For GCSE English Literature, students must now analyse an unseen poem and compare it to another unseen poem. The poems may have a similar theme or topic, usually something within an average teenager’s experience. Of all the tasks that students must study for GCSE English, my students find this the hardest. They seem genuinely frightened of poetry and yet I love poetry and try to convince them of its merits.
I always begin by telling my students that poetry is like a song. It is a very short piece of writing that expresses a mood or a theme. Poetry is also like rap music as it often relies on rhythm and rhyme. This is one of the best ways to awaken interest in teenage boys; by comparing poetry to Rap.
Look at this brief excerpt from an Eminem rap song, MOSH. You could get your students to guess who the poet is and then surprise them with the truth that is by Eminem.
Come along follow me as I lead
through the darkness
As I provide just enough spark
that we need to proceed
Carry on, give me hope, give
Come with me and I won’t steer
Put your faith and your trust as I
guide us through the fog
To the light at the end of the tunnel
We gonna fight, we gonna
charge, we gonna stomp, we
Through the swamp, we gonna
mosh through the marsh
Take us right through the doors
I usually teach poetry analysis by using a funny poem. Pam Ayres is a great poet for this, and I frequently use her poem, ’Oh I wish I’d Looked After My Teeth.’ It is humorous and arranged in limerick form for each verse. The imagery is appealing to teenagers too as they can identify with all the sweets. It has a regular rhythm and rhyme.
Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth,
And spotted the dangers beneath
All the toffees I chewed,
And the sweet sticky food.
Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth.
I wish I’d been that much more willin’
When I had more tooth there than fillin’
To give up gobstoppers,
From respect to me choppers,
And to buy something else with me shillin’.
When I think of the lollies I licked
And the liquorice allsorts I picked,
Sherbet dabs, big and little,
All that hard peanut brittle,
My conscience gets horribly pricked.
My mother, she told me no end,
‘If you got a tooth, you got a friend.’
I was young then, and careless,
My toothbrush was hairless,
I never had much time to spend.
Oh I showed them the toothpaste all right,
I flashed it about late at night,
But up-and-down brushin’
And pokin’ and fussin’
Didn’t seem worth the time – I could bite!
If I’d known I was paving the way
To cavities, caps and decay,
The murder of fillin’s,
Injections and drillin’s,
I’d have thrown all me sherbet away.
So I lie in the old dentist’s chair,
And I gaze up his nose in despair,
And his drill it do whine
In these molars of mine.
‘Two amalgam,’ he’ll say, ‘for in there.’
How I laughed at my mother’s false teeth,
As they foamed in the waters beneath.
But now comes the reckonin’
It’s me they are beckonin’
Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth.
Taken from the The Works: The Classic Collection 2008.
The first step is to look at the title of the poem and see what it reveals to us. Sometimes titles can give us hidden meanings.
I then make students look at the poem on the page and see if they notice anything. Has the writer set out to create an image with the typography? How is the poem grouped on the page? Is the poem arranged in the form of a particular type of poem? Does it have regular stanzas?
Who is the narrator of the poem? Is it the narrator or the voice of someone else? Are there several narrators?
Is there any particular context to the poem? Was it set during a period of history?
I then ask students to look at the imagery? What kind of pictures are being painted with words?
We then see if there are any examples of literary devices such as similes or metaphors. Then we consider the choice of vocabulary and ask do any words stand out?
Finally, I ask my students to tell me what they think the message of the poem is. Do they think that the writer has conveyed this message well?
Another good way to analyse poetry is to ask the student to rewrite the poem with the same message but in their own words. You would be astounded how good some of the answers will be.
BANK OF PHRASES FOR STUDENTS TO LEARN TO USE IN POETRY ANALYSIS.
This suggests ……….
The word / phrase implies…….
This gives the impression that …..
The reference to …. could imply that……
This indicates that…….
This can be interpreted in more than one way…….
I think that the poet / speaker also means ……
The poet’s use of …. Is effective because…..
I particularly like…. as it gives the effect of …..
I particularly like …. as it shows ……..
The use of …… helps to …..
This technique reinforces …….
The use of …. emphasises …..
WHICH METHODS CAN YOU COMMENT ON?
WORD Effective vocabulary / verbs / adjectives / adverbs / use of contrast / exaggeration / modern or archaic words / expressions / alliteration / simile / metaphor etc
SENTENCE Short / Incomplete / Commands / Questions / enjambment – meaning runs from one line to the next /
TEXT Viewpoint-first, second, third person / stanzas / rhyme / rhythm / a particular form – e.g. sonnet / start and end of poem
OTHER POEMS TO ANALYSE WITH STUDENTS
I did not sleep last night.
The falling snow was beautiful and white.
I dressed, sneaked down the stairs
And opened wide the door.
I had not seen such snow before.
Our grubby little street had gone;
The world was brand-new, and everywhere
There was a pureness in the air.
I felt such peace. Watching every flake
I felt more and more awake.
I thought I’d learned all there was to know
About the trillion million different kinds
Of swirling frosty falling flakes of snow.
But that was not so.
I had not known how vividly it lit
The world with such a peaceful glow.
Upstairs my mother slept.
I could not drag myself away from that sight
To call her down and have her share
That mute miracle of snow.
It seemed to fall for me alone.
How beautiful our grubby little street had grown!
Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘They’ is also an effective poem to use. Set during the First World War, the poem explains the difference between about the vast chasm between the propaganda fed to the General Public and the actual experiences of those involved in fighting.
This video on the BBC website shows the context to the poem, and has an animated reading to really emphasise all of the poetic devices with which students will be starting to get to grips.
Written in two short stanzas from the perspectives of a bishop and a soldier, its ideal for contrasting the language used in each as well as looking at voice and perspective.
‘They’ by Siegfried Sassoon
The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
‘They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
‘In a just cause: they lead the last attack
‘On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
‘New right to breed an honourable race,
‘They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’
‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.
‘And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’
With just a bit of imagination students can soon learn how wonderful poetry is as an expression of creativity.