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.
The poem is reproduced at the bottom of the page.
Students: as always, the first thing to do is read the question – and read it before you read the poem because (ironically and appallingly) 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: look at the content, i.e. one specific aspect the poem about; and see how the poet presents his/her ideas.
Do not concern yourself with ‘How the poet presents’ yet. Instead look and the part of the question which deals with the content i.e. here it is ‘the ways children are affected by war’. Each of your paragraphs in this essay should therefore always start with something about the ways children are affected by war.
Read the poem and break it down into the different sections that deal with the different ways children are affected by war and give each ‘section’ an overall summarising title. Do this now.
When you have finished click here to see if you have marked up the poem as I have done.
These summary phrases can now be used as your lead sentences for each new paragraph. They are the Points for your ‘PEE’ (also called ‘PEA’ or ‘PQE’) paragraphs and will ensure that you answer the question. I advise against writing an introductory paragraph if you tend to waffle. If you can be very disciplined and quick, orientate your reader to the key points you intend to cover in a single sentence … but there is no need to do this.
It is now time to write the paragraph, considering the significance of the quotes as you go along; this consideration of a quote’s significance is where you deal with the ‘how the author presents’ part of the question. Taking the first ‘section’ of the poem for an example paragraph, you will find below that a couple of quotes are used (but one would be enough) to support the point that children’s sleep is broken (‘ripped’ and ‘soft silk’). Notice how the analysis can be inserted as you go along. This is a much quicker way of getting your thoughts down on paper. I shall write the paragraph and comment on it below, so here we go …
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 .
War affects children’s lives by breaking their sleep [Point]. The noise of the sirens metaphorically tears the material [use of literary term and analysis showing understanding of the link between ‘ripped’ and ‘silk’] of sleep. The sibilant alliteration [Literary term] of ‘soft silk’ [Evidence embedded within the sentence] draws attention to the peacefulness [Explanation of effect of language] of children’s sleep and makes its sudden loss seem more sudden and disorientating [Explanation and further analysis of significance].
Do the the remaining sections and finally, 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. 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: give a personal perspective but also is still answer the specific question!
(Quod erat demonstrandum!)
Children In Wartime by Isobel Thrilling
Sirens ripped open
the warm silk of sleep;
we ricocheted to the shelter
moated by streets
that ran with darkness.
People said it was a storm,
had not the right sound
thunder left such huge craters
we knew this was no giant
when I saw the jaw of glass,
where once had hung
my window spun with stars;
it seemed the sky
lay broken on my floor.
*flak: anti aircraft fire