It is very common to feel a bit anxious for the unseen paper.
After all, it is natural that you feel less confident without set texts that you can prepare with - by re-reading them or going through your notes.
However, one thing which might help you feel better is that the skills that are being tested in the unseen paper are essentially the same skills that are being tested in your critical writing, if you were to have set texts.
This means that you will be practising the same critical skills since the beginning of your course, in order to help you train yourself to develop a keen eye towards the intricacies of literature.
It is very important to get your theoretical knowledge about literature and poetry sorted, before you approach this paper. Regardless of whether you have enough time to prepare for your paper or not, it is always the perfect time to reach out to experts who can help you reach your full potential for the subject, or keep some time away to practice your literary skills.
Although a skill can never truly be perfected because you can always get even better at it, the key thing that you must ensure to do, is to practice.
Understanding Poetry texts
Before you begin to critically construct a response, remind yourself about all the key points that you need to keep in mind while exploring poetry in general, so that you can begin to read or re-read with a more critical mindset.
It is also important to note that you can annotate the poem in the question paper itself, while you are reading through it. However, make sure to keep your annotations very brief and concise so you don't end up confusing yourself with too much scribbling.
Let's take a look at a poem which recently made an appearance in the Unseen Paper - a poem titled 'Abandoned Farmhouse', by American poet Ted Kooser. The author's name will not be mentioned in your paper, and no other details will be present either.
All you get, and all you need, is the poem itself. And here it goes:
Make sure to read the poem carefully.
A good starting point for a response to a poem is to think very carefully about your initial thoughts as you read the poem. Sometimes, it can take two to three readings to get your bearings, and that is totally fine.
After you have gotten your initial impressions of the poem, you are all set to begin. You have 15-20 minutes to plan your answer - so utilise that time completely, and create a plan for your informed response.
So, how do you start with your response?
1) Note and combine the key terms in the question
The question is actually a giveaway to the main things you must be annotating and highlighting from the poem, and into your response.
The question will be filled with numerous key terms. They are very important because they are guiding you for your close and active engagement with the text. Highlight or underline these key terms as soon as you see them.
Let us look at a sample question, for the text above:
The key terms here are:
- Vividly portray the abandoned farmhouse
- the farmhouse and it's surroundings
- words and images
- the people who lived on the farm
- a sense of mystery
Combine the key terms with your initial thoughts as you read the poem. This step is kind of important because a lot of students tend to simply go with the flow of the question - it is important to keep your initial thoughts so that you can hold to your informed personal appreciation of the poem as you write your response.
After highlighting the key terms, read the poem again, for the second or third time - and this time, keep a pen in hand. As you read, keep the question in mind.
Make sure you annotate the following:
a) the structure of the poem
The structure of the poem includes it's verses as well as it's words. Use your theoretical knowledge to pick any words or other aspects of the poem's structure that you find particularly striking.
In our example, the structure can be used and highlighted while you speak of bullet point 1; the way the poet describes the farmhouse and it's surroundings.
b) words and phrases
The choice of words and phrases that the poet utilises is sure to be intentional, and rhetorical - the poet is using them to highlight something. Mark all of the words and phrases that you find to be particularly puzzling, or the ones that you feel would be worthwhile revisiting.
In our example above, this particular aspect can be used for all three of the bullet points.
c) other details
When I say 'other details', I mean any other element you are able to clearly decipher, other than the two mentioned above. This can include any technique, or device, which is not technically a structural or literary device. This, again, highlights your theoretical knowledge.
3) Be selective
Okay, so pay attention to this part: A good poem is filled with devices, techniques, and other contextual information. As a student, it is your responsibility to know that you mustn't write everything you happen to notice!
You have about 50 minutes of writing. It might seem like a lot of time, but you cannot possibly write about everything in the time available.
All you need to truly pay attention to, is to say something in your essay in response to the three bullet points in the question.
Now, we can take a look at a few things you can make sure to include in your response.
4) Writing your answer
A successful piece of critical writing will be able to demonstrate an analysis which is relevant, and connected to the question. You must be able to clearly show the examiner that you are capable of presenting the following:
a) A detailed understanding of the content
For your response, writing a few strightforward comments that showcase a general, vague understanding of the poem is not enough. You must convince the examiner that you have a clear grasp of the detail within the text that you are given.
b) A sensitive appreciation of language, structure and form
As you know, poets make deliberate choices for the words, images and sounds that they present in their poems. These choices are intentional, you must think carefully about the effect of the poet's choices.
c) An ability to use literary terms effectively
Remember, it is not enough to merely spot or label literary devices. The appropriate way of using literary terms effectively is to identify them as well as the effect they create, and also analysing them - your writing needs to include why the poet might be using a particular device.
d) Confidence in providing an informed personal response
This one sounds complex but is actually very simple. Write in a formal manner. Your personal response must not include slang, and must uphold a level of formality, unless you are quoting directly from the text that is given to you - in which case you can use slang, of course.
After you have written the response, whether for the actual examination or for practice, it is important to take a few moments and reflect upon the manner in which you have written. Take a few minutes to check whether the points you have made are fully developed, and showcases a complete understanding of the unseen work you have just read.
The unseen paper requires you to be an active learner, and an important aspect of active learning is to reflect on how you have performed. You can go ahead and practice analysing the sample question given above. After writing it, reflect on what went well and what might be improved. Evaluating your own work in this manner helps you perform better next time. You can also ask someone to look through your informed response - such as a classmate, teacher, expert or guide.
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