Chapter Four - How to Read and Write about Poetry
Section B of the Anthology features five poems and four
pieces of prose. As Paper 3 always features something
from Section B as a reading test, there is a 50:50 chance
that you will have to write about a poem in the exam!
Hopefully this chapter will help you to understand and write
Poetry. You either love it or you hate it. If you are one of
those people in the first group, chances are you might even
have tried to write some poetry yourself. If that's the case
you'll probably enjoy this section because it will help you
understand more about the craft of writing poetry and this may
help you write it better.
you are one of those people in the second group, however,
don't worry! It's a much bigger group than the poetry-lovers,
so you are certainly not alone.
One of the reasons you might not like poetry is that you find it
hard to understand. Hopefully this chapter will demystify poetry
and enable you to be confident writing about it.
by the end of this session, even if you still don't enjoy poetry,
you might respect what poets do. (Remember you can always call me
if you get stuck.)
let's begin by looking at some basic facts about poetry. Apologies
if I'm telling you something you already know.
Why is a poem a poem?
enable us to be clear about what poetry IS we have to get
clear about what poetry ISN'T. To give you an example, I'm
going to tell you a very simple and very short story in prose. You
might find the story familiar. (Prose is a word that means any
sort of writing that isn't poetry, incidentally. This course is
written in prose and so are most books.)
Once upon a time there was a girl called Mary who had a small
lamb with a very white coat. He was in the habit of following
her around and everywhere she went, the lamb went too. One day
the lamb even followed Mary to school, even though that wasn't
allowed. All the children in the school laughed when they saw
the lamb in class, and began to play with it.
any bells? I thought it might. This is the story of Mary had a
Little Lamb and it is written in prose. Now let's compare it
with the more familiar version which is in the form of a poem.
had a little lamb,
fleece was white as snow,
everywhere that Mary went,
lamb was sure to go.
followed her to school one day,
was against the rule,
made the children laugh and play,
a lamb at school.
that's definitely a poem, isn't it? Isn't it...? Perhaps you'd like
to make a few notes here about why you think it is a poem.
is Mary had a Little Lamb a poem?
know what you came up with, but the reasons I felt sure that
Mary had a Little Lamb was a poem were ...
written in two sets of four lines, which I would call verses
(or stanzas to give them a name that means exactly the same
thing but which you may also come across).
lines are quite short because poets don't have to go to the end of
the sentence (as in prose) but can break the line before the end to suit
rhymes. I would say that this is one of the main ways I can tell
it's a poem. (Poetry doesn't always have to rhyme, by the way.
When a poem doesn't rhyme we call it blank verse. Don't
worry too much about this now. We'll discuss it later in the
course. For now, let's just say that poetry can include a
rhyme and this is one of the ways we would identify a poem.)
want to analyse the way a poem rhymes, it's helpful to put a
letter at the end of a line to show when there is a new rhyming
word. This is easier to demonstrate than to describe, so watch...
had a little lamb
(I've given lamb the letter A because nothing has
rhymed with it yet)
fleece was white as snow
(snow doesn't rhyme with lamb, so this is a new
rhyme word and I've given it the letter B)
everywhere that Mary went
(again, went is a new rhyme so we give it a new
lamb was sure to go.
rhymes with snow, so this is in the B group
of rhyming words)
get the idea? The pattern the rhyming words make in a poem is
called the rhyme scheme. In this case we would say the
rhyme scheme of the first verse of Mary had a Little Lamb
is ABCB. This is one of the simplest rhyme schemes you can have.
if you can do it for the second verse. Just put a letter next to
the end-of-line words that rhyme, using a new letter for each new
rhyming word. Remember, I have already used up A,B and C in the
first verse, so if you come across new rhyming words that don't
rhyme with lamb, snow or went, you'll have to
use letter D, E, F, G... and so on. Have a go and see what you come
followed her to school one day
was against the rule,
made the children laugh and play
a lamb at school.
you get on? This is what I got:
followed her to school one day D
Which was against the rule, E
made the children laugh and play D
see a lamb at school.
rhymes with play, and rule rhymes with school.
So the rhyme scheme
for the second verse is D,E,D,E
hopefully you can see that even in this very simple poem there are
several attributes which are recognisable as poetry. Before we
move on from Mary and her little white pet, there are just a few
more poetic attributes I'd like you to notice.
Rhythm and metre.
reading the first verse of Mary had a Little Lamb aloud
(go on, you know you want to). Can you see how it has a bouncy
sort of a rhythm? I've tried to write the rhythm underneath by
going tum - ti - tum - ti - tum... This is what I got.
y - had - a - litt - le - lamb
ti - tum - ti - tum - ti - tum
can bring yourself to read the rest of the poem you'll notice that
it is also written in the tum-ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum way. We
call this aspect of a poem the rhythm or the metre.
It can be compared to the rhythm or beat in music. The rhythm
of a poem is one of the ways a poet creates a poetic effect and
because this is a nursery rhyme, the poet has stuck to a fairly
simple rhythm that a child might enjoy hearing. It's probably
worth pointing out that the poem need not have had this
tum-ti-tum metre. Again, here is a version of the same poem,
but without the tum-ti-tum.
had a small lamb
very white coat
really liked to be around her
followed her everywhere.
the rhyme is missing from this version, so it's not an entirely
fair comparison, but can you see there is no tum-ti-tum
rhythm either? The poem loses something doesn't it? It starts to
sound a bit like prose, even though it's written in verse.
probably ought to say that although verse, rhyme
scheme and rhythm/metre are ways of telling that
we are reading poems, not ALL poems have these attributes. It is
possible for a poem to have none of these things and this is true
of some of the poems in the Anthology.
probably sick and tired of Mary and her small, cuddly pet by now,
but hang on in a little bit longer while I point out two more
things that you will come across in poetry and which appear in
this poem. They are two more tools that poets use (tools that
poets use are called poetic devices) and you've come across
them before but it's important to mention them again now.
of all, look at the words little lamb. Can you see
they both begin with the same letter? When poets put two words
together (or very close together) that begin with the same letter,
it's called alliteration. This works in a similar way to
onomatopoeia because it's a sound effect, and to show you what I
mean, here's another example:
softly, silently sang the stream.
there is a sequence of words beginning with 's'. We'll talk a bit
more about the effect of different letter sounds soon, but suffice
to say that the letter 's' is a soft letter (by which I mean it
sounds soft, as oppose to the letter k which sounds hard). So the
repetition of the letter s suggests the idea of a stream
flowing along softly and silently. In other words the SOUND of the
letter emphasises the meaning of the words. I don't think this
quite happens with little lamb, do you? But perhaps
you get the idea of what alliteration means and can be on
the lookout for it.
other poetic device I want to remind you about is something we
came across in Chapter 1, which is simile. Just to recap,
simile is when something is compared with something else.
In the first section I said that if you were to say her eyes
are like diamonds you would be comparing eyes to diamonds (or
saying they are similar to diamonds) and you would be using a
a simile in this nursery rhyme, too, which is Its fleece
was white as snow. (You might remember that similes are a bit
like metaphors. There aren't any metaphors in Mary had a
little lamb, but if the poet had said 'its fleece was
snow', instead of 'its fleece was white as snow', it would
have been a metaphor.)
from this VERY simple nursery rhyme we've learned quite a bit
about poetry. Here is a summary of what we've covered.
Poetry is different from prose. In fact, poetry is the
opposite of prose.
Poetry is often divided into verses (or stanzas).
Poetry can rhyme, and if it does it has a rhyme scheme.
When poetry doesn't rhyme, it's called blank verse.
Words carry a different emphasis, and when you put these
together in a poetry you create a rhythm or metre.
Poets use various tools to create poetic effects and these are
called poetic devices.
is a poetic device and it refers to words which begin with the
same letter being placed close together.
is another poetic device in which something is compared to
something else. (For example: its fleece was white as snow.)
Subject and Theme.
are always about something, and we call what a poem is about
its subject. So far we've looked at a very simple poem. So
simple in fact that its meaning, or subject, is obvious. If
I were to ask you what Mary had a Little Lamb was about
you'd have to agree that it was about a girl called Mary, in
possession of a lamb, which followed her around a lot. There isn't
much else going on in the poem is there? Mary, a lamb and a lot of
following around. All a bit boring.
poems can be much more complex and multi-layered than this.
In fact one of the reasons why really good poetry is
successful is because it presents the reader with multiple
layers - or flavours - of meaning, a bit like an ice-cream
sundae. So it is often the case that a good poem will have a
fairly simple subject, but there will be layers of meaning
beneath the apparently simple surface, and we call these
deeper levels of meaning themes. If you've been
struggling with poetry thus far it may be because you
suspect that there's something going on beneath the surface
that you don't quite get, and this something would be the
moment we will look at some rather more complex poems which will
hopefully introduce you to some deeper levels of meaning, but
first I want to talk a bit about how poets use language.
The language of poetry.
you've probably gathered, a recurring theme in IGCSE
English Language concerns how writers use language to create
meaning. You might remember in the last chapter we saw how
two authors used language to create very different sorts of
stories. Poets share some of the techniques that prose
writers use (simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia, and so on) but
poets are even more careful about word choice, because poems
are so much shorter and so every word has to work that bit
the techniques poets use, therefore, is to choose words with more
than one meaning. By doing this they hope that you will hear the
surface meaning of the word but will also have an awareness
of its other meaning. It can often happen that the surface
meaning of the word relates to the subject of the poem, but
the other meaning will relate to its theme. The poet hopes
that the word will create ripples of multiple meaning in your
mind, a bit like a like a stone being dropped into a pond. There's
a good example of this in the poem we are about to read which is
by Philip Larkin and is called First Sight. The
poem is about lambs which are born when there is snow on the
ground and the poet refers to the snow's 'sunless glare'.
By using the word 'glare' he gets us to think not only about the
brightness of the snow, but the other meaning of 'glare', which is
to stare in an unfriendly way. Glare is a great word choice in
this poem because the unfriendliness of nature is an important
underlying theme. So the word 'glare'