Getting to grips with A Level Poetry

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Do you ever feel lost when you first read a poem and unsure how to write about it?

Either as a one-off lesson or part of a series, I'll show you that exploring poetry isn't as difficult as you might think. It's about realising that reading a poem is an experience, a personal experience for you. If you can learn to listen carefully to your own responses and to give the poem space by reading it a few times, you will find that your relationship with poetry becomes more and more fulfilling. Poems often teach us to listen and to be comfortable with strangeness or open questions. Many students often look for an "answer" or "solution" to a poem, and they are conscious that there are other people's expert "answers" and things which "should" be said. It's refreshing to realise that the best poetry analysis stems from a sensitivity to your own personal reading. This means being able to say that a certain image or line is "ambiguous" to you, for example, before exploring the different possible ways of reading that phrase. After all, the poet wrote the poem for you, the reader, so your job, on the receiving end, is to tell the story of your reaction, to tell us what it is you "hear" from the poem. In his excellent book, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry, Edward Hirsch describes a poem as a "message in a bottle". No matter how puzzling, it's a message of power and importance which the poet has left for you to read.

Let me leave you with a poem to get you thinking about how you approach poetry. Relax and read the following poem a few times, then consider the questions afterwards. When getting to know a poem, you can try reading it aloud, or over a series of days, in the morning when you get up, or last thing at night, just listening to it and yourself and postponing judgement, then you can begin to ask questions. When you write an essay about it, try to catch your ideas in process and uncover them, without trying to over-design your writing. Clear, simple vocabulary is fine.

Meeting at Night

The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low:
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

Robert Browning, 1845

Start by identifying the emotions in the poem. What emotions emerge through each line? Can you pinpoint them and describe them in precise words? Do they change at all through the course of the poem?

Now begin to explore the "how". Consider moments in the poem which are particularly affecting and strong for you. How has the poet used rhythm in the line - or rhyme - to create a mood? This is a very onomatopoeic poem. Look at the affricative "ch" sounds and "sh" sounds. How do these contribute to your experience of the content? You can look at the effects of finishing a line on a particular word or what the space of the stanza break is doing. Perhaps it gives more energy to the following stanza which rushes in upon the lush, expectant pause...

Now clarify for yourself what exactly is going on in the poem. What is the relationship between the "I" and "the voice"? Why is she just a "voice"? What does that reveal about the relationship to you?

I recommend writing about your reaction. You might try writing just one A4 page, including three strong paragraphs about a few core features of the poem which you have noticed.

It also helps to research the poet and the context in which he was writing. This will shed more light on the poem.


To find out about face-to-face or online lessons with me, just click the ‘Make an Enquiry’ button.

Or you can EMAIL ME DIRECTLY: [email protected]

If you'd like to send your thoughts on Browning's poem, I'd love to read them.


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HOW LONG: 1 Hours

LEVEL: Intermediate

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