Any student studying at a UK school or an International school will have to analyse poems in English Literature, because the GCSE and IGCSE exam boards have a collection of poems (anthologies) to be studied. At least one of these poems will need to be analysed in an exam. Most boards will also expect a GCSE student to be able to analyse an unseen poem, which means that students cannot simply repeat from memory what they know about a poem. They will have to demonstrate their skill at analysing it. Furthermore, students who are taking IB English Literature or A-level English Literature will also have to analyse poetry.
What is SMILE?
SMILE is a simple, but very effective, acronym that will help your child to analyse poems. Used properly it will help them to get high grades in the poetry exam questions and for GCSE or IGCSE it is the only tool they will need. Similarly, A level and IB students can still use SMILE as a basis for analysing poems, but they will have to develop each section further and will probably need to add context too. SMILE stands for:
S = Structure and Form
M = Meaning
I = Imagery
L = Language
E = Effect
Each element of SMILE is a component of a poem. Therefore, if we use the acronym we will ensure that every aspect of analysis needed for GCSE and IGCSE is covered.
Working with SMILE
Whilst it is essential to cover every component of SMILE to analyse poems, it is not necessary to do it in any particular order. In fact, it is usually easier and makes more sense to start with ‘M’ for meaning. First of all decide what is the meaning of the poem, then the work on imagery, language and structure/form can each be related back to the poem’s meaning. It is very important to keep talking about the ‘E’ for effect – so your child should do this for every point they discuss. Whilst they should get marks for spotting imagery, language and structural devices, they will only score high marks if they talk about the effect this has on the reader.
How to use SMILE to analyse poems
Start with ‘M’ for Meaning: your child should ask themselves
• What is this poem about?
• What is the poet’s main message?
• Does the message change?
• What are the main ideas in this poem?
The next step is to understand exactly how the poet gets his/her message and ideas across to the reader. How are they doing it? If there is a change, where and how does it change?
‘L’ for Language:
How is the poet using language choices to get the message and ideas across? They are likely to be using figurative language, so look for
• Semantic or lexical fields
What is the effect of this? How does it help shape the meaning of the poem?
Poets play with sound, so look for language that creates sound
What is the effect of this? How does it help shape the meaning?
‘I’ for Imagery:
How is the poet using imagery to get the message and ideas across? It is highly likely that they will be using language to create an image in the reader’s head and that this will relate to the five senses. Therefore, look for ways the poem relates to the senses
• Visual imagery (sight)
• Auditory imagery (hearing)
• Olfactory imagery (smell)
• Gustatory imagery (taste)
• Tactile imagery (touch)
Here, in the first lines of the poem Preludes by T.S. Eliot he is appealing to our sense of smell to create an image. He is also using sibilance – the repetition of ‘s’ sounds – to enhance the image.
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
What is the effect of Eliot’s use of imagery?
‘S’ for structure and form:
The form of the poem should also relate to the meaning. Therefore your child should analyse the form of the poem and then ask themselves how this relates to the meaning or the imagery. Look for:
Number of stanzas
When you put all the elements of SMILE together your child should have a comprehensive and detailed analysis of the poem, which will get higher marks. Finally, the technique also fits very well with the analytical PEE structure that children are taught at school.
About Dr Rose
Dr Janet Rose is an international tutor who teaches English and History for The Tutor Team. See her profile here
Janet also manages The Tutor Team Facebook page, where you can get study tips, educational videos and posts every week.