Secondary (14+): How to read an unseen poem

Do you ever find it difficult to ‘get’ a poem the first time you read it? Do your students need more practice responding to unseen poetry? Former Foyle Young Poet and current Birmingham Poet Laureate Richard O’Brien has a great toolkit to get under the skin of a poem on first reading. To ‘engage with the poem on its own terms, and see what follows’, Richard thinks carefully about first and last words, repetition, themes, metaphors and more. Check out Richard’s toolkit here.

In this article, Richard looks at another Foyle Young Poet’s winning poem, ‘Daughters’ by Phoebe Stuckes. But we have a wealth of free ‘unseen’ poems that you can use for practice: check out our Issuu anthologies, and the Foyle Young Poets pages to find the text of each top 15 winning poem individually from the last 20+ years.​

Our Learning & Participation Manager, Julia, adds … ‘One of my first jobs in poetry was as the Marketing and Education Officer at The Poetry Book Society. We commissioned Simon Armitage (now the Poet Laureate) to write us some top tips for poetry readers. The posters featuring those tips (a spectacular example of busy late 90s graphic design!) are long gone, but the tips remain, archived on the internet by Leeds University. Apply The Eye Test, The Acid Test, The Lie Detector Test to an unseen poem – Simon Armitage’s advice still holds good!’ Details here.

We’ve also spotted this fantastic free resource for A-Level students and teachers on FutureLearn, run by the University of Reading. It’s a two-week course that will help you break down a poem, and in the second week get creative yourself. Check back for when the course will be running again.