understanding of the poem). This shows that Elizabeth I was not very nice in her youth and is trying to say sorry (great, but what about the question you are supposed to be answering?).  

13 thoughts on “Poetry Exam Tips

    • 🙂

      Forgotten I’d written those. The third one is pretty harsh, but an accurate reflection of many essays I’ve had the *pleasure* to mark.

    • I’m sure I have somewhere. Basically the trick is to do one poem at a time and manage the comparison only in the second half using comparative phrases like ‘similar to the first poem’, ‘where the first poem presents love as being xxxxx, this one focuses on…’. There are a few example essays that you should check out across the site.

  1. Hi! Just wanted to tell you your website is absolutely awesome and its been such a help to me throughout the entire academic year, especially now since my exams on friday.
    Keep doing what you’re doing with this website Mr. Sir (:

    • Completely depends on the poem and what you think is important about it. Sorry I can’t be more precise, but yours is a fairly huge question.

  2. No mater what i get in this paper, you have helped me understand every poem. This has also prevented me from having a break down before my exam.

    Thank you for the time you have put in to make this website.

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