Approaching Unseen Poetry

If you’re taking the same spec as us, then you’ll know that in year 2, you have to compare one of the Poems of the Decade poems with an unseen poem. Obviously, this is pretty daunting. They’re going to give you something that you likely haven’t seen before, and you’ve not got very much time to respond. I’ve got an exam tomorrow, so I’m going to do an unseen, and take you through it with me 🙂

Okay, so I’ve chosen a random book off my shelf. It’s called “Emergency Poet”. I think I got it for my birthday. It has that new book sort of smell. I’m flipping to a random page…

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Okay so this is what we got. I can safely say I’ve never seen this poem in my life, but I actually really like it. Now we’re going to read it, read it, read it again.
1. What is the overall message of the poem? How does it make you feel?
2. What stands out to you? What bits do you particularly like or dislike? Highlight them, which I’ve done above. How can these be linked back to the message?
When you’ve read it a few times, something will have jumped out at you. Start by zooming in on this, trying to identify an intent or a technique. Here are some thing’s I noticed. Yours might be really different, but all interpretations are valid!
Meaning: So I’ve read this a few times, and personally I think its about preparing yourself for loss, and developing an understanding that not everything in your life is consistent. In the final stanza, there is a direct address, so I am assuming that the poet has lost someone themselves, perhaps through death, or the end of a relationship.
What interests me:
– The first tercet has an ABA rhyme scheme, which creates quite a bouncing, jovial tone. When we look at the words however, the topic is quite sentimental. Perhaps she is using this rhyme to evoke a sense that we try to appear upbeat/relaxed in the face of loss.
– “The art of losing.” The irony in this phrase really grabs me. An art is something that you have to practice and perfect, and losing things, like keys, happens because of the opposite: carelessness. Maybe she is using this phrase to suggest that when it comes to losing truly important things, we must work to accept it.
– “Lose something everyday.” Caesura always stands out. This phrase is in the imperative mood, and she cuts it off with a very finite full stop. Maybe if we make a habit of losing small things, losing bigger ones becomes easier.
– “And look!” this sudden exclamation caught me by surprise. It seems like she’s addressing us directly, but having read the whole thing, I think she might be addressing the “you” at the end. This tone makes the poem quite conversational, which links to the fact that the subject is treated as very matter-of-fact.
– Structure. As the stanzas progress, I noticed that the things she loses increase in magnitude, from her everyday possessions, to realms and rivers, to somebody close. This build up creates a sense of tension, which is mirrored in the use of tri-colon “realms I owned…a continent.” To me, this deconstructs the idea that losing isn’t hard to master, and instead implies that it is hard and drawn out process. The last stanza is the only one to be four lines. It creates a sense of closure, but also ends on the word “disaster”, showing that the process of losing is never entirely complete.
So it’s ten o’clock at night, and I’m thriving off some microwave rice I ate about five hours ago. I don’t think that I can tackle a comparison tonight, but if you’d like us to compare an unseen with a spec poem, let us know!

Example Essay – Education and Social Class (Poems of the Decade)

Image © Artistmaterial

Here is another Poems of the Decade essay, this time on the question:

Explore the ways in which poets present the theme of education and social class in ‘Out of the Bag’ by Seamus Heaney and ‘Poetry’ by Tom Leonard

Click here to download the file (PDF)

‘Poetry’ was an unseen poem – it isn’t currently available online (that I can find), but you can read other poems by Tom Leonard on his website.


Commentary From Roderick Ford on ‘Giuseppe’

Image – Sicily © Radio Times

A follower of this blog, Anees Malik, has generously shared with us an email she received from Roderick Ford (the poet who wrote ‘Giuseppe’) detailing his own inspiration for and interpretation of the poem, which you can read below. However, it is important to remember, as the poet himself states, that any interpretation is valid, and you will still gain marks in an exam for a reading of a text which does not match its writer’s intention. It is also useful to keep in mind that AO3 is not assessed in the modern poetry unit, so referencing Ford’s views will not automatically gain you marks unless you link it to your argument (in the A2 exam, it should also ideally be linked to the unseen poem).

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Sample Essay – Nature and Freedom

ESSAY – Nature and freedom


Here is a sample essay I wrote on how the question…

Compare the methods both poets use to explore the universal theme of nature and freedom in The Furthest Distances I’ve travelled and one other poem

I decided to write about the poems ‘The Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled’ and ‘History’. Feel free to use as exemplar material.

My only target was to be a little more succinct. “Comprehensive analysis with effective comparisons throughout. Also, interesting choice of 2nd poem”

By Ella

Essay Tips – Poetry Structure

Here is a simple outline of the structure that I try to follow when writing my essays. It  is not necessarily the best way to write, there are many other effective ways, so don’t think that if you don’t like this structure or have a preferred way of organising an essay that it is not correct.

Remember to include AO1, AO2 and AO4 in every paragraph.

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Essay – The Dire Demise of Blanche Dubois

Image © Joaquim Gaspar

‘Blanche’s demise is caused by her incapability to face the harsh reality of the changing face of America’ – responds to this comment and explore William’s dramatic presentation of Blanche.

A Streetcar Named Desire tells the tale where a woman is caught in a fatal inner contradiction, which suggests that she would function in another society but not this new society of America. William’s makes it evident that the demise of Blanche Dubois was a consequence of several significant events in her life as one discovers as the play progresses; however it is her incapability to come to terms with the harsh reality of the changing face of America, which is more prominent in the pivotal years after World War II. It is this which escalates the whole tragic process and it can be argued that the males of the play, in particular Stanley Kowalski, represent New America.

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Look We Have Coming to Dover! – Revision Notes

Image: White Cliffs© NOTE BENE

‘So various, so beautiful, so new…’ – Matthew Arnold, ‘Dover Beach’
This epigraph reminds us of the powerful literary heritage of Dover. Matthew Arnold’s poem is a famous poem written in 1851 which expresses society’s growing anxiety about the modern secular world. Nagra’s poem also echoes Arnold’s in the implied presence of  beloved to whom the poem is addressed. In contrast to Arnold’s poem, however, the title’s exclamation mark is expressive of an energetic optimism which sets the tone for what follows.

‘Look we Have Coming to Dover’ by Daljit Nagra alerts us to concepts of England and Englishness which are gleefully dismantled in the rest of the poem.

The title is grammatically incorrect, setting the context for a speaker for whom English is a second language. The mention of Dover, one of the key entry points into the UK for immigrants, legal and illegal, provides a further clue as to the narrative voice. Dover is also a deeply resonant English location, its famous white cliffs, a cultural shorthand for the country history as an island power.

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