Comparing Poems: Odd One Out

Comparing 4 poems simultaneously is a tricky business. Therefore, students need lots of practice with comparing poems and linking them in a variety of different ways. Inspired by ‘Have I Got News For You’ and their ‘Odd One Out’ game, I came up with an activity for year 11s to compare 4 poems.

I use a large piece of sugar paper and write the names of four poems in each corner (allowing room for students to write around them) and give each group of students one sheet of sugar paper. Generally speaking, I select a Duffy, Armitage and two pre-1914 poems as this is the format for the AQA exam. So, for example, I might select Salome, Hitcher, The Man He Killed and The Laboratory. Now you could say that all four poems are about killers (and this would form the basis for an essay introduction) but there are some key differences in the ways in which the poems present killers.

The students’ first job is to start noting down ideas on the sugar paper about what’s similar and different about these poems in terms of interpretation. They might come up with ideas about the fact that Salome and the speakers in The Laboratory and Hitcher show little remorse for their actions. They might therefore decide that The Man He Killed is the odd one out because although the speaker suggests that there was little choice but to kill his enemy ‘because he was my foe’, there is a definite sense of regret. There are also plenty of reasons why another poem might be selected and encouraging individual interpretations is important for developing original responses.

Next, the students need to decide which poem is the odd one out because of its use of language. This will encourage students to look for poetic devices used by the poets and possibly how poets are using the same devices but to differing effects. For example, in her poem We Remember Your Childhood Well, Duffy uses the personal pronoun ‘we’ throughout. The reader doesn’t know if it is the Mother or the Father talking but the use of ‘we’ shows they are conveying the thoughts of both. This makes the parent or parents seem even more powerful and overbearing and put the silent addresse in a position of weakness. Similarly, Armitage uses the personal pronoun ‘we’ throughout his poem November. However, the effect is quite different. The use of ‘we’ here creates a sense of inclusiveness and unity and that the speaker of the poem is supportive of John.

Finally, students need to decide which poem is the odd one out because of its structure. I find that students find it difficult to make meaningful comments and comparisons about poets’ use of structure so this is a good chance for them to have a go and share ideas in discussion with their peers. They might look at regularity/irregularity of structure, use of enjambement, stanza length and so on.

This activity could be developed so that it forms the basis of an essay plan. Students will have some ‘ready-made’ ideas about what similarities and differences there are in the ways in which the poets present killers which will give them confidence to start writing about them. Alternatively, you could give groups different poems so that they’re not always working with the same four poems and ask them to pass their sheet on to a new group after each step and agree/disagree/develop what the other group has said. This will give them the opportunity to explore alternative interpretations which is key for writing A and A* grade responses about poems.

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