How to Approach an unseen Poem: a step-by step guide
This page deals with how to approach a GCSE poetry unseen, using the AQA legacy paper GCSE May 2012 paper 2, which was on ‘Children in Wartime’ by Isobel Trilling.
TIP: As always, the first thing to do is read the question – and read it before you read the poem because in an exam you cannot afford the luxury of first ‘experiencing’ the poem before you know where your focus should be. You must concentrate on the question because you only have limited time to get something down on paper. In this case the question is:
How does this poet present the ways children are affected by war?
All questions on poetry ask you to do two things: (1) look at the content, i.e. one specific aspect of what the poem about; and (2) look at how the poet presents his/her ideas.
Now the poem …
Children In Wartime
thunder left such huge craters
we knew this was no giant
when I saw the jaw of glass,
my window spun with stars;
it seemed the sky
lay broken on my floor.
by Isobel Thrilling
So, here is the question broken into parts (2) How does this poet present (1) the ways children are affected by war?
TIP: Do not think about (2) yet.
TIP: First look at (1) the content. Here it is ‘the ways children are affected by war’. Each of these different ways will be a Paragraph Starting Point (P). Each of your paragraphs will always answer the question, with something about the way children are affected by war.
TIP: Read the poem and break it down into the different sections (sometimes verses) that deal with the different ways children are affected by war and give each ‘section’ an overall summarising phrase/Point. Do this now.
There is no ‘wrong’ about your choice of summarising phrase/Point (P) as long as you have the evidence for your view. When you have finished click here to see if you have marked up the poem as I have done.
TIP: Start each paragraph with a summarising phrase/Point (P). This is your lead sentence for each new paragraph. So you answer the question at the start each paragraph.
TIP: Do not write an introductory paragraph if you tend to waffle. If you can be very disciplined and quick, orientate your reader by listing the Points you intend to cover in a single sentence … but there is no need to do this at GCSE.
Now it’s time to write the rest of the paragraph
TIP: Support each Point (P) with a quote or example. This is the Evidence (E) for your Point (P) being a good one. This alone will take you to Grade 4.
Now for (2): The other part of the question (‘how the author presents’). Let us say that you have made this Point (P): The children are affected because their sleep is broken. Now you introduce a quote/example, which is Evidence (E) to support your view.
TIP: In the model below a couple of quotes are used (‘ripped’ and ‘soft silk’) but one would be enough Evidence (E).
Once you have the Evidence (E), you can discuss how the author presents that Evidence (E) to give it greater impact. This is Analysis (A).
TIP: Notice how the Analysis (A) can be inserted as you go along. This is a much quicker way of getting your thoughts down on paper. So now you have the structure of a PEA paragraph .(Also called PEE PQA etc)
TIP: Put a PEA in every para.
SUPER MODEL Grade 9++ PARAGRAPH:
War affects children’s lives by breaking their sleep . The noise of the sirens metaphorically tears the material of sleep. The sibilant alliteration of ‘soft silk’ draws attention to the peacefulness of children’s sleep and makes its sudden loss seem more sudden and disorientating.
Why is this such a good paragraph? Well. look at my comments in red ….
War affects children’s lives by breaking their sleep [Point (P)]. The noise of the sirens metaphorically tears the material [use of literary term and Analysis (A) showing understanding of the link between ‘ripped’ and ‘silk’ Evidence (E)] of sleep. The sibilant alliteration [Literary term] of ‘soft silk’ [Evidence (E) embedded within the sentence] draws attention to the peacefulness [Explanation/Analysis (A) of effect of language] of children’s sleep and makes its sudden loss seem more sudden and disorientating [Explanation and further Analysis (A) of significance].
Do the the remaining sections and finally …
TIP: conclude with a short sentence that considers your overall reaction to the way that children are affected or the poet’s overall perspective about the ways children are affected by war.
This last part of your essay is what makes it all worthwhile because it is your chance to give a personal response. It stops the exam being just a simple regurgitation. This is for you: it’s what you get out of the whole process. Also examiners love to read what you really think about the poem as a result of your analysis. Some teachers say you must never use ‘I’ in a literary essay but an essay’s conclusion is that one place where you truly can say ‘I’. In this particular essay, a student might begin the conclusion with: ‘I found the most alarming part of this poem is the children’s disorientating trauma …’ Note: giving a personal perspective should still answer the specific question!