How do I revise the Power and Conflict poems?

OK, so this question roughly equals ‘What do I REALLY need to learn about these fifteen (yes, FIFTEEN) poems that I’ve been given for this exam?’ My answer to you is that, actually, you do not need to know quotes for all the poems – but you do need to be strategic about which poems you learn quotes for.

Let’s break this down. As you’ll probably know (so forgive me, but just in case, right?), you’ll get one of the poems in the exam, along with a list of all fifteen, and a question focusing on the theme. This question will ask you how the poets present ideas about X (your theme) in the poems. Your job is then to select a suitable poem that addresses the same theme to compare to the poem on the paper. This means that a key revision task is to work out the main themes of the collection (i.e. what the exam questions could focus on) and which poems belong in each group.

If you then look at which poems appear in multiple groups, you will see which ones are the most helpful to get to know in the most depth. For example, I personally wouldn’t do much with Storm on the Island (sorry Heaney, much as I love your work, in terms of this collection, the poem is not multipurpose enough for our needs – and to those teachers reading, yes I know this is a terrible and functional approach, but why not seek to reduce the load of students where possible?) Clearly, you need to make sure that if you are reducing the number of poems you revise thoroughly in this way, that you have every theme covered, so do check this. Obviously, you might choose Storm on the Island as your ‘power of nature’ poem, and that’s fine – up to you. I’m just recommending that you try to narrow it down, and know why you’re doing it. You can’t just pick the ones you like best!

At the same time, you can’t just dump the ‘less useful’ ones entirely, because (of course) any of them could be the one that the question is about. Obviously, though, you will have that poem in front of you, so memorised quotes will be unnecessary. What you will need to know about is the context and meaning, so make sure that is known for ALL the poems (yes, sorry, all of them).

Why can’t I write ‘it makes the reader read on?’

and what on earth do I write instead?

As teachers, we’re pre-programmed to sigh – or roll our eyes – when students write or say that fateful phrase ‘it makes the reader read on’. But here’s the thing: when we’re talking about things like chapter ends, cliffhangers and clever titles, writers DO choose things to keep us reading. After all ‘page-turner’ or ‘I couldn’t put it down’ is a compliment for a book, right? So why is it such a banned phrase in GCSE English?

The trouble is, when we’re analysing, we’re looking at the micro level – or at least we’re supposed to be. The way to show you can do this is to comment on the effect of the features and words the writer has chosen, and the problem with ‘it makes the reader read on’ is that it isn’t specific enough to show your skills.

What I mean by this is that this fateful phrase – and others like it (‘it puts a picture in the reader’s mind’; ‘it makes the poem flow’; it helps you understand the writer’s view’) – doesn’t tell you anything about the feature, word or phrase you’ve chosen to comment on. It could be said about anything good in a text. And if that’s true, it’s not worth your time saying it.

Look at this simile: “solitary as an oyster” You may recognise it as describing Ebenezer Scrooge in Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol. If you say it ‘helps us understand his character’ or it ‘makes the reader read on’, you’re not showing the examiner anything about your understanding of this image. It could just as easily be said of any other character detail.

However, there are various more specific things you might say that would help you – and earn marks – such as ‘the simile suggests that Scrooge is closed off to people’, or ‘Dickens uses this image to show how Scrooge may have something of value inside him, like a pearl in an oyster’. Either, or both, of these points are valid interpretations of this simile – and could be credited in a question about how Scrooge is presented (or similar relevant topic).

The key is: make what you’re saying specific. Does it explain THIS quote/ image/ feature? If not, have another think.