Preparing GCSE English Literature Unseen Poetry

For many English Literature exams at GCSE, there’s a requirement to respond to unseen poetry. Most students do really well on this, and examiner reports say the responses are fresh and interesting. Nevertheless, it does instill a great deal of fear in the hearts of many candidates and the following four posts are designed to help you get your head around some of the most challenging poems ever written in order to help you revise and prepare for the unseen poetry questions.

There are three main things you’ll need to look at when responding to poetry: form, structure and language.

Most of you are fine with the language bit. You can spot similes at fifty paces; you know how to write about metaphors, and pathetic fallacy doesn’t phase you.

But many students really struggle when it comes to writing about form and structure. So the following posts are designed to look at three poems that will really develop your response to these two aspects of poetry.

Let’s define our terms first, though, so that we know what we’re dealing with.

Form

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

When I approach a poem, I start first by identification of what’s there. Sometimes, if I don’t know where to start, I identify everything I can see.

When I’ve identified and can describe what the poet is doing with the form of the poem, then I start narrowing down. What’s unusual? What’s interesting? What links with the ideas in the poem? What supports the ideas in the poem?

Because I might be able to say 200 things about the form of the poem, but I can’t write 200 things in one paragraph in a short exam essay. Maximum, I’m looking for is a single paragraph on aspects of form and how they link to the ideas in the poem.

One thing we have to do, though, is step away from comments about how the poem LOOKS LIKE something. Really. Time to put those comments behind us.

Please don’t tell me the poem looks like blah blah thing in the poem.

I don’t know why students do this.

Ok, I kind of do. There’s a branch of poetry called ‘Concrete Poetry’, also known as ‘shape poetry’ or ‘pattern poetry’ where the poets wrote in shapes that reflected the content.

George Herbert’s The Altar is an example of this. Another of his poems, Easter Wings,  also does this:

It would be, then, perfectly reasonable to say you need to turn this poem on its side and then it looks like a pair of wings. I’m guessing angel wings on account of the fact that a)I’ve never seen an angel so I don’t know and b) they look like butterfly wings to me, but the poem isn’t really about butterflies.

But… BUT….

There are so few poems like this in the English language that you shouldn’t have to resort to comments like ‘If you turn the poem on its side, it looks like…’

And if you come across a poem that IS a Concrete poem, you’ll probably know.

Don’t be tempted to say anything about turning poems on their side or what the poem looks like. I hate this and most of the time it’s not at all what you say it is – your comment could be applied to thousands of other poems that look the same as the one you’ve got.

Pattern poems absolutely exist. Mostly, you’ll know that’s what you’ve got.

Do you see?

You’ll generally know without having to puzzle over it. I promise.

So now I’ve said ‘Don’t say the poems look like…’ where does that leave you? What can you say?

To start, we’re going to have a look at one of my favourite weird poems and think about form. I’m going to tell you what I see – all of it – and describe the form. Then I’m going to narrow down and think about what’s useful. Then I’ll think about what relates to the content and what I want to put in my single paragraph about the big idea.

And I’m starting with one that will REALLY make you think.

It gets worse, I must admit, but by the time you’ve read and thought about these poems in this series, you’ll be so happy to write about form that you’ll realise that you can do anything once you’ve tackled the meaningless and the complicated. The poems you’ll get in the exam will never, ever be this hard. So if you can happily write about the form in the poems that are coming up, nothing will ever be that difficult in the exam.

So let’s have a look at our first unseen poem: Ezra Pound’s brief “On a Station in the Metro” written in 1907

Yes, this is all of it.

Yes, it’s a poem. Well, at least those who know more than I do say it is. You might want to use this as a starting point to consider what makes ‘a poem’ – what the things we need to make a poem?

For me, I’m going to say: it’s not a play. It doesn’t have characters. That said, some plays are composed in poetry, like the early plays. It’s also not narrative.

In fact, it’s form that makes this a poem at all. Form is the very thing that makes something ‘not prose’. Cutting things up and putting them on the lines you want them to go on is the very essence of poetry. But you can have some very interesting discussions about ‘what is a poem?’ using this as a staple. It makes for some very interesting discussion.

So, let’s look at that form and I’ll tell you all the things I can see. You may see more, and that’s great – leave me your thoughts in the comments if you like.

Just a reminder… this is what I’m asking myself:

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Eighteen interesting things about the form:

  1. It’s a couplet.
  2. There are two lines.
  3. One line is longer than the other.
  4. The second line is shorter.
  5. There’s a title.
  6. The title tells us where it takes place.
  7. The first line has 12 syllables.
  8. The second line has 7 syllables.
  9. It reminds me a bit of a haiku (will come back to that later)
  10. There’s something rhythmic about the last words.
  11. ‘Crowd’ and ‘Bough’ have a ‘ow’ sound. Not rhyme, but assonance.
  12. Both lines contain an entire phrase.
  13. Neither idea or line has a verb.
  14. It’s a bit like a short list of two timeless things without those verbs.
  15. I really, really, really want to talk about that semi-colon.
  16. The semi-colon turns these into two linked ideas.
  17. It’s a pivot, a mirror, a turning point, a volta (that’s structure, I know).
  18. If you take the poem’s title as a line in the poem, you’ve got 7 – 12 – 7.

Now I know myself. I think I could easily write about the relevance of at least ten of those things. But I have about 12 minutes to write one section on form and it’s not possible.

From there, I have two options. One is to group them for an overall impression. There is, for instance, quite a lot of balance in those two lines – something even in the cadence. Not perfect, slightly offset by the length, but the ‘crowd’ and ‘bough’ are pleasant and smooth, long vowel sounds, mellifluous even, and they help create a sense of balance. The fact there is one statement on each line, neither with a verb. That semi-colon. The parallel monosyllables of ‘in the crowd’ and ‘wet, black bough’ which both have two short vowels and then a long vowel to finish. I could talk about why Ezra Pound does so much to make it neat and balanced.

Or I can drill down into one specific thing. Like the semi-colon for instance.

But Ezra Pound is long since dead and I can’t ask him what he meant by this poem. That means that everything I say about it is speculation, hypothesis, theory. An educated guess. So I can’t say ‘Pound did this because…’, only ‘The effect this has on the reader is…’, or ‘this makes us think that…’ and so on. Because I do know what people think about it. And whilst I may say ‘the reader’ or ‘we/us’, what I mean is ‘me’. I mean how could you possibly think otherwise?

Oh, okay. You do. That’s great. All I’m asking you to do is explain then to me and justify why you think this way about it. I write sometimes as if there is only one way to take a poem, when this is so untrue. You take from it what you like. As long as you can justify it, you’re on solid ground. That’s not to say that anything goes – it’s doesn’t. There are reasonable, rational evaluations, and there are crazy notions that don’t bear any real weighing up and fall apart under scrutiny.

For instance, let’s look at those two lines.

You might think ‘metro’… metros have two platforms. The two lines are like the platforms. So you could write “The two lines could represent the two platforms in a metro station”

And that might very well be true, except for the fact that one of those lines is shorter, and platforms are usually of fairly equal length. Also, lots of stations have more than one track, and some have only one.

You might as well say, “the poem looks like an equals sign”, or “the poem looks like a parallel line” or “the poem is like a double-yellow line” or “the poem is like metro train tracks”

Even if these things were true, would they add to the meaning?

So what IS worth commenting on?

For me, the couplet. The two lines seem very neat. In fact, you could also consider the title to be a third line I guess, in which case it would be even more like a haiku.

It’s at this point knowing some of the context for Pound is helpful, but in the unseen question, you don’t have any of that. I did want to explain a bit about the haiku statement, because no doubt, you’re scratching your head saying, “Really? But it’s two lines!”

If you knew that Ezra Pound was very interested in Japanese poetry (and also in Dante’s famous poem, Inferno, about hell) and you knew that he was interested in those neat little moments of Japanese poetry, then you can see why I might say this.

But you don’t have to know he was interested in Japanese poetry to see that this is a very simple, singular, timeless moment. Just looking at the ‘haiku’ page on Wikipedia, you can see it’s about the ‘juxtaposition of two images’. Does this poem do that? I think it does – the apparition of the faces and the petals. Haiku have a ‘turning word’, a pivot. Does the punctuation at the end of the line do that? I would argue that it does. Plus, different variations of this poem have different punctuation at the end of the line – which alters the meaning in interesting ways once you know what semi-colons and colons do, but a semi-colon is a joining thing. It says the ideas are connected. Second thing in common with a haiku. Also, a haiku may have a reference to a season. I think you could make the argument that the petals are evocative of spring, since spring is when most trees blossom, unlike flowers which may have flowers at other times of the year. A final thing is that haiku should be everyday kind of events, which seeing people on the metro station undoubtedly is.

It doesn’t have the three lines of a haiku, or the syllabic patterns, which is why I’m saying this is ‘like’ a haiku rather than it is a haiku. But the point would be about what haiku DO. They capture a moment. They capture everyday events or occurrences and make poetry out of the mundane.

Couplet or haiku, that’s what I think this poem is doing. It makes you reflect on the world around you.

So what can I say in my one paragraph about the form of this poem? Let’s have a go:

In a Station of the Metro is a brief, two-line couplet. In itself, the couplet is complete and neat. Like the moments when waiting for a metro train, it’s brief and fleeting, just as those thoughts and impressions you get about the people who are waiting. It’s a fragment, a flash of a thought, like the couplet has captured that brief thought. Because it’s so brief, it helps us understand the brevity of the moment, yet also that it was complete in itself. The ‘apparition of the faces’ is made to seem like a short, transitory, fleeting thought. It’s a stark, simple image that is reinforced by the stark, simple form. Although it may not have much in common with Japanese haiku in terms of form (unless you consider the title to be a third line), it has some features in common such as the ‘volta’ or turning point, and the way that it captures a single moment or thought. The simplicity is deceptive: we end up doing as much thinking about it as we would for a longer poem, but at the same time, when we read it, we too experience the same transitory and fleeting moment as the poet does.

As you can see, I’m trying to move on from describing the poem and into evaluation. I say that it’s complete and neat, which is more of a judgement than “it has two lines” and then I go on to spend the rest of my paragraph explaining what the effect is. I’m not saying “Pound wants us to think” or trying to explain what I think Pound is doing. I don’t know. He’s dead. I can’t ask him. Even if I could he may not have replied. But I can say what we think when we read it. What I hope you can also see is that I’ve got three mini-descriptions and then three comments that explain my thoughts about that.

Now if I can say something sensible about two lines (yes, I’m aware of the irony that my commentary on form is longer than the actual poem) and if you have some ideas too about why it’s two lines and why you think it’s so simple, then you’re a long way on to making comments on a poem that is FREAKISHLY unique. If you can comment on this, then you can comment on longer things for sure.

That brings us to a very simple thing to consider, no matter what poem you’re looking at:

Is the poem brief and neat? If so, why do you think that is?

Is the poem waxing lyrical and dedicating hundreds of lines to the topic? Why do you think that is?

And how much of the poem is dedicated to one single idea?

Next time, I’m going to have a brief look at another freakishly unique poem and think about other aspects of form that might help you analyse poems in the exam. After all, if you can have a SENSIBLE thought about this ^^^^^^^ poem, you can have sensible thoughts about much less complex ideas without resorting to painful comments like “it looks like train tracks”.

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