Poetry: How to Tackle Poetry Questions.

26 Nov

As all O level students know, poetry plays a vital role in the Literature syllabus. Edexcel has actually divided English Literature into two papers: Paper I consists of drama and prose, whereas Paper II is poetry.

Also there are two things to choose from while doing the poetry paper: one can either do the question based on the sixteen poems that are predetermined in the syllabus; or opt to do the unseen poem. So what will you do?

On one side, its a pain to be thorough with the prescribed poems but then the poetry booklet is given, so one doesn’t have to learn the text. On the other hand if one is doing the unseen, one doesn’t have to worry about the poetry paper and focus on the drama and prose. Also examiners are quite lenient while checking the unseen as the candidate isn’t supposed to get all the points right. Still if you end up not getting the theme correct at all then you lose all your marks.  So weigh out the pros and cons carefully for both before choosing what way you’re going to venture.

Now that you’ve chosen what you’re going to do, let’s get down to business. The sixteen poems prescribed in the Edexcel syllabus of 2008 for IGCSE Literature, Paper II are as follows:

  1. If — Rudyard Kipling
  2. Prayer Before Birth — Louis Macneice
  3. Half-past Two — U A Fanthorpe
  4. Piano — D H Lawrence
  5. Hide and Seek — Vernon Scannell
  6. Sonnet 116 (‘Let me not to the marriage …’) — Shakespeare
  7. La Belle Dame Sans Merci — John Keats
  8. Poem at Thirty-Nine — Alice Walker
  9. Telephone Conversation — Wole Soyinka
  10. Once Upon a Time — Gabriel Okara
  11. War Photographer — Carol Ann Duffy
  12. The Tyger — William Blake
  13. My Last Duchess — Robert Browning
  14. A Mother in a Refugee Camp — Chinua Achebe
  15. Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night — Dylan Thomas
  16. Remember — Christina Rossetti


Before we go into explaining each poem in detail, the kind of questions which come regarding them should be considered. The first type is the simple analysis of one poem. This could be asked in a direct manner if the name of the poem is given, or you would have to choose what poem to write about to suit the question.
The other kind of question is when they ask you to compare and contrast two poems with each other. This is a little more difficult as in the time allotted for one, you have to write two different poems and the format for doing so also differs.

So how does one write these answers? For both of the above mentioned there is a definite format which if kept in mind can make life much easier.

For the first type: where they ask only one poem:



Dos and Don’ts.

Paragraph 1: Mention the title of the poem you have chosen and the poet but only if you remember. Also in one sentence summarize the main theme of the poem.  When mentioning the name, don’t say: “The poem‘Piano’ by D. H. Lawrence…”  Everyone knows that Piano is a poem you need not specify that. Say “D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Piano’ talks about…” Also do not mention the word theme while summarizing the theme. Say “The central idea of the poem” or “The poem explores the concept of…”
Paragraph 2: Write a summary of the poem. Just give an account of whatever happens in the poem. This could go on to two or three paragraphs.  Don’t quote in the summary. Keep it short and brief. Don’t go into details about specific words used in the poem.
Paragraph 3: The literary devices should be explored in this paragraph. Explain each one of those which are present in the poem, including words which are used ambiguously and the tone and structure of the poem.  Don’t write about those literary tools that you aren’t sure about. If you don’t write them, you lose some marks for missing points. But if you do write them and get them wrong, the examiner realizes that you neither know your poem nor your literary tools well.
Paragraph 4: Comments. This is the main part of your answer which is going to fetch you marks. The summary and literary devices won’t gain you marks, but you’ll lose them if you get that wrong. This is what will tell the examiner that you really know how to express your opinion in writing.
Things to comment on:
Comment on the theme.
Comment on the title.
Comment on writing style.
Comment on different interpretations.
 Use the word “I”. This shows confidence while writing the opinion. Use phrases such as “According to me…”; “In my opinion…”; “I think that…” Commenting on the title will get you extra marks as not everyone will think of doing that.
Paragraph 5: Conclusion. Mention the theme of your  poem again and end your answer.  Don’t use the same words while summarizing the theme that you used in the first paragraph. Use the “I” word again.
Make a bold, confident concluding statement which will leave an impression. This is the last thing the examiner will read before giving you marks, so it should really matter.

Thus is the format for writing any single-poem answer. It could be used for writing an unseen as well as well as doing a question based off the anthology.

For doing the comparative answers the first tricky part is choosing the two poems.
For example the question is: By analyzing two poems, discuss how love is explored through poetry.

Never choose two easy poems. (Sonnet 116 and Remember.)  No one knows the poems you are given better than the examiner and he’ll realize in a minute that you’ve tried to take the easy route out. He’ll mark you more strictly than usual. Also do not take two difficult poems, writing two long ones would be difficult and you’ll run out of time. Take one easy and one difficult poem to keep balance. So the sensible choice would be Remember and Mother in a Refugee Camp.  Also the poems you choose should obviously have the theme in question to suit the question, but they should also have something which is not alike because remember it is a compare (point out similarities) and contrast (Highlight differences) so not only should the poems have something similar but they should have something different as well.
The format would differ a little from the above:



Dos and Don’ts.

Paragraph 1: Mention the title and poets of the two poems that you’ve chosen.  Again, no using the word “poem.”
Paragraph 2: Write the theme of the first poem in one sentence.  Don’t mention the word “theme” Tryto  keep it as short as possible.
Paragraph 3: Write the summary of the first poem.  No quoting, keep it accurate and brief.
Paragraph 4: Literary devices. Of the first poem.  Explain each one in detail.
Paragraph 5: Theme of the second poem.  Don’t use the word “theme”
Paragraph 6: Summary of the poem.  No quoting, accurate and brief.
Paragraph 7: Literary devices.  Explain each. Use quotations here.
Paragraph 8: Combine the comments of both the poems. By this time the comparing part of the question would be over, so only thing left is the contrasting. The poems we had taken were Remember and Mother in a Refugee Camp. And by now we have already established the fact that both of them are about love. But here we point out the differences: While one is from a lover to another, the other describes the love between mother and child.  Adhere to the question here. If the question is about love, write only about love. Don’t dwell into minor sub themes. You’ll lose time over that and won’t be able to finish. Also doing so might make the examiner think that you didn’t get the question.
Paragraph 9: Conclusion. Compare and contrast both these poems in a few lines. It’s just a matter of simply reinstating the facts.  Try to use different words from those that you’ve used in earlier paragraphs.
End on a definite note. Make an impression.

Thus you now know how to write the answer for the poetry section. Only thing remaining is understanding the poems which will be done in further posts. Don’t hesitate to drop a comment if you have any queries.  Until next time then. Ciao!


Posted by on November 26, 2011 in LIterature



16 responses to “Poetry: How to Tackle Poetry Questions.

  1. Demitri

    January 14, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    what about the other 7 poems in the specification???

  2. Abdul Haseeb

    May 10, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    nice helped me a lot… can you please show how to write an answer for the drama and prose questions 🙂 thanks

  3. Sal123

    May 11, 2012 at 9:49 am

    Can you help me with the 2012 syllabus of poetry? As well as selected short stories from the Cambridge ‘Stories of ourselves’ and prose section, Julius Caesar. I am appearing for my o level on monday & im freaking out.

  4. Mary y jebet

    October 2, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    Well described and understandable analysis. Thnx alot

  5. WritingIsMyPassion

    December 3, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    Could you please do ‘Poem at thirty nine’ by Alice Walker ? would really appreciate it!

  6. Cecilia

    January 5, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    I was always taught not to write “I” in a formal essay because use of first person is informal. Is poetry the exception?

    • har33m

      April 23, 2014 at 10:21 pm

      There really is no hard and fast rule in writing a Literature answer, especially not during the O levels. Thing is, even I was told the same thing, but I found that using the more personal and direct ‘I’ gives your comments the most impact. Don’t use it excessively throughout the essay, as that would give your answer an immature tone; but right at the end, when you are going to comment on what you think about the poem, always try to be as assertive as possible, using personal pronouns liberally to make it clear that it is your opinion.

  7. McKenzie

    February 16, 2014 at 8:32 am

    COOL site. thanks a bunch

  8. Hasan Mahmud

    April 23, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    Would it be fine if maybe the summary and titles of the two poems are fit into the same paragraphs?

    • har33m

      April 23, 2014 at 10:17 pm

      You must realize that there is no hard and fast rule or format of writing a Literature answer. This outline was what I found to be the easiest and most hassle free way while helping out my friends back in school. If you want to include the title and summary in the same paragraph, go ahead and do so. But remember to make it clear in the first few sentences which poems you want to talk about, to avoid confusion. If there’s clarity in your writing you get the most marks.
      Hope that helps.

  9. Prince Marcel

    April 24, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    thanks for this advise I will put it in consideration

  10. Prince Marcel

    April 24, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    Please can you also show us how to tackle prose?

  11. WixNinja

    October 6, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    I’m supposed to be comparing and contrasting Sonnet 116 and My Last Duchess, this is for practice only, I know what to include and what not to include but ironically I don’t know how to begin my first paragraph.

    Could you please suggest an opening line?


  12. Balsam

    October 25, 2014 at 7:08 pm

    This helped alot! Thankyou! :))

  13. Mythbeast

    December 12, 2015 at 11:50 pm

    is it right to compare telephone conversation with once upon a time?

    • H. Rehman

      March 11, 2016 at 1:57 am

      Both are a comment on society. They have common themes of false characters, prejudice and insincerity. In my opinion they would compare and contrast very well.


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