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Approaching Poetry in your English Literature GCSE Exam: Section C: Unseen Poems


There are two questions in Section C and all candidates must answer both of them. The first question is an analysis of a single unseen poem. This question is worth 24 marks. The second question introduces an additional unseen poem. You must then compare the two poems. Curiously, this second question is only awarded 8 marks, so you can see that you must not spend much time on this. Ideally you should spend about 30/35 minutes on part 1 and about 10/12 minutes on part 2.

The unseen poems come at the end of a long, complicated examination paper, so it is crucial that you have your timings all worked out before the exam. You will need to make sure you have the time (and stamina!) to give Section C your very best shot.

Preparation is key!
Just as with Sections A and B, preparation is key. These are unseen poems so you cannot actually learn them in advance. You can, however, practise your technique. Borrow a collection of poems from the library, use the internet, or use the poems from your Anthology which you have not studied, to practise coming face to face with an unseen poem.

Part 1

The question will be, for example: In ‘To a Daughter Leaving Home’, how does the poet present the speaker’s feelings about her daughter?
(See the AQA Specimen Paper if required.)

SMILE
When faced with an unseen poem, it’s a good idea to SMILE:
Structure – what is the structure and form? What does this add to the effect?
Meaning – what is the literal meaning?
Imagery – what poetic devices, e.g. similes, etc, are used? To what effect?
Language – what type of language is used?
Emotional effect – how does the poem make you feel?

Once you have SMILED the poem, you should have a good understanding of it. You can now look again for deeper meanings. Is the metaphorical meaning different from the literal meaning? In the example mentioned above, the poem appears to be about a girl learning to ride her bike. However, the title of the poem and other language and clues in the text suggest it is more about a daughter growing up.

Context is not assessed in Section C, but do consider the name/dates of the poet. Do they give you any additional clues to what it is about?

Plan your answer
It is important that you spend some time planning a careful, considered answer. Just as with Section B, to score a high mark you need a structured, conceptualized response, not just a stream of unrelated paragraphs. You need to plan a detailed answer which considers the language, structure and form of the poem and includes relevant quotations.

Part 2

You are not given much time to focus on this second unseen poem. Take about three minutes to quickly SMILE it. The focus of the question is on comparison. For example: In both ‘Poem for My Sister’ and ‘To a Daughter Leaving Home’ the speakers describe feelings about watching someone they love grow up. What are the similarities and/or differences between the ways the poets present those feelings?
(Both poems available on the AQA Specimen Paper).

This question is only worth 8 marks and the examiners want to see that you are able to confidently compare the language, form, structure and ideas in the two poems. Luckily, you have plenty of experience in comparing poems from Section B. You will need to work quickly to plan a short answer, addressing these points. Remember, the key focus is comparison.

This concludes my series on preparing for this exam. I hope what I have said will prove useful when you finally come to sit down and put pen to paper, and lastly, I wish you all the best of luck.

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I am currently working for a Pupil Referral Unit in the south, having previously taught in comprehensives in Oxford and London. My particular interests are History and (English) Literature, but as a mum of two small boys I am also increasingly interested in debates surrounding primary education in general and parenting in particular.

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