How to write a GCSE English Literature poetry essay

I get a few hits for this, and I’ve marked a lot of papers, so I thought I’d give you an insight into my own process. I really hate those ‘teachers’ who never have a go themselves. Whilst I understand you don’t have to be great at something to be a great coach (see Alex Ferguson and the Man United team!) I think you should be able to articulate the process of what good essays do. You might not think that’s very humble of me – here’s my great work of art essay! – it’s not. It’s average. But it’s a starting point for you. Many of us never actually see what it is we’re ever asked to produce at the end of reading all these poems. It’s like someone gives you all the nuts, bolts, panels and cogs to make a car, but you’ve never seen a car – and what you produce might not look like ‘a car’. That would be fine if some examiner didn’t then compare what you’d made to a car and mark it on how much like a car your thing was. So that’s why I’m saying this is an example of how I do it. It’s one way. Plus, it ticks all the things on the mark scheme.

I’m going to take the hardest type of Literature essay (the one that candidates avoid like the plague and examiners wonder why they didn’t choose to do it…) – the ‘say whether you like or dislike this XXXXX poem and compare it to another one’ essay. Here’s a made-up example based on one from the specimen GCSE English Literature paper.

Readers like poems and dislike others. Write about whether you like or dislike Mametz Wood and compare your response to one other poem you either like or dislike. Remember to write about how the poems are written.

This type of question often foxes people in the middle or lower grade bands. It’s easy to say you dislike it, if you do, but it’s hard for a GCSE candidate to articulate why they might dislike it. Often, it’s the subject matter that is hard to explain your dislikes. Sometimes it’s just a gut reaction.

Remember, you are not a poet and it’s easy to criticise what is written; it’s more appropriate to say that you like it, or to find three or four things about it that you can live with, unless you are VERY, VERY good at poetry critique. Most sixteen year olds don’t like poetry. Fact. Survey 200 and you’ll find 100 really don’t like it (hint: they’re the ones that groan when the Anthology comes out) and only 10 really like it. I’m with the ‘really like it’ group. Always have. I know. I’m a geek.

Where’s all this going?

Say you like it, even if you don’t. My thoughts when I read an essay if someone has criticised the poem ‘I don’t like this bit and this bit is crap, the poet could have done this bit better’?

Really? You’re sixteen and you think you know best! Published any poetry recently have you? AH, the arrogance of youth! I bet you’d tell Ferrari they don’t know how to make cars and criticise Marc Jacobs’ new fashion line! 

I’m going with why I like the poem here. Some teachers avoid this question and many students often avoid this type of question, because it asks you to put your thoughts on the line. Instead of being marked on poetry analysis, you THINK you are being marked on your views. You aren’t. You’re still being marked on your analysis. In fact, this type of question lends itself really well to A and A* grades because if you say you like something and explain, you’re ‘evaluating’ – a word from the higher grades on the mark scheme. Also, you can pick out what you like about the poem and focus on that.

I’m going to talk you through how I’d think about the response first… all of this goes on in my head, and a little bit on paper before I start writing. Good essay writers think first and then write. You’d be amazed by how many people miss the thinking step out.

To start… I pick four things I particularly like about the poem, remembering the golden rule to focus on the form of the poem if it’s helpful, and the organisation – the way the ideas build up or are revealed. And then I pick another poem that has similar qualities. In this case, I’m going to pick The Golden Palm by Minhinnick, because it’s another of my favourites.

I start by thinking about what I want to write about:

3 language things and 1 thing to do with form (minimum)

  • The way the poem builds up to revealing the grave – a bit like the way the skeletons are revealed themselves – over time (form)
  • The idea of the earth being like a person with secrets that it needs to reveal – that image of the foreign body being worked out like a splinter
  • The ‘mid dance-macabre’ line – which reminds us of the brevity of life
  • The idea of the soldiers being linked in death, the care, the way it evokes real thought

And then I think about other poems that compare well. Do any other poems build up and reveal? I guess Bayonet Charge does. If I want to look at The Yellow Palm which I really like, does this build up? I think so.

  • The way Minhinnick builds up to the child – the future – and it blessing the cruise missile, and the way he builds up this surreal image of chaos and unnatural sights

Then I have to think about the ideas revealed – so what is Sheers revealing? What’s his central idea? I’ve got other poems where nature is used quite profoundly – like The Fallen Leaves and Futility where the poet uses nature to contrast with conflict. So what’s the idea?

  • The idea is that we don’t get the whole story – just clips of scenes of confusion, a world out of balance

I’m not quite sure of the connection, beyond ‘the idea’ but it’s enough to frame a paragraph. I guess the idea in Mametz Wood is quite well-formed and he uses the simile to help us understand, whereas The Yellow Palm doesn’t do that – it’s just frightening fragments, (actually like the bits of bones revealed…. there’s a connection… and it never builds up to reveal the entire thing – the whole picture – and although we finally see the entire corpse row in Mametz Wood, we don’t get to know the whole story, only guess at it. That’s the same idea.)

You see how thinking allowed me to find the connection. If I’m writing, I’m not necessarily going to stop and go down that route.

The next one is easier: the brevity of life is easy to find. There are no young men in this poem, and the children remind us of the problems yet to come.

  • The way the poet uses what’s not there, just like the story behind the linked arms, to reveal something profound: the men are missing.

Finally, I have to think about what idea I can compare with the idea of the linked soldiers. That’s a little harder. I have to think about what story this tells, what thought is provoked. I’m going to go with the utter chaos and fragmented sense of things, in this ballad form. I like the use of this quite jaunty form with this nightmarish scene. I want to write about that.

My next step is to write the essay!

You will be able to find this actual essay in my new Kindle book (which you can download to PC too if you don’t have a Kindle or e-reader) AQA GCSE English Literature Poetry: Conflict – contemporary poems. In the meantime, here’s a link to my guide to the Literary Heritage Conflict poetry. It’s fabulous, if I do say so myself. I would say that. I wrote it. But it’s got all of the poems and the most in-depth analysis you will find on the web. That’s not a lie. Most other guides touch on each poem but you won’t find such a detailed analysis of each poem. I’ve tried to cover everything in there – far too much to write about in 45 minutes – but I know some people want to know everything inside out. If you find a bit I’ve missed, email me, I’ll add it and credit you, of course!

The Contemporary Poetry version will be out in about a week.

If you don’t ‘get’ these poems, if they don’t make sense, or even if they do – and you just don’t know what to write or how to write, then this might help you. Remember, it’s just my view – if you think something else, let me know and I shall endeavour to add it and credit you.

Yesterday, one of my students enlightened me about Crooks in Of Mice and Men. I’ve taught that book to over 500 students, and still 16 year olds teach me new stuff about it.

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £20.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!

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