IGCSE English Courses

for home educators by Catherine Mooney


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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 about poetry.


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. If 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.  Certainly, 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.)

So 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?

To 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.


Ring 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.


Mary had a little lamb,

Its fleece was white as snow,

And everywhere that Mary went,

The lamb was sure to go.


It followed her to school one day,

Which was against the rule,

It made the children laugh and play,

To see a lamb at school.


Now 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.



Why is Mary had a Little Lamb a poem?








I don't know what you came up with, but the reasons I felt sure that Mary had a Little Lamb was a poem were ...

        It's 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).

        The 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 their purposes.

        It 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.)

When we 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...




Mary had a little lamb                      A  (I've given lamb the letter A because nothing has  

     rhymed with it yet)


Its fleece was white as snow            B   (snow doesn't rhyme with lamb, so this is a new

     rhyme word and I've given it the letter B)


And everywhere that Mary went      C   (again, went is a new rhyme so we give it a new



The lamb was sure to go.              B   (go rhymes with snow, so this is in the B group

                                                                   of rhyming words)   


Do you 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.


Now see 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 up with


It followed her to school one day

Which was against the rule,

It made the children laugh and play

To see a lamb at school.


How did you get on? This is what I got:


It followed her to school one day                D

Which was against the rule,                        E

It made the children laugh and play          D

To see a lamb at school.                             E        


Day rhymes with play, and rule rhymes with school. So the rhyme scheme for the second verse is D,E,D,E


So 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.


Try 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.


Mar  - y  - had   - a - litt - le - lamb

Tum - ti - tum - ti - tum - ti -   tum


If you 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.



Mary had a small lamb

With a very white coat

It really liked to be around her

So it followed her everywhere.


I know 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.

I 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.

You're 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.

Poetic devices

1) Alliteration

First 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.

Here 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.


2) Simile

The 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 simile.

There's 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.)

So... 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.

        Alliteration is a poetic device and it refers to words which begin with the same letter being placed close together.

        Simile is another poetic device in which something is compared to something else. (For example: its fleece was white as snow.)



Subject and Theme.

Poems 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.


 But 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 theme(s).

In a 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.

As 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 harder.

One of 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'  ...

End of Extract


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