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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."



Poem Topic Sentences

The poem topic sentence should be a specific connection of the poem to the question, and can be similar to what was written in the introductory paragraph. Each poem topic sentence should be the start of what you will write on that particular poem, so your body paragraph will be like two paragraphs in one.

For example, for question 2 part 1, the topic sentences for the two poems selected could be:

"Firstly, the persona of “South” explores the experience of migration and the impact of abandoning his homeland."

and

"On the other hand, the persona of “An African Thunderstorm” finds himself and his village threatened by an immensely powerful thunderstorm. The poem explores this terrifying experience by relating in evocative detail the destructive power of the storm."


Note: Using comparative phrases such as 'on the other hand,' 'contrarily,' 'by comparison,' and 'similar to' can help to better connect the content of your essay.

The topic sentences are only meant to introduce the content (body sentences) of your paragraph, so your description of South would follow the topic sentence concerning South, and the same would go for An African Thunderstorm.


Body Sentences (Point, Example, Explanation)

The body sentences of your paragraphs are where you get to contribute the real content of your essay. When writing your body sentences, you should try to follow the structure Point, Example, Explanation, abbreviated as P.E.E., (if you're into that, I guess you can remember it like that).


Point- This is where you state an aspect of your answer to the question. So, for part 1, you would 'describe the event or experience.'

Example- Use an example (a quote) from the poem to support your point.

Explanation- Explain your point more and show how your example supports your point.


These three parts can be in three separate sentences, in one sentence, or even just two. You can even mix up the order of the parts to how you see fit. How much you write is fully dependent on what you find sufficient for answering the question.

Look at the following example of a completed body paragraph (the body sentences are underlined and colour-coded, red for point, blue for example and green for explanation):


"Firstly, the persona of “South” explores the experience of migration and the impact of abandoning his homeland. The speaker leaves his island home, a picturesque landscape of shimmering ocean waves and sand, as shown in “I have travelled: moved far from the beaches.” He has gone to “stoniest cities,” towns of stony foundations and even stonier people, contrary to the warm people he remembers from his home. The northern lands he traversed were plagued with unpleasant weather conditions, like “slanting sleet and… hail.” Travelling to the “saltless savannas” of Africa, he noticed they were completely devoid of the salty ocean of his homeland which he misses so dearly. Now, he lives in a house amongst the trees in the forest “where the shadows oppress [him]" and the darkness around him reflects the longing for his island home. In the forest, there is only the rain and the river, which, to him, can never substitute for the boundless opportunity and joy of the sea. Leaving his home has brought him to several places in the northern world; each a stark contrast to the one place he feels he belongs. Now, he settles in a place that lacks the ocean and its distinct character, and the “tepid taste of the river” cannot satisfy him in its ordinary and saltless nature. On the other hand, the persona of “An African Thunderstorm” finds himself and his village threatened by an immensely powerful thunderstorm. The poem explores this terrifying experience by relating in evocative detail the destructive power of the storm. The clouds are said to “come hurrying with the wind,” denoting the speed with which the winds propel them towards the settlement. “Like a madman chasing nothing,” the wind darts and turns, whirling about with no definite direction or purpose, bound to cause damage to the things around it. The persona sees the wind tossing things up as it moves by at breakneck speeds, carrying the “pregnant clouds” (filled with rain and other hallmarks of meteorological terror) on its back. The “trees bend to let [the wind] pass” as it whistles by, showing the sheer force of its movement- even forcing the strong, tall-standing trees to bend as though prostrating themselves before the wind’s undeniable power. Around the persona in the village, the wind sends the clothes of the people flying off, waving in the wind like “tattered flags.” Blinding flashes of lightning strike in the distance followed by the low rumble of thunder, a chaotic image of the imminent tempest. The “pelting march of the storm” is continuous and seemingly unstoppable as it approaches the village, communicating the idea of doom associated with this experience."


Note that in the paragraph above,a separate sentence explanation is not as necessary since you are simply describing the poems.


Step 4: Concluding Paragraph

Sometimes, writing a concluding paragraph can seem like the most difficult part, because you don't have a clear path as to what to write. In these cases, for the sake of efficiency, you can think of the concluding paragraph as having 4 parts:

General Statement on the Theme or the Poems- This can be similar to your hook

Summary Sentence of Body Paragraph 1

Summary Sentence of Body Paragraph 2

Summary Sentence of Body Paragraph 3


For example:

"In conclusion, experiences define both the premise and particularities of human life. Distinct significant events create both momentary and long-lasting impacts to the person in question as well as those around them. The poems “South” and “An African Thunderstorm” both present a significant experience in the lives of the personas. While the speaker’s reaction to migration in “South” is in phases, beginning with a denial of oppressive memory followed by acceptance, the people around the speaker in “An African Thunderstorm” react with both fear and seemingly malapropos joy to the imminent thunderstorm. Brathwaite implements personification to relay the impact of external migration on the persona. Rubadiri employs repetition to convey the thunderstorm’s impact on the environment, and therefore rationalizes the fear of the members of the village."


(Starting with "In conclusion" is very common, so you can usually omit such clichéd connectors)




Now, let's take a look at the completed essay:


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.

Firstly, the persona of “South” explores the experience of migration and the impact of abandoning his homeland. The speaker leaves his island home, a picturesque landscape of shimmering ocean waves and sand, as shown in “I have travelled: moved far from the beaches.” He has gone to “stoniest cities,” towns of stony foundations and even stonier people, contrary to the warm people he remembers from his home. The northern lands he traversed were plagued with unpleasant weather conditions, like “slanting sleet and… hail.” Travelling to the “saltless savannas” of Africa, he noticed they were completely devoid of the salty ocean of his homeland which he misses so dearly. Now, he lives in a house amongst the trees in the forest “where the shadows oppress [him]" and the darkness around him reflects the longing for his island home. In the forest, there is only the rain and the river, which, to him, can never substitute for the boundless opportunity and joy of the sea. Leaving his home has brought him to several places in the northern world; each a stark contrast to the one place he feels he belongs. Now, he settles in a place that lacks the ocean and its distinct character, and the “tepid taste of the river” cannot satisfy him in its ordinary and saltless nature. On the other hand, the persona of “An African Thunderstorm” finds himself and his village threatened by an immensely powerful thunderstorm. The poem explores this terrifying experience by relating in evocative detail the destructive power of the storm. The clouds are said to “come hurrying with the wind,” denoting the speed with which the winds propel them towards the settlement. “Like a madman chasing nothing,” the wind darts and turns, whirling about with no definite direction or purpose, bound to cause damage to the things around it. The persona sees the wind tossing things up as it moves by at breakneck speeds, carrying the “pregnant clouds” (filled with rain and other hallmarks of meteorological terror) on its back. The “trees bend to let [the wind] pass” as it whistles by, showing the sheer force of its movement- even forcing the strong, tall-standing trees to bend as though prostrating themselves before the wind’s undeniable power. Around the persona in the village, the wind sends the clothes of the people flying off, waving in the wind like “tattered flags.” Blinding flashes of lightning strike in the distance followed by the low rumble of thunder, a chaotic image of the imminent tempest. The “pelting march of the storm” is continuous and seemingly unstoppable as it approaches the village, communicating the idea of doom associated with this experience.

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. In “South,” the persona’s reaction to migration can be divided into two distinct stages as related by the poem. His initial reaction is one in which he is ‘oppressed’ by the darkness of his surroundings and seems overtaken by an emotion of inextricable gloom. He is now in a place so unlike his island home, devoid of the ocean which he so loves and has lacked in all the places he has gone to since migrating. The only water he finds here is from the rain or the river, whose ‘tepid taste’ is unappealing and bland to him. In this initial reaction, he denies the river. He, who is “born of the ocean,” cannot “seek solace in rivers.” While the ocean has a characteristic ebb and flow, the river runs on ad infinitum, without end. Instead of representing limitless renewal like the ocean, the river instead flows on “like [his] longing” for his homeland. By denying the river, he also denies himself longing for home- even though it is the absence of things he cherishes and misses so dearly that creates his sense of gloom in the first place. His second reaction, shown in the volta of the poem, is when he accepts the river and decides to join it. The river, though constantly flowing like the persona’s longing, is both a conduit of humanity’s past events as well as a path to the sea. In accepting the river and in turn his longing, he also is able to tap into the historical archive of the river and recall his own childhood. Thus, the persona’s reaction is an abridged version of the Kubler-Ross Model of Grief- he begins with denial of the river and what it represents in reaction to being parted with his homeland, and ends with accepting its repertoire of past events (good and bad) to reminisce happily on visions from his childhood. He is able to return to the sea. On the other hand, the persona of “An African Thunderstorm” does not have a reaction illustrated by the poem to the experience of the thunderstorm. Instead, the poem focuses on the reactions of women and children in the village. The children are said to scream with delight in the ‘whirling wind,’ seemingly malapropos given the context of the destructive force of the storm. However, it makes sense as a puerile reaction to a novel experience. A child, not understanding the workings of the world as of yet, is most likely going to be delighted when confronted by something new, like strong winds or the beginnings of rain. The women and mothers of the village have a completely opposite reaction to the children. They instead “dart about… madly” showing a frenzied response to an obvious threat. They seem to be in a panic, either trying to complete preparations for the imminent storm, or, darting about aimlessly unsure of any way they can mitigate the its effects. The women’s babies are said to be “clinging on their backs” reflecting a possible fear which they share with their mothers. The startling nature of the advent of something so undeniably malignant would be cause for babies to be fearful- and even if they were unable to comprehend it, they would be inheriting the evident fear displayed by their frantic mothers.

Finally, Brathwaite employs personification in “South” in order to convey the effect of migration on the persona. After migrating, the persona comes to live in a house in the forest. He specifically says “the shadows oppress me,” giving the shadows a human-like quality in being able to abuse him in some way. The context of this line is based around his sojourns far away from the beaches of his home and now settling in a forest house. The shadows cast by trees in the canopy of a forest over the forest floor are likely what he refers to- so very different from the “bright beaches” full of sunshine from his island home. However, he may also refer to shadows figuratively, and thus the line may take on a dual meaning. Shadows could also refer to recurrent memories of his home, in line with the common association of shadows with memories. So, having left the beaches he so dearly loves, he is stuck amidst the shadows of trees which only remind him of how far he has gone from where he belongs. The gloominess of this forest contradicts what he is used to, so it is as if he is being victimized by his own environment. In the same way, memories of his past, which only remind him of how incongruous the forest is to his island, subject him to constant longing and yearning for a return home. On the other hand, repetition is used in Rubadiri’s “An African Thunderstorm” to convey the impact of the experience of the thunderstorm on the environment. The line “trees bend to let it pass” is repeated twice throughout the poem and denotes the motion of the trees in relation to the wind. The trees lean and bend over when the wind passes by, shifting from its path due to its violence and strength. However, this also conveys a subservience in the trees in that they bend to allow the wind to pass. It is as though the trees are prostrating themselves before a powerful king as he strolls stately by. In the same way, the trees, tall and robust stalwarts of nature are bent forcefully by the mighty wind. Thus, the thunderstorm is shown to be immensely powerful, forcing everything around it to morph and change to accommodate its unhindered passage.

In conclusion, experiences define both the premise and particularities of human life. Distinct significant events create both momentary and long-lasting impacts to the person in question as well as those around them. The poems “South” and “An African Thunderstorm” both present a significant experience in the lives of the personas. While the speaker’s reaction to migration in “South” is in phases, beginning with a denial of oppressive memory followed by acceptance, the people around the speaker in “An African Thunderstorm” react with both fear and seemingly malapropos joy to the imminent thunderstorm. Brathwaite implements personification to relay the impact of external migration on the persona. Rubadiri employs repetition to convey the thunderstorm’s impact on the environment, and therefore rationalizes the fear of the members of the village.




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