Guide to Answering Unseen Poetry, Leaving Cert. English – Paper 2

Guide to Answering Unseen Poetry, Leaving Cert. English – Paper 2

Unseen poetry does differ from the prescribed poetry in that you do not know the material you will be dealing with in the examination. However, you can still have the structure of your answer prepared out which can be suitably used to cover any question that comes up. All that will be needed is to use this structure in relation to the question and poem that is asked of you.

To begin with, we shall look at how we shall answer the unseen poetry question. There are four characteristics of whatever poem appears that you should focus on, in separate paragraphs. These are the poem’s imagery, suggestiveness, patterned nature of language and sensuous qualities. Regardless of the question, you should be focusing on these characteristics.

At this moment in time your structure for your poetry answer should look like so:

  • First paragraph: focusing on poem’s imagery.
  • Examples from the poem.
  • BREAK
  • Second paragraph: focusing on poem’s suggestiveness.
  • Examples from the poem.
  • BREAK
  • Third paragraph: focusing on poem’s patterned nature of language.
  • Examples from the poem.
  • BREAK
  • Fourth paragraphs: focusing on the poem’s sensuous qualities.
  • Examples from the poem.

So you know what you will be writing on in your paragraphs, but what is left to do? A good deal, actually. To write an unseen poetry answer capable of receiving full marks from the marker, it must possess the four qualities looked for by the marker. You need to be aware of these before you go in. The best way to be aware of them and make best use of them is to practice using these qualities on sample questions. For the purpose of this section, I will be using a sample question “Did you like or dislike the poem?”

Clear & purposeful engagement with the set task

This quality refers to actual answering of the question. The best place to engage with this quality is at the beginning of each paragraph. The easiest method to show you are answering the question is, simply, to answer it. In the sample question you would simply answer with “I liked/ disliked the poem”.

In answering the question at the beginning of each paragraph you are:

  1. Ensuring by repeating the question in the answer the marker will be drawn to the fact that you are indeed addressing the question asked of you.
  2. Ensuring also that your paragraphs are answering the question. In anything written, the first lines of the piece should tell what it is about; this is a suitable introduction. Whoever is reading, and here the marker definitely, should know what he is going to read about in the coming essay/paragraph. Therefore, by answering the question in the first lines of each paragraph you are showing the marker that each of your paragraphs is about to, and will, answer the question.

There is further elaboration needed, and then we will be done with this quality. As said, each paragraph of your answer should focus upon a characteristic of the unseen poem you are given. The answering of the question in each paragraph should therefore include the characteristic you will focus upon. This can be achieved as simply as saying: “I liked/ disliked the poem because of its imagery/ suggestiveness/ patterned nature of language/ suggestiveness”.

Finally, you need to elaborate on why this characteristic has helped you answer the question. A line of two is all that is needed. This does not need to be in tune to the standard of a PhD, something simple will do. Something like “I liked the poem because of its imagery. The images presented in the poem help me realize that the poem is presenting a world of happiness”.

Then show examples of how the images are helping the poem present a world of happiness. This is all your paragraph will require. You have answered the question, as well as giving some brief elaboration. This is the majority of the work done, considering you will have examples of the poem right in front of you on the examination paper to back up your first few lines of the paragraph. The next quality needed in your answer is: Sustainment of the response in a manner appropriate over the entire answer.

In other words, cohesion. To put it simply, your answer has to link together and not be “all over the place”. This can be addressed and achieved easily by giving your essay cohesion in two key areas:

1. Cohesion between paragraphs

This is often not thought of and to address this will make your answer considerably more readable. Again this can be achieved easily, with the use of a few simple words. Rather than involving a common topic between two paragraphs like in prescribed poetry, here phraseology is suitable to link paragraphs, due to the lack of time and hence size of your answer will have compared to the prescribed poetry question. Continuing with the sample answer above, we have just finished writing the first paragraph on why you like the poem because of its imagery/ patterned nature of language/ sensuous qualities. Next, we will write a paragraph on why you liked the poem because of its suggestiveness. Linking the previous paragraph with this one can be achieved with a simple mention of what your previous paragraph covered (remember we are using the answering technique here again, as will be done to begin every paragraph): “As well as its imagery, I liked the poem because of its suggestiveness.”

Other examples could be:

  • “Equally, I admired the poem for its suggestiveness.”
  • “Another feature of the poem I loved was its suggestiveness.” You do not have to mention the previous characteristic every time; a linking phrase such as “Equally” will suffice also.

(It is of worth to use synonyms of “like” or whatever the question asks of you – it gives your answer more color and shows the strength and size of your vocabulary).

Immediately your two paragraphs are linked, by a couple of simple words. There is no stop-start quality which the marker may find irritating after correcting a couple of hundred exam papers. He or she can easily and fluidly read through your answer and thus will appreciate it more, because your paragraphs have a simple but effective link, giving your answer effective cohesion.

Also, if needed, is cohesion in paragraphs. Simply link the majority of the examples in the paragraph by phraseology akin to the linking phrases in your comparative answer such as “we see this again” “more of the same is seen”. The examples are all backing up your answer and elaboration so there should be no differentiation between them hence this quality will work to great effect.

2. Management of controlling language appropriate to the task

This simply focuses on your language use. There are only a couple of things to keep in mind:

  1. Poetic terminology is essential. You are talking about a poet and his/ her poetry, so the marker will presume, and rightly so, that you will talk about elements of the poetry (such as imagery) rather than the way “the poetry made me feel…”
  2. Focus on one of the poem’s suggestiveness, patterned nature of language, imagery and sensuous qualities in each paragraph.
  3. Short sentences are needed. This is of benefit for you for two reasons. The first is that it reads better for the examiner. The last thing he or she wants is to be following a long winding sentence through four or five lines waiting to see where it will end up. It makes the answer unreadable, and generally gives the writer the appearance of not knowing what he or she is talking about (similar to someone talking a lot to cover what he or she does not know).

This technique is also of benefit to you. If you write long sentences, you will get a tendency to lose some of your concentration and your focus. Writing short sentences keeps you in check and hence keeps you aware of whether or not you are writing an A1 standard essay.

The use of “I”. Remember the question may be aimed at “you” so respond accordingly.

Spelling and grammar

Spelling and grammar should be of a high standard. Remember you are writing for the examiner so make sure the answer is informative. Remember to engage with the poem and use plenty of examples.

Intro

So simple. As said above in Clear and purposeful engagement with the set task the first line(s) of any piece should tell the reader what you are writing about. What you will be writing about (and answering) is the question you are asked. Hence, the first line of your introduction, and the fist line of your essay, should simply answer the question. For the question we have focused upon for the entire answer this would be: “I liked/disliked the poem.”

What is then needed is to list the characteristics of the poetry you are going to talk about. Remember, the first lines of the essay will tell what is to be spoken about in the entire answer so the introduction, which should only be a few lines long, should focus on what the essay is going to answer on. Thus what is also needed is a list of characteristics you will be answering on. For the question dealt with this could be: “I liked the poem because of its suggestiveness, patterned nature of language, sensuous qualities and its imagery.”

That is all that is needed.

Outro

Like the prescribed poetry, an effective way to conclude an answer is to give it a feeling of completion. This can be easily achieved by creating a full-circle structure by simply repeating the first line of your essay in the first line of your outro: “I liked/disliked the poem.”

The marker will be put in mind of where they have heard this line before and your answer will thus be given the feeling of having begun, explored the poem while also answering the question, and finally completion. List the characteristics again but differently to the intro as repeating the entire intro is a bit cheeky!

“I loved the poem’s suggestiveness, sensuous qualities, imagery, as well as its patterned nature of language.”

So what are these qualities?

Imagery

The simplest and one you will probably know best. These are the images in the poem. Often these could be of the natural sort or describing a person, place or thing.

Suggestiveness

The meaning of words can often change when juxtaposed or related to other words, or when placed in a framework such as the unseen poem. The meaning can often change by the way you say it. Hence the unseen poem, when read, can allude to multiple meanings. Look for a meaning or message in the poem different from the one you first created when you read the unseen poem; often a word or a few words can give you a different take on the poem.

Sensuous Qualities

Look for how the poem appeals to the five senses. Are the images that would be/ which are particularly striking to the eye? Does the poem mention things that you would smell, taste or hear? Is there mention of people talking, shouting, screaming?

Patterned nature of language

The form or pattern of the poem plays a part in how we respond to the poem. Look at parts of the poem such as words used, word order, sentence structures, rhythm, visual display, whether the poem has a metrical structure or not.

It is important here is to think about how these qualities are used by the poem to put across its message. When answering and elaborating on each of these qualities in each paragraph, think about how each quality of the poem aids the poem in expressing its message/themes etc. This would be good for your elaboration.

Suitable elaborations and answers

“Describe the impact the poem made on you as a reader”. A suitable answer would begin with “The poem had the impact of making me…” Then you can show how each of the characteristics (suggestiveness, patterned nature of language, imagery, sensuous qualities) helped with this impact.

“Did you like or dislike the poem?” A suitable answer would begin with “I liked/disliked the poem.” Then you can show how each of the characteristics helped make you like/dislike the poem. You could mention how you like/dislike how the characteristics are worked by the poem, how they explicitly/ do not explicitly reveal the poem’s message etc

“Write a personal response to the poem.” Again a “I liked/disliked the poem” will suffice. Same as above.

Some people prefer to choose an open-ended question like this to answer but often the more specific question is easier as it deals with a poem’s dealing of theme or message or specific parts, which is quite easy to answer for showing how the characteristics aids the poem in expressing its message/themes.

Your answer should now look like so:

  1. Intro: Answering of question. List of characteristics to be spoken about in separate paragraphs.
  2. First paragraph: Question answered with the use of imagery. Elaboration. Examples from the poem.
  3. Second paragraphs: Question answered with the use of suggestiveness, with cohesion to link above paragraph. Elaboration. Examples from the poem.
  4. Third and fourth paragraphs: Question answered with the use of patterned nature of language and sensuous qualities, with cohesion to link above paragraph. Elaboration. Examples from the poem.
  5. Outro: Answering of question again (repeating of first line). Listing of characteristics (different way from first paragraphs).
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About the Author

John Ryan

John has a Masters in Modern English Literature and is the founder of RyJoLC, an educational consultancy based in Dublin that provides English language and curriculum resources to educational institutions worldwide.
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