One Way to Explicate a Poem
A good poem is like a puzzle: the most
fascinating part is studying the individual pieces carefully and
then putting them back together to see how beautifully the whole
thing fits together. A poem can have a number of different
"pieces" that you need to look at closely in order to
complete the poetic "puzzle." This page explains one
way to attempt an explication of a poem, by examining each
"piece" of the poem separately. (An explication is
simply an explanation of how all the elements in a poem work
together to achieve the total meaning and effect.)
Examine the Situation in the Poem
- Does the poem tell a story? If yes, what
is that story? Is it a narrative poem? Is so, what events occur?
- Does the poem express an emotion or describe a mood? Is it a lyric?
- 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 the speaker speaking? Can you
trust the speaker?
- 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?
Examine the Structure of the Poem
- Form; Look at the number of lines, their
length, their arrangement on the page. How does the form relate
to content? Is it a traditional form? (e.g., sonnet, limerick) or
"free form"? Why do you think the poet chose that form
for the poem?
- Movement: How does the poem develop? Are
the images and ideas developed chronologically, by cause and
effect, by free association? Doe 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)?
- 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"
- Punctuation: What kind of punctuation is
used in the poem? Does the punctuation always coincide with the
end of the poetic line? If so, this is called an end-stopped
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
- Title: What does the title mean? How
does it relate to the poem itself?
Examine the language of the Poem
- Diction or word choice: Is the language
colloquial, formal, simple, and/or unusual?
- Do you know what all the words mean? If
not, look them up.
- What moods or attitudes are associated
with words that stand out for you?
- Allusions: Are there any
allusions/references to something outside the poem, such as
events or people from history, mythology, or religion? What might
be the point of this?
- Imagery: Look at the figurative language
of the poem--metaphors, similes, analogies, and personification.
how do these images add to the meaning of the poem or intensify
the effect of the poem?
Examine the Musical Devices in the Poem
- Rhyme Scheme: Does the rhyme occur in a
regular pattern? Irregularly? Is the effect formal, satisfying,
musical, funny, disconcerting or something else?
- Rhythm 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
tonal effect of the rhythm?
- Other sound effects: alliteration,
assonance, consonance, repetition--what tonal effect do they
- Has the Poem created a change in mood
for you? A change in attitude? How have the technical elements
helped the poet create this effect?