5 Simple Steps to Surviving Unseen Poetry

If there’s one place you’ll need a solid exam survival technique, it will be the compulsory unseen poetry section on IB, AP, A-Level and (I)GCSE literature exams, where you’ll be asked to analyse an unseen poem all on your own. But there’s no need to worry as these five simple steps are designed specifically with your survival in mind to navigate any unseen poem.

1. Read the poem at least twice

Read once for the gist and then again for the detail.

On your first reading, pay attention to major themes. These are found in the setting (time, place, atmosphere), the characters (the narrator, characters, their attitudes), and the conflict (the relationship between characters).

On your second reading, look for how those themes are conveyed through the structure of the poem beginning with the title and form.

2. Analyse the title and the form

Analyse for major themes.

Major themes are found in the title of a poem. Check out the title’s sentence structure, word choice and sound devices.

Major themes are also found in the form of a poem. A sonnet, for example, is romantic, an ode is celebratory, and a villanelle is song-like.

Major themes rain down from the title into the form and through each stanza.

3. Explore first lines

The first line of each stanza houses a major theme.

Stanzas, like paragraphs, contain a main idea, or theme. These are introduced in the first line and supported in the rest of the stanza.

Finding the main idea, is a simple matter of looking for the topic (a noun: a person, place or thing) and its comment (a verb phrase conveying the poet’s stance on the topic).

These ideas reinforce the themes expressed in the form and title.

4. Support your interpretation

Provide textual evidence and explain the poetic devices.

Quote words, phrases or lines of the poem, and explain how the poetic devices prove your interpretation of the poem.

Poetic devices are found at the structural level, in the syntax, rhyme and rhythm, and at the stylistic level, in the diction, figurative language, sensory imagery, and sound devices.

5. Write your commentary

Organise your essay thematically.

Put the passage in context, and summarize its themes and significance.

Organise the body by themes, and support these with textual evidence, both structural and stylistic.

Conclude by extending the poem’s significance to a wider global issue, i.e., on what it means to be human.

Robyn has extensive experience in HK teaching IB, AP, and (i)GCSE English. Join her classes to score high!

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