Guidelines for Explicating a Poem

This is not the only way, but this is essentially the process I go through, and you might find it works for you. I think of the poem, or the text I'm working with as something I want to examine, or even dissect, taking it apart to see how it works, exploring the effect of the language, then, by the time I finish writing, I will have put the poem back together in such a way that my reader also shares my understanding or reading.


1. Read the poem over, several time, preferably aloud.

2. Paraphrase the poem, rewriting it in prose using your own words. Yes, the poem loses a lot this way, but paraphrasing will help you concentrate on the meaning.

3. Copy the poem onto a fresh sheet of paper, leaving lots of space between and around the lines, and number the lines. This sheet is your analytic laboratory where you will dissect the poem, using the following questions to guide your own observations and analytic skills. You will use this sheet to brainstorm about the meaning of the poem before you decide on a thesis and start writing.

Things to Look At and For

1. Rhyme and Structure: Look at the structure of the poem, the way the stanzas, lines, rhymes and meters are formed. If it's a sonnet, does it seem to fall into either the Shakespearean form or the Petrarchan? Is it a combination ? Something unique (Spenser created his own rhyme scheme)? How do the units of meaning, the "plot" correspond to the structure? See The Norton Anthologyp. 2948-50. If it's a sonnet, pay particular attention to pp. 526, 1028. Analyze the meter, including the stress patterns. See The Norton Anthologypp. 2944-47. Look at the meter, paying particular attention to the unexpected, the departures from the dominant meter. Does the poem use end stop lines, caesuras, enjambment (see pp. 2946)? How do the meter and rhythm reinforce the meaning?

3. Imagery: Imagery in general means words or phrases that refer to a sensory experience. What kinds of references are there to information derived from the senses? Is one sense emphasized more than another?

2. Theme: What is the theme? What, in broad terms, is the poem about? You might also ask yourself what the poet's thesis would be if he were writing in prose. Sometimes a theme will rely on one or more smaller ideas or motifs, like carpe diem, or ubi sunt, but these are used to reinforce a large theme, like the importance of enjoying life or love to its fullest because life is finite, or the inevitability of change and mortality in this world. There are, of course, many other themes besides these. In a sonnet, especially, you may find a conceit, an extended metaphor that runs throughout the poem.

Speaker: Who is speaking in the poem? Who is the audience? Is there a dramatic situation involved? Is the speaker to be trusted, or is he flawed by bias or a limited perspective? What is the the poet's tone? Happy? Ironic? Bitter? Be particular aware of an ironic point of view--when the poet or speaker appears to say one thing but under close examination, really means something quite different.

Language: Be aware of both the meaning of the words (denotation) and the implications of the words (connotation). Have any of the words changed meaning between modern English and the time of the poet? You might find the Oxford English Dictionary useful since it documents the way English words have been used through time. Is the diction, the choice of words, formal or informal? Colloquial? Are there puns?

Syntax: Syntax, the order of the words, can be important. Is the syntax unusual? Are words out of the order you would expect them to be?

Figurative Language: Sometimes these patterns and techniques are referred to as rhetorical figures. They include metaphor and simile, allusion, hyperbole, paradox, etc. You should consult the appendix in The Norton Anthologypp. 2950-53.

Sound: Look for the use of sound—alliteration, assonance, consonance—how do they support the meaning? Consider the use of rhyme here. See The Norton Anthologypp. 2947-48.

Writing the Paper

Don't forget to look at the suggestions in the prompt itself.

1. Look at your notes. Come up with a statement that encapsulates the meaning of the poem, or a particular idea that runs through it that you think you can write a paper about. That statement is the first version of your thesis, and your paper must have a thesis statement; you don't want to have a paper that is nothing more than your observations, however good they are, you want a paper that argues that those observations prove something. Take a look at p. 486 in the Norton, at the quick overview of Shakespeare's Sonnet 73.

2. You needn't bother with footnoting the references to your poem. Establish the poem and author you are working with in your first paragraph, then when you quote the poem, simple use a parenthetical reference to the line number. In other words, if I were to quote Sidney's first sonnet which begins "Loving in truth and fain in verse my love to show," (1).

3. The only thing as important as having a thesis, is that you use specific details, not just extended paraphrase and summary. Show how the poem works. Don't just tell me, show me.

4. Use the present tense in writing your explication. Works of literature of literature are timeless in that they never die; in effect, this also confers immortality on authors or other artists. Rather than writing "Sidney said in line 4 that . . ." write "Sidney suggests in line 4 that . . ."

5. Do your best to avoid unnecessary uses of the verb 'to be' in your essay. Here are some alternatives: suggests, asserts, characterizes, shows, dramatizes, presents, connects, argues, emphasizes, implies, illustrates. You will note that these are not synonyms—choose carefully.

6. Be sure to go over the advice on revising your paper here.

7. Do. Not. Use. A. Cover Sheet. Please!

You can email me to ask brief questions, or send me a paragraph to see what I think, or a thesis statement, even an outline. Do not send me your paper unless I have agreed that you may do this. You can make an appointment to discuss your draft, or talk about what you think you’d like to write.

Spangenberg 06/2003