Today’s the deadline for applications to Oxford for our BA in English Language and Literature. At the beginning of December, shortlisted candidates will come to Oxford to be interviewed by tutors. Many colleges ask candidates to look at a short poem just before their interview. Once a candidate has read over the poem for fifteen or twenty minutes, their interview may begin with a discussion of the poem. We want to know how well the candidate can paraphrase the potential meanings and how well they can decide which of their interpretations are plausible, how good an eye they have for detail, and how responsive they are to language, form and style, amongst other things.
There is an art to choosing poems to discuss with candidates. And of course different tutors have different priorities (so don’t expect what follows to apply to all colleges and all interviews). For me, a poem needs to be free from words which are off-puttingly difficult or which allude to something which a candidate may not know about. But a very short interview poem also needs to have enough within it to keep us talking, debating and exchanging views for perhaps fifteen minutes. It needs to have some thought-provoking formal properties and some interesting lexical and stylistic choices to discuss, as well as offering the opportunity to open the discussion out to wider thematic questions. I was pleased with one of last year’s choices which did all I asked of it and more. It goes without saying, of course, that I won’t be using it this year because I’ve written about it here!
Answers (Dame Edith Sitwell, 1887–1964)
I kept my answers small and kept them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.
The huge abstractions I kept from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of the night.
But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life. Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.
Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, still I hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow
And all the great conclusions coming near.
It is a gem of a poem, and I greatly enjoyed exploring it many times over. Some candidates were interested in the grand opposition between big and small, seeing the big things as attacking the speaker and her small things (even though the large-scale gives answers and conclusions in the second half) – perhaps they weren’t reading the poem as carefully as they needed to. Some candidates saw the poem as a kind of dramatic monologue, speculating about a possible back-story (either for the first-person speaker or for the poet themselves) in ways which the poem itself was determined to avoid. Both these approaches (‘big themes’, ‘biographical back-story’) were often less successful because they weren’t a sensible response to the demands of this particular text.
My job was to focus candidate’s attention on particular elements to see if they could respond well to a little direction and teaching. We talked about the denotation and connotation of the verbs which are so much more particular than the relatively unspecified ‘big’ and ‘small’. As we looked more closely, we saw that the persona concedes that they infantilize and fetishize the small, even if the small is necessarily and usefully protective (but importantly a defence against her own fear and not against the big questions and answers). The big answers are not merely violent and noisy, but also audacious and active. The sequence of verb tenses (see the verbs in red) also helped candidates to see that change was occurring within the poem.
So too did consideration of the poem’s form. The poem has an ABA rhyme scheme (with half-rhymes in the third and fourth stanzas), giving way to what one might see as an ABAB quatrain strung across the last four lines. Endstopped lines at the start give way to enjambment and longer syntactical units at the end. Many lines are iambic pentameters, though with considerable variation in individual lines.
The metre might hint that this is nearly but not quite a sonnet, offering not quatrains but tercets and having not a final couplet but an orphaned line (which is nonetheless tied by rhyme to the fourth stanza and in circular fashion to the first line). There is a kind of volta at line seven rather than line nine. That little summary is written in rather technical vocabulary, but rest assured that many candidates were able to explore these features without needing to know any technical terms (and we often pointed out the similarity to a sonnet to candidates ourselves and then asked them what they thought).
This left us with many questions to ponder. Why write a poem which is nearly but not quite a sonnet? Do the formal properties of this poem suggest closure and conclusion or disorder and overthrow? Are sonnets (or are poems) small things or great conclusions?
If you’re applying to Oxford for English Language and Literature this year, here are seven tips for preparing to analyse a short poem if you are asked to do so in your interview.