The English Literature Poetry Exam

moon tides fingers

As you should already be well aware, your English Literature GCSE exams takes place on Tuesday 20th May (Exploring Modern Texts) and Thursday 22nd May (Poetry Across Time). Please do not panic, as you will be thoroughly well prepared to succeed in this exam, due to the inspirational teaching of the English department and the countless hours of revision you have completed!

The examination for Unit 2 of the AQA English Literature: ‘Poetry Across Time’, lasts one hour and fifteen minutes and is divided into two sections. Now, considering that you have to compare two poems analytically in Section A and write a response about a poem you have never seen before, the exam is incredibly short (much like Mr Fothergill). The entire paper is marked out of a total of 54 marks, with 36 available for section A and 18 available for section B. In section A, you have to choose one question (from a choice of two) from the ‘Character and Voice’ section. In the question, one poem will be named and you have to compare this poem with any other of your choice from the same cluster of poems. Whatever you do, do not try to answer a question from the other clusters (this happens at least once every year… and they always fail). Time-management will be covered in more depth later, but you should aim to spend 45 minutes on Section A and 30 minutes on Section B (the unseen poem).


In the AQA Anthology of poetry, ‘Moon on the Tides’, there are several clusters of poetry. For section A, you need to begin by finding the question on your cluster of poetry, ‘Character and Voice’. There are two questions to choose from, so the first mountain to climb after remembering your candidate number (or perhaps more worryingly the spelling of your middle name), is to decide which one to answer. The next task is to plan your response to the question, thinking carefully about which poem you are going to compare to the one named. Then, take the first five minutes to consider all the similarities between the named poem and the other of your choice.

To help you choose which question you want to attempt, you should think about the following questions:

  1. How much do I know about the named poem, apart from its title?
  2. How confident am I relating the named poem to the topic or theme mentioned in the question?
  3. Can I think of a second poem which I know well that would compare strongly, linking to the topic or theme mentioned in the question?

Moreover, how can you make sure that you are comparing the right aspects of the two poems? If you write about two poems without comparing them then you are not going to gain the marks your understanding deserves and your teacher will potentially throw their shoe at you. The crucial Assessment Objective the examiners are looking for demands that you compare and contrast the different ways each poem expresses menaing and the language, imagery and structures employed by the poet to achieve this. To meet this objective, one could divide this objective into four separate parts:

  1. What do I think the poet is saying in poem A? How does this compare to what the poet is saying in poem B?
  2. Why does poet A feel like this? What is their attitude to the theme of the question? Does the poet have a purpose? what is the tone/mood of the poem? Does this change towards the end of the poem? How does this compare to poet B’s attitude, feelings and tone?
  3. How does the poet express himself/herself through the language, imagery and structure used? Compare each technique you write about in poem A with a similar or different technique used in poem B. Then focus on the different effects this creates in the reader.
  4. Finally, focus on how you feel about the two poems. Compare your personal response to each poem, expressing a preference and stating why. Explain which poem you empathise with more, which techniques made the biggest connection with you and why you think the poet wanted you to feel this way.

An outline of this plan can be found below:

Question: ‘Compare the character presented in ‘Give’ to that in one other poem in the ‘Character and Voice’ cluster.’


‘Give’ ‘Clown Punk’
What? Homeless man

Asks for change

Loneliness, isolation, charity

Outcaste from society

Judged by speaker

Individuality, rejection, isolation

Why? Anger – ‘that’s big’

Sadness – ‘make a scene’

Destitute – ‘on my knees’

Rejection – ‘dyed brain’

Judgment – ‘shonky side’

Anger – ‘don’t laugh’

How? Imagery of homeless is positive – ‘under the stairs’ Imagery of homeless is negative – ‘basket of washing’
Fragmented form showing life is inconsistent Sonnet form to highlight no one loves the punk
Use of imperatives to show poverty – ‘Give’ Use of imperatives to show hatred – ‘think what he’ll   look like’
How do I feel? Empathetic for speaker – ‘just change’ Anger at speaker – ‘let it rain’

We will be looking at how to use this plan to structure your response after exploring each poem in detail. Just remember, it is imperative that you compare the two poems as much as possible throughout your answer.


In Section B of the exam, you must answer a question on an unseen poem. This involves reading the poem and structuring your answer in 30 minutes – no pressure. The main point about Section B is that you do not have to compare the unseen poem with one from the cluster. There is only one question, therefore you do have to waste time on deliberating which one to answer. The higher tier paper will have one part of the question; the foundation tier will be in two parts, and you must answer both. Here are examples of the types of question(s) you might be asked:


  1. ‘What do you think the poet is saying about the theme of war and how does he/she present these ideas?


  1. What does this poem have to do with war?
  2. How does the poet present his/her feelings towards war?

The beauty about Section B is that we practise it every lesson. Every time your teacher presents you with a new poem you are preparing for this section – analysing an unseen poem. Furthermore, the four-part plan will help you answer this section in exactly the same way, only you don’t need to compare this poem with any other.


Many students think that you can’t revise for this exam. Many students who think this fail the exam, much to my amusement.

The easiest way to revise for this exam is to read, read and read the poems again and again. Furthermore, brush up on your knowledge of poetic devices, descriptive language techniques and structural techniques – especially the more complex ones such as metre/rhyme/imagery. Zoom in on specific words and images and explore the different connotations one can infer from the lexis used. Think about the different interpretations from different audiences. Finally, create your own comparison chart for each poem. Think about where the similarities and differences are between themes/language/imagery/structure/attitude of the poet.

Next, there are a variety of different websites out there to help you revise (far better than this one, of course). Here are a few I recommend:,, and – also, there are many helpful videos on YouTube (just type in ‘AQA Character and Voice’)

Finally, attempt as many past papers as you possibly can in exam conditions. Make sure you are strict with your timings and have no distractions. All past papers can be found here on the AQA website: (look under the ‘Unit 02′ tab). If you would like to receive feedback for your answers, please do not hesitate to waft it under your teacher’s nose – we really do like this!

Well that’s it for the content and summary of your exam. Watch this space over the next few weeks for different posts for each poem. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Enjoy revising!



One thought on “The English Literature Poetry Exam

  1. Pingback: Character and Voice – AQA Literature Past Papers | The English Department's Blog

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