Unmasking the Unseen

In this pre-JC1 Mid Year Examination post, we recover some of the key methods and approaches already listed on Multiverse p6-7 and p13-20. Some of what you find here will be slightly strategic, condensing parts of Multiverse into an exam-focused guide. Read on, and for the busy bees, the ‘pointers’ are presented as bullet points.

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Facing the Question

As you will be assessed on Paper 1 Section A, we can expect a more universal and diverse set of concerns that, more often than not, will delve into the personal (e.g. coping with loss), the relational (e.g. love) or more contemplative (e.g. meaning of life).

One of the two options will feature a Singaporean poem, which should be evident by the name of the poet. If you choose this option, keep an open mind and analyse it as you would any other poem, applying your knowledge of local social, historical and cultural contexts with due care. There is absolutely no reason you should wander off into social commentary mode (reminder: this is not GP) when literary analysis is primary to your response. For the same reason, there is no need to ‘study’ any sort of Singapore history et al; the ‘best’ preparation is to analyse a Singaporean poem instead.

The phrasing of the question as you should already know is largely generic in its requirement that you ‘write a critical commentary on the following poem’ (response) while ‘considering in detail the use of language, style and form’ (analysis). The trigger is likely to vary:

  • “ways in which language, style and form contribute to the portrayal of _______”
    The trigger may provide you a concern (e.g. hope, grief) that you can start on and progressively expand. Stay close to this given concern as far as possible and/or try to relate your ideas back to what they in turn ‘say’ about this concern (e.g. in what ways does nature present hope for the persona?). Most students agree that the concern-trigger is helpful even when it comes to single poems. Just bear in mind that it also demands disciplined focus and skilful interpretation of what this concern really means.
  • “ways in which your response is shaped by the writer’s use of language, style and form”
    The trigger too may also be generic, for two general reasons: (i) the title of the poem itself indicates the main concern(s), which the examiners expect you to infer; (ii) the examiners are providing you the freedom* to interpret the concerns and overall purpose of the poem. For instance, the 2014 ‘A’ Level H1 Q1a on ‘Alligator Poem’ (not kidding) is equally about the dangers of life, foolishness, resilience and living to appreciate the world around us (and maybe not so much about alligators).
    *Note: insofar as you have substantial evidence from the poem to support your interpretation.

So what, then? If you know the concerns and themes, what do you do next? I only have one thing to say — how do I write three to four body paragraphs? Must I have three distinct ideas? The next section will try to ease these common anxieties.

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Creating and Organising a Response

Your first full reading (after deciding on the option) of the poem should be used to identify the key ideas based on the given concern-trigger. If there is no trigger, pay attention to typical clues (e.g. title, recurring imagery or diction, opening lines) within the poem.

The structure of the poem should guide you towards finding these ideas, as the lecture on ‘La Mian in Melbourne’ sought to demonstrate. A four-stanza poem can be interpreted to present anywhere between 2 to 4 different ideas, a two-stanza poem is likely to present at least 2 ideas, while a single-stanza poem too can present 2-3 ideas within its apparently unified whole.

The rule of thumb is divide the poem into parts based on ideas / effects, regardless of the number of stanzas. Look out for intensification (i.e. ending on a crescendo or climactic line) and pay extra attention to shifts (e.g. changes in tone, different subject matter) in ideas and effects.

If the ‘intuitive approach’ does not work, there are other ways to develop the main concern (e.g. the persona’s memory of his grandmother) into multiple ideas:

  • Different stages, places or circumstances
    The poem may describe a range of life stages (e.g. innocence, experience), actions (e.g. travelling, eating, reminiscence), places (e.g. 1970s Singapore, Melbourne, present-day Singapore), each of which can be developed into one paragraph. The poem’s structure should evince the various parts.
  • Different points of view
    The persona’s (‘I’) perspective and tone is fundamental to an understanding of any poem, especially when the focus is on other phenomena (e.g. la mian, the past). The perspectives of other figures in the poem (e.g. the grandmother) or of society in general (e.g. the hawkers whose stalls are lost), where evident, may contrast or parallel the persona’s point of view, and are worth considering.
  • Different time periods
    As they say, time changes everything. The persona’s perspective may change from past to present, present to future. For instance, the tone might shift from denial to anger to eventual acceptance of loss.
  • Expectation to reality, appearance to truth
    The title, opening lines, or opening half of a poem may create expectations or apparent understanding  that are later altered, subverted or reversed in the later half / closing lines. Actively think about what seems to be (i.e. surface ideas), and what really is (i.e. underlying ideas).

The above means of expanding ideas are not mutually exclusive, where a poem might start with the persona’s apparent view, move to describing different stages of his or her life, and end with his final tone towards the subject matter.


Organising by ideas or ‘parts’
It is not advisable to organise your essay strictly based on the stanzas in the poem, in what we might call a stanza-by-stanza approach. You neither want to write a “one-paragraph” essay on a one-stanza poem, nor would you lay out seven scanty paragraphs on each of a poem’s seven stanzas.

Our recommendation then is obvious. Structure your essay based on the ideas you have identified, starting with the surface / simple idea and ending with the complex / deeper idea. This almost always coincides with the sequencing of the poem itself, starting with the opening in one body paragraph and focusing on the closing lines of the poem in your last body paragraph.

Organising your essay based on the ‘parts’ of the poem is likely to reap results similar to the above. For instance, your 1st body paragraph may look at stanzas 1-2, 2nd body paragraph on stanzas 3-4 and the last body paragraph would zoom into stanza 5.


Organising by methods
If you are genuinely struggling to see more than one idea, you can organise your response by way of broad methods (e.g. language, style, form). In each paragraph, you would be able to consider multiple specific methods (e.g. rhyme scheme, rhyming pairs, sound patterns) and how they contribute to your understanding of the same one idea. The choice of different evidence should provide multiple shades of this idea, so you do not need to worry about variety / diversity of ideas so much.

I personally find this the ‘safest’ approach to adopt, especially if a student is struggling to identify three ideas within the poem(s). When it comes to comparing poems later in the year / in JC2, this becomes even more time-efficient as you establish immediate and relevant grounds for comparison (e.g. the persona’s tone in A vs the persona’s tone in B), while also allowing yourself to compare effects and purpose / ideas later in the same paragraph.

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Analysing and Annotating the Poem

On your second reading (or as early as the first), you can annotate the poem in view of the following pointers and reminders:

  • The title of the poem is likely evoke effects on the reader, and be of significance to the overall purpose / concerns of the poem. You should also relate the title to the opening lines and closing lines in terms of similarity and contrast (in effect and purpose).
  • The persona’s tone and the supporting diction (i.e. patterns of words) are always pivotal and will be for the upcoming set of poems as well. Pay attention to the verbs, adjectives and adverbs, as you have been taught to do in relation to tone.
  • The repetition of words, cumulation of different words with the same effect, and enumeration (i.e. listing) of various items / words can be used to substantiate tone as well or analysed to show intensification / shifts in effect. The general rule is that something said for a second time can evoke a different effect (e.g. monotony, frustration, anxiety, irony) depending on the context, so it can be analysed separately from the first instance.
  • Rhythm (short vs long lines, enjambment, end-stopped lines, use of pauses or caesurae) and sentence structure (which words appear first? what type of sentences are used?) can have an effect not far from the persona’s tone.
  • Imagery, figurative language and allusions are abundant. Make sure you sort these into patterns based on their effects / ideas, and closely analyse 1-2 images / allusions from each pattern. It is probably not necessary to closely analyse everything.
  • Structure and progression (i.e. intensification, shifts) will be of vital importance, and are worth looking into in your first body paragraph (to give an overview of the rest of your analysis) or your last body paragraph (to summarise, or to closely examine the final part of the poem).
  •  Sound patterns and rhyme are of interest too. For the former, remember to link these back to the effects of the actual words / images. For the latter, pay as much attention to the irregularities or breaks in rhyme scheme as the rhyming pairs themselves.


It is equally important that you commit to the good essay traits below:

  • Every body paragraph must be built around ample evidence – 4 or more ‘bite-sized’ quotations (e.g. ‘noodle magic’, ‘floury silent music’) or 2 or more full lines (e.g. ‘weaving a stave of floury silent music’) should suffice. If you only have one or two quotations, you are either selling your own ideas short… or potentially misreading the poem (since there isn’t enough evidence to support your point).
  • Give us patterns, patterns, patterns of evidence! No word or image exists by itself, or at least very few do. We want you to find similarity amongst evidence. The even more skilled would be able to find contrast within similar words / images that further add to the purpose of the poem.
  • Demonstrate an ability to close-analyse in every body paragraph, without having to close-analyse every… single… word. Select the key words, elaborate in detail how the effects of these words are created (e.g. how the word ‘fusillade’ creates a sense of chaos).
  • Organise your essay well and keep your paragraphs to an ‘appropriate’ length. Even in the biggest handwriting, a body paragraph should not be longer than one page of A4; you may be stuffing too many methods / ideas or closely analysing too much evidence for your own good. At the same time, brief paragraphs of 3-5 lines provide your marker more questions than answers, so avoid that as well. In the end, we are looking for a nice balance of W-H-Y, or if we have to count sentences, something like W-H-H-H-H-Y-Y.
  • Try your best to shape a personal response to the poem’s concerns and ideas. Yes, it is an examination, time-limited scenario. In fairness, we have chosen poems that do not wildly diverge from what we examined in class, and are universal enough so nobody will be disadvantaged or advantaged in any sense. We are interested in what you think the poem’s purpose is — what it does, or what it says about something or somebody.


That’s all from us for now. All the best for Wednesday’s paper!


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