What to do in the exam…

Start by unpacking the question: Don’t rush in. Scrutinise the question. What is it asking you? How many parts are there to the question? Again, what are the key terms to keep in mind?Plan your answer. This may take 5 -10 minutes but it is worth it. Remember, you are expected to produce a cogent and convincing response to the question so work out what points are going to constitute your argument. How are you going to organise them in a series of connecting paragraphs? In a closed book exam, it’s helpful to jot down some abbreviated quotations beforehand so you can ‘dip’ into these as you go along.

Writing your answer. Obviously, any skilfully executed response will have an introduction, development and conclusion. Your introduction is a signpost telling the examiner what they should expect. Engage directly with the key terms and state what your response is going to argue. This provides a confident opening and the examiner will anticipate that you will stay on track. In the development, each paragraph should open with a topic sentence which indicates the aspect of your argument now being dealt with.

Use short, embedded quotations to support your points.

Avoid lapsing into narrative or description. There are no marks for ‘telling the story’.

Be specific. Select knowledge that is relevant to your key terms.

Beware of regurgitating too many teacher resources. Often these ill –digested notes expose poor understanding of the text. Only write down what you understand.

Don’t crow-bar in answers that you’ve memorised. Examiners can detect these! Don’t answer the question you wished you’d been given. Select what is relevant to this question.

Your conclusion should draw your points together without needless repetition. This should be the logical culmination of all your preceding points.

Leave time to proof –read your answer. Crucial errors may be picked up here.


‘Moments of Grace’ – An analysis. 

Make a detailed analysis of Duffy’s treatment of love in “Moments of grace” In the poem “Moments of grace”, Carol Ann Duffy adopts the persona of a woman who is looking back at her life. Love and relationships are themes that are consistently found throughout Carol Ann Duffy’s work and it is something that she seems to present with mixed messages. Through a range of poetic and literary devices, Duffy explores different kinds of love in her various poems. 

Through “Moments of grace”, Carol Ann Duffy dramatizes scenes from childhood, adolescence and adulthood, finding moments of grace or consolation in memory, love and language amid the complexities of life. The poem is told through a series of sustained recollections and dreams of the past. Duffy begins the poem by describing a “wordless” state which can be linked to the fourth stanza in which she claims that actions such as kissing the back of the neck are worth more than words. Near the end of the first stanza, it refers to “grace” in the sense of mercy as the speaker is released momentarily from work or present demands. It also carries over with it traces of a more biblical and spiritual meaning in the sense that grace is a gift from God, not strictly deserved but freely given out of God’s mercy. Duffy begins the next stanza with the phrase “shaken by first love” which not only refers to an experience that everyone goes through but it also prefigures the topic of the poem. The word “shaken” suggests a kind of intensity as your first love is a memory that always stays with you. Why “kiss a wall”? Perhaps to practice or perhaps it is a fantasy. Together with the names written on the hands which began to run with the sweat produced by excitement, it is the visual recollection which brings back something of the past. “Hoping I will not feel me breathing too close across time” suggests that her memories are so delicate that even her thoughts might break them. “The chimes of mothers calling in children at dusk” is the present which intrudes into her thoughts drawing her out of her reflective state. She describes her past as “staggering years”, “vanishing scents” and “like a melting balloon”. This hints that the memories of her past are weighing her down and her memories are floating away. She can remember her thoughts but not all of them and she feels a ghost in her own memories. By describing memory as a “caged bird” that will not fly in the next stanza, it reveals that age is a barrier to remembering everything and therefore, her memory is locked up. “A thin skin lies on the language” demonstrates how words can be twisted to mean what you want. Words, actions and verbs offer us possibility and meaning and the potential to do things. “Strangers” like the thin skin on language can offer either everything or nothing as there is no past or history behind them. The final stanza is back in the present and it provides a sense of intimacy. The taking off of the watch and letting a minute “unravel” shows the suspension of time becoming a moment of grace for her due to the sense of intimacy. The final line of the poem shows a moment of grace and makes the poem universal. “Passing, you kiss the back of my neck. A blessing.” Although this is just a simple, everyday action, it was unexpected and means much more to her than any romantic words or phrases. The “blessing” suspends the religious metaphor. This becomes a moment of grace, a blessing from God and a celebration of love. The poem is made universal because we all want to love and be loved and for her, the kiss on the back of the neck is a moment of grace, a small yet touching blessing from God. The love that Duffy tries to explore in this poem is a very pure and spiritual love. Love is something that we as humans often take for granted unintentionally and we do not see it as anything particularly special so we do not truly cherish it. However, it is seemingly insignificant things such as love that makes the woman in this poem’s life more worth living. 

‘Small Female Skull’

cropped-cropped-image1.jpegCarol Ann Duffy situates her poem in an ordinary place: the toilet! This sets up a paradox for the internal monologue of the speaker as she turns the female skull around in her hands trying to recognise herself in it.

The very process of balancing the skull and exploring its messages generates the poem itself- as in Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’.  The process of creation and the fragility of life are presented.

The intimacy of this connection with the ‘small female skull’  is palpable. The verb ‘balance’ acts as a tender, anchor , suggestive of the precariousness of the skull’s situation in the speaker’s hand as well as the transience of life. For the poem seems to be unsurprisingly about mortality and the way we need to take greater care of ourselves.

As in so much of Duffy’s work, the idea of the ‘breath’ comes up. We are so often aware of the ‘pulse’ of life in a Duffy poem, a pulse which maintains the rhythm of the poet’s thinking and which changes as the poem approaches its finale. Being out of breath as in Wilfred Owen’s war poetry is synonymous with suffocation and extinction. In some poems of Duffy, the poet draws our attention to breathing reinforcing idea of resurrection.  In Duffy’s poem here, the breath through the holes of the skull are without effect. The hollowness of the skull even a reflection of the hollowness of any avowal of ‘love’. For everything according to the atheist Duffy, yields to the emptiness of this residue of life; namely the skull itself.’Papery bone’ All our ‘weight’ of living through thoughts, aspirations and memories become this… Cheery eh?

After initially externalising a reflective process about mortality, Carol Ann Duffy allows the poem to slip between external and internal focus. The skull far from being ‘without’ becomes the within. Why after all is the speaker seemingly stranded alone on a toilet? What  or who is she  seeking refuge from? And why the reference to the ‘scar’ gained through ‘love’ and ‘treacherous stairs’? Grief has destabilised the speaker perhaps and the stairs may be a metaphor for a fall from love, or alternatively a ‘fall’ from childhood innocence perhaps? For it is quite possible that the stairs are the stairs of life..so that the ‘fall’ is a metaphor and thus the ‘braille’ represents the human urge to make sense of life?

Is life a search of a meaningful dialogue which may never arrive or which remains a conversation finally spoken in a ‘white room’ with death itself? All our grandiose ‘grand words’ become erased, or deemed ‘crazy’ by others, emphasising the essential solitariness of existence.

The final image is one of infinite tenderness to self/other and conveys the infinite fragility of life!! – YOLO


Revisting Duffy – even though we know that we should ‘Never go back’ (see what I did there…)

cropped-cropped-image1.jpegWhat’s the exam like?

1 hour

50 marks

AO1 15 – argument, accuracy, style and use of terminology

AO2 15 – detailed analysis of form, structure, language and how poetic techniques   shape meanings

AO4 20 – analysis of connections between poems – links – comparisons and contrasts

  • “Informed” – candidate’s own knowledge of texts
  • “Personal” – relates to level of candidate’s engagement with texts
  • “Creative” – includes how engaging and well-structured responses are
  • “Concepts” – reflects an overarching awareness of the framework of the subject
  • “Terminology” – here refers to the use of correct/suitable words.
  • “Coherent” – an ability to engage in clear and effective academic discourse which is well organised and adopts an academic style and register.


  • Support observations with brief quotation – learn to integrate key, single-word quotations into sentence structure
  • Plan the response
  • Reflect
  • Read the material thoroughly


  • Spend time on a descriptive introduction or statement of intent
  • Work through the material systematically line by line
  • Copy out large sections of material
  • Assert meaning without support
  • Impose your own agenda on the material – do allow it to speak for itself
  • Attempt to discuss similar work you have encountered in your wider reading or to analyse possible contexts for the material

How to write well:

  • Integrate connections and comparisons – be specific and detailed.
  • Select points across the poems rather than going through them line by line.
  • Support points with short, embedded quotations.
  • No need for biographical information.
  • Write in a formal style – avoid contractions and colloquial language, use a literary vocabulary, avoid use of first person ‘I’.
  • Proof read writing to ensure accuracy.


Write an introduction with a focused argument or main point about both poems.

Be tentative so you acknowledge there are many ways to interpret the poems, e.g. perhaps; this suggests or implies; it could be argued …

Make a clear distinction between speaker/persona and Duffy and ascribe authorial methods, e.g. Duffy presents …

Do not describe events in the poem but focus closely on poetic techniques.

Integrate quotations and points, e.g. In utilising onomatopoeia, ‘fizzy’, Duffy conveys to the reader the visceral excitement that comes with being young as we can almost hear the ripple of excitement in the dance hall.

Use key signpost comparative markers to his AO4, e.g. similarly, conversely etc.

Need an introduction and at least five or six detailed comparative paragraphs as the body of the essay then a short conclusion which reflects on question/connections.

Revision Task:

Re-read ‘Litany’. Analyse how Duffy presents childhood and the past in this poem and at least one other poem in the collection. (50 marks)

Re-read ‘Litany’. Analyse how Duffy presents childhood and the past …

(3 minutes planning)

in this poem and at least one other poem in the collection.

(3 minutes planning)

There are three ways in which you might make connections

  1. Your expression might show the examiner that you are aware of any similarities and differences between the poems as you use ‘signpost’ phrases such as ‘similarly’, ‘differently’, ‘unlike’ .
  2. Find similarities and differences in the ideas and attitudes presented in the poems.
  3. Find similarities and differences in the way the poems have been written.

The best responses, the ones that are most productive are able to explore detail as well as having an ability to compare and contrast the overview.

Making connections through:










Beginnings/endings/progression of ideas or argument

Structure – layout, rhyme, rhythm

Figurative language – metaphor, simile, symbolism, personification, anthropomorphism, pathetic fallacy