Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Vulpes Random: On marking a poetry exam

P1010368 (2)I collect my share of the poetry exam scripts, put them in my bike pannier, and cycle home. I put them on the table, close my laptop to avoid distracting emails, find pencil, eraser and decent black ink pen. I open the packet.

Fifteen exam scripts stare up at me pinkly, neatly folded and glued down the long edge of the cover sheet so that I cannot see their owners’ names, only their exam ID numbers. The exam booklet is pristine, and the column on the marking sheet for the second marker’s remarks on my marking is as intimidating for me as the booklet must have been for the examinees. Will my marks be outrageously out of the ballpark, or whang in the gold? I will mark these papers using a list of the things I expect to find, and want to see, but my most important tool is a trained recognition of when the student knows, or feels, what these poems are doing.

Each student has to answer two questions. The question in section A requires an airily discursive essay (in about 40 minutes, allowing for panic time and checking) on one of a selection of quotations about poetry, quoting from at least two poems taught in class. In section B they choose one of six poems not taught in class, and do a close reading of it (from syllable and metre to word choice and rhymes to meaning to context and themes), bringing in a second poem from the class to support their arguments. So they have to have a good knowledge of at least three poems, from Chaucer to Seamus Heaney. Some of us teaching this very large group of students urge them to memorise poems. I just say, read them aloud over and over, especially the ones you like best, and your memory will reward you when you need it to.

I open the first exam paper, and realise that my Norton Anthology of Poetry, from which all poems in the class were taught, is still in my office, where I am not, and it is raining, and all my other poetry books are in another country. Never mind: I will look up the poems that I don’t already know on the Poetry Foundation website, or Bartleby if desperate, and all will be well.

I have no idea which students’ exams I’m marking. When poems that I’ve taught come up in the essays, I flinch a little, but since this is the first handwritten work from this class that I’ve seen (all their class essays were typed), I can’t know who they are. This is good for markers: we can focus on their words, not fret about how deserving or obnoxious they are.

I keep reminding myself to use pencil for marks, pen for everything else. The exam booklet is soon covered in scribbles as I dissect these poems that I too have never seen before, before I mark what the students have written about them. I find myself offering suggestions in the margins of their essays for things they could have said but didn’t, even though they’ll never see these scripts again. These students all have reasonable handwriting, except two, so I make reasonable speed. Marking ten exams takes me a working day. I finish the rest the next morning.

I am delighted by some of the poems thrown up by student serendipity: what they think is suitable to compare with Milton or Wordsworth or Sylvia Plath is remarkable and unexpected. Everyone seems to think that the untitled poem about religious devotion in section B is close enough to Donne to make him the obvious match: they’re only 40 years out. Many students tell me at length about Aphra Benn’s ‘The Disappointment’, and its detailed study of coitus interruptus. I have to correct ‘romantic’ for ‘erotic’ several times: are they sparing my blushes?

The really good papers take mere minutes to mark, reading with appreciation for good thinking and good understanding working together. Lazy or crashingly bad work also takes very little time, since there isn’t often very much to mark, and it’s obvious how poor it is. The medium, average, middling essays take the longest time, each up to half an hour to mark, because so much has to be sifted and considered, to be sure I’m not irritated into giving a low mark, or bored into giving a high one. Essays that head madly off following an erroneous reading that makes no sense still get good marks for effort, logic, recall and technical discussion. I record my reasons in notes at the end of each essay so the second marker can see what I thought, and the third or external marker also, should it come to that.

I always learn when I mark team-taught exams; it’s like eavesdropping on a colleague’s class. My first discovery this time was Allen Ginsberg’s ‘A supermarket in California’, an hommage to Walt Whitman’s ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ that made me laugh out loud, because I knew the Whitman poem but not the Ginsberg. My second discovery was H D’s The Walls Do Not Fall (BookFox Rosy reviewed it here some years ago) which I can only find in snippets online, enough to mark with, but I want to read the whole thing. When I take the exam papers back to the university tomorrow to give to the second marker, I’ll sit down and read it in my Norton.

Kate has taught poetry for years, and has written about it here. She also reviews at



About Kate

Writer, reviewer, literary historian and publisher at Also a Bath Quaker.

2 comments on “Vulpes Random: On marking a poetry exam

  1. Pingback: Now posting on Vulpes Libris: On marking a poetry exam – Kate Macdonald

  2. Jackie
    May 28, 2017

    Oh, I liked seeing this process from the other side, so many exam ‘stories’ are from the students. It’s good that the exams are anonymous and I like how you keep an open mind & give points for efforts. Thanks for letting us see how it works from a teacher’s viewpoint.

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This entry was posted on May 18, 2017 by in Entries by Kate, Poetry, Poetry Week, Vulpes Randoms and tagged , , , .



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