English Literature

Comparing poems

You will be asked to compare two or more poems in your exam. You will usually be given some of the poems which you must write about, and you might need to choose other poems to compare them with.

You could be asked to write about the presentation of themes, people or places and the importance of language.

Writing a good comparative essay

All essay questions expect you to comment on the areas covered in Writing about poetry. This means you must write about the use of language, the effect of language and form, and how it makes you feel.

A good comparative essay is like a multi-layered sandwich:

  • BREAD - A new point.

  • FILLING A - How one of your chosen poems illustrates this point.

  • FILLING B - How your other chosen poem illustrates this point.

  • BREAD - Your conclusion about this point.

This is what the examiners call cross-referencing [cross-referencing: A technique in essay writing that compares points from two or more texts to formulate part of an argument. These texts might hold similar views or opposing ones. ] - you talk about both poems all the way through your answer.

What the examiner will look for

When marking your essay, the examiner will look to see whether you have appreciated and explored the:

  • ideas
  • attitudes and tone
  • structure and form
  • techniques used by the poets

When answering an exam question, keep these five criteria in mind.

Question

Now consider this exam question:

How is the theme of love presented in the two poems?

Choose two of the poems you are studying to try this exercise (you might need to replace ‘love’ with a different theme, depending on the collection of poetry you are focusing on).

When planning an answer it is a good idea to look at each poem in turn and to note down examples or quotations relevant to each of the following criteria.

Try drawing a table like the one below:

Love*IdeasAttitudes and tonesStructure and formTechniques
Poem 1
Poem 2

* In the first column put the keyword from the question: this is going to be the focus of your answer.

Can you find two or three quotations (single words or short phrases) to put in each box?

Make sure that you appreciate and explore the examples you choose. Notice which poetic devices or techniques have been used and then suggest why. Think about why a poet might have used these particular words and phrases. How do they relate to the main ideas or themes? This will help you to write good quality poetry essays.

Throughout your essay, move from one poem to the other in every paragraph. Start each paragraph with a topic sentence which summaries how each poem is related to your point:

  • Both poems demonstrate...
  • Although the first poem has a positive tone, the second poem...
  • Each of the poems takes a slightly different approach...
  • The two poems contrast in...
  • There is a similar description of... in both poems.

In the body of the paragraph make sure you compare ideas from both poems. Support your points with short quotations from each poem. You should also include close analysis of individual quotations. Examine the words used and think about the wider connotations [connotation: An idea or image which is suggested by a word, which is not its dictionary meaning, e.g. the connotation of 'desk' might be school. ] of these. Look for similarities and differences between the two poems you are using. Finish each paragraph with a concluding sentence that sums up the point you’ve made about both poems.

Try not to write about one poem then the other without explicitly comparing the two. Just putting the two poems in the same paragraph is not enough. Make sure you use key words like ‘similar’ and ‘different’, and connecting phrases like ‘on the other hand’ and ‘likewise’.

Conclusion

A strong conclusion to an essay should leave an examiner with a positive attitude to your work. What would you write in your conclusion that draws all your points together? Try to think about both poems and, most importantly, your feelings and attitudes. What do you think about the poems and what they have to say?

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