Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Poetry

What worked for me in Leaving Cert poetry – Jamie Tuohy


Ah, Leaving Cert poetry – the bane of most Irish students’ Leaving Cert experience. The idea of having to know thirty plus poems for a 50 mark question in an exam can be enough to induce terror into the mind of even the coolest and collected class genius. Many students are tempted to cut corners, but trust me – cutting corners will undoubtedly lead to bumping into obstacles!

  • As attractive as it may seem to rely on apparently sound and reliable predictions, a prediction, by its very nature would find it near impossible to be either ‘sound’ or ‘reliable’ – just asked the class of 2001, when nearly the very same poets came up two years in a row.
  • When discussing the work of a poet, try not to focus on the biography. You are being asked to write about the poem – not the life of the poet. Students lose marks because they keep talking about Sylvia Plath’s mental problems, or endlessly recall the hardships of Robert Frost’s life, rather than focusing on the poem.
  • It’s great to know about the poet’s life and you can certainly refer to certain aspects of his or her life, but the examiner wants to read about your engagement and reaction to the poetry of Seamus Heaney and not a factual article about his life, whereby you use the poems as evidence to support your facts.
  • Remember that all the questions are essentially a personal response, even though few questions will explicitly state so. It is really important to give your opinion throughout the answer. Teachers will have advised you to have a positive reaction to the poetry, which might seem like it’s defeating the purpose of an ‘opinion’, but if you’re going to criticise a poem, you will need extremely sound references and points, which are often hard to find.
  • P.Q.E: Point, Quote, Explain. This is the basic formula that every student should be adhering to when answering a question. Make your point, find your evidence in the poem and then explain what you have written, stating your own opinion as well. It’s no good saying “this poem is a poem of sadness, written in a trochaic tetrameter” and leaving it at that. By doing this, you’re only stating a fact – follow it up with evidence and analysis or description.
  • Don’t go into the exam without knowing at least five poets. This point is self-explanatory, but it’s essential to reinforce it.
A Personal Response to the Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh:

If Patrick Kavanagh isn’t one of the poets you’ve been focusing on, then this is a good chance to brush up on him. Nobody knows who is going to come up, so if you’ve Plath and Heaney well prepared, Kavanagh is a great one to have in your back pocket in the exam.


  1. 1.      “Inniskeen Road: July Evening” – Imagery
  • Kavanagh manages to capture the atmosphere of that ‘July Evening’ by combining effective imagery with his own emotional feelings towards the night.
  • “The bicycles go by in twos and threes” – this gives us a sense that Inniskeen is a close knit community, as everyone is travelling to the dance together.
  • However, this camaraderie among the locals does not extend to Kavanagh, who is “king of banks and stones and every blooming thing”.
  • Is he isolated by virtue of being a poet? Does Kavanagh create an image for himself that sets him apart from society? Do you sympathise with the poet’s condition?
  1. “Canal Bank Walk” – Language Techniques
  • Kavanagh opens the poem with a neologism combined with alliteration, saying “leafy with love”.
  • Through poetry, Kavanagh is free to express himself and despite writing in the form of Shakespearean sonnet, his poetic licence gives him the liberty to remain unique.
  • His clever use of language techniques allow us to become enthralled by the words before us and the repetition of the letter ‘l’ creates an image in my mind where things are in full bloom and it is sensually evocative.

“Lines Written on a Seat in the Grand Canal” – Language Techniques

  • Where by a lock Niagarously roars” – neologism.
  • By using this neologism, I feel that Kavanagh’s reverence, joy and love for the Grand Canal are all juxtaposed in this line. He is comparing the canal – a man-made river, to the breath-taking natural beauty of Niagara Falls.
  1. “Epic” – Title and Form
  • The title is paradoxical, as one expects a lengthy poem, recanting the exploits of an ancient hero, but instead Kavanagh’s poem is somewhat of a ‘mock epic’.
  • However, the seemingly trivial dispute between these two families is elevated to the status of the Trojan War, rather than reduced to an insignificant parochial squabble.
  • In choosing the sonnet form, Kavanagh reminds himself that art and literature do not need grandiose inspiration to be successful. Indeed, the best poetry is created from the parochial, as he believed it was universal because it dealt with the fundamental aspects of society.
  1. 4.      “The Great Hunger” – Theme and Content
  • This poem communicates themes of isolation, despair, missed opportunity and filial duty.
  • Patrick Maguire is defined only by the love he holds for his land – “clay is the word and clay is the flesh”.
  • He suffers the flaw of passive acceptance and his life has been reduced to a dull pattern of farm chores and familial obligations by a series of submissions to his mother, to the land and to the Church.
  • The poem becomes a polemic in which Kavanagh criticises these aspects of rural life in Ireland in the early to mid-twentieth century.
  • The themes of the poem create an atmosphere of gloom and in the final lines; Kavanagh personifies “Imagination” because it’s the very thing that Kavanagh lived without.
  • “He lives that his little fields may stay fertile when his own body is spread in the bottom of a ditch under two coulters crossed in Christ’s Name”. It seems rather fitting, yet poignant that Maguire would be buried in the very land that held him in impoverished servitude, but tragic that his resting place is marked by the symbol of the religion that so impeded his sexual and emotional fulfillment.

What Worked For Me:

  • As I’ve already mentioned, it’s great to open essays with a quote and this is particularly effective when it comes to poetry. Try to find a quote that in some way embodies the essence of the poet’s work and still adheres to the question. For example, if there’s a question on ‘power’ in Adrienne Rich’s poetry, a good quote might be “These are thing that we have learned to do who live in troubled regions” from her poem “Storm Warnings”.
  • Something that helped me to memorise quotes was to write out the quote and leave out or substitute a word. By doing this, you’ll train your mind to remember the word that was left out and subsequently memorise the quote. For example, in Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror”, if you say “I am silver and exact. I have no judgements”, a light bulb will go off in your head, saying “NO! It’s “I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions”.
  • Make a statement of the obvious! Think of the most obvious and general thing you can about the poem and write it down. Then you can deconstruct it and analyse the sentence. For example, “Seamus Heaney’s “Bogland” is about a bog”. When you consider this statement and break it down, taking into account all the different elements of the poem from imagery to language, you’ll soon have many more ideas on how the poem expresses Heaney’s relationship to the Irish landscape and its people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s