Leaving Cert English Poetry FAQ

How many quotations should you have in your poetry essay?

About 10-25, depending on their length. 

It's best to look at examples (all H1, all free to read):

How many poems should I study for each poet?


How many poems should you cover in your LC essay?

Guidance varies on this. Some teachers say 3-4 poems. Our experience suggests that covering 4 in detail and briefly mentioning another 2 works well for students trying for a H1.

leaving cert poetry notes english higher level

How do I pick out quotations?

When reading our poetry notes remember that the highlighted lines are suggested quotations (e.g. see these suggested quotations for Paul Durcan). As a rough guide, you will learn 4 quotes per poem. You should learn more for a longer poem.

The best way to pick quotations is by asking the question: what is the most outstanding point about this poem and what's the best example of that? So for example, if there is a powerful image, pick that for a quotation. If there is an allusion, consider that for a quotation. If there is repetition in the poem, that's definitely a candidate too.

How do I narrow down the poets to study?

You will need 5 poets to eliminate all risk. Here is more detail on how to predict poets for the Leaving Cert.

How long should I spend on the prescribed poetry question?

How long should my prescribed poetry answer be?

About 4-5 pages (single pages, not double-sided). Here is how much to write for each section.

A poetry essay will be approx 1000-1500 words. Longer isn't always better. 

Should I structure my essay poem by poem or in some other way?

Poem by poem is the most common structure. There are lots of alternative essay structures.

Most of all remember the this:

leaving the bells and whistles aside, every single poetry question wants you to discuss two things:

1. Subject matter, aka themes, simply what the poetry is about
2. Imagery, or language, style, symbols, metaphors, poetic techniques, or simply how the poem is written

And when you've practiced past papers, used our notes and finally become an absolute ninja, you will get good at explaining how the imagery (1) enhances the delivery of the subject matter (2).

That's it.

Have a look at a these past questions where we show that every question always looks for the above.

Why do so few students do well in English?

There are a few reasons, but poetry is one of the best answered questions, so your work is likely to pay off.

What if I disagree with the interpretation of a poem?

It's a balancing act. On the one hand, you don't want to write an essay that is exactly like everyone else's - and that's usually an ode of unconditional worship to your "favourite" poet. Those essays come off as being naive or even contrived. On the other hand, being overly contrary is counterproductive. One or two instances of disagreement per essay is probably enough.

Your disagreement will be rewarded if 

1) you acknowledge that this is not the mainstream interpretation 
2) you explain, with quotation, why you disagree

If you're not quite confident enough to rock the boat, the easiest way to deal with any burning disagreement is to avoid it. Realistically, you won't get the chance to make much more than 2-3 points of depth for any poem due to time pressure. So if a particular point doesn't make sense, you can just focus on what does make sense instead. For this reason, our English notes give a variety of points and interpretations. If something isn't making sense to you, move on to the next point. Interpreting poetry and describing emotions it stirs up is certainly an art and not a science, so go with your gut.

leaving cert poetry notes higher level english

How do I know that this is what the poet really meant?

You don't. Think about it as if it a song: whatever inspired the songwriter to write it, it means something unique to everyone who listens to it. 

It's not just about the poet, it's about the reader too. In other words, the purpose of a poetry essay isn’t just to reverse-engineer the poet’s thoughts and feelings by dismantling the charades we call poetic techniques, it is also to assess the effect it has on the reader.

Sometimes poets explain what a poem means in an interview, but it's not your job as a Leaving Cert student to chase after these. 

How do I write about controversial poems?

When writing about political issues in poems, it's best to remain balanced. Focus on the poem, not the issue. For example, the Catholic Church, the Magdalene laundries, the Troubles and feminism come up again and again in poetry on the LC course. 

Your essay is about poetry, not about society. Just like you wouldn't go on about how motherhood or nature are really important, don't fall into the trap of ranting about more controversial themes because it doesn't make for good reading. Explain the emotions it causes in you as a reader - and how the poet achieves that. Demonstrate your understanding of the the techniques used in the poem that gave away the importance of this theme to the poet. Consider whether a more overarching theme of social issues is important to the poet. Leave your political views for Paper 1, the Composition questions (100 marks).


Here are some similar questions answered previously.

You may like this video on how to improve your English grade if you are stuck with examples of Paul Durcan and T.S. Eliot.

Lastly, here are some last minute tips before you go into the English exam.

You are welcome to ask your question on Snapchat or Instagram. We don't mention any names :)

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