First an important note of caution. Each Oxford college will run its interviews for English in different ways. You will have at least two interviews, and you might be asked different sorts of questions in each interview. You might be asked about your personal statement, your extra-curricular reading, your A-level work or the piece of written work which you sent in. If you are given an unseen text to look at shortly before your interview, it might be a poem, or a piece of prose, or a piece of writing about writing.
So, this advice only really covers dealing with an unseen poem (see here for an example from 2013), and is based on my own experience of the admissions process. Here at St Edmund Hall we often give students a short poem (or part of a longer poem) to look at for about 20 minutes before one or both of their interviews. The following tips are designed to help you make make the most of that preparation time. I hope they also give you a sense of the sort of qualities which college tutors may be looking for in this part of the interview, and how you might prepare for your interview. They might also be useful as you prepare to look at poetry extracts (alongside drama and prose) in the ELAT test.
1. Your first step might be to paraphrase (i.e. to put into words which make things clearer or simpler) the meaning of each sentence. Start with a very quick, straightforward comprehension exercise – what exactly is being said in the poem in basic literal terms as far as you can reasonably tell? This is a really important first stage, as this paraphrase will determine which interpretations are plausible and which might be ruled out (or at least which considered much less likely) by the content of the poem. It will also help you work out what can’t be paraphrased, what’s left for speculation.
2. Show us that you have a good eye for detail. Pay attention to grammar (i.e. past or present tense, use of auxiliary verbs, aspect, voice, though you don’t need to know any technical terms necessarily), and to whether things are being said as a statement or a question or in some other way. Look out for the little words that you might skip over in a rush (e.g. negatives, pronouns). Make sure your paraphrase is accurate in terms of the little words and the syntax (i.e. how individual words join together to make meaning).
3. Don’t try to guess the author of the poem or its date – this isn’t what we are interested in. More importantly, don’t use the details in the poem to guess at a biography or identity for the person who wrote the poem. Stick to the literal meaning to work out what the poem might be about, and then explore possible interpretations or observations. From these literal meanings, think about what the implications of these statements might be? What inferences can be drawn from the poem?
4. Don’t make guesses about meanings or ‘themes’ based on individual words or images picked out and isolated from the meaning of a whole sentence. Instead, think about how the poet’s choice of imagery or choice of particular words creates and particularises the meaning of the poem. Perhaps try to jot down a sentence or two of summary, capturing the main movements or developments of ideas in the poem.
5. Think about the tone of the poem. Is this serious, ironic, bitter, earnest, sceptical, sentimental, etc etc? Think carefully about what adjectives would best describe it. Does the tone affect how we should interpret the poem, what inferences we should draw about what the poem says? Are there changes or variations in tone or approach in the poem?
6. Have a look at the form of the poem. You don’t have to know lots of technical terms, but just look at the basics of the form of the poem (does it rhyme? what are its rhythms? what does it do with line endings? does it put words in unexpected orders?) Does it do anything experimental or unusual with language? Can you relate those formal qualities to the meaning of the poem?
7. The most important preparation is to practise. Why not look at Poetry Daily’s ‘Today’s Poem’ for ten minutes each day, and try following some of the advice above? If you have a friendly interlocutor to hand, you could ask them to ask you questions about the poem.
Or, for a different selection, why not look at one of the Guardian’s Saturday Poems for ten minutes each day, jotting down your responses under the first 6 sections above?
You could also do something similar with poems from Carol Rumen’s ‘Poem of the Week’ series on the Guardian website. Scroll down to the bottom of each post first to find the text of the poem. Then compare your own thoughts on the poem with Rumen’s reading. She is particularly good at linking form to content.
The Poetry Foundation have a collection of ‘Core Learning Poems’ which you could also use for practice. For each work there is a text, a poem guide, discussion questions and teaching tips, as well as information about the poem’s context.
Slate’s Classic Poems series has interesting short readings of interesting poems.
Once you get some practice under your belt, try some of the more creative, counter-intuitive, playful strategies outlined by Anne Boyer in her brilliant suggestions for roundabout reading, ‘for when you do not want to read closely or faraway’.
And finally, if you need some more good advice, humour and entertainment, see this article in the Atlantic: Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies – A guide for the perplexed.