EdPlace's GCSE Home Learning English Language Lesson: Unseen Poetry
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Now...onto the lesson!
Techniques to Unpack the Meaning of a Poem
How do you help your child understand the tricky language in an ‘unseen poem’ when you are scratching your head in puzzlement yourself? Do you feel the cold dread of fear when your child asks you, “Is the poet using a simile or a metaphor in this line of poetry?”
Do you gulp in terror when you hear a shout from your child’s room asking, “How many lines of poetry are in a sonnet?” What does the poet/speaker mean when the language is littered with alliteration, similes, metaphors and what can seem like…nonsense! Well, let us put our super sleuth thinking caps on and work this out together; it can be easier than you first think – trust me!
We’re confident that by the end of this article your child will be able to:
1) Understand how to approach an unseen poem
2) Develop their understanding of unseen poems
3) Explain how the poet has used language to convey meaning
Step 1: Poetic Terminology
We’ll keep it simple here. There are loads of different techniques and terminology that can be found in poetry, but we’ll concentrate on those most frequently used.
Simile: A comparison to something using ‘like’ or ‘as’ (The children are like monsters)
Metaphor: A direct comparison to something (The children are monsters)
Personification: Giving human characteristics to a non-human object. (The trees danced in the breeze)
Alliteration: Two or more words close together that start with the same sound (cats creep carefully to catch their prey).
Sibilance: Alliteration specifically of the ‘s’ sound (six sizzling sausages in a saucepan).
Onomatopoeia: Sound words (crackle, crash, rustle, thud)
Stanza: The verse of a poem.
Rhyme scheme: If it doesn’t rhyme at all – ‘blank verse’ If every other line rhyme – ‘ABAB’ rhyme scheme. If two direct lines rhyme – ‘rhyming couplet’
Sonnet: A 14-line poem typically about a love for someone or something.
Rhetorical question: A question that makes the reader think and doesn’t need a direct answer.
Step 2: Connotations
A top tip when analysing poetry is to think of connotations. Quite often in poetry, language is used metaphorically and particular words imply a deeper meaning or thought. Tackling unseen poetry may seem like a daunting process, but it is purely a personal interpretation. Everyone who reads a poem might have a slightly different viewpoint. There is no right or wrong answer, just a personal response of the reader. This is where connotations can come in handy.
Think of the following words. What imagery comes to mind?
You might have come up with ideas such as:
Red – danger, blood, anger, lust, love
Spring – birth, life, sunshine, yellow
You can then use these ideas to try and link to the theme, emotions or ideas that you think the poet is trying to portray through the poem.
Don’t be frightened of suggesting your interpretation; aim to use a phrase such as ‘this might suggest this...’ or ‘this could mean…’ This way, you are not saying that this is a definite interpretation – just your personal ideas and views.
Step 3: Word Chains
Another way to approach a poem is to look for words with similar connections or ‘word chains’ to interpret the meaning, ideas, emotions or themes of the poem. For instance, if a poem has a lot of references to army terminology – then this could suggest the poem is related to war, conflict, suffering, loss or death.
Quite often, the title of the poem will also hint to the overall meaning, so think carefully about any ideas that the poet has used here.
Look at the example of the first stanza of a poem below:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade! (commands given to soldiers by a superior officer)
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred. (Six hundred – a brigade of soldiers ‘rode suggests they are on horseback)
Using word chains to decipher the overall theme, meaning, emotions or ideas will help your child to understand some details about the poem and will allow them to express their response to the exam question. Say a lot about a little if in doubt and don’t forget those modal verbs. Such as, ‘could suggest' or 'might imply' to express your own interpretations.
Step 4: Have a Go Yourself!
Read through the stanza below and try to think about how the poet feels about love and friendship:
Love and Friendship
By Emily Brontë
Love is like the wild rose-briar,
Friendship like the holly tree-
Holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms
But which will bloom most constantly?
Step 5: Activities
We hope your child is feeling more confident about how to approach unseen poetry! If so, now is the perfect time for you to put their skills to the test. Here are some activities which will help to consolidate their learning. We recommend doing them in this order so that their learning builds progressively.
All activities are created by teachers and automatically marked. Plus, with an EdPlace subscription, we can automatically progress your child at a level that's right for them. Sending you progress reports along the way so you can track and measure progress, together - brilliant!
Love is like the wild rose-briar, the poet uses a simile possible suggesting that love is sometimes painful (thorns and unpredictable ‘wild’ Additionally – roses are annual flowers (suggesting love blooms at certain life stages.
Friendship like the holly-tree— Perennial tree – suggesting friendship lasts longer than love.
The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms This could suggest when a new love ‘blooms’ friendship is neglected but still alive and constant.
But which will bloom most constantly? A rhetorical question ends the stanza allowing the reader to reflect on the ideas linked back to the question.