AP English Literature: How to Tackle Poetry for Multiple Choice Questions

By Jonathan Wilson

(Published On 23 April 2021)

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It’s that time of the year when AP exams are right around the corner. So often my students schedules are crammed with tests, research papers, and other projects that limit them in honing their multiple choice question skills. That’s why I thought it would be good for me to share with you some of my tricks to get correct answers on this part of the test!

I’ve chosen to focus on poetry for this blog because it’s usually the part that trips students up the most. With its weird syntactic choices, extended uses of figurative language, and frequent ambiguities, poetry just seems difficult to students and it really shouldn’t. If we know how to approach it, we’ll have a huge advantage in answering the questions.

Let’s take a look at this poem, widely anthologized and having appeared on an AP English literature exam several years ago. Don’t feel that you need to read through it right now; just read the title, scan your eyes over the body of the poem, look at how the stanzas are laid out, and get a quick sense of its language. We’ll read it later.

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

 

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

 

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

So, the title is “To Autumn” and we would expect that it will be addressed to that season, maybe it’s an ode, and we might reflect on what autumn tends to mean symbolically (old age and maturity, ripeness and abundance, and so on). We take a brief moment to reflect on this because it helps us have expectations about the poem and what it will be about. This will help us be more engaged when reading the poem, and our prediction might even help us through tricky parts if it’s accurate!

The body of the poem consists three stanzas, each one pretty long (11 lines, but you shouldn’t feel like you really need to count them), it has some vivid images of nature, such as fruits, gourds in the first stanza, a granary floor and a cyder-press in the next, and a clouds, river sallows and some other things in the last one. I find taking even just two or three seconds to look at the poem like this is similar to looking at a map before going somewhere.  It just gives us a sense of where we’re headed before we take off and have to weave through the meaning of the thing.

So the next step is to read the poem, but I advise that we not casually read through it as you might read some web article or blog or something. The AP exam isn’t casual, so we best not treat it that way. I also advise that you don’t dissect its minute details and relish for the literary masterpiece that it is. The AP exam is not a showcase beauty, so we shouldn’t treat it that way either. We must keep in mind that we are reading this poem with the specific purpose of answering questions about it after to achieve as high a score as possible.

That means we’ll approach it like this: after each stanza or after each shift in the ideas presented in the poem, we’ll stop and summarize what we’ve covered so far. The purpose of this is to have a strong idea of what the poem is about so that we can answer any questions about it. Let’s take a look at the first stanza.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

When we read through it, we’ll notice several things and summarize what’s going on in the poem every so often (usually after the stanza is finished). For instance, the first line characterizes autumn as full of “mists” and “fruitfulness”, the second line characterizes it as a friend of the sun, and the next several lines lists the fruits and whatnot that autumn “blesses” to ripen. There’s a shift later to the growth of flowers and the bees that will pollinate them and make an abundance of honey. Our conclusion from this stanza will be that Autumn works with the sun to make the fruits and flowers and so on ripen and the bees prosper. After that, we need to move on. The time constraints of the exam are difficult and, yes, it is true that our summary overlooks many significant aspects of the stanza, such as the rhyme scheme and meter, and many interesting words and images, such as the presence of “thatch-eves,” indicative of a cottage, or that strange and somewhat troubling image at the end (“clammy cells”). However, that doesn’t really matter. We might not get asked about those parts of the poem, so we’ll only look at them in depth when we must.

I recommend trying to follow this method with the next two stanzas. It will help us practice this reading strategy, and for the exam, this will help us create a foundational understanding of the poem on which we can build more as we are answering the questions.

Please join me next time, where we’ll take a look at how to answer some of these questions together!


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