When asked to analyze
or "explicate" a poem, it is a good idea to read the poem several times
starting to write about it (usually, they are short, so it is worth the
Remember that no one was born reading a book of poetry, but that it is a
learned skill that gets easier with practice.
When I read a poem for the first time, these are the general steps I
When writing in
to an assignment, keep in mind the constraints put upon you by the
itself and the actual questions you are answering. A written
of a poem should not simply paraphrase it, although the analysis
- I read once to
determine the literal meaning of the poem.
- I read the poem
again and then try to paraphrase it in a few sentences, in my own words.
A good paraphrase is very close to what the poem says literally,
reference to the uses of figurative language or other poetic
- Based upon my
sense of the poem, I think about a strategy for approaching the poetic
elements, or non-literal strategies used in the poem. Although most
poets use several strategies at the same time, usually one dominates in a
particular poem. For instance, does the poet get his or her point across
primarily by relying on treatment of a particular theme? Does the poet
upon development of a particular set of figurative language? Does the poet
make a point by using a particular structure? Upon rhyme and meter?
If possible, mark what you notice, in pencil, on the poem
itself to indicate
features and details which may be worth discussing.
- Next, I
a "reading" or explication of the poem, based upon what I have observed.
There is no one "correct" reading of a poem; many readings are possible.
But there are readings that are better than others. The best readings are
strongly supported by evidence gleaned while reading the text
The best readings take into account all of the evidence in
the poem. A reading that ignores evidence that contradicts the reading is
a poor reading.
The following are questions you can ask about any poem you
that not all of the questions will apply to every poem you read, and also
that you do not have to write about every answer to every
- Who is the
Is it the poet or a character/persona the poet takes on? What is the
tone of voice adopted? Can you detect any irony? How
precisely is the speaker defined? (Note: You should refer to
the speaker as "the speaker" and not as "the poet," even if the voice
to be the poet's own.
- Who is the
audience? Does the audience help to define the speaker?
- What is the
- What is the
theme? Is the theme stated explicitly or implicitly?
- What is the
structure? Does it develop in a straightforward
to a logical conclusion? Is there a shift or turn in its development? How
is the shift indicated? Why does a shift take place?
- How is the poem
organized? How does its organization contribute to the development of the
poem's subject or theme?
- What is the
meter? How does it contribute to the development
of the poem's subject or theme? Are there any strategic points where the
poem breaks with its rhyme scheme? Why?
- What is the
rhyme scheme? How does it contribute to the
of the poem's subject or theme? Is there any evidence of internal rhymes, slant rhymes, etc?
- Do the lines
with a completion of a thought or closed punctuation (i.e., are they end-stopped)? Or do the lines flow without pause, from
one to the next (i.e., are they enjambed)? If enjambed, does it occur from one couplet
to the next, one quatrain to the next,
- How would you
characterize the poem's language or diction ? What
effect does this choice of language have on your response to the poem and
- What imagery is developed in the poem? Does the poet use
personification, etc? Does he/she use
symbolism? Considering the poem's subject
are these images obvious ones, or are they unusual and unexpected? Do they
contribute to the poem's subject or theme? If so, how?
- Is there any
of repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia,
or other sound effects in the poem? What do they contribute?
- Is there any
to the placement of words in the poem? Is the rhythm of any particular
or lines noteworthy?
- Is there any
to the poem's punctuation or the capitalization and spelling of words?
These features are often the result of modern editing and not original to
is a narrative in which all (or most) of the events, locales, and
correspond systematically to the events and characters in a completely
context. Some elaborate allegories can have several sets of
simultaneously. The contexts within which the correspondences operate can
include religious, moral, political, personal, or satiric.
AllusionAn allusion is a figure
speech that makes a brief reference to a historical or literary figure,
A popular oral poetic
(and later written) form that relates a dramatic episode or story, often
set to music and usually written in ballad meter, or
(a tetrameter line followed by a trimeter line, giving fourteen syllables
total). Ballads often have refrains, which are stanzas
that repeat. Some refrains change slightly each time they are
these are called incremental refrains.
is the term used to refer to the poet's choice of words in a poem. Words
vary in their levels of abstraction, and we can speak of words as being
or abstract. Words also vary in their formality, and
some genres, such as epic and tragedy, call for use of
rather than colloquial or plain
Words also have specific or direct definitions
as well as implied meanings (connotations) associated with
their use. Connotations as well as denotations of words can vary in
meaning historically and geographically.
is a long, narrative poem whose hero is a noble person, upon whose actions
hinge the fate of a nation or a people. Conseqently, epics tend to
be of national or even of cosmic importance. The diction of the poem tends to be formal, elevated, and
decorous. The setting of the epic is expansive and even global, as
the hero embarks upon journeys that may take place over many years, often
The gods, referred to as the epic machinery, are interested
in and take an active part in shaping the events of the epic.
epic conventions include the poet's invocation of the muse, a beginning
medias res (in the middle of things), epic battles and/or epic games), catalogues
(of ships, warriors, horses, etc), delivery of set speeches, arming of the warrior,
performance of religious rituals, and (sometimes)
transmogrification of a dead hero to the celestial sphere.
occurs whenever a poet uses words in ways that deviate from their usual
A metaphor is a comparison between two things that are
unrelated. A simile is a kind of metaphor that uses
or as in the comparison. A mixed metaphor
occurs when the metaphor used produces an incongruous or impossible image;
such metaphors are often unintentionally funny. Metonymy
when the name of one thing is replaced by the name of something closely
with it. Synechdoche occurs when a part of something is used
to describe the whole. Overstatement (hyperbole) may
used to exaggerate what is being described;
something as less than it is. Both can be used ironically.
Personification occurs when a non-human animal, object, or
abstraction is given human qualities. Apostrophe is a direct
address to something not actually present or without actual human form;
an apostrophe tends to personify its object. Onomatopoeia
is used describe a word or words that sound like the thing they
A pun is a word that refers to two very different meanings
A paradox is a statement that simultaneously contradicts
and makes sense.
to the overall design of a poem, including the patterning of its rhyme,
and stanzas. Form can be open in form or
(highly structured). Blank verse is verse written in
unrhymed iambic pentameter; it is the poetic form that is closest to
English. A couplet is two consecutive lines of poetry that
rhyme. An heroic couplet consists of two rhyming lines
of iambic pentameter. A tercet has three rhyming
A quatrain has four. Common closed forms include the
villanelle, sestina,odes, and ballad.
refers to words used to evoke a sensory experience, including sight,
smell, touch, and taste. Consequently, although image seems
to refer to something that can be seen, imagery is also the term
to describe anything in a poem that appeals to the senses.
refers to words that sound harmonious together. Cacophony
to words that jar against one another.
is a way of speaking that implies a discrepancy between what is said and
what is meant, or between what appears to happen and what actually
Ironic speech consists of saying one thing and meaning another.
irony occurs when the actual words used are ironic.
irony arises from the situation; frequently, this occurs when the audience
knows or understands something that the characters in a drama do not. Cosmic
occurs when an outside force, such as fate, seems to be operating despite
the best efforts or intentions of the speaker or a character.
are (usually humorous) poems consisting of five anapestic lines that rhyme
aabba; the a-lines are written in anapestic trimeter, whereas the b-lines
are written in anapestic dimeter.
a brief poem that expresses private thoughts and emotions, originally set
to music (lyric is derived from the lyre, a musical instrument
poets used to accompany recitation). Ballads,
sonnets, and odes
are all forms of lyric poetry.
rhyme, and subject together are used to
identify form in poetry. Often, deviations from the expected form
more important to the poet's artistry than a poem's regularity.
syllable followed by stressed syllable
syllable followed by unstressed syllable
unstressed syllables followed by an unstressed syllable
stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables
successive syllables with approximately equal strong stresses
successive syllables with approximately equal light stresses
feet (a line of six iambic feet is called an Alexandrine)
feet (also called a fourteener [14 syllables], also called ballad
line of poetry which ends with a period or other punctuation
line of poetry which carries over syntactically to the next line
strong pause in the middle of a line of poetry, often marked by
is a relatively long, serious poem that discusses a noble subject in a
and dignified manner. The ode is Greek in origin and was originally
by a chorus. Pindaric odes (after the Greek poet
were meant to be performed by a chorus and originally consisted of three
stanzas; the chorus moved in one direction for the first stanza
in the opposite direction for the second stanza
and remained stationary for the third stanza (epode). Such
odes often resemble a meditative argument. Horatian odes
after the Roman poet Horace) were meant to be read and consisted of
of equal length and with the same rhyme scheme and meter. During the
British Romantic period (1798-1820), the term ode was used
poets more to describe the meditative mood of a poem rather than its form;
consequently, odes from this period to be irregular both in meter and in
is a kind of figurative language in which a non-human object,
or abstraction is given human qualities.
Meter, rhyme, and subject are
to identify form in poetry. Often, deviations from the
form are more important to the poet's artistry than a poem's
A rhyme scheme is the overall pattern of rhyme in a
A pair of rhymed lines is called a couplet.
refers to the repetition of similar consonant sounds. Repeated consonant
sounds at the beginning of words is called initial
Repeated consonant sounds in the middle or at the ends of words is called
internal alliteration. Repetition of vowel sounds is called
assonance. Although definitions differ, slant
can be said to occur in near rhymes (for instance, cat and
but not cat and coat). Consonance is a
of consonant sounds. A line is said to have a masculine
when the line ends with a stressed syllable (either a one syllable word,
or a word of multiple syllables with emphasis on the last syllable).
A line is said to have a feminine ending when the line ends
on an unstressed syllable.
is a form written in six six-line stanzas. The end words in the
stanza are also the end words of the other stanzas, but they occur in a
order in each stanza, often following a fixed pattern. In the final
envoy (last three lines) of the poem, the six end words are
repeated again in any order.
a closed poetic form that consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter.
Italian is an easier language to rhyme than English,
(Italian) sonnets have tighter rhyme schemes than
(English) sonnets. Petrarchan (Italian) sonnets
abba abba cdcdcd (with some variation in the last six lines).
( Engish) sonnets rhyme abab cdcd efef gg (with some
Sonnets may be structured as an octave and a sestet or as three stanzas of
four lines, followed by a couplet. Structure and meaning often
in the sonnet; a Shakespearean sonnet often changes the direction of its
in the 9th line or 11th line.
is an object or action that carries with it meaning that goes beyond the
object or action itself. Symbols are often specific to a particular
culture rather than universally recognized. Allegory
makes extensive use of symbolism to work on several levels at once.
is a nineteen-line lyric with
two rhymes and with certain lines repeating in a specific pattern.
1, 6, 12, and 18 are the same, as are lines 3, 9, 15, and 19. Lines
1 and 3 form a final couplet. The lines rhyme aba aba aba aba aba