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Vol 34 No 1, January - March 1996 Page 29 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT


The Unseen Poem
by Gladys N. Focho

For those who are familiar with the examination for the British General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (G.C.E. A' level), they certainly remember the section often referred to as "the unseen poem." This simply means that while in other sections, students react to poems that they have studied in class, this section treats a poem that has not been studied or "seen" before. Some lucky students may have come across the poem on their own, but in the majority of cases this is unlikely.

The purpose of the "unseen poem" is to see how well students can apply the principles of poetry appreciation to specific poems. Needless to say, this section is a terror to students. In marking both class exams and the G.C.E., teachers have realised that students have the lowest marks on this section, and some fail woefully. So what can be done to allay this nightmare? Teachers have used various approaches and techniques, and I would like to share mine here.

Generally, students look at poetry as some kind of mystery. So the first step I take is to "demystify" it. The obvious place to start is with meaning. Students are encouraged to think of the ordinary meaning of a word or expression, and then try to "relate" it to the poem. For example, when a poet talks of pregnant clouds , you think of the implications of the word pregnant . Just as we expect a pregnant woman to produce a baby, so must pregnant clouds. But what are they likely to produce? Rain of course, not babies.

Another poet describes the sun as peeping thro' the blinds. Students should be able to conjure the image of someone peeping (or struggling to see through a keyhole or a little opening). Relating this to the poem, it would mean that the sun rays were still weak and struggling to pass through the little gaps between the curtains. Further implications are that the inhabitants hadn't yet drawn the blinds and were still probably in bed, or awakened by the intruding sun.

The last example is that of a poet who doesn't like the concept of a butterfly pinned down in a wooden box . Any living creature pinned down certainly loses its freedom or life for that matter. The words a wooden box arouse images of death and a coffin. Thus the poet definitely hates the idea of killing butterflies and preserving them in wooden show- cases in insect shops. With this approach, I noticed that students could at least get the basic meaning of any poem they met.

One other problem area is that of the deeper or implied meaning of a poem. Students have the erroneous impression that a poem must necessarily have a meaning other than what is at the surface. If a poet writes a eulogy about a beautiful woman or describes a war scene or a journey, what deeper meaning can there be? I caution my students not to force meaning into a poem if they do not have enough evidence from the text itself to substantiate their assertions.

Another nightmare for students is the idea of rhythm. This is probably because they are often scared of the scientific approach to scansion with its iambic pentameters, etc. I only tell my students to determine if the poem has a regular beat, and if it is slow or fast. How does this tie in with the subject matter? A slow beat is appropriate for a sad situation and a fast beat for a joyful occasion.

With these main problems out of the way, stylistic devices (rhyme, figure of speech, alliteration, etc.) structure, development, and the poet's attitude usually fall in place.

The next step towards demystification of the "unseen poem" is dramatisation. Every student is asked to select a poem (not from a prescribed anthology), memorize and dramatize it for the class, and then give a brief appreciation. Usually this takes about one term with two or three students performing each class hour. Some may think this is a random activity, but it is not. The purpose is to bring students in contact with as many poems as possible. By the time a student settles on what to present in class, he must have read at least two other poems.

Closely related to this is group work where students are asked to form groups of four or five. Each group is then supposed to choose a poem, study it, write up a complete appreciation, and then "teach" the poem to the class. Each member of the group will present one aspect of the poem: topic, style, structure/development, poet's attitude, and total impression. Both the written and oral work are graded, and each group member gets the same grade.

The objection that could be raised here is that students may plagiarize, but, this can easily be detected. The language, structure, vocabulary, and arguments would be far above the level of your students. Moreover, during the oral presentation, the rest of the class is required to question the panelists. If the work is not theirs, of course they will not be able to explain their ideas convincingly.

Another attempt to popularise poetry is to use a poem written by their teacher for appreciation. Students often imagine poets to be extraterrestrial, but when faced with the fact that their teacher is the poet, the poem may sound more ordinary. Students should feel free to say whatever they feel about the poem so long as they can substantiate their remarks from the poem itself. You'll be startled to find that they bring out ideas you never even dreamt of when writing the poem. To tell them this is to reiterate the fact that there is no "right interpretation" for a poem. An interpretation is convincing only if it is supported by the text of the poem itself.

As a final step, students should write their own poems to be used for study and appreciation by the class. To arrive at this stage, the teacher should practice poetry writing with the class as a whole. Various topics are elicited, and one is chosen. The class comes up with ideas at random; and each idea is put into short, attractive, poetic lines, making use of imagery, rhyme, simile, metaphor, alliteration, and so on. When the poem is complete, the class comes up with a title. This exercise can be done three or more times before students are asked to write their own poems.

It is a great thrill to be elevated from the level of a scared poetry student to that of a confident writer of poetry. As their poems are discussed and appreciated in class, students gain a feeling of confidence and elation. From this they'll also understand that there's no single interpretation to a poem.

Finally, I decided to motivate the students further and reward these beginning poets in two ways. First, I gave prizes to the five best poems (or more depending on available funds). Since I shouldered the cost entirely, the prizes were nothing expensive; but the students felt proud to have been singled out. Secondly, I sent these prize-winning poems to a local newspaper and radio station. Imagine how great the students felt to see their poems in print or hear them over the air!

I can assure you that all these activities awakened a keen interest in the students, and they showed a marked improvement in the course. Moreover, they could now face any poem with confidence, most of all the "unseen" poem on the G.C.E. exam. After all, it could have been written by one of them!

Gladys N. Focho teaches English to high school students and English for Academic purpose to University students.


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Vol 34 No 1, January - March 1996 Page 29 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT
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