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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
    1. 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 (-).
    2. 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.
    3. Mark one-syllable nouns and verbs as stressed.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
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 explication.
Updated August 17, 1999 | University of North Carolina at Pembroke
© Mark Canada, 1999 | canada@sassette.uncp.edu
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