Unseen poetry is stressful. We feel that it is never given enough time (because there are fifteen anthology poems to teach) and students struggle with confidence because the texts will be unfamilar to them. Coupled with this, the independent reading of poetry requires students to posess a certain degree of cultural capital; literature is filled with establised imagery and hidden meaning which the frequent readers in our classes will pick up easily, but those without that literary grounding in language and symbolism will miss, without even realising there was something there to spot in the first place.
I have started to teach unseen poetry by stripping away much of the worry and myth surrounding it. The main concern my students tend to have is: I need to be able to understand what the poem means.
Wrong. The exam question doesn’t say ‘explain what the poem means’. The questions on unseen poetry are going to ask how writers present things, and the examiner wants students to demonstrate their ability to pick out features of texts, comment on them and write some developed analysis. This is not the same as having to give a straightforward overview of a text.
Students just need to find THREE things that they can talk about. It doesn’t have to be three things they fully understand or are even confident about – just three things they could say SOMETHING about. For example, I have recently used the poem ‘Crossing the Water’ by Sylvia Plath as an unseen poem (*note, I always use much more challenging poems as practice texts so that when they are in the exam, things feel easier…).
Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.
A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.
Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;
Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.
This is a very challenging, abstract poem. I would defy most English specialists to be confident in their assessment of this on a first reading in timed conditions! That’s the beauty of it, though.
1. Give this poem (or something like it) to students.
2. Get them to highlight THREE things they might be able to talk about.
Lots of my students highlighted:
- Repetition of ‘black’ in the first line
- Two questions being asked (lines 2 and 11)
- Final line and image of ‘silence’ and ‘souls’
3. For each of these three things, get students to write THREE things they could say about them…
It is the opening line of the poem – by starting with an image of darkness, the poet sets a somber tone.
Saying ‘black’ three times is repetition – this emphasises how important the ‘blackness’ is – perhaps the poem is about depression or sadness?
There are some other mentions of darkness elsewhere in the poem, e.g. ‘shadows’ ‘dark’, so this is a clear motif running through.
These are quite accomplished responses, and they come from training – my students are used to looking for: how poems start and end, themes which run through (such as dark vs. light imagery), how language evokes or suggests particular emotions. You could start by scaffolding this with key questions (avoid turning this into a checklist! Questions should prompt students to be independent, e.g. how does the poem start? Does it introduce any interesting ideas in the opening? Are there any words or images which are repeated in the poem?…)
At the end of this activity, students have said three things about three things. They have nine things they can say about the poem. Depending on the spec you are working with, or the needs of your students, you could adapt this to ‘two things about two things’ or some other variant. This approach is a POSITIVE one – it is about finding things you CAN say, rather than trying to stick to a list of things you should try to find – that is potentially a negative approach because students are blinded by their checklist, rather than being led by what jumps out at them. Let them be led by the text itself!
This isn’t a foolproof formula for approaching unseen poetry in an exam (note, I haven’t suggested how to write this up), instead, it is a way of improving student confidence with texts. They sometimes think there is an ‘answer’ to find. If we can help them to realise that the answer is in them (however cheesy that sounds!), that poems are so complex that they only need to touch on the tip of the iceberg (and that everyone’s iceberg is different!), that will help to reduce the stress.
Repeat after me, Y11: there is no answer. I don’t have to know what it means. I just need three things.