How do I start with preparing for the unseen poetry section?

Very occasionally I respond to posts on Reddit, and a few days ago someone asked for notes on unseen poetry. My response:

I’ve found Edward Hirsch’s writing helpful in helping my students think about poetry more deeply – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69955/how-to-read-a-poem

For unseen poetry, the band descriptors say that the best answers show a “Sensitive and informed personal response showing close engagement with the text”. Ask your teachers if the use of the personal voice (“I feel”, “it strikes me”, “I have an impression that”, etc) is encouraged, and how you can express that in your literature essays (I’ve found that there sometimes are teachers that will discourage this, so please check your school’s style).

Hirsch’s writing resembles the kind of writing we’d LOVE to see in an essay, especially since he does that “personal response” thing very powerfully (but he’s a GREAT writer, so don’t be concerned about sounding like him, develop your own style).

As always, check the dictionary to ensure that you KNOW the meaning of the words in any text. (I’ve found the Merriam-Webster dictionary most helpful for digging out meanings that aren’t listed in the Lexico or Cambridge dictionaries.)

At the B4/C5 level you probably have some difficulty with understanding the literal meanings of some of the poems, so really try to work at that.

Poetry Foundation also has an app that allows you to spin for random poems, and some of my students have found that helpful too. (Spin till you get one you like, lol.)

Hope this helps!


I want to say more about Edward Hirsch’s book How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, because it saved my academic life when I was in NUS. If not for it, I probably would have done quite badly, and that’s putting it mildly.

When I entered university fresh from the army, it was already already seven years since I’d last read a poem. That was in my Sec 2 literature class, when my school (a boys’ school famous for students unable to speak Chinese properly) kept on telling those of us who wanted to take literature at the O-levels that “boys generally aren’t very good at literature”. (Ha! Look at me now!)

So, as a 21-year-old entering academia again after 2.5 years in the army, I didn’t dream that I would be able to major in literature, and I definitely couldn’t see a future where I could compete with students who’d been taking literature at the O-levels and the A-levels. I thought I was going to major in psychology. Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) the entry-level psychology module was mind-numbingly boring, but the entry-level literature module was pure FUN from day 1.

But what could I do, when I was writing essays on poetry, and I was graded on the same scale as the O- and A-level literature kids?

Enter Edward Hirsch’s amazing book. I devoured it, finishing it in about a week (it’s a long one). It saved my life when it came to discussing poetry with the other A-for-A-level-literature kids.

I don’t know if Hirsch expected a young undergraduate to end up falling in love with poetry through his brilliantly written book, when that undergraduate picked up the book out of a desire to get an A for his university assignments and exams. It’s weird how other people’s writing can impact us like that.

I am filled with gratitude that the world carries such treasures such as these!


I tell that story on this website because I want to convey to the students desperate for unseen poetry notes that learning about poetry and how to write about poetry is a process that needs a deep commitment. If you sit down for hours each day to study for a single science paper, you should be doing the same for literature as well.

There is no shortcut.

But I want to reassure you that if you put in the effort to think about poetry and reading more deeply, it will eventually become rewarding and fulfilling to the point where you will never want to give up the habit. And it’s a good habit too.

Hope this helps!

Covid-19, inequality, and student stress

We can’t deal with stressed out students at the national level by merely tinkering with the education system. We have to lower the penalties for those of us who do not do well in school.

Covid-19 and its impact on the economy has highlighted for us the inequalities baked into our society. Regardless of the progress that we may have made in Singapore on income inequality, the divide here has never been clearer.

Two headlines from recent weeks have helped me explain this to students who have trouble understanding the economic divide we have here. One reads: “From luxe private home dining to discounted tickets, high-end restaurants innovate to cope with heightened alert.” The second reads: “Covid-19 restrictions: Taxi, private hire drivers report fall in income as some operators offer aid.”

Our young people can be forgiven if they think that the exam results they get now will dictate their future. It certainly seems like it, right? Fail to get into university, or fail to get into JC, or fail to get into a good secondary school, and it all seems like it’s going to fall apart.

The truth is that there are ways to succeed in Singapore even if you don’t do well in school. But it is also true that a comfortable life is much easier to come by if you do well for your exams at each stage. The advantages really do add up.

If you do well for your PSLE, you get into a better secondary school that will make it easier for you to get into a better JC, which raises your chances of getting into a good university, which raises your chances of getting a good degree. At each stage, there are ways to raise your chances of success even if you’ve tripped a bit at the previous stage (hello, private tuition).

But a cruel tendency remains: there are penalties for those who don’t do well at each stage.

Fortunately, there are paths to success for those who don’t do well in school. If you fail your A-levels, for example, you could always take it again as a private candidate. Our lives are a sum of our choices at each moment, and it is always possible to choose better actions at each stage of life.

But a cruel tendency remains: there are penalties for those who don’t do well at each stage.

There are solutions to the problem of economic inequality, including giving free money to all of us. It probably sounds ridiculous to some of you, but the case for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been argued for in Parliament, by AWARE, and even in the Singapore Business Review.

Whatever solution is chosen or not chosen, those of us with the privilege to examine these problems and their solutions must care about this. Sure, if you’re rich, during the lockdown you get to consider ordering a luxury meal in–but do you see the way that your children may be suffering?

Children and teenagers are not blind agents shuffling their way through the world till they finally get to adult maturity; almost all of them are sensitive and perceptive creatures who are have already developed some of the abilities they will continue to use as adults.

Many of them, even if they cannot speak eloquently about these issues, already have impressionistic understandings of how our world works. Many of them understand, on some level, the penalties they face for failure, and pressure themselves into working hard because of that.

Some of them have even put themselves under such profound stress that they cope by appearing lazy.

Those of us who are privileged neglect societal problems at our own risk, and Covid-19 should remind us of exactly how connected we are. The air your private chef or delivery rider breathes out is exactly the same air that you will breathe in.

Why is our society so relentlessly competitive? Maybe because we understand that to fall behind in the race is to lose out on all kinds of safety and dignity.

This is why we can’t deal with stress in the education system by merely tinkering with that system, even though incremental improvements are always welcome.

We teach and learn in a larger system that impinges on us, and no matter how much teachers and tutors try to deal with our students’ wellbeing in the educational setting, we are effectively powerless when it comes to the larger problems in society–unless we all come together as a society to solve these problems.

There are solutions to be thought about, and those of us who can do so must at least care about what is to be done.


PS: For those who are too stressed out about this, let me recommend a few books (and one article) that I’ve personally found helpful. There are ways to success, no matter how you define it. Don’t give up!

Shawn Achor (2010). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work.

Shawn Achor (2018). Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being.

Charles Duhigg (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Dan Harris (2014). 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story

Bertrand Russell (1932). In Praise of Idleness.