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 examine the poem, using the following questions to guide your own observations and analytic skills. You will use this sheet to brain storm 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? If it’s a sonnet, pay particular attention to sonnet types and forms. Analyze the meter, including the stress patterns. 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? How do the meter and rhythm reinforce the meaning?
  2. 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?
  3. 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 she 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 since 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?
  6. Syntax: Syntax, the order of the words, is important. Is the syntax unusual? Are words out of the order you would expect them to be? Does the syntax make the meaning ambiguous? What effect does the syntax have? Remember to look for parallelism as well as for unusual syntax.
  7. Figurative Language: Sometimes these patterns and techniques are referred to as rhetorical figures. They include metaphor and simile, allusion, hyperbole, paradox, etc.
  8. Sound: Look for the use of sound—alliteration, assonance, consonance—how do they support the meaning? Consider the use of rhyme and meter.

Writing the Paper

Don’t forget to look at the suggestions in the prompt itself. Follow the instructions about paper formats in the syllabus.

  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 write a paper that is nothing more than your observations, however good they are, you want a paper that argues that those observations prove something. Don’t use a mindless list like “Donne uses alliteration and puns to create a masterful work of art in “Holy Sonnet 5.” That’s not a thesis. That’s an assertion that, while probably true, is true about a great texts, and doesn’t lead to a greater point. Find something interesting to say that is special and specific about the particular text.
  2. You needn’t bother with footnoting each references to your poem. Establish the poem and author you are working with in your first paragraph, with a footnote/endnote, or “works cited” (follow the assignment instructions) then when you quote the poem, simply use a parenthetical reference to the line number or numbers like this when you quote (ll. 1–4).
  3. Be specific. 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. Works of literature or other art 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 says in line 4 that . . .”
  5. Avoid unnecessary uses of the verb “to be” in your essay. That includes “am, is, are, was, were, being.” 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.