Sunday, August 24, 2014

Poetry Top Ten Tips

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent's Written Word supplement in March 2014.

1) Think!
The Leaving Cert English syllabus is strongly focused on getting students to think for themselves and to formulate their own opinions: “Students should be able to develop an awareness of their own responses, affective, imaginative, and intellectual, to aesthetic texts.” That means: don’t just learn a book of notes off by heart and think you’ll get an ‘A’ because you won’t. 
By all means read a range of criticism and analysis of your literary studies but ultimately you need to listen to your instincts and formulate your own opinions.  Do this well in advance of the exam day, as you won’t have much time for pondering your innermost feelings on Heaney in the exam hall.


2) Engage personally. 

Don’t write about the poet or poetry in the passive voice ie “Yeats is considered to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets…’ All Leaving Cert poetry questions are addressed directly to YOU and need to be answered by YOU, for example, ‘I found Yeats’ poetry about ageing to be incredibly powerful’ or ‘Heaney’s poem The Call reminded me of when I used to make phone calls home during my summer away…’ A personal example of how you connected with a poem will go a long way towards showing the examiner that you have engaged with the poetry on a personal level rather than simply learning off notes.

3) Talk the Talk

Familiarise yourself with the technical terms of poetry and don’t be afraid to use them e.g. stanza, metre, rhyme, metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance, tone, imagery etc. There are glossaries of terms in a lot of the poetry textbooks or easily available online so there’s no excuse for pleading ignorance.

Only use technical terms, however, if they are relevant to the point you’re making or back up your argument in some way.  Trying to show off knowledge of terms out of context will make you look a little desperate.  A simple rule is to only talk about technique in the context of its effect on the reader.

4) Don’t be a Plath Predictor.
In 2012 every student in the country (or so it seemed) was completely certain that Sylvia Plath was going to be on the exam paper but when it came to that fateful day in June the poetic minx wasn’t there.  You simply cannot count on the one poet you want to come up being there on your exam paper. The State Examinations’ commission is deliberately trying to make the exam less predictable so counting on patterns or predictions is unreliable. 
The only surefire way of being prepared for June is by knowing five poets really well.  The manner of questioning has also become a lot more specific over the past few years so, even if that poet you love does come up, the question might not suit your knowledge of them.  Be a good Girl or Boy Scout and ‘Be Prepared’!
5) Don’t focus too much on Biography

Us teachers spend a lot of time filling students in on the context of a poem being studied; the life of the poet, the history of the era etc. When it comes to the exam question, however, you need to focus entirely on the poems and not on the exciting lives of the poets who wrote them.  It may fascinate us that Yeats knew some of the 1916 Rising leaders or that Emily Dickinson was a bit of a hermit but giving a heap of biographical detail unrelated to the question will earn you zero marks. Biography can help us understand the poems but the examiner is far more interested in what you made of the poetry than how many facts about Kinsella you’ve memorized.

6) Read a wide variety of poetry to prepare for the Unseen Poem

It’s only 20 marks but it might be the 20 marks that brings you up a grade so don’t neglect to prepare for the Unseen Poem.  Your textbook is likely to have an Unseen poetry section with a variety of poems that you can practice on.  If it doesn’t try exploring some of the following websites: poemhunter.compoetryoutloud.org and poetrybyheart.org.uk

Don’t worry if you don’t understand every single word of a poem.  It’s more important to practice describing how a poem makes you feel or what images stay with you after you finish reading it. 

7) Don’t Paraphrase the Poem
The Chief Examiner for English has criticized Leaving Cert English students for being prone to paraphrasing or summarizing both the unseen poem and studied poetry:  “While the majority of answers engaged with the text in a positive way, some merely paraphrased the poem or offered undeveloped responses.”  At Higher Level they expect deeper analysis, criticism and personal engagement. (Starting to see a pattern here?)


8) Read the Question

You could be a professor in Yeats’ studies at Yeats’ University, Yeats-ville and you could still fail the poetry question unless you read the question on the exam paper and then answer that question.  You are being assessed on how you answer that question so make that your focus.

9) Signpost your Answer

READ THE QUESTION! Did I say that already? Read it and then focus all your energy on answering that question and on showing the examiner that you are answering it by signposting clearly.   Don’t signpost it like a botharín in West Kerry with the sign pointing wonkily into a field.  Signpost your answer like you’re on a German Autobahn – clearly, logically and at regular intervals. Mention some aspect of the question in every, single paragraph and drill it in to that examiner that you are a poetry question answering machine.

10) Catch the Heart off Guard

My final message is to enjoy poetry – love it.  99% of you will never study poetry in a formal context again so this is it for you.  These are the poets that will stay with you for life.  The lines that you memorise will haunt you and at the most unexpected of moments you will find words from old poems helping you describe experiences you cannot verbalise yourself. Hazlitt said that ‘Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life’ and as the years roll by you’ll be shocked to realize that all that ‘practical’ stuff you learned in Maths and Biology will be long gone from your memory but lines from Yeats and Heaney will be etched on your heart forever.

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