Understanding and Explicating Poetry
Perhaps the most challenging material you will have to read
in college is poetry. While the message of some poems may be fairly simple--"Enjoy
your youth while it lasts," for instance--the way poets put words together
often makes this message elusive. Writers don't write this way just to
annoy you; rather, their sophisticated vocabulary and complex syntax help
them to write with precision, to tease out the subtleties of nature and
the human mind, and to create certain effects. When you read a poem, you
should begin by trying to figure what the poet is saying on the surface:
the content of the poem. When you can summarize this content in
a few sentences, examine the way the poet conveys this content; in other
words, analyze the poem's form. Finally, determine how the content
and form work together to create the poem's meaning. Think of a
poem as an equation: form + content = meaning. The term for analyzing
a poem in this way is "explication." Here is a step-by-step method you
might find useful when you explicate, or interpret, a poem:
For more tips on reading poetry, see "How to Read a Poem"
on the Academy of American Poets
Web site. This site also features recordings of famous poets reading their
work. You also may want to review my sample
Updated August 17, 1999 | University
of North Carolina at Pembroke
Canada, 1999 | firstname.lastname@example.org
to Be Your Best
Find a quiet place, such as a study room at the library,
where you will not be distracted or interrupted. Put the following
items on the table in front of you: your text book, your class notebook
opened to a blank page, a pencil or pen, a hardback
dictionary, and a subject
encyclopedia such as Benet's Readers' Encyclopedia. Anything
else on the table might distract you. Remove it.
Take a deep breath and relax. Read the poem once slowly
aloud without writing or marking anything. Don't stop until you finish
the poem, even if you don't know the meaning or pronunciation of a word.
When you have finished, reflect for a moment on any words, images, and
characters that caught your attention. Jot down these items in your notebook,
along with one sentence in which you try to summarize the poem.
Now read the poem again silently. When you come to
a word you don't know, look it up in the dictionary. In your notes, write
the word, its pronunciation, the meaning or meanings of it in this poem,
and a clue to help you remember it. Often information in the word's etymology,
or history, will give you a clue to remembering it. Write a synonym for
the word right above it in your text book. When you come to a proper noun,
such as the name of a person or event, look it up in the literary reference
work and record key details in your notebook, just as you did when you
looked up unfamiliar words. Concentrate on learning these words and allusions
because many of them will appear again and again in literature, and you
want to be ready for them next time.
Rephrase sentences you don't understand. Almost every
poem you will find in your text books is made up of complete sentences
with subjects and verbs and, in many cases, objects, prepositional phrases,
subordinate clauses, and other syntactical elements. Even if you don't
know what a prepositional phrase or appositive is, you know how to read
and understand them. In fact, you do it all the time when you read ordinary
sentences in newspapers, magazines, and text books. The problem is that
most poets don't write the way reporters and text book authors do. Even
though they write complete sentences, they change the order of words--placing,
for example, the object, the thing receiving the action, before the verb
instead after it, where we ordinarily put it in speech and prose. This
change in word order is called an "inversion," and it is common in poetry,
especially poetry written before 1900. In the following passage, which
comes from John Donne's poem "The Sun Rising," the word "season" is an
object of the verb, even though it comes before the verb: "Love, all alike,
no season knows." We would say: "Love, all alike, knows no season." Rephrasing
sentences so that they sound more like speech or at least prose will help
you figure what the poet is saying.
Identify the literal meaning of figurative language. The
other practice that distinguishes poets from writers of nonliterary prose
is their heavy use of metaphors, personification, symbols, hyperboles,
apostrophes, and many other forms of figurative language. Figurative language
does not mean exactly what it says; rather, it suggests meanings. In the
phrase quoted above, Donne does not literally mean that love is unfamiliar
with spring, summer, fall, and winter. As a thing, love cannot know
anything at all; only people can know something--that is, be conscious
of it. Thus, Donne is personifying love, giving it human qualities. The
figurative language in poetry helps us to understand new or complex concepts.
Thinking of love as a person who treats all seasons in the same way helps
us to appreciate the universality of love. Once you have completed the
steps above, you may not understand every word or even every sentence,
but you should have a fairly good idea of the poet's overall message, or
the content of the poem. Now you are ready to begin interpreting
and analyzing it.
Analyze the poet's use of language. You already have
looked closely at the poet's use of language as you were trying to understand
the poem's content. Now you want to ask yourself what this use of language--the
inversions, symbols, and so on--contribute to the poem's meaning. Why,
for example, did the poet choose to compare his love to a "red, red rose"
instead of tree or a bird? One trick that will help you in this step is
thinking about associations:we tend to associate roses with beauty, tenderness,
passion, and love, but we also know that a rose bush has thorns that can
be painful. Not all of these associations may be appropriate for a particular
poem, but many of them probably will. Make a note of these associations
in your notebook and jot down some ideas about what they contribute to
the poem's meaning.
Scan the poem. Scanning
poetry is different from skimming it. To scan a poem means to identify
the rhythm, which in English poetry comes from the alteration of stressed
and unstressed syllables.
Begin by looking at the polysyllabic words--the words
of more than one syllable. Say each word aloud and try to determine which
syllable you stress. If you are unsure, look up the word in the dictionary,
where you will see an accent mark either before or after the stressed syllable.
In The American Heritage College Dictioanry, for example, the accent
appears before the stressed syllable. If you are using another dictionary,
look up "pronunciation" in the dictionary's guide to reading entries. In
your text book, place an accent mark (/) over each stressed syllable and
a horizontal line over the unstressed syllables (-).
Now look for all the one-syllable structure words--words
that have little or no meaning, but rather serve to connect other words
and show their relationships. Structure words include articles (a, an,
the), conjunctions (and, or, but), prepositions (of, in, on, to, etc.),
and auxiliaries (have, may, do, will, etc.). Mark these words as unstressed.
Mark one-syllable nouns and verbs as stressed.
Read the poem aloud, using your marks as a guide to which
syllables to stress. Look for one of the following patterns: iambic (-
/), trochaic (/ -), anapestic (- - /), and dactyllic (/ - -). Most English
poetry that has a regular rhythm is iambic. If you don't see one of these
patterns, try to change a few of the marks on the one-syllable words. If
you see a pattern now, write the name of the rhythm in your notebook. You
probably still will notice a few anomalies, places where the rhythm changes
from the regular pattern, but ignore these anomalies for now. If you still
don't see a pattern, count the number of stressed syllables in three consecutive
lines. If these lines do not have the same number of stressed syllables,
the poem probably does not have a regular rhythm; in other words, it probably
is written in free verse.
Draw vertical lines around each instance of a pattern. Each
one of these units is called a "metrical foot" or simply a "foot." For
example, if the line you scanned has the markings - / - / - / - / - /,
you would recognize the iambic pattern and mark the line this way: - /
| - / | - / | - / | - /. Count the number of units in each line. In most
cases, this number will be the same for every line of the poem. In the
previous example, you would count five units, or five feet. Use the following
terms to identify the number of feet in the lines: dimeter (2 feet), trimeter
(3 feet), tetrameter (4 feet), pentameter (5 feet), and hexameter (6 feet).
You now have identified the overall pattern of rhythm in the poem. In our
example, the rhythm is iambic pentameter.
Now look back at the anomalies, the places where the rhythm
changes. A unit with two stresses is called a spondee, and a unit with
two unstressed syllables is called a pyrrhic foot. Try to determine what
role these anomalies play. For example, many times spondees call attention
to important words, images, or ideas. Jot down your ideas in your notebook.
Look for rhyme. Look at the final words in the first and
second lines. Do they rhyme with each other or any other final words? If
so, the poem probably has a rhyme scheme, a pattern of rhyme. To label
the rhyme scheme, place the letter "a" at the end of the first line. If
the final word in the next line rhymes with this word, label it "a" also;
otherwise, label it "b." Continue this process, identifying rhyming words
with the same letter. Now look at the words that rhyme. Are they similar
in meaning, or are they contrasting words? In your notebook, note any places
where the rhyme is significant and suggest a way this rhyme contributes
to the poem's meaning.
Finally, read the poem one more time aloud. Practice using
pauses and stress to make the poem's meaning come alive in your recitation.
In your notebook, make any final comments on the way the poem's content
and form work together to create meaning.