After studying this section you should be able to understand:
- what features to look for in each poem
- how to plan and write your response
As part of the GCSE English Literature course, one of the things you will need to do is to ‘explore relationships and comparisons between text, selecting and evaluating relevant material ’. One of the ways in which you might be asked to do this is to compare two poems.
When comparing poems you need to look for all the features that you look for when studying a single poem.
You need to look at the:
- content of the poem
- tone and mood of the poem
- form in which it is written and structured
- ways in which language is used
When writing your response, avoid writing an examination of one poem and then the other and comparing them in a final paragraph. Integrate your comments on the poems throughout.
However, you also need to compare these features in both poems.
You will need to look at each poem individually to plan your response, but when writing your response you need to integrate your ideas on both poems.
Here’s one way you could approach this task:
Planning your response
1. Read both poems through carefully and get an overall sense of what each poem is about and how the poets handle their topics.
2. Re-read poem ‘A’ and make brief notes either around the poem, if you are able, or on a separate sheet, noting key words, phrases, images etc. and your response to it. Do the same with poem ‘B’.
3. Note down some brief quotations from each poem that you will use to illustrate your ideas. You could underline or circle these if you can write on the copy of the poem.
4. Make two lists – one headed similarities and one headed differences and list the main points under each heading.
Writing the response
It is important that you avoid writing an essay on each poem and then try to join them together. The best responses are those that integrate the ideas in parallel throughout the essay.
Here’s one way you could approach this:
Introductory paragraph commenting on what each poem is about and capturing the ‘flavour’ of each.
Several paragraphs based on your detailed reading of the poems. It is a good idea to make a point about poem ‘A’ and then a point about poem ‘B’.
It can help you structure your ideas in a logical way, e.g. one paragraph could compare the way each uses imagery, while another paragraph could focus on structure etc.
A concluding paragraph, summing up the main similarities and differences, saying which you find more effective and why, if you are asked this.
Keep both poems at the centre of your focus and don’t be tempted to write all about one and then the other.
Langston Hughes: Comparison and Contrasting Essay
by Feross Aboukhadijeh
Langston Hughes was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of African-American literature and artistic forms in Manhattan during the 1920s. Not only did his writing promote African-American culture, but it sought to bring attention to the plight of the African-Americans suffering injustice and repression. His poems "I, Too" and "Theme for English B" both advanced his political views of equal civil rights and treatment under the law for African-Americans. Both poems use first-person voices; however the "I" is different for each poem, in order to fulfill Hughes' purpose for the poem.
In Hughes' poem "I, Too," the speaker is not an individual as the word "I" implies. In fact, the "I" represents the entirety of African-Americans living in the United States. That Hughes writes "I am the darker brother" instead of "we are the darker brothers" is no accident (2). The connotation of the word "I" as opposed to "we" is that of a lone individual, defenseless and outnumbered. The speaker says "They send me to eat in the kitchen," reinforcing the one-versus-all mentality that Hughes is trying to convey in this poem (3). "We" and "they," give a stronger, more united connotation than "I" does. In this poem, "I" is used to connote weakness, and isolation. As used in this poem, the first-person voice highlights the weakness of the African-American people. However, this is not the only way that Hughes uses "I" in his poetry.
On the other hand, Hughes' poem "Theme for English B," uses the first-person voice for an entirely different effect. In this poem, the "I" is an individual student. The poem is written like a narrative: "I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem" (7). Unlike the first poem, "I" is used here to connote strength and singularity. The speaker, an African-American student given an English writing assignment, engages his teacher in an intelligent, even pointed dialog. Hughes artistically makes use of the first-person point of view to enhance the effect of the story. By using words like "I" and "them", "me" and "you," the speaker is able to point out the differences between himself and his teacher. One passage in particular stands out for its incessant juxtaposition of the words "you" and "me":
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me— (31-38).
Not only does this highlight the differences between the speaker and teacher, but it puts the speaker in a commanding position. The fact that an African-American individual is writing something controversial, and making critical remarks of his teacher—and in such an eloquent way—is a sign of strength and source of pride.
Although these poems both make use of first-person voices, they each make use of voice to different ends. Nonetheless, both poems draw attention to the plight of the African-American people, albeit in different manners. Both poems cry out for civil rights and equality in a time where African-Americans were treated neither civilly nor equally.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Sample Compare and Contrast Essay - "Langston Hughes"" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/english/sample-essays/compare-contrast-langston-hughes/>.