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Responding to Poetry

Explication of a Poem

An explication of a poem is a full-fledged analysis of the poem with the aim of arriving at the total meaning of the poem. The total meaning is made up of many elements: the obvious sense of the words, the structure, the sounds, figures of speech, rhetorical devices, etc. These elements are isolated for the purpose of analysis, but the critic must also relate them to each other and show how they work together to make the complex entity that is the poem. After the critic has finished dissecting, he puts the whole thing back together.

There is no single method of explication and no single best order for discussing the various elements. The following merely provide some sense of the directions which you might pursue. Usually one ought to start with a statement that gives basic information: title and author of the poem, its kind (lyric or narrative), possibly the date of composition, and briefly what the poem is about.

1. Prose Statement: What is the "prose sense" of the poem, the central idea expressed in a prose statement? If the poem is a narrative, this means a prose summary of the action. Make this prose statement concise; ordinarily it should be no more than two or three sentences.

2. Theme: What is the theme, that is, the universal idea behind the particular statement? (Example: "Portrait," by e.e. cummings. The subject of the poem is the death of Buffalo Bill; the theme is that death claims all men, however glamorous.) The theme in good poetry is often suggested or implied; it is never merely asserted and versified. Not all poems have a theme.

3. Tone: The tone is the writer's attitude toward this subject, his audience. Is the tone appropriate? How is it indicated by the diction? the meter? The rhyme? The rhythm? the stanza form? the choice of incident and imagery? The conventions? The overall pattern? What is the dramatic framework? Is the tone complex, or is there a combination of tones? Does the tone shift in the poem?

4. Diction: How appropriate is the diction for the subject? the theme? the tone? Is it formal, learned, homely, colloquial, a mixture? What about imagery? Is the whole poem one image? What is it? Do its various parts present separate images? What are they and how are they related? To what effect are images evoked? Is the diction concrete? abstract? Can the figurative images be translated into literal terms? What specific ideas do they embody? Are the images as a whole vivid? suggestive? What are the sources of the imagery; the poet's learning experience, the works of other poets, Nature, etc.? Does the poet rely largely on imagery or on general statement?

5. Technical Judgments:

    a. Form. What is the form of the poem: ballad? dramatic monologue? ode? Is the form suitable for the subject and theme and tone? What is the stanza pattern? Is it appropriate? Inappropriate? neutral? Does the poem have unity and coherence?

    b. Structure. Into what divisions of action or idea or mood is the poem divided? If it is a narrative poem, is it developed by scenes? What is the climax? Is the movement slow? rapid? Does it shift during the poem?

    c. Rhythm or meter. Is it suitable to subject and theme? What is its relative importance to the poem as a whole? What metrical variations contribute to the effect?

    d. Rhyme. What is the rhyme scheme? What is the importance and effect of the rhyme? (This includes absence of rhyme, as in blank verse and free verse.)

    e. Sound patterns. What other sound patterns contribute to the effect? What about alliteration? assonance? onomatopoeia? Are these devices used too obviously?

    f. Figures of speech. What figures of speech are used and to what effect? Common figures of speech in poetry are simile, metaphor, personification, apostrophe, hyperbole.

    g. Rhetorical devices. What rhetorical devices are used and to what effect? Some common rhetorical devices in poetry are repetition (sometimes in a refrain), balance, antithesis, paradox, and irony.

6. Symbolism: Are there any symbols in the poem? What are they and how are they used? Are they familiar symbols, or more or less private to the poet? Are they used obviously or subtly? Does any obscurity result from the use of symbols? Is this offset by benefits, such as increased concentration, rich associations, a heightened emotional effect?

7. Intention or purpose: What do you determine to be the intention of the poet, judged from the above analysis? What is the purpose of the poem? This intention is perhaps usually conscious and explicit. It may, however, be unconscious and implicit. Use discretion in trying to determine the intention; some critics maintain that a reader may not presume to know a poet's intentions; that those who try are guilty of the "intentional fallacy."

8. Flaws: What flaws are there in the poem, judging it from the poet's own intention and the standards it sets up for itself, which interfere with its complete effectiveness? What is the relative importance of these flows?

9. Biographical and historical information: Are any historical facts and biographical facts needed to explain the poem? Would these modify one's judgment of it? What about background? sources? personal experience? prevailing literary tastes and conventions? Is the poem completely free of these, standing on its own feet without reference to its "environment"?

10. Extraneous factors: Are there any extraneous factors that, possibly, interfere with your judgment of the poem? That is, do you have any specific prejudices, specific enthusiasms? Are you inclined to be cynical? sentimental? hyper-critical? Are you annoyed by the restrictions of form? by the "undisciplined" quality of free verse?

11. Final judgment: What is your final, reasoned, critical judgment of the poem as a whole?

Note Well: An explication has value only if it is specific and detailed. Always support your judgments and generalizations by references to specific passages, lines, phrases, words in the poem, either quoted or designated by line numbers. Do not, however, use so many quotes that your paper becomes a series of quotations strung together by transition sentences. At all times keep the reader's attention focused on your evaluation of the poem. The meaning of a poem can often be illuminated by appropriate reference to other poems by the same author or other authors.

For an extended discussion, with numerous illustrations, of the explicating of poems, see Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry (New York, 1950).

Analyzing Poetry: The Art of Explication

These are more ways in which you can arrive at an understanding of the poem:

1) What is the denotative situation of the poem? Before you ìleap to concussions,î it is helpful to consider what happens (objectively) in the poem. Answer this by outlining the poem so as to show its structure and development, and summarizing the events of the poem. Paraphrase the poem line by line.

2) Who is the speaker? What kind of person is he/she? What is his/her distance from the material being related? How reliable is the persona (narrator, speaker, voice)?

3) To whom is the speaker speaking? What kind of person is he/she?

4) What is the occasion?

5) What is the setting in time (day, season, century) and in place (indoors or out, city or country, etc.)?

6) What is the central purpose of the poem, the poetís fictional point?

7) State the central theme of the poem in a sentence.

8) Discuss the tone of the poem? How is it achieved?

9) Discuss the diction of the poem. Look up any words with which you are unfamiliar and point out words particularly well chosen, explaining why.

10) Discuss the imagery of the poem. What types of imagery are used? What is the cumulative effect of this imagery in terms of the tone and theme?

11) Point out examples of figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification, metonymy, synecdoche) and explain their appropriateness.

12) Point out and explain any symbols. If the poem is allegorical, explain the allegory. 13) Point out and explain any examples of paradox, hyperbole, understatement, and irony. What is their function?

14) Point out and explain any allusions. What is their function?

15) Point out significant examples of sound repetition and explain their function.

16) What is the meter of the poem? Copy the poem and mark its scansion.

17) Discuss the adaptation of sound to sense.

18) Describe the form or pattern of the poem.

Writing About Poetry

1. In writing about a poem, avoid the poet says-approach. Instead, refer to the "speaker,î ìnovice," or îpersona.î Sometimes one can identify the voice as that of a lover, parent, child, farmer, lifeguard etc.

2. What audience does the voice address? The self? A particular individual? Humankind in general? An animal? An inanimate object? An abstraction?

3. Out of what situation does the poem arise? What circumstances provide the context for this speech? To what past events does it refer? What is happening at the moment? Does the poem imply a set of stage directions? (Does the voice speak in the past, present, or future tense?)

4. Try to identify the speaker's tone (his/her/its relationship to the subject, audience, and self). Is the speaker distant from the subject and calmly objective or close to the subject and emotionally involved? Is the tone ironic, bitter, depressed, nostalgic, wistful, nervous, serene angry, amused, exuberant? What kind of language does the voice use -- familiar or unusual, monosyllabic or polysyllabic, concrete or abstract, sensory or non-sensory, archaic or modern or even technical? Remember that meter and rhyme help to create mood and atmosphere.

5. Early in the discussion of a poem, provide an overview of the external structure: meter or free verse; stanzas or verse paragraphs. Do the lines conform to a predictable pattern? Does the poem follow a stanzas pattern, continuous form (blank verse, terza rima), or a fixed form (sonnet, villanelle, rondeau)?

6. What does the poem do? Does it praise, condemn, complain, plead, pray, argue, or boast? Does the poem describe a scene (real or imaginary?), tell a story, define a problem, meditate? Describe the poem's internal structure. Does the poem make a general statement and give examples? Ask a question and give an answer? Present evidence and draw a conclusion? Is there a turning point, a change of mood, an unexpected development, or a climactic moment? Sometimes a lyric poem moves in one direction only to reach a turn or a reversal. Often a poem resembles a drama in miniature. Something happens. Division into parts or stanzas helps to organize the ideas and events of a poem. Each of the three quatrains of an English sonnet may center on a different image, with the final couplet providing a comment. The octave and the sestet of an Italian sonnet may state a problem then offer a solution.

7. Describe the "events" of the poem, stage by stage.

  1. a) In each part or stanza, identify the dominant image, idea, or both. To which sense or senses do images appeal (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, or the kinesthetic sense of muscular tension and balance)?

  2. b) Does the poem include figurative language (simile, metaphor, metonymy, personification)? Does it draw analogy? Does it speak symbolically? Does it use irony, understatement, or overstatement (hyperbole)?

  3. c) Does the poem employ allegory? Does it contain allusions (historical, mythological, etc.)?

  4. d) Do sounds recur in the poem (alliteration, assonance, rhyme, double rhyme)? Do the sounds of language imitate the sounds of nature (onomatopoeia)?

  5. f) In addition to marking the ends of lines and creating musical effects, rhyme, assonance, and alliteration can call attention to similarities or contrasts between the meanings of sound-linked words. (Do tower and ~ carry similar ideas? What about power and flower? Power and cower?)

  6. g) Does the language of the poem contain inconsistencies? Does the poem appear to contradict itself?

8. Conclude by summarizing or reminding your audience of the major image, event or realization.

N.B. This is one way of approaching a poem; but, bear in mind that it is not the only way, nor does it pretend to solve all your problems in dealing with a poem. When using this approach in writing about a poem, you will need to do more than categorically answer all the questions. Your essay will need a thesis -- or an overriding topic and argument that provides the rationale for the observations you make about the poem. You may want to think of this rationale in terms of another set of questions: What is the significance of your observations in terms of how the poem conveys meaning? Do the parts generate a coherent whole or do they disrupt the making of meaning? (And what is the significance of that?) How does what you observe affect your reading of the poem?

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