In the OCR GCSE English Literature exam, students will be faced with two questions as part of the poetry section. The first will ask you to compare a poem that you’ve studied (in this case, we’re looking at the OCR Conflict Anthology) with another unseen poem. It will always ask you to compare how the two poems treat a similar theme.

The second question will then ask you to choose another poem from the anthology, and write about how it develops similar themes. Whilst the first poems appear in printed form in the exam, the second will rely on memory (eek!).

Not to fear though – poetry is one of the simplest, most beautiful ways for authors to express meaning, and also – some of the shortest pieces you’ll have to analyse for your GCSE (hooray). One of the most common concerns is over comparative essay structure – so I’ve created a sample essay, for you to cut apart, mark, analyse, spot any PEEZAP points, terminology, context etc… just about anything you might find useful.

If you’re unfamiliar with the poems, have a read through Partition by Sujata Bhatt and What were They Like by Denise Levertov. They are both found in the OCR Anthology. You’ll also find an analysis of Partition here, and reading of What were They like here.

Feeling ready? Let’s go… good luck, and happy analysing!


Partition and What were They Like: Compare how these poems present political conflict and its results

You should consider:

  • ideas and attitudes in each poem
  • tone and atmosphere in each poem
  • the effects of the language and structure used

In both Partition by Sujata Bhatt and What were They Like by Denise Levertov the negative and deeply personal impact of wider political conflict is presented. Whilst Partition deals with the literal geographic division of a country, What were They Like refers to the divisions caused by the horrors of war – with the structure highlighting the chronological and cultural division when national customs are completely destroyed. Ultimately though, with their blank verse structure, frequent use of enjambment, auditory and nature imagery – both poems present a flowing poetic account of the dire consequences of political conflict.

  • Given the introduction – what main topics should my paragraphs talk about?

Intriguingly, both poems end their musings with a direct question. What Were They Like describes the singing of the Vietnamese people, reporting that it resembled “moths in moonlight”. The beauty of this alliterative phrase is dramatically cut short with the ambiguous interrogative probing the veracity of the statement – “Who can say?” given that it is all “silent now”. Political conflict, in this case the Vietnam War, has silenced not only the culture of the Vietnamese, but their hope and beauty too. After all the hesitant answers, this is the one definite statement the second speaker can make. It leaves the reader with a lasting impression of bleakness. In a similar way, Partition ends with the halting half-lines (perhaps representing the halting, faltering tears of the author’s recollection) asking the question “How could they have let a man who knew nothing about geography divide a country?” In this instance, the man in question was Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who was given the task in 1947 of drawing up the boundaries to create India and Pakistan even though he had little knowledge of the area. Whilst Levertov presents a direct point about the impact on Vietnamese culture, there are no easy answers to Bhatt’s question.

  • What was the main topic of this paragraph?
  • Have both poems been discussed?
  • Can you spot any context and terminology?

Auditory imagery, the now silent singing of What were They Like and hinted sobs of the mother in Partition is used to great effect throughout both poems. In Partition, this imagery strengthens the sense of foreboding of the conflict. The mother can “hear the cries”, “their noise” and stands “listening”, but kept herself partitioned (literally and figuratively separated) because she was afraid of the sectarian violence that often happened at railway stations during the migration. In What were They Like the noise of “laugher” is juxtaposed with the alliteration of it now being “bitter to the burned mouth” and the violence and immediacy of bombs that “smashed” mirrors is further contrasted with “time only to scream”. This imagery is further developed with the “echo” of the community’s “speech which was like a song”. The simile highlights how the beauty of the Vietnamese’s culture (previously loud and sung) is now just an echo, a ghost and a shadow of what was.

  • How is the structure of this paragraph similar to the last?
  • Have a look back at the introduction – has this topic been “sign-posted”?

Much of the listening and the sound imagery of both Partition and What were They Like takes place in nature. Bhatt tells how the mother recalls that the “birds sounded different” and even the “neem trees brought no consolation”. Here nature itself seems to be upset by the partitioning and this shows that the geographical split and political conflict are having a fundamental effect upon the wider world, as well as on the people directly involved. Levertov similarly utilises peaceful bucolic imagery such as “peaceful clouds reflected in the paddies” and “water buffalo” on the terraces. The imagery of nature is used throughout the poem to characterize the Vietnamese as a gentle nation; innocent victims of political and military conflict who once took “delight in blossom” before “their children were killed”. It further underlines the idea that the Vietnamese had simple lives with no access to sophisticated technology such as planes or bombs – unlike the American aggressors. The American bombing raids (such as Operation Rolling Thunder) used technology such as cluster bombs and napalm bombs, both of which caused horrific suffering.

  • What is the main topic of this paragraph? Was it sign-posted in the introduction?
  • Are both poems dealt with?
  • How is context used to elaborate on the poem’s key message?

Just as the auditory and nature imagery communicates the terrible results of political conflict, the structure of each poem further adds to this message. In Partition, the poet uses dashes to punctuate the poem and indicate substantial pauses. These caesuras create the effect of the narrator struggling to communicate, emphasising the painful subject. The poem is split, just like its subject – structured around the volta which falls on line 20. Before the volta, the daughter is recounting her mother’s memories of the mass migration. After the volta, time has moved to the present and the mother expresses her disbelief at the way the partitioning of India was handled by the British. Whilst Partition moves from the past to the present – What were They Like’s two-part structure asks questions in the present which moves the reader back to past recollections of past-Vietnam. The phrase “it is not remembered” is repeated twice in the second stanza to emphasize how the war has destroyed the Vietnamese nation; there is nobody left to remember details of their culture.

  • Always remember to talk about the structure and form. What structure and form points can you see here?
  • How does the structure and form link to the overall message of each poem?

In conclusion, both Partition by Sujata Bhatt and What were They Like by Denise Levertov present the cultural and personal impact of political conflict. Both bring up memories of an incredibly difficult past, with the inner musings of the authors heightened by the flowing enjambment, blank verse, interrogatives, natural and auditory imagery. Whereas Levertov presents the complete destruction of Vietnamese culture as a result of American involvement in the Vietnam War, Bhatt presents the difficult questions arising from the supposedly “peaceful” geographic separation of the country.

  • Compare the conclusion with the introduction – what do you notice?
  • How are they the same? How are they different?
  • Have I summarised what I’ve discussed in each paragraph?

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