in English Language, English Literature, Essay Technique, Writing Skills

Lots of students find a section called ‘Unseen Poetry’ cropping up on their English exams. It’s quite a confusing term at first! It basically means that you have to read and react to a poem that you’ve never seen before, and write an essay on it in response to a question or prompt – all in timed conditions. Sounds scary? It doesn’t have to be: there are a few tips and tricks you can use to ensure that you get top marks in Unseen questions every time. It’s not as random as it sounds; if you understand poetry as a genre you will always find something to say about any poem that’s placed in front of you.

Below, you’ll find some advice based on commonly asked questions about how to answer unseen questions. These are suitable for anyone studying poems at any level; if you’re taking higher level exams (aged 16-18), or studying at University, be aware that there may be more specific and detailed mark schemes that require you to go deeper into poetic techniques or genres too.

Thanks for reading! If you’re looking for full support with your Unseen Poetry exam, you can find our full course on it here.

Our course above has separate sections for GCSE (Age 14-16) and Higher Level unseen tasks; it also has unseen prose as an added bonus!

How do I respond to a poem that I’ve never seen before?

Even though you never saw the poem before, you have to get it into your head that you’re not starting from scratch! You should be knowledgeable about poetry in general (and also context or genre if your exam has a specific theme, such as the Tragedy of World War II). The main thing examiners need to know is that you get poetry – you understand why it’s written and how it communicates to the reader. Most importantly, you understand that each poem has a deeper meaning or message. Read the poem several times before you start planning, and be very sure about its message before you move on to writing the essay. Then when you analyse, you can always go back to the message as the main focus of your ideas.

What kinds of things should I write about?

There are always standard approaches to an unseen poem. Every poem is written for a reason – if you get to the heart of the poem, you’ll discover its deeper meaning or message. Is it trying to change our opinion on something? Or maybe, it’s celebrating or commemorating something? Is the purpose to explore or provide comment on a topic or emotion? Be as specific and detailed as you can when trying to figure out the meaning. Think about its language, form and structure – pick out techniques for each of these, but also connect them to the wider theme or idea of the poem, and ideally its message or meaning too.

How long should my essay be?

This depends on the length of your exam and its mark scheme. Typically, essays consist of an intro, three to four middle paragraphs and a conclusion. You don’t necessarily need a conclusion if your essay is technique-based rather than theme, character or setting based – check your mark scheme to figure out the best way to structure the answer.

How can I prepare for something I’ve never seen before?

You haven’t seen the poem, but that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare! The more poems you read, the better you’ll be at this question. If you study poems in a different module, use all the knowledge you learn there about how to understand poetry and how to dissect poems and apply it to this question. Learn about poetry in general – understand different forms, such as ballads, sonnets, lyric poems and narrative poems. Try learning about poetic structure – learn to recognise free verse, caesura, enjambment etc. Learn about poetic techniques and their effects, and practise analysing them in a range of poetry. If you’re stuck, there are two great books on poetry that I’ll recommend below – reading through these will help you understand poems in a lot more detail.

What if I hate poetry or I just don’t get it?

This is a very common response to the question, so you’re not alone. My advice as someone who writes poetry and has been influenced so much by the poetry of others is to figure out why exactly you don’t like it. Is it boring? If so, choose to read poems about a topic that interests you – there are poems about everything: sport, science, space, romance, religion and spirituality, family, war… the list goes on. Pick themes you like, and read poems about those themes – poems just reflect the world around us and society, so if you find them boring then you probably just didn’t find the right type of poems yet.

If you find poetry hard, that’s because it’s supposed to be! You’re not meant to instantly understand a poem the first time you read it; anyone who says they do is probably missing some of the points of poetry. A poem is a compression of lots of thoughts and ideas into a few short lines – I think of it as a puzzle. The longer you stay with the puzzle and the more you think about it, the more it unlocks meaning and becomes clearer or deeper to you. You may also be studying poetry at a level that’s too hard for you right now. Try searching for simple poems first, getting used to those, then moving onto more complex poems. Read at least one book about poetry before you try to understand or read poems themselves, and that will make it much easier.

Recommended Reading List

Books on How to read Poems:

  • The Ode Less Travelled, Stephen Fry – this book was a lifesaver for me a school! It literally taught me everything my teachers had left out and I credit it with being one of the reasons I ended up with a decent grade. It’s simple and fun to read too!
  • The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard – more intensive than ‘The Ode Less Travelled’, I’d recommend it as a second book to read.

Great Poets to Read:

I can’t stress enough how reading should be your own journey. Don’t force yourself into reading too much stuff that you hate; pick out things that interest you and help you develop or grow as a person. This is just a list of my absolute favourite poets; they mean so much to me and I hope you’ll find some value in reading them too. I’ve categorised them into themes so you can pick ones that suit you.

  • Robert Frost – a great place to start. His poems are simple on the surface, and complex beneath. (Nature, Humanity, Spirituality)
  • Sylvia Plath (Relationships, Society, Nature, Myth)
  • Ted Hughes (Nature, Relationships, History, Myth)
  • Wilfred Owen (War, Death, Loss)
  • Siegfried Sassoon (War, Death, Loss)
  • Elizabeth Bishop (Love, Romance, Travel, Nature)
  • Gillian Clarke (Humanity, History, Nature, Relationships)
  • Edna St Vincent Millay (Nature, Relationships)
  • Robert Browning (Crime, Murder)
  • Shakespeare (everything, but in his poetry it’s mostly Love and Relationships)
  • Lord Byron (War, Death, Love, Heroism, Gothic)
  • Percy Shelley (Nature, History, Politics)
  • Emily Dickinson (Love, Science, Religion, Death, Relationships)

Still stuck? Take our Unseen Poetry Course for guidance and help with unseen poems.

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