Reading Time: 5 minutes

In this post, you’re going to find out how to understand unseen poems in your WASSCE, GCE or IGCSE Literature paper. If you’re a teacher handling Literature students, you will find the tips for understanding unseen poetry useful.

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By the way, what is unseen poem? An unseen poem in a Literature test, is a poem the candidate is supposed to have never seen before. So this is your first time of seeing the poem. Well, lucky you if you realize you actually came across the supposed unseen poem somewhere in the past. This is not common, though. But it is entirely possible, I think.

Initial points to note about poetry appreciation

Before I tell you the secrets to understanding unseen poetry, it is important for you to bear in mind the following points about the understanding and appreciation of poetry in general.

  • The few words a poet uses (unlike a novelist or playwright) are always pregnant with a great deal of meaning.
  • There are, at least, two levels of meaning in almost every piece of poetry. The surface meaning, which we may call the subject matter and the deeper level meaning. The poetic techniques and figures of speech used help to grasp the deeper meaning
  • If you look closely at the words in a poem, you will begin to realize that there is a certain motif that binds many of them together.

Here is an example from Maya Angelou’s poem, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

FREEDOM AND PRIVILEGE:  free, freedom, leaps, floats, downstream, wing, dares, claim the sky, trade winds, breeze, fat worms, dawn-bright lawn, names the sky his own,

CAPTIVITY: stalks down, narrow, cage, seldom, bars, rage, wings are clipped, feet are tired, throat, caged, fearlful, trill, longed, distant, sings, grave, dreams, screams

RACIAL DISCRIMINATION: rage, throat, sing, things unknown, dreams, shadow, nightmare,

Together, these groups of words have got something to do with captivity (or lack of freedom), freedom and the effects of racial discrimination.

Analysis of Caged Bird by Maya Angelou

How to Write a Poetry Analysis Essay

  • It is almost impossible for any reader of a poem, to understand it exactly the same way the poet wants every reader to understand.
  • Poetry conveys much of its meaning via the images that the lines evoke. In other words, diction and imagery matters a lot in your effort to understand unseen poems in particular and poetry in general.
  • The structure of a poem can conform to the themes in the poem. For example, a poet may present two opposite ideas to the reader with two separate parts that contain words, very much opposed to each other.

See how T.S. Eliot employs contrast as explained in this analysis of the poem Journey of the Magi.


Follow the steps below to understand unseen poem.

1. Start with a positive mindset

If you can tell yourself that you are capable of understanding the poem, you will have taken the first step to, at least, guessing what it is all about.

The only reason many Literature candidates find it tough to understand unseen poetry is their lack of self-belief.

You will always find it difficult to deal successfully with any life challenge if all you keep telling yourself is “it is too for me difficult to handle”.

When you believe you can do it then how to handle it begins to develop in your mind. That’s the way it has always been and will continue to be.

2. Read all the questions on the unseen poem first.

I can tell you with all certainty that it gets much easier to understand unseen poems by first reading the questions.

You will notice that it is this same recommendation I give about how to answer English summary questions and how to easily understand a comprehension passage.

Why is this so? Because the questions give certain hints, however insignificant, about the meaning of the poem.

Just imagine having a question on an unseen poem like this.

All the following are of great concern to the persona except

A. disregard for the ancestors B. a fall in moral standards C. materialism D. social cohesion

You see, it is not necessary whether you know the correct answer there and then. What is obvious is that you will have begun to form, in your mind, a fair idea about what the poem is about. That is, going by the fact that any three of the four possible answers point to the meaning of the poem.


3. Read the poem, paying close attention to words that strike you

Just read it. Forget about how difficult it is.

As you read, underline words or groups of words that you think may lead to an understanding of the poem. Do not forget any hints you gathered during your reading of the questions.

4. Try to guess the surface meaning or subject matter of the poem

Don’t think of being perfect. Even the examiner is aware you may not fully understand an unseen poem within those few minutes in the exam room. What matters, therefore, is your willingness to do your best, instead of giving up too easily.

The poet’s diction or choice of words as well as the title of  the poem (if provided) should help you understand the meaning of the unseen poem.

5. See what you can make of the title of the unseen poem

If all the ideas you’ve formed about the poem can corroborate the meaning of the title of the poem, then you have done well in your attempt to understand unseen poems. Remember that the title of the poem is there to help you understand it.

Take a look at these titles. Don’t they give you an idea of what each poem will be about?

The Leader and the Led

Dream Deferred

Telephone Conversation

Black Woman

The Sun Rising

The Solitary Reaper

The Eats the Land at Home

Piano and Drums

The Anvil and the Hammer

Song of the Women of My Land

Streamside Exchange

The Dry Season


6. Try your hands at as many new poems as possible before the test

Maybe this should have come first in my tips on how to understand unseen poems. But it didn’t because my focus has been on what you must be doing inside the exam room.

But, like every teacher worth their salt would tell you in class, long before your exam, practicing in advance how to solve questions makes it easier to tackle similar ones in any subject and in any examination.

So, begin to do this now with the other tips in mind. And when you finally get down to answer questions on unseen poetry in the real exam, you will find that your life gets a lot easier.

Wrapping it all up

To understand unseen poems, you need to develop both a positive and creative mindset. Let me also repeat the fact that you need not get a perfect understanding of the poem. Because, if you ask most poets, they will confess that, they themselves are still discovering other meanings of a poem they personally wrote years ago.

For that matter, you just need to do your best. Then go and tackle the questions as carefully as you can. After all this effort, you should be satisfied enough to leave the rest to the examiner to deal with.

As always, I wish you good luck.

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Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash