English Literature

Fear of the Unknown: why the unseen poetry section isn’t all that scary


In my opinion, it is absolutely vital to teach the unseen alongside the anthology for AQA’s English Literature, Paper 2, Section C because essentially, it is testing students on a skill. To miss the opportunity to cultivate this skill by approaching the anthology (Section B) as a content driven unit is like knowing how to swim, but not actually being able to do in practice. AQA suggests that the unseen skills are used as an introduction to the anthology as the skills can be built on throughout the remainder of the course.

This section of the exam assesses AO2: explaining writers’ use of language/structure/form. Students are expected to understand and be able to explain how writers have constructed their poetry for effect and to shape meaning. Students working at the highest level of ability would be expected to consider “all three aspects of the writer’s craft”.

Naturally, your teaching of the anthology poems may be more directly guided; it will also include context, which is not assessed for the unseen. However, there are lots of ways to approach the anthology that encourage the development of confidence in dealing with poems without an introduction or any prior knowledge of poet or poem.

#1 Knowing where to begin

  • Divide the poem up into small sections and either handout as a hard copy or project on the board. Read out with the students. For each section, they must write down something they notice about the poem, be it a word, an image or an association. Ask them to jot this down after they have spent one minute looking at each section.
  • Now, repeat the process, but ask specific questions about: key word connotations; associations; images; tone and mood; and techniques. Consistently use a pattern in each lesson to support progress and revision for the students.

#2 The positives and the negatives

  • Identifying the positives and negatives in a poem can also open up a door to its meaning. This is also a suggested activity by AQA. Begin by asking students to read the poem through and highlight everything in the poem that they understand. This is to encourage focus on prior knowledge as an advantage rather than lack of knowledge as a disadvantage.
  • Within what they have highlighted, students need to underline the positive ideas they can find followed by the negative. They should annotate the poem with this focus and use their own words where possible to show they understand the effect. Much like the example below, there are often patterns of positive and negative images/ideas:

Meeting at Night, by Robert Browning

The grey sea and the long black land

And the yellow half-moon large and low; 

And the startled little waves that leap 

In fiery ringlets from their sleep, 

As I gain the cove with pushing prow,

And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand. 

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach; 

Three fields to cross till a farm appears; 

A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch 

And blue spurt of a lighted match, 

And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears, 

Than the two hearts beating each to each!

#3 The journey

Many students find poetry a challenge as it often encapsulates an experience they may never have and also one so small (in length) and yet so powerful. Presenting poems as short stories can often alleviate that initial fear because ‘story’ suggests narrative which suggests a journey that the reader is invited on and will often learn from. Therefore, a clear purpose to their reading it is established (this is mostly in reference to students who are happy to confess they “hate poetry”).

  • After reading a poem, ask students to highlight all of the verbs that they can see
  • Write these in a list on the board and develop a clear narrative using short sharp sentences before delving into analysis

#4 Review

Once students have explored a poem, it is important to consider its overall impact and overall theme otherwise, this can lead to confusing or repetitive conclusions in essay responses. With the anthology, it is important to allow students to build their confidence in doing this independently so that they can apply this to the unseen as well. Here are some questions to consider in encouraging evaluative thinking:

  • Is there clearly one meaning in the poem?
  • Can you explain more than one meaning?
  • Do you think poems have to have a meaning?
  • Could this poem mean something different today compared to when it was written?
  • Is the meaning clear straight away or does it emerge slowly?
  • Is the meaning expressed in clear language, symbolically or metaphorically?
  • Could the meaning be different depending on who is reading the poem?
  • Are you left in any doubt as to the meaning? Is this deliberate?

#5 Neon lines

  • Once the poem is read, provide students with particular themes and images that are ‘meaty’; ask them to highlight where they can see references to these in the poem. This then allows for a focal point from which to begin close analysis. For example, for the poem ‘Meeting at Night’, referenced earlier, the word ‘shapes’ will point towards the lines “half-moon” and “fiery ringlets”.

AQA’s Unseen Poetry Guide has some further useful activities: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/scphebjkokvm751/AADfVVgB1PYvTL9G-8cB1ZOXa?dl=0

Thank you for reading.

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