More (Yes) on Writing Commentaries

One of the best guides to commentary I have ever seen was produced by Theo Dombroski, then of the UWC Pearson College. I am going to provide you with three of his good hints about commentary with the hope they will give you some help when you face this exercise. These points may be ones you have overlooked or not seen from this particular angle.

  1. ‘There is no such thing as a formula for a good commentary.’

This is such good advice and, though you may crave to have such a thing (and, in fact, you may have developed your own), your commentary needs to grow out of what you see in the passage or poem before you. I have students make an immediate list of what they like, understand well, or find striking about the writing and then lead with the most striking feature, adding in other aspects of the author’s choices as they connect to the previous ones. In writing up your ideas, this is where you are going to find the skills you have developed about transitions between paragraphs most useful.

  1. ‘Can you hear the voice in the poem?’

You do need to think about this. It’s what creates the tone of the passage or poem and it’s the largest important feature. If you get tone wrong, i.e., the attitude of the voice in the piece wrong, you are likely to get a lot else wrong.

  1. ‘Be alert to structure and particularly to pattern…linear…circular…antiphonal…?’

Sometimes structure can be used as a starting point for your commentary
– just don’t start with alliteration, please. Know also that it is fine, in commentary, to progress either as in #2, with matters of interest, or in a linear fashion, addressing the striking features as they appear in the passage or poem.

You need to find your own way with each selection; it’s a bit scary, particularly when it’s an unseen selection under exam conditions, but not one you can’t handle. Take advantage of any opportunity your teacher provides to practice and to get feedback.

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