A good poem is often like a good puzzle—the best part is studying the individual pieces carefully and then putting them back together to see how the whole thing fits together. (Though some poems are more like the platypus—lots of parts that don’t go together, but still it works.) A poem can have a number of different "pieces" that you need to look at closely in order to complete the poetic "puzzle." This sheet explains one way to attempt an explication of a poem, by examining each "piece" of the poem separately. (An explication is simply analysis and interpretation combined, an unfolding of elements in the poem to show how they work together to achieve the larger meaning and effect.)
1) Examine the situation in the poem:
- a) Type of poem: Is it a narrative poem, telling a story? If so, what events occur? Is it a lyric poem, expressing an emotion or describing a mood? If so, what emotion, precisely?
- b) Poetic voice: Who is the speaker? Is the poet speaking to the reader directly or is the poem told through a fictional persona? To whom is she speaking? Can you trust the speaker?
- d) Tone: What is the speaker’s attitude toward the subject of the poem? What sort of tone of voice seems to be appropriate for reading the poem out loud? What words, images, or ideas give you a clue to the tone?
2) Examine the structure of the poem:
- a) Form: Look at the number of lines, their length, their arrangement on the page. How does the form relate to the content? Is it a traditional form (e.g., sonnet, ballad, tanka) or a freer, less structured form? Why do you think the poet chose that form for her poem?
- b) Movement: How does the poem develop? Are the images and ideas developed from cause to effect? Problem to solution? Chronologically? Associatively? Does the poem circle back to where it started, or is the movement from one attitude to a different attitude (e.g., from despair to hope)?
- c) Syntax: How many sentences are in the poem? Are the sentences simple or complicated? Are the verbs in front of the nouns instead of in the usual "noun, verb" order? Why?
- d) Punctuation: What kind of punctuation is in the poem? Does the punctuation always coincide with the end of the poetic line? Is there any punctuation in the middle of a line? Why do you think the poet would want you to pause halfway through the line?
- e) Title: What does the title mean? How does it relate to the poem itself?
3) Examine the language of the poem:
- a) Diction or Word Choice: Is the language colloquial, formal, simple, unusual?
- b) Denotative meaning: Do you know what all the words mean? If not, look them up.
- c) Connotative meaning: What moods or attitudes are associated with words that stand out for you?
- d) Allusions: Are there any allusions (references) to something outside the poem, such as events or people from literature, history, mythology, religion?
- e) Imagery: Look at the figurative language of the poem — metaphors, similes, analogies, personification. How do these images add to the meaning of the poem or intensify the effect of the poem?
4) Examine the musical devices in the poem:
- a) Rhyme scheme: Does the poem rhyme? Does the rhyme occur in a regular pattern, or irregularly? Is the effect formal, satisfying, musical, funny, disconcerting? Is there a relation of meaning as well as of sound between the rhyming words?
- b) Rhythm and/or Meter: In most languages, there is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a word or words in a sentence. In poetry, the variation of stressed and unstressed syllables and words has a rhythmic effect. What is the effect of the rhythm? (Read more on meter in English poetry.)
- c) Other "sound effects" or musical devices: Alliteration, assonance, consonance, repetition. What effect do they have here?
5) Examine your response:
- Has the poem created a change in mood for you or a change in attitude? Where? How? How have the technical elements helped the poet create this effect?
6) Practice, practice, practice:
- Try this interactive exercise in reading, and please let me know how well it works.