Comparing Poems #2

In this follow-up post, we explore the two main ways of organising your essay… and your ‘thinking’ when it comes to comparing two unseen poems in H2 Paper 1!

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Organising Your Essay by Idea

  • The intuitive reader would be able to identify several ideas that link to one main purpose or message of one poem, and seek to compare the other poem in the light of these ideas. We can reasonably expect both poems to be ‘similar yet different’ or ‘different yet similar’ in terms of ideas, as covered in Why Compare?
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  • This approach obviously requires quick thinking within 10-15 min of the exam: not only do you have to extract three ideas (across the two poems), you have to decide which methods best support each idea (for each of the two poems).
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  • Here are a few tips to gather those three ideas:
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    (i) Think in terms of shifts and intensification: what does each poem present to us at first, and how does this change as each poem progresses?
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    (ii) Identify multiple facets or perspectives toward the theme: we can think about separation in terms of the relationship / persona / other party, or past / present / future, or experience / coping / overcoming. Using a different example, ‘the experience of exile’ could allow for a discussion of the personae’s feelings about their origin, their identity and the new culture / land they have found.
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    (iii) Move from simple to complex, surface to deeper ideas: if you follow the above two tips, your essay is likely to discuss an initial impression of both poems and end on a more final, meaningful interpretation of what the poems ‘say’ about the theme.
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  • Such an approach allows you to “mix and match” methods or take a more linear analysis (i.e. stanza 1 in A vs stanza 1 in B) than the method-based essay structure. As you write about “how both personae react to being separated from their loved one”, you could examine the use of tone and imagery in A, against the use of point of view and rhythm in B. You could also examine tone and imagery in both, if you so wish! Just ensure that you’ve covered enough of language, style and form in both poems.

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Organising Your Essay By Method

  • This ‘pre-arranged’ essay structure allows you to cover the broad methods in both poems by dedicating one paragraph each to language, style and form, in whichever sequence you deem suitable.
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  • By our own definition, a ‘broad method’ like language can encompass multiple methods including perspective / point of view, tone and diction (e.g. why use ‘will’ instead of ‘can’?). This means that you must still decide which methods to focus on within each paragraph. How are you going to group the images / metaphors in both poems? Can you write enough and effectively about the use of rhythm in both poems? In comparing the same broad method in the two poems (e.g. form), you can still analyse slightly different methods (e.g. sound and rhyme in A vs rhythm in B).
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  • This is a ‘safer’ approach to take into the examination, since you can confidently handle any pair of poems with this even with a vague understanding of them. In the course of planning or writing, you must still consider the purpose behind each broad method (i.e. significance, meaning, ideas) you analyse. The difference here is that you can figure out the ideas along the way, instead of from the outset. You may also choose this approach if you have trouble differentiating your understanding of the poem’s ideas: choose to keep with one main idea, and show how the broad methods add shades or nuances of meaning to this main idea.
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  • The language-style-form sequence can move your essay from simple to complex, surface to deeper ideas as well. Most commonly, I’d choose to analyse: (i) language –  point of view and tone, because these give an immediate sense of attitude and context; (ii) style – imagery and figurative language, because our previous paragraph has set the context and we can confidently handle the effects of images here; (iii) form – the use of rhyme, sound, rhythm, because the effects of these are linked to the previous effects, and/or the poem’s structure / progression, so that we can respond to the closing lines and round up the essay.
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  • Of course, you can choose to arrange the broad methods differently. Here are a few suggestions for consideration:
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    (i) Analyse form as your last or first body paragraph: you can confidently round up your essay by linking the effects of sound/rhyme/rhythm to the other methods and discussing the impact of the closing lines, or alternatively lay out your impression of the whole poem by analysing its structural features (e.g. number of ‘parts’ or stanzas, sense of progression, rhyme scheme if any, enjambment and end-stopped lines). Placing the form paragraph in the middle of the essay is generally awkward, unless you dedicate it to a mid-poem shift in tone / volta (sonnets only).
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    (ii) Place your style paragraph to establish the purpose of the poem: you can start with the imagery in the poem, especially where setting plays a crucial role, so long as you are confident about their effects within the context. For the 2016 A-level P1 poems on separation, tackling the wintry setting in Poem A, as well as the corporeal images (i.e. the body) in both poems will help to contextualise the personae’s suffering and dejection… which nicely leads into the next paragraph on tone and diction!

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Writing an Idea-based Paragraph

Structuring our essay on 2016 A-level Q1a around ideas, I would cover (i) the personae’s memory of being separated from their loved one, (ii) the emotional “effects” of separation on the personae, and (iii) the personae’s reflection and resolution(s) on separation. These ideas are compatible with the past-present-future sequence we picked up as we annotated Poem A.

To demonstrate this, here’s a sample paragraph on the first point, comparing the use of language and style in Poem A (stanza 1) and the presentation of setting in Poem B (all three stanzas). The ‘comparison words’ have been underlined for your keen attention:

(Topic sentence) Both poems present their respective personae recalling a scene of parting that has left an emotional mark on them. (What) The persona in Poem A, from a first-person point of view, contemplates how helpless he was at that moment in time when ‘you had gone’. (How) The opening three lines are filled with these actions that denote separation – ‘had gone’, ‘left me’, and even time ‘turned away’ – and more evocatively, the passive, self-pitying state the persona is in. Furthermore, the use of the passive voice adds to the persona’s self-depiction as the jilted party, for he ‘did not know’ and was left ‘wandering alone’. The emptiness contained in the word ‘alone’ is accompanied by the suitably barren image of ‘winter trees’ that the persona is placed in, or at least recalls. These remnants of sorrow are taken over, however momentarily, by the warmth of a ‘familiar square’, where the persona and his loved one ‘had walked together’; union displaces separation, with the opening stanza ending with the persona’ gay / And confident in love’s informal care.’ (Why) This ‘first parting’ evidently brings with it a mix of agony and emptiness, which the persona tries to replace with happier memories.
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(What) While Poem B presents inner tensions similar to those in Poem A, the persona in Poem B actively tries to overcome the pain of being separated. (How) Like in Poem A, the setting of ‘Waterloo Bridge’ and the accompanying ‘weather conditions’ remind the persona of ‘our goodbyes’, which in turn evoke visible sadness in the ‘tears to my eyes’. Yet, the generic allusion to ‘weather conditions’ is more muted than the sentimental ‘winter trees of a familiar square’ in Poem A. The persona in B presents herself as less distraught than the persona in A. Accordingly, her sentences are framed in an active voice that suggests she is trying to take control of her emotional state – ‘I wipe them away… and try not to notice I’ve fallen in love’ – in both physical (‘wipe them away’) and mental (‘try not to notice’) ways, as opposed to the helplessness presented in A. Nonetheless, the first stanza in Poem B also closes on an admission of having ‘fallen in love’. (Why) It would seem that the moment of separation from a loved one saddens and continues to haunt both personae, regardless of whether they are afflicted by the loss as in Poem A or attempting to suppress their sorrow as in Poem B.

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Writing a Method-based Paragraph

I would start an essay on 2016 A-level Q1a on the broad method of style, deepen that discussion with the personae’s conflicting emotions via language and end by tracing the progression (i.e. form) towards their admission in the closing lines of the two poems. The setting takes up a prominent part of Stanza 1 in both poems, so it seems natural to devote our first body paragraph (i.e. para 2) to style (i.e. setting, imagery, metaphors).

We’ve already covered some setting and diction in the previous idea-based paragraph, so we will focus more on the use of figurative language in a sample paragraph on style:

(Topic sentence) The turmoil suffered by both personae is conveyed through the use of metaphors and corporeal images. (What) Poem A presents the memory of ‘your departure’ as capable of inflicting both emotional pain on the persona’s ‘heart’ and physical damage upon his ‘body’s wall’. (How) His emotions, symbolised by ‘my heart’, take on the language of violence as it ‘Struck down blows at my body’s wall’. This inward violence is then externalised in the next line, where his ‘stumbling feet kicked at the sodden leaves’ perhaps in frustration. Even the surroundings are coloured by the persona’s anger and ‘broken loves’, as ‘the lonely autumn fought / with the sad wind’. Where ‘foolish sickness filled my eyes’ and ‘wounds re-open’, parting from his loved one is seen as a corporeal injury beyond the persona’s psychological control. (Why) In melodramatic fashion, the persona is so overwhelmed by his loved one’s departure that he is wounded and crippled in his eyes, heart, body and feet.
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(What) Taking on a more playful tone, Poem B presents a persona who is also overcome by grief from the loss of her loved one. (How) Corporeal images are employed in B to show signs of emotion, albeit less intense than those in Poem A. The persona’s eyes are marked by ‘tears’, and her hair is caught in the ‘wind’ of the moment at Waterloo Bridge, the scene of separation. Instead of turning against herself in violence, the persona tries to repress her feelings for her loved one. Almost comically, we learn that the heart is the authoritative ‘boss’ over the ‘head’; it morphs into a ‘juke-box inside me’ tugging at the persona’s heartstrings with ‘a song / That says something different’ from what her head tells her to do. The light-hearted, casual references to a ‘juke-box’ and ‘boss’ similarly depict an inner dilemma, here between emotion and logic, ruler and ruled. (Why) While missing the agony and melodrama in Poem A,  Poem B still extends the idea that the heartache associated with separation is inevitable and difficult to repress — getting over the loss, it would seem, is a bridge too far for both personae.

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With the two paragraphs illustrated, we hope you have an improved understanding of how to organise and write your comparative essay. Do note that the first and last lines of your paragraph should compare the two poems in terms of ideas or effects, no matter the approach you take. As a general rule of thumb, you should also have clear “halves” where the first half of the paragraph is on one text, and the second half is on the other text. In this second half, we should see the comparison words (i.e. comparative discourse markers) appear a few times to show your comparative analysis of methods / effects or comparative discussion of ideas / purpose.

If you’re still a bit lost about poetry comparison in Paper 1, drop a comment below or better yet, email me at my school-based account, and I’ll try to answer your queries!

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