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CSEC English B: A Guide to Writing Poetry Essays

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

If you're reading this, chances are, you've been subjected to the unfortunate torture that is the English B (comparative) poetry essay. That's right- you've been allotted around 30 minutes to write on two of the twenty poems CSEC prescribed for your study over two years. Fun, right?

All jokes aside, we're all going to face a poetry essay at some point or another, whether practice assigned at school or the 'real McCoy' on the exam.


Writing poetry essays can seem daunting though- you're presented with a three part question demanding that you satisfy all necessary requirements to attain your maximum 25 marks. And on top of that, no matter how hard you try to clear your mind, it can be very difficult to arrange your thoughts well enough to put together an essay that can convince your teacher that you deserve at least a passing grade.


Well, worry no more! One of the main reasons we make silly slip-ups in our essays is because we don't necessarily know what it means to write a sufficient essay, and therefore don't have a small plan in our minds to which we can abide calmly during those nerve-wracking minutes. Hopefully after giving this guide a quick read, you'll understand more about how to tackle a question, the parts of an essay, what you want to try to achieve in each of those parts, and making an essay that stands out.





Step 1: The question

Poetry essay questions come in two varieties:

1) One where the poems you are to write on are named, for example:


“The poems ‘A Stone’s Throw’ and ‘The Woman Speaks to the Man Who has Employed her Son’ are about how women are treated.” For EACH poem:

(a) Briefly describe what is taking place.

(b) Discuss the speaker’s attitude to the woman.

(c) Discuss ONE device which is used to effectively convey the treatment of women.


2) One where the poems you are to write on are unnamed, and you are to choose two poems from the syllabus that fit a certain theme provided by the question. For example:


Choose TWO poems which you have studied that focus on a significant experience or event. For EACH poem:


(a) Describe the experience or event.

(b) Discuss the speaker’s attitude to this experience or event.

(c) Discuss ONE device that is used to present this experience or event.

(Both questions are taken from the January 2013 English B Paper 2)


In every CSEC poetry question you get, parts one and two of the question will ask you to describe, discuss or explain some aspect of the poem. The third part of the question will always ask you to discuss a poetic/literary device used in the poem.


I know that this may be repetitive to you, but you should always read both questions through very carefully. It would be very unpleasant to begin writing on a question only to glance back at the paper and realize that you mistook a crucial detail, or even worse- that you can't fully answer the question you chose (this only applies to the actual exam, where you will choose between the two types of questions).

The question literally gives you the instructions for your essay, so they should not be overlooked.


Apart from ensuring that you don't mistake any details, reading the question also gives you the time to plan your essay mentally. The first sentence of the question will give you a guide as to what the theme of your essay will be, and what information you will include in the introductory paragraph. The instant that you read the question, you will be able to think about answers to each of the three parts of the question on which you will expound throughout the essay.


Step 2: The Introductory Paragraph (5 sentences)

Depending on the type of writer you are, you may prefer to write a separate plan for your essay before beginning writing. If you believe that you write better and more efficiently after planning out your essay, then, by all means, do your prior planning. A little time spent before arranging your thoughts is worth it, if it helps you.

A good plan can take the form of a few bullet points written loosely on a sheet of paper, where you note key concepts surrounding each of the parts of the question. For example, planning a first body paragraph for the question on the treatment of women could look like this:


a) A Stone's Throw- the woman in question is being abused in the name of justice by a group of ravenous men, who want to punish her for alleged promiscuity

The Woman Speaks to the Man who Has Employed Her Son- the mother, despite having cared for her son and placing no limits on his potential, has to accept being betrayed by this very son, who now seeks a father figure in a man offering him work as part of a gang


Those are brief summaries, and it would be expected that you go into more detail within the body paragraph.


While some may prefer to plan their essays, others (such as myself) prefer to just jump right into the essay and keep themselves in check while writing.


The introductory paragraph is a very important start, and can even help you in planning the essay overall. Let us first consider the parts of the introductory paragraph of a poetry essay:


As shown above, the introductory paragraph of a poetry essay will contain five basic parts: the hook, stating poems, and question parts 1, 2 and 3.


The Hook is one of the best ways to make your essay stand out. It is a statement that should be based on the theme of the question chosen. So, for question 1 from the past paper, the theme would be the treatment of women. Question 2's theme would be significance experience or events.

Making an interesting general statement can seem very difficult at first, but it's really about either trying to 'sound smart' or expressing your thoughts on the theme (just make sure that you don't use any personal pronouns like 'I' and 'we.' For example, look at the following hooks based on question 2:


"The length of the average human’s lifetime encompasses the interwoven intricacies of several experiences which influence the internal mindscape of the person in question as well as those around them."


"Each unique experience, whether triggered by disruptive forces such as nature, contextual obligation and temporal necessity influence momentary revelations described in most of the poems prescribed by the CSEC syllabus."


(Note that although the hook is important for distinguishing your essay, you should not take too long to write it, since you still have 4 and a half paragraphs to write afterwards.)

After the hook, you must state the poems you have chosen (or the poems provided by the question) in a sentence that also compares the two. Maybe a bit complicated? Look at the following example for question 2:


"The poems “South” by Kamau Brathwaite and “An African Thunderstorm” by David Rubadiri both include vivid descriptions of significant experiences in the life of each speaker."


See? In this sentence, you just want to mention both of the poems you will be comparing. It connects what you said in your hook to the rest of the essay.


Question Parts 1, 2 and 3 simply involve you summarizing how you will answer each part of the question in the rest of the essay. Maybe in previous grades, you've heard of the thesis statement, where teachers would expect a simple sentence like "this essay will..." and then you would restate the question.


However, at this higher level of writing (yes, you are at a higher academic level now, yay), teachers want something a little less... bland.


For each part of the question, it is suggested that you write at least one sentence outlining your answer (in relation to BOTH poems). So, part 1 of question 2 asks you to "Describe the experience or event." So, your sentence would give a brief description of the experience or event in both poems you chose (in this case, we chose "South" and "An African Thunderstorm"):


"Brathwaite illustrates the incident of migration in “South” through a homesick islander while Rubadiri presents a more concrete experience of the destructive force of nature (a thunderstorm) through a member of an African village."


(Using the last names of the poets can be a good way to refer to the poems during comparisons)


Notice that only a few words are used to describe the experience in each poem, since you are only summarizing what you will discuss in a whole paragraph later.

"Brathwaite illustrates the incident of migration in “South” through a homesick islander while Rubadiri presents a more concrete experience of the destructive force of nature (a thunderstorm) through a member of an African village."


Comparing the poems like that in the sentence can be useful when you want to write efficient sentences.


The same thing is done for question parts 2 and 3:

Part 2

"The persona of “South” is averse to his new surroundings after leaving his homeland, and feels oppressed by a strange and cold environment, while the speaker of “An African Thunderstorm” along with the members of his village react with fear towards the cloud of impending doom."

Part 3

"Brathwaite employs personification to convey the impact of migration on the persona. Rubadiri uses repetition to communicate the effect of the experience of the thunderstorm."


Aaaand just like that, you've completed your introductory paragraph! The best thing about introductory paragraphs like this is that they help you plan and think about the answers to all the questions before actually expounding on each point. Let's look at the combined introductory paragraph:


"The length of the average human’s lifetime encompasses the interwoven intricacies of several experiences which influence the internal mindscape of the person in question as well as those around them. Each unique experience, whether triggered by disruptive forces such as nature, contextual obligation and temporal necessity influence momentary revelations described in most of the poems prescribed by the CSEC syllabus. The poems “South” by Kamau Brathwaite and “An African Thunderstorm” by David Rubadiri both include vivid descriptions of significant experiences in the life of each speaker. Brathwaite illustrates the incident of migration in “South” through a homesick islander while Rubadiri presents a more concrete experience of the destructive force of nature (a thunderstorm) through a member of an African village. The persona of “South” is averse to his new surroundings after leaving his homeland, and feels oppressed by a strange and cold environment, while the speaker of “An African Thunderstorm” along with the members of his village react with fear towards the cloud of impending doom. Brathwaite employs personification to convey the impact of migration on the persona. Rubadiri uses repetition to communicate the effect of the experience of the thunderstorm."


Step 3: The Body Paragraphs

You are probably already familiar with the three parts of a paragraph: the topic sentence, body sentences and the concluding sentence. However, in a poetry essay, you are comparing two poems, and you are doing that while answering a question in 3 parts. As a result, your paragraphs may be a bit different.

Instead of that model, it may be useful to think of each paragraph as composed of different chunks of points, examples and explanations for each poem. I like to think of each paragraph as containing two paragraphs within it, a separate topic sentence for each poem:



Overall Topic Sentence (Optional)- This sentence gives a general overview of both poems. This is optional though, as it is more efficient to simply start with the topic sentence for the first poem.

Look at the following examples for parts 1 and 2 (an overall topic sentence is not very applicable to question part 3):

Part 1: "The poems both investigate very distinctive experiences in the lives of the personas, each one important to the speaker in conflicting ways."


Part 2: "Each persona finds himself in the midst of a strange and somewhat threatening circumstance, and their own reactions as well as those of the people around them reflect the severity of what is occurring."