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Higher exam: tips on how to structure a critical essay for poetry?

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  • Message 1. 

    Posted by alana_96 (U15249580) on Friday, 17th May 2013

    I found the post on how to structure a critical essay with Romeo and Juliet as the example very useful for critical essays on a play/novel. However, I am still stuck on how to write an essay on poetry. If anyone could give me some advice on how to structure these kind of essays I would be so grateful! If it helps at all, the poem I plan to use is Iolaire by Iain Crichton Smith, as it covers a lot of areas that a question can ask about.

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  • Message 2

    , in reply to message 1.

    Posted by bitesize_english_teacher (U15197928) on Saturday, 18th May 2013

    The approach is basically the same - ensure you you pick up key expressions from the question in your topic sentences. However (as you have probably found) it can be difficult to avoid writing a verse-by-verse commentary which doesn't relate closely enough to the question. Don't begin paragraphs in ways such as the following:

    Verse two goes on to say . . .
    Verse three describes how . . .
    Verse four ......etc

    What I would suggest is that in the exam you should scribble down on the question paper three or four key aspects of the poem that relate to the question and use these to open your paragraphs. If you then go on to analyse the poem in chronological order (verse by verse) that is fine so long as the topic sentences link back to the question.

    This poem would fit 2008 question 12 which says:
    "Choose a poem which deals with conflict or danger or death.
    Show how the poet creates an appropriate mood for the subject matter and go on to
    discuss how effectively she/he uses this mood to enhance your understanding of the central idea of the poem."

    The key phrases here are (a) 'appropriate mood', (b) 'central idea' and and (c) 'how the mood enhances your understanding'. In (c) you are showing how (a) relates to (b) and you do this by analysing the poetic techniques involved.

    Typical topic sentence openings:

    Early in the poem Crichton Smith creates a mood of ......

    The poet's effective creation of a mood of .... helps the reader to understand the central idea of the poem which is . . .
    [You can fill in the gaps from your own notes]

    Choose a poem which is strongly linked to a specific location.
    Show how the poet captures the essence of the location and exploits this to explore an important theme.

    Here the key phrases are 'specific location', 'essence of the location' and 'exploration of an important theme'. (The theme would esentially be the same as the central idea you used in the other question). 'Essence of the location' isn't all that different from 'mood', either - but here you must use the words 'location' and 'mood' becase these are in the question.

    Last month I posted this sample essay on another poem, 'Ambulances' by Philip Larkin. You might like to look at this as it shows how to link to the question.

    Higher English Poetry Essay

    Here is a sample essay which answers the following question by using Philip Larkin's poem "Ambulances":

    Choose a poem in which a chance encounter or seemingly unimportant incident acquires increased significance by the end of the poem. Show how the poet’s development of the encounter leads you to a deeper understanding of the poem’s themes.

    Even if you are not studying this particular poem, the structure of this sample essay should be of assistance. Note how the paragraphs begin with topic sentences linking back to the words of the question [marked by*]. To avoid being repetitive, sometimes alternative wording is used (e.g. instead of repeating 'seemingly unimportant incident' too often, other expresions like 'everday event' can be substituted).

    This essay also illustrates how to construct paragraphs on the TOPIC SENTENCE - EVIDENCE - ANALYSIS pattern. See separate post for more about this.

    A poem in which a chance encounter acquires increased significance* by the end of the poem is ‘Ambulances’ by Philip Larkin. The poet witnesses an ambulance on an emergency call and this leads him to think about serious issues such as human mortality. *

    The poem starts with a description of the everyday occurrence* of an ambulance going through traffic. Although this is a common enough sight, it is hard for the eye-witness to know what is going on inside the vehicle. The anonymity of the ambulance is conveyed through the use of a simile, ‘closed like confessionals’, which compares the interior of the ambulance to the secrecy of the confessional box in a Catholic church where the penitent confesses his sins to the priest.

    The everyday nature of this incident* is also evident from the second verse which provides a snapshot of the social background of the time. The poem is probably set in post-war Hull and Larkin depicts ordinary people going about their ordinary business:

    “children strewn on steps or road.
    Or women coming from the shops”
    The poet suggests that the usual routine continues day by day but can suddenly be interrupted without warning.

    It is at this point that the reader begins to realise that an apparently unimportant incident* has acquired increased significance*, as the ambulance comes to symbolise mortality. The fact that “they come to rest at any kerb” represents the random nature of suffering and illness which can strike at any time. The poet also observes that “all streets in time are visited”. In other words, death inevitably comes to everyone. Death, symbolised by the ambulance, may arrive anywhere; eventually, though, it will arrive everywhere.

    The rest of the poem leads the reader to a deeper understanding of the theme* of universal mortality. The poet stresses the agony of the patient through the alliteration of “wild white face”. Perhaps the man is suffering too much to cry out or even to move, so that all his pain and fear is concentrated in his facial expression. The description is made all the more dramatic by the stark contrast between the white face and the red blanket, red having connotations of danger and of blood. The sight of this makes the onlookers think about the
    That lies just under all we do”
    Here, the use of the first person plural “we” forces them for a moment to face up to their own mortality and realise that anything they – and the reader – might achieve in life can suddenly collapse and come to nothing. We come face to face with a sobering truth that is “so permanent and blank and true.” Similarly, the lines:“Poor soul/They whisper at their own distress” indicate that in expressing sympathy for the unfortunate victim the onlookers are also acknowledging that one day they, too, will take ill and die. The tone of the colloquial expression “poor soul” effectively captures the feelings of the onlookers.

    My understanding of the theme of mortality* was also increased by Larkin’s analysis of how the patient is dehumanised by his suffering. “It is carried in and stowed” is a very impersonal way of describing how a living person is taken into the ambulance. The word “stowed” has connotations of packing up and storing away an object that is no longer required, further detracting from the person’s worth as a human being. This idea is reinforced by the passive expression “borne away” which suggests he has no control over his own life as the ambulance takes him on his journey to the hospital.

    When the patient reaches his destination, the process of dehumanisation continues as he approaches his inevitable death. The aspects of his life that made him who he was - his family role as husband or father, for instance, and his interests in life which all fitted together (“cohered”) to give him his individual identity – have now “loosened”. In other words, he loses his personal characteristics and is simply another patient. The worst part of the experience is that he has to suffer on his own,
    From the exchange of love to lie
    Unreachable inside a room.”
    The inevitability of this process is reinforced by the structure of the last few verses which employ long sentences and enjambment to link each verse into the next, creating a sense of continuity and stressing the unstoppable nature of the journey towards death.

    The poem ends with a contrast as “what is left to come” (that is, death) grows “closer” while the patient’s identity fades away. The finality of this is stressed in the alliteration of the last line “dulls to distance all we are”, while the use of the personal pronoun “we” is a reminder that both Larkin himself and the reader are not exempt from the process of mortality.

    Thus, in “Ambulances” a chance encounter* leads the poet to think seriously about the unavoidability of death, a theme* which was made clear to me through the use of poetic techniques such as symbolism, imagery and effective word choice.*

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  • Message 3

    , in reply to message 2.

    Posted by alana_96 (U15249580) on Sunday, 19th May 2013

    This had helped me a lot, thank you! It will really come in handy for the exam tomorrow. Thanks!! =D

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