By the time HSC year rolls around most students are confident with their ability to analyse novels, short stories and films, but when it comes to poems they’re stumped.
There’s not all that much focus on analysing poems in class, so choosing one for a related text or having to analyse an unseen poem in the first HSC English paper can be daunting. That’s why we’ve broken down how to analyse poems for HSC English into four easy steps, so that anyone can take on a poem and smash out some awesome analytical responses.
For this step-by-step article we’ll be analysing ‘Blood Links’ by Mark Mahemoff (a text from the 2013 standard and advanced HSC paper).
The question we’ll be analysing it for is;
Analyse how two texts portray the complex emotions resulting from a desire for connection.
Obviously we’ll only be looking at one text and writing an example paragraph for it alone, but most questions will have you analyse texts comparatively, so be ready for that!
Follow along with the example poem we’re analysing and you’ll be ready to powerfully analyse a poem for HSC English in no time!
Step 1: Read the Poem
It sounds pretty obvious, but almost everyone has a habit of ‘skimming’ when it comes to poems because they seem simple. The best way to start analysing a poem is to read the question, then read the poem knowing exactly what you should be looking for and what connections you want to be making.
Need help? You can check out this article on how to make the most of reading a prescribed text for some extra tips.
When it comes to actually reading through a poem, it’s pretty similar to how you would read any other text for English. You want to be thinking about what mood or message the poem is presenting and why, as well as how the characters, setting, etc. is relevant to the question or topic you’re analysing it for.
Poems can be a little tricker because they often look at more abstract ideas – they’re not as literal as prose or films, making it a little more challenging to understand exactly what is going on.
If this is the case and you find yourself not entirely sure of what you’re reading, try to stick to analysing the sections of the poem you do understand. Likewise you could choose to just look at the overall feeling, message or tone of the poem rather than the specifics if you find them confusing.
Usually it’s fairly easy to just spot key sections that you may want to analyse and keep them in mind, but it can also be useful to mark specific lines or phrases that stand out. You don’t need to be going into detail or looking for literary techniques just yet, so don’t worry about that – just try to find things that will be useful when it comes to analysing.
It doesn’t seem like much, but already I’ve been able to mark down two sections that are relevant to the question and could be really useful for my analysis!
The point of this step is more to get a feel of what the poem is talking about and how it relates to the topic/question, but by identifying some sections that could be useful you’re putting yourself on the fast track to an awesome analysis.
Step 2: Identify Key Techniques
This is one of those steps that you just have to do, even if you’re unsure of what you’re doing it for.
In the long run identifying all the literary techniques you can find in the poem will give you a whole bunch of references to use in your essay and back up your analysis. In the short term, you’re getting something done that’s going to help make a bit more sense of what you’re reading.
The best way to identify techniques is to highlight or underline the section of the poem and then write down what technique is being used next to it. If you feel like going a step further you can also add annotations about why the technique is being used, what it adds to the poem, how it links back to the question, etc. While I always recommend the extended annotations, you don’t always have time for that in an exam, so don’t worry if you feel the need to just highlight your techniques and go.
Need help? If you need to brush up on your literary techniques knowledge check out this article here. Otherwise just go for it!
It looks like a lot is going on there, but really this poem has surprisingly few clear literary techniques.
Some poems are full to the brim with metaphors, similes, personification, etc. and it’s always good to have a poem like that, but in cases like this one it’s still possible to write an awesome essay with fewer techniques. This just means that you’ll want to go into more depth about the techniques you do talk about and how they are relevant to the question.
Step 3: Decide What Points/Themes You’ll Write About
This is where you need to start thinking more specifically about how you’re going to analyse your poem and what points you’re going to make. Usually it’s best to just look at the question and see what stance the poem takes on it, but sometimes you’ll need to come up with your own idea or thesis about the question that you then relate the poem to. Let’s break down these two options to understand them a little better.
Taking a Stance on the Question
Generally the question you’re given will present a particular idea or point of view, and it’s your job to evaluate how the texts align with that idea/point of view. There are two ways of doing this.
Option one is to look at the two texts you’re comparing and present one as agreeing with the idea in the question and the other text disagreeing with it.
This shouldn’t be as literal as “Text A agrees with the question.”, think instead of sentences like “Text A proves the idea that [write the idea presented in the question] through its use of various literary techniques.” Then you simply compare and contrast how the two texts present different stances on the question/idea and you’re good to go!
Option two is to look at how both texts can agree with and disagree with the idea presented in the question.
This is often the more complex choice when it comes to answering the question, because ultimately you’re trying to both prove and disprove the statement for each text. You’ll essentially write a paragraph for each text about how it does conform to the idea in the question, and a paragraph on each about how it doesn’t.
The end result of this option is to show that texts are diverse and ambiguous and therefore can’t be summed up in one idea or statement. This is a great and complex way to write an essay, but make sure that you practice this style before you use it in an exam because it can be a little tricky the first few times.
Creating Your Own Thesis
Sometimes you’ll want to take a specific idea about two texts and look at it in closer detail, which is when it’s great to create your own thesis statement that fits with the question. You do have to make sure that your thesis doesn’t deviate from the question being asked, rather it should be taking the question and making it more specific.
For example, say you’re given the question;
“The stronger perspective is that based in truth rather than emotion. Discuss this statement with reference to two texts.”
When I studied the Conflicting Perspectives Module in Year 12, I focused closely on how conflicting perspectives can arise within a marriage, looking at two married couples from different texts. Because of this I wanted to make sure my analysis would suit the question, so I needed to come up with a thesis statement that would make the question a little more specific.
Therefore, my thesis became;
“Within a marriage it is often perspectives based in emotion that are stronger, rather than those based in fact.”
It’s true that I could’ve gone into my essay without a thesis and just taken the stance that idea presented in the question was incorrect, but using a thesis statement to clearly present the idea I wrote about was the much more effective choice. This way I’m showing markers that I have a clear idea that I’m working towards while still writing within the boundaries of the original question.
The one thing to keep in mind when it comes to thesis statements is that they have to stay relevant to the question. This could just mean rewriting the idea in the question so that you’re disagreeing with it, or it could be taking a more specific route on the idea, but it has to stay within the boundaries of the question.
When it really comes down to it your thesis statement could really just be you ‘taking a stance on the question’, but knowing the two options separately will help in the long run!
If you already know you prefer one way over the other you can choose to stick to it or try something new. If you’re not sure which style you use, or even if you’ve ever thought about it in this way just start trying things out and see how it goes!
Once you know which style you plan to use it’s pretty easy to start coming up with possible ideas or arguments to focus on in your essay. The best way to start developing your paragraphs is to think in scenes or themes.
If you’re looking at scenes you’ll use each paragraph to focus on a specific section of the text and how it relates to or proves your idea/thesis.
If you’re looking at themes you’ll be choosing specific ideas that are present in the text and how those themes work to prove your idea/thesis.
This way you’ll be able to clearly set out what you’re talking about and already start thinking about how to support that in your essay.
Looking again at our example question, there are two ways to go about it.
Question: Analyse how two texts portray the complex emotions resulting from a desire for connection.
If we were to go with option one we’d need to take a stance on the idea of “complex emotions resulting from a desire for connection”.
Looking at the poem it would probably be best to ‘agree’ with the statement and work our two paragraphs to show two different kinds of complex emotions that have arisen from the want of connection.
We could alternatively use each paragraph to look at a different section of the poem, but because it is so short this is probably the less sophisticated option and wouldn’t mark as well.
Our first paragraph may focus on how or what complex emotions are represented in the poem. What emotions are shown, how are they complex, how does the author represent them, etc. Make sure to include plenty to textual evidence.
Then in the second paragraph you would focus on the desire for connection and that, even though the poem does show complex emotions, that desire for connection is still there. Again you’ll want a lot of quotes from the text, as well as some references to your first paragraph to make it all flow smoothly.
Coming up with a thesis for this question probably wouldn’t be all that necessary because the question is so straightforward and quite easy to answer. If you did want to make the question a little more specific though, making your own thesis is fine! You’ll just have to make sure you tailor your paragraphs to your thesis.
Step 4: Write It Using STEEL
By this point I’m sure everyone and their mother has heard of the STEEL essay structure method! If you’re not so sure or you need a refresher, STEEL is simply an acronym used to remind you how best to structure your essay body paragraphs. This little diagram makes it super simple.
The easiest way to demonstrate STEEL is to actually do it, so we’ll get straight into our example and use STEEL to write up our ‘first paragraph’ for the example question and poem.
For seamless integration it’s a good rule of thumb to blend your technique and example sections so that they read more as ‘cause and effect’ than two shopping lists side by side. This will make more sense when you check out the example.
Okay, let’s get a quick refresher on the question being asked, so we can make sure our body paragraphs fit it perfectly.
Question: Analyse how two texts portray the complex emotions resulting from a desire for connection.
For this example paragraph we’ll be going off what we planned in the last section, using the idea we had for the first paragraph to focus on the complex emotions in the poem. Let’s get right into it!
A desire for connection often results in varying and complex emotions, as reflected in Blood Links by Mark Mahemoff, which employs rhetorical questions, allusions and visual imagery to this effect.
Technique + Example
Throughout the poem rhetorical questions are used to evidence a fragmented connection to family. The narrator asks “what would you say/ to your child and grandchildren/ and greatgrandchildren?”, immediately creating a sense of family disconnection through repetition of familial titles paired with a question that goes unanswered. This idea of family is further alluded to in comments like “I see my face’s shape in yours”, however the tone of the poem prevents these allusions from having any positive connotations, as there is an overarching tone of disconnection and discontent. The juxtaposition of visual imagery in “buttoned tight across your fatness/ smiling my lopsided smile” create the implication that despite family resemblance or connection the narrator still feels completely separate from the person spoken about, as seen in the change in pronouns from “your” to “my”.
Together these language techniques and choices work to reveal the desire to connect borne from a lack of connection between family members that lead to complex emotions. The fact that the narrator is able to recognise themselves in the unknown family member yet still cannot understand them, still feel the need to question them, represents these complex emotions in a subtle yet powerful way.
Hence Blood Links effectively represents the complex emotions that may arise from want of connection.
And there you have it! If you follow this pattern for the next three paragraphs you’ll be able to create an awesome response in no time. All you’ll need to add on is an introduction and conclusion and you’ll be right to go.
Remember, poems are no harder than any other text to analyse, you just need to get used to them! By following these four steps you’ll be able to analyse poems in your sleep before long. Just keep practicing, writing draft essays and planning responses and by the time HSC rolls around you’ll be the master of poem analysis.
Maddison Leach completed her HSC in 2014, achieving an ATAR of 98.00 and Band 6 in all her subjects. Having tutored privately for two years before joining Art of Smart, she enjoys helping students through the academic and other aspects of school life, even though it sometimes makes her feel old. Maddison has had a passion for writing since her early teens, having had several short stories published before joining the world of blogging. She’s currently studying a Bachelor of Design at the University of Technology Sydney and spends most of her time trying not to get caught sketching people on trains.