Responding to poems

In the unit one Literature exam, you will be asked to write an essay that compares two different contemporary poems that are about the same topic. You will have one hour for this part of the exam. These poems are ‘unseen’ because you and your teachers will not know which poems could come up in the exam. The poems will be different every year but you will always be asked the same question.

For both the higher tier and the foundation tier, the question is: Write about both poems and their effect on you. Show how they are similar and how they are different.

You may write about each poem separately and then compare them, or make comparisons where appropriate in your answer as a whole.

For foundation tier, you may wish to include some or all of these points:

  • the content of the poems – what they are about
  • the ideas the poets may have wanted us to think about
  • the mood or atmosphere of the poems
  • how they are written – words and phrases you find interesting, the way they are organised, and so on
  • your responses to the poems, including how they are similar and how they are different

For both higher and foundation tiers, you should focus on the following areas:

  • the content of the poems
  • the ideas in the poem
  • the mood and atmosphere of the poems
  • important words and phrases in the poems
  • the poems’ structures and punctuation
  • your response to both poems.

It is important that you start off by carefully reading the poems, and making notes about significant features of the poems that are linked to the areas suggested above. You should read the poems once to get a general understanding of what they are about, then at least once or twice more to analyse them in detail.

Ask yourself the following questions as you read the poems:

  • What are the poems about?
  • How do the poems make me feel?
  • Are the poets trying to make me think about a particular issue or give me a message about something?
  • Are the poems positive or negative overall? In what particular ways?
  • What kind of mood or atmosphere is created in the poems? How is this done?
  • Are there any words that stand out as creating a particular effect or feeling?
  • How are the poems organised? Why might this be? (For example, is this linked to the mood or content?)
  • What do you think of each of the poems?

Use these questions to help you as you highlight and make notes on the poems. You should pick out short quotations only (no more than about six to eight words in one quotation) and make brief notes to remind you of what you can say about each of the poems. Remember, you have limited time to write your response so you will not be able to pick out all of the important details of both of the poems: pick out a range of different things to say about both poems and don’t panic if you cannot cover everything.