How to Write a Level 5 Poetry Essay (A-level English lit)

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Quirky Object
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Edit: I made a prose version of this guide.

Hi

Following some discussion on the A-level English study group (which you should definitely join, by the way) I thought it might be helpful to show you how I write poetry essays. I’m going to be referring to a timed essay I wrote whose title was “Compare the methods the poets use to explore violence, death and the attitudes towards them.” Of course this wasn’t a perfect essay, but it did get a level 5, so hopefully it will help a bit to see an example if you’re struggling with structure or technique.

The poems I compared are here (anthology) and here (unseen).


Introduction:

The introduction should, of course, briefly lay out what your general argument will be during the essay without any language analysis or developed points. One thing my teachers have emphatically told us not to do is state the obvious, e.g. “The poet uses many linguistic techniques.” That’s too vague even for an introduction, but giving examples of literary techniques and stating what effect they have in a few words will do the trick. You could structure your introduction by summarising the similarities and then differences between each poem, as below:

Example
In some senses, the two poems portray a similar attitude towards violence; in both, there is a certain degree of fascination by death and violence, as well as personal engagement with violence by the narrator. However, the permanence of violence, death and their effects is a point of disagreement between the two poets, as is the extent to which violent acts can paradoxically ‘give life.’





This works, but naming some techniques or perhaps mentioning the context of your anthology poem might be more sophisticated.



Points:

There are several aspects of a poem that you could examine when comparing your two poems; these include:

  • The rhythm and rhyme scheme – how does the use of a certain meter or the positioning of a certain word contribute to the tone of the poem or emphasis on an ide
  • The structure and punctuation – what does enjambment, caesura, the use of repeated questions or direct speech or even the lack of punctuation tell you?
  • The use of rhetorical devices – how do similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole etc. create a certain image?
  • Word choice – do the words chosen by the poet have certain sounds or connotations in common? Are they often used in similar or in contrasting situations?
  • Grammatical features – how does the poet play with tenses, pronouns and voices (active/passive)?


Once you’ve identified a similarity or a contrast between the poems in terms of language use, explain in detail how that different use of rhyme, structure etc. contributes to the similar or different way in which the poets convey the theme in the title.

Here are examples of a similarity and a contrast point (try to include fairly equal numbers of each, although arguing that there are more similarities or more contrasts is fine):

Similarity
“The Gun”, Feaver tells an almost joyful story of the experience of hunting, using the simile “your eyes gleam like when sex was fresh”, which draws a link between sexual pleasure and the pleasure of the violence involved in hunting. The words “gleam” and “fresh” both have the connotations of something new, of positive excitement, implying that carrying out a violent act involves a certain thrill and even a degree of happiness. Phonological techniques are also used by the poet to create an impression of excitement; she writes “You trample fur and feathers. There’s a spring in your step…”, thus using repeated voiceless fricatives to convey the feeling of an excited rush. In a similar vein, Flynn writes in “The Notorious Case of Robert the Painter” that “the killer caught the public imagination.” The verb “caught” implies a quick action, suggesting a similar sense of rush and excitement, and the idea of “catching the public imagination” (or the imagination in general) is often reserved for writers and artists, which suggests there may even be some art to violence. In this respect, both poems demonstrate similar ideas of violence and its relationship to excitement.





In the above example, I explored different elements of word choice: the connotations of certain words and phrases, including what contexts they would usually be found in and the implications of those contexts for the tone of the poem, and also the phonology of the words (the sounds which make them up). Referring to the effects of both the sounds and the meanings of the word reinforces your point. Every point can be broken down into sub-points; here, they are:


  • The association of violence with pleasure in “The Gun”, shown by the simile invoking sexual pleasure and use of words with positive connotations.
  • The association of violence with excitement in “The Gun”, shown by the repetition of s and f sounds to give the impression of an excited rush.
  • The idea of pace adding excitement in “The Notorious Case”, similar to the excitement of “The Gun” and shown by the implications of the verb “caught.”
  • The positive connotations of there being an art to violence in “The Notorious Case”, similar to the positivity implied by sexual pleasure in “The Gun” and shown by the context in which the phrase “caught the public imagination” is often used.



You can see here that every sub-point analyses the language used in a quotation from the text, explains the effect of the language used and links back to the question; this is kind of like the “point, evidence, explanation, link” thing you might have done in your GCSE, only more sophisticated, because now you’re making lots of sub-points and comparing two poems as well. The comparison is something you have to keep returning to in every paragraph so that you get your AO4 marks.

Contrast
Feaver uses a first-person pronoun in a similar way to Flynn in “The Gun”, but to quite a different effect. She writes “I join in the cooking”, using the ideas of “joining in” – implying cooperation – and “cooking”, which is often regarded as a social activity, to create a sense of community. This contrasts with the use of personal narration in “The Notorious Case of Robert the Painter”; in the latter, the addition of the personal dimension has a more haunting effect. For instance, “in the ashes of my own affairs” is a phrase very much related to the narrator’s personal experience, since it uses both the possessive pronoun “my” and the emphatic modifier “own.” Since “my own” is associated with “ashes”, however, which has connotations of destruction, death and cremation, this gives the poem an eerie tone quite unlike the merry, communal associations of “joining in” and “cooking.” Therefore while both poems explore personal connection to violence and death, they associate this connection to different concepts.





This paragraph focuses more on grammar, although there is some discussion of word choice too. I begin by mentioning how the poems are similar but also different, which I do quite often because it adds some nice AO4 nuance. This is the level of detail I usually go with in each paragraph. The sub-points are:


  • The link between violence and (positive) community in “The Gun”, shown by the use of a personal pronoun combined with verbs implying communal activity.
  • The similar use of a first-person pronoun and modifier in “The Notorious Case”, showing that both poems refer to the personal aspect of violence.
  • The link between violence, its personal nature and destruction in “The Notorious Case”, shown by the connotations of the word “ashes”, and its contrast to the general positivity of “The Gun.”




Conclusion:

The conclusion doesn’t make or break an essay, and I think my conclusions in English essays are usually pretty weak actually. This conclusion isn’t groundbreaking, but it does summarise my points and tie together the essay quite nicely. It wouldn’t have hurt for me to include a little more detail on the dichotomies that I mention.

Example
Although violent acts and attitudes towards them are sometimes presented using similar methods in the two poems, there seem to be more instances where the methods used contrast directly. The dichotomies of transience and permanence, and life in death and an ultimate end, which exist between the two poems indicate that they portray rather opposing attitudes to violence overall.





That’s it! Feel free to ask if you have any more questions about poetry essays.
Last edited by Quirky Object; 3 years ago
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etothepiiplusone
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How are there no replies to this thread? The guide is so good!

Unfortunately, the only 'poetry' I've done in Year 12 being Chaucer, I have little to contribute here, but I cannot wait to whip out the anthology in year 13 ...
Last edited by etothepiiplusone; 3 years ago
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Quirky Object
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(Original post by etothepiiplusone)
How is there no replies to this thread? The guide is so good!

Unfortunately, the only 'poetry' I've done in Year 12 being Chaucer, I have little to contribute her, but I cannot wait to whip out the anthology in year 13 ...
Thanks! I've been PMed about it at least :lol: I guess that's the issue with index threads. I really enjoyed the anthology actually, you might like it We're doing The Merchant's Tale for coursework and I'm not as into it as I thought I'd be
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lpasternack
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(Original post by Quirky Object)
Hi

Following some discussion on the A-level English study group (which you should definitely join, by the way) I thought it might be helpful to show you how I write poetry essays. I’m going to be referring to a timed essay I wrote whose title was “Compare the methods the poets use to explore violence, death and the attitudes towards them.” Of course this wasn’t a perfect essay, but it did get a level 5, so hopefully it will help a bit to see an example if you’re struggling with structure or technique.

The poems I compared are here (anthology) and here (unseen).


Introduction:

The introduction should, of course, briefly lay out what your general argument will be during the essay without any language analysis or developed points. One thing my teachers have emphatically told us not to do is state the obvious, e.g. “The poet uses many linguistic techniques.” That’s too vague even for an introduction, but giving examples of literary techniques and stating what effect they have in a few words will do the trick. You could structure your introduction by summarising the similarities and then differences between each poem, as below:

Example
In some senses, the two poems portray a similar attitude towards violence; in both, there is a certain degree of fascination by death and violence, as well as personal engagement with violence by the narrator. However, the permanence of violence, death and their effects is a point of disagreement between the two poets, as is the extent to which violent acts can paradoxically ‘give life.’



This works, but naming some techniques or perhaps mentioning the context of your anthology poem might be more sophisticated.



Points:

There are several aspects of a poem that you could examine when comparing your two poems; these include:

  • The rhythm and rhyme scheme – how does the use of a certain meter or the positioning of a certain word contribute to the tone of the poem or emphasis on an ide
  • The structure and punctuation – what does enjambment, caesura, the use of repeated questions or direct speech or even the lack of punctuation tell you?
  • The use of rhetorical devices – how do similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole etc. create a certain image?
  • Word choice – do the words chosen by the poet have certain sounds or connotations in common? Are they often used in similar or in contrasting situations?
  • Grammatical features – how does the poet play with tenses, pronouns and voices (active/passive)?


Once you’ve identified a similarity or a contrast between the poems in terms of language use, explain in detail how that different use of rhyme, structure etc. contributes to the similar or different way in which the poets convey the theme in the title.

Here are examples of a similarity and a contrast point (try to include fairly equal numbers of each, although arguing that there are more similarities or more contrasts is fine):

Similarity
“The Gun”, Feaver tells an almost joyful story of the experience of hunting, using the simile “your eyes gleam like when sex was fresh”, which draws a link between sexual pleasure and the pleasure of the violence involved in hunting. The words “gleam” and “fresh” both have the connotations of something new, of positive excitement, implying that carrying out a violent act involves a certain thrill and even a degree of happiness. Phonological techniques are also used by the poet to create an impression of excitement; she writes “You trample fur and feathers. There’s a spring in your step…”, thus using repeated voiceless fricatives to convey the feeling of an excited rush. In a similar vein, Flynn writes in “The Notorious Case of Robert the Painter” that “the killer caught the public imagination.” The verb “caught” implies a quick action, suggesting a similar sense of rush and excitement, and the idea of “catching the public imagination” (or the imagination in general) is often reserved for writers and artists, which suggests there may even be some art to violence. In this respect, both poems demonstrate similar ideas of violence and its relationship to excitement.



In the above example, I explored different elements of word choice: the connotations of certain words and phrases, including what contexts they would usually be found in and the implications of those contexts for the tone of the poem, and also the phonology of the words (the sounds which make them up). Referring to the effects of both the sounds and the meanings of the word reinforces your point. Every point can be broken down into sub-points; here, they are:


  • The association of violence with pleasure in “The Gun”, shown by the simile invoking sexual pleasure and use of words with positive connotations.
  • The association of violence with excitement in “The Gun”, shown by the repetition of s and f sounds to give the impression of an excited rush.
  • The idea of pace adding excitement in “The Notorious Case”, similar to the excitement of “The Gun” and shown by the implications of the verb “caught.”
  • The positive connotations of there being an art to violence in “The Notorious Case”, similar to the positivity implied by sexual pleasure in “The Gun” and shown by the context in which the phrase “caught the public imagination” is often used.



You can see here that every sub-point analyses the language used in a quotation from the text, explains the effect of the language used and links back to the question; this is kind of like the “point, evidence, explanation, link” thing you might have done in your GCSE, only more sophisticated, because now you’re making lots of sub-points and comparing two poems as well. The comparison is something you have to keep returning to in every paragraph so that you get your AO4 marks.

Contrast
Feaver uses a first-person pronoun in a similar way to Flynn in “The Gun”, but to quite a different effect. She writes “I join in the cooking”, using the ideas of “joining in” – implying cooperation – and “cooking”, which is often regarded as a social activity, to create a sense of community. This contrasts with the use of personal narration in “The Notorious Case of Robert the Painter”; in the latter, the addition of the personal dimension has a more haunting effect. For instance, “in the ashes of my own affairs” is a phrase very much related to the narrator’s personal experience, since it uses both the possessive pronoun “my” and the emphatic modifier “own.” Since “my own” is associated with “ashes”, however, which has connotations of destruction, death and cremation, this gives the poem an eerie tone quite unlike the merry, communal associations of “joining in” and “cooking.” Therefore while both poems explore personal connection to violence and death, they associate this connection to different concepts.



This paragraph focuses more on grammar, although there is some discussion of word choice too. I begin by mentioning how the poems are similar but also difference, which I do quite often because it adds some nice AO4 nuance. This is the level of detail I usually go with in each paragraph. The sub-points are:


  • The link between violence and (positive) community in “The Gun”, shown by the use of a personal pronoun combined with verbs implying communal activity.
  • The similar use of a first-person pronoun and modifier in “The Notorious Case”, showing that both poems refer to the personal aspect of violence.
  • The link between violence, its personal nature and destruction in “The Notorious Case”, shown by the connotations of the word “ashes”, and its contrast to the general positivity of “The Gun.”




Conclusion:

The conclusion doesn’t make or break an essay, and I think my conclusions in English essays are usually pretty weak actually. This conclusion isn’t groundbreaking, but it does summarise my points and tie together the essay quite nicely. It wouldn’t have hurt for me to include a little more detail on the dichotomies that I mention.

Example
Although violent acts and attitudes towards them are sometimes presented using similar methods in the two poems, there seem to be more instances where the methods used contrast directly. The dichotomies of transience and permanence, and life in death and an ultimate end, which exist between the two poems indicate that they portray rather opposing attitudes to violence overall.



That’s it! Feel free to ask if you have any more questions about poetry essays J
Really helpful thank you!
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mayayasmin20
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This was so helpful- i didn't do well in my mocks. Thank you!!!! You're a blessing
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Aceaceace21
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This was incredible!! Thank you, but if we write a para for similarly would we write one different for differences or could we find a similarity and from that stem out to differences in every paragraph
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rosi.beldie
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(Original post by Quirky Object)
[expand defaultattr=]In some senses, the two poems portray a similar attitude towards violence; in both, there is a certain degree of fascination by death and violence, as well as personal engagement with violence by the narrator. However, the permanence of violence, death and their effects is a point of disagreement between the two poets, as is the extent to which violent acts can paradoxically ‘give life.’[/expand]

This works, but naming some techniques or perhaps mentioning the context of your anthology poem might be more sophisticated.
Hey hey! Just wondering if you could expand on that please. as in, when you say "this works...." are you referring to your exactual introduction example in the box, or are you referring to that technique of structuring an introduction in general? Also thank you I think you've saved my life
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LaurenFBanks
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This is literally better than any English guide I have ever used! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this, I think you just saved my English A Level!
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Tolgash
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(Original post by LaurenFBanks)
This is literally better than any English guide I have ever used! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this, I think you just saved my English A Level!
Poetry is usually only around a quarter of the course though.
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kidneedshelp
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Hey, hopefully this thread is still somewhat active.. I was wondering how to structure the main body of my essay? I want to go through it stanza by stanza almost, but am then unsure of what my topic sentence should be? Hope this makes sense.
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succubus666
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(Original post by kidneedshelp)
Hey, hopefully this thread is still somewhat active.. I was wondering how to structure the main body of my essay? I want to go through it stanza by stanza almost, but am then unsure of what my topic sentence should be? Hope this makes sense.
hi! i think you should lay out your topic sentence first introducing the points your going to make, then find quotes that fit the point of your argument if that makes sense
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talianicole
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Thank you
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kgeogie
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hi, could you help me with the AO4 in aqa unseen prose: connections among literary texts? I am doing love through the ages and am not sure how to annotate or add that context within my essay. thanks!
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succubus666
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(Original post by kgeogie)
hi, could you help me with the AO4 in aqa unseen prose: connections among literary texts? I am doing love through the ages and am not sure how to annotate or add that context within my essay. thanks!
i add AO4 in my introduction so when i first compare saying “both x and y do z” and then i also add ao4 in my main body paragraphs so for example after i talk about my first poem i will move onto the other and use connecting verbs that show a similarity or difference between them so “whilst x does this similarly y does this but presents it in…” so basically summarising your first point for your first poem then moving onto your next poem keeping it within the same point but presenting HOW they are different or similar from each other, so does one use imagery to present this theme whilst the other may have a lack of punctuation? and then after my second poem towards the end of my paragraph i said “therefore whilst both poems do x they also do y” which y is basically my next point for my next paragraph so it smoothly transitions into the next point. hope this helps
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