Poetry Explication

Explication, from explicare meaning “to unfold,” is an exercise in analysis. In it, the writer shows that he or she can read a poem and explain how it the various choices a poet makes shape its message and affect the reader. One writes an explication by paying close attention to the meaning of words, to their sounds, to their placement in lines and sentences. One then explains how the parts contribute to the whole. This exercise trains the ear, eye, and mind. It develops critical faculties and discipline.

  1. Read the poem out loud several times. Look up in a dictionary at least 10 words in it for meanings, alternate meanings, and for shades of meaning. Take notes. Jot down some general observations about the poem and your initial reactions.
  2. Ask yourself who is the speaker? What is the situation and what is the poem about? Be as precise and as specific as possible. What about tone, diction [level of word choice—high, medium, low, or slang], mood? Jot down your answers.
  3. Underline all repetitions or devices of sound that you notice. Pay attention to any surprising shifts of sound or meaning. Ask yourself what effects they have? Jot down your answers.
  4. Type the poem out (double-spaced) on a separate sheet of paper. Number the lines and mark all stressed and unstressed syllables. Mark also significant devices of sound: caesuras [breaks within a line, usually signalled by punctuation], alliteration, or assonance (“significant” means important enough for you to discuss later). This does not count in the four pages and must be handed in with the poem.
  5. Write in your first paragraph a brief summary of the poem, i.e. a notice of its central statement and constituent parts. Show some emotion or interest here; don’t be flat or effusive (avoid general and meaningless praise: “this is a wonderful or incredible or brilliant poem”).
  6. Quote the first few lines of the poem (1-4, or whatever you’re comfortable with). Talk about the speaker and situation, about what is said, how, and why. Note connotations and overtones, how sound creates or enhances sense. Don’t ever notice a poetic device without explaining its effect. Pay attention to sound and sense, to music and meaning.
  7. Repeat step 3 for the rest of the poem, working your way through slowly and carefully. Note instances of repetition and their effects; note development of phrases or ideas. Note images and be account for shifts in tone, sound, rhythm, diction, or subject. Discuss the ending of the poem separately.
  8. For a conclusion write a brief, specific statement about the effect or meaning or artistry of the poem, about structures or patterns or insights that your analysis has revealed. Look through your opening paragraph for hints that you can now develop in closing. Or revise opening in light of what you have discovered.