Ask the Expert Tutor: How to Ace IB English Unseen Commentaries

Clients often come to BartyED looking for IB English tutors to help with Literature HL. In this edition of "Ask the Expert Tutor," we examine how to excel in IB Lit. Paper 1 – the unseen commentary.

Recall that at IB HL no specific prompt is given to the candidate. Instead, you are asked to comment on the unseen work’s literary style and merit. It’s an old-school exercise in literary criticism.

Reading strategies cannot be taught through a blog post. Writing can, so it is here that we shall start. Of all the the techniques which students struggle to analyse and discuss in depth, the most commonly missed are imagery and evocation of language. Think of your essay as an opportunity to conduct an up-close-and-personal retrospective with the greatest artist of them all: the English language! Jokes aside, the paragraphs below are a response to Dana Gioia’s Planting a Sequoia (1992) which appeared on the HL Literature exam in recent years. Contemporary examiner feedback indicated that candidates failed to adequately examine the implication of language. To rectify this, see our expert tutors’ modest example:  

Gioia parallels the dead child with the sequoia in an extended metaphor to highlight the tragedy of the child’s death. The similarity begins in the first stanza, where the burial of the child is paralleled with the planting of the tree: “Digging this hole, laying you into it, carefully packing the soil.” The similarity between planting the tree and burying the child is not accidental, and it forms a grim but solid parallel that is exploited later on. For instance, when Gioia refers to defying the “practical custom” of his ancestors, he refers to the practice of planting a fruit tree. As his child is dead, he plants a sequoia, a tree that bears no fruit — or at least no edible fruit. Nonetheless, he mentions that he and is family “will give you what we can — our labour and our soil.” The implication is that he would have done anything for his child, but due to said child’s death, he will keep the sequoia alive. The final, and most ironic allusion to the sequoia as the child is at the end of the poem, when he mentions that the tree will outlast his family. The contrast between the child’s woefully short life and the tree’s longevity — which remains “ephemeral” to the tree, places a final emphasis on the fact that the child’s death has been too soon.
Gioia strengthens the tragic sense of the events by comparing his reaction to his son’s death with the traditions of his ancestors. The second stanza begins with Gioia telling the reader about a custom from his ancestral Sicily: “a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son’s birth.” The sibilance used in that line evokes a mythical, nostalgic quality, hearkening back to stories carried by oral tradition, which would use rhythmic effects to simplify memorisation. The mythical quality carries nostalgia because it carries a normative function, an idea of how things were, and ideally should be. The third stanza, on the other hand, begins with the line “But today we kneel in the cold planting you, our native giant.” This line is pregnant with meaning. The first word juxtaposes the current truth with the wistful joy of the second stanza, and the word today puts emphasis on the difference between the idealised past and the grim present. Kneeling brings an idea of gravitas to the scene, and the father refers to the tree in the second person, his first use of the word in the poem, once again bringing the tale to reality. The cold air is juxtaposed with Sicily’s typically warm weather, hence bringing more contrast to the scene. The reference to the cold is also an example of sympathetic background. Finally, Gioia alludes to the tree as a “native giant,” once again contrasting it with the olive or fig tree that his ancestors would have planted, emphasising his situation as an immigrant, and once again contrasting his current situation with that of his ancestors.

What makes this a strong response? Its writing style is clearly analytical which allows the examiner to award marks, and it conducts an in-depth interrogation of the author’s tone and purpose whilst considering the meaning of the language in detail. When paired with more technical paragraphs, analysing structure and genre for example, such commentary helps candidates achieve the top mark bands for Understanding, Interpretation and Appreciation of the Writer’s Craft.

That's it for today's "Ask the Expert Tutor." If you have any questions about what you've read, do ask it via one of the channels below - we will be happy to help.

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