I kept staring at the clock, knowing I only had half an hour to work my way through these four poems...
One of the ones I do remember was Ben Jonson's ‘Echo’s song’, another was about Beelzebub in Hell and one was about a storm at sea.
In preparation for the poetry interview I had memorised a list of all the things to look for when faced with a poem: form, structure, theme, imagery, alliteration, metaphor, similes, juxtapositions, ambiguity, paradox etc. This was a starting point and I could then try to work out why the writer had used them. I scribbled all over the poems and desperately hoped that my annotations would jog my memory in the interview.
I had been freaking out that they were going to give us poems which made no sense but thankfully the language wasn’t too complex.
The head tutor for English was taking the interview. We sat either side of a table with the poems between us.
‘Which poem would you like to discuss?’ she asked.
This was a relief. I picked 'Echo Song' as I thought I’d grasped it the most. I started by talking about the title and I said it reflected the content of the poem through the repetition. I discussed how the language evoked pathos through its beautiful imagery and quoted examples.
‘How does the form connect with the emotion?’
OH NO! I had no clue what form the poem was written in. I blabbed a bit about endstopping and caesura.
The tutor then picked a few lines and asked me to look at them more closely:
Droop herbs and flowers;
Fall grief in showers;
Our beauties are not ours.
I read them out loud (which definitely helps) and I noticed that the meanings of words such as ‘fall’ and ‘droop’ were mirrored in the form, as the words 'flowers' and 'showers' at the end of the lines finished on unstressed syllables; the poem itself seemed to be falling. I was almost shocked by my own insight! Never in a million years had I thought I’d be able to spot something like this!
The interview continued to get better; I told the tutor I had noticed the reference to the daffodil and how that linked to the story of Echo and Narcissus, this was a fluke as I had no knowledge of Greek mythology but I had seen a similar reference in The Bloody Chamber. I couldn’t remember the whole story but she was pleased I had got the reference. She then asked me what ‘Narcissus’ meant; I didn’t know but assured her that once I left I would look it up.
The other poem we moved onto was about a storm at sea (though unfortunately I can't remember the title).
‘Let’s look at these two lines…how do they connect?’
I realised they both had fewer syllables than the other lines and tried to come up with an interpretation as to why. I talked about how it could emphasise particular words and evoke emotion and mirror the movement/feeling of the poem.
She then made it harder, ‘but meter exists in a line such as ”I would like a cup of coffee please?” which I may use in Starbucks’ How is this different to poetry?
You certainly don't expect to be talking about Starbucks in your Oxford interview! I thought for ages and tried to come up with some answers; I commented on how it was being used in speech, it was posing a question etc but she kept coming back and saying these things could all apply to poetry as well. She finished by saying it was something to think about.
Afterwards I thought I probably should have compared to ‘I want coffee’ or ‘coffee please’ and explained how the length and meter of the line might make it be received differently. The form of a sentence could determine whether you come across as polite, rude, in a rush, taking your time etc.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief after leaving the room...it hadn't been a disaster! It was so much better than Interview number 1 😄😄😄
This was a prime example of how an Oxford interview starts with something you feel comfortable talking about and then moves into areas you’ve never thought about before. Be willing to think about new concepts and come up with new ideas.
Not all colleges will give you four poems, some people I know just had one to read before their interview.
If you’re applying for English, think about form and meter. You don’t necessarily need to know whether it’s a sonnet or a lyric or written in Iambic pentameter (I had no idea!) but it is useful to be able to spot why the writer has arranged a line in a specific way and stressed certain words.
Read poetry out loud – this is the best way to understand meter and don’t be afraid of doing it in the interview.
Annotate your unseen material – this applies to all subjects. Under the pressure of the interview it’s easy to forget things; your notes will help to jog your memory.
Don’t be arrogant – part of the reason I felt this interview went well was because I got on with the tutor. I was receptive to her thoughts and willing to change my own in accordance. Part of the Oxford interview is the tutors deciding whether they could work with you for the next 3-4 years.