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What Is Poetry Explication?

Poetry explication is a method of analyzing a poem's language, structure, and meaning. It involves a close reading that reveals how the poet's choices create a unique blend of sound and sense. By examining elements like imagery, meter, and metaphor, we uncover the layers that lead to a deeper appreciation of the work. What might you discover in your favorite poem?
Daniel Liden
Daniel Liden

Poetry explication is a term that describes writing or presenting an analysis of a poem's meaning, structure, and other features. Poems generally have many different features that lend themselves to analysis and explication, including word choice, figurative language, meter, and imagery. Some poems even have components typically reserved for prose, such as plot, complex characters, and dialogue. Poetry analysis and explication is generally used to show how these various features of a poem contribute to and are unified in the themes of the poem, though the methods and goals of different schools of poetry analysis may vary significantly. Some poetry critics, for instance, insist that one should only examine the content and form of the poem itself, while others believe that the historical context of the poem is just as important in a valid poetry explication.

Much poetry explication begins with an examination of the literal meaning of the poem. A purely literal reading usually reveals a basic theme, imagery, information about the narrator, and other features that are important for a full understanding of the poem. This is particularly important in narrative poems, which contain valuable information about plot and characters that one must understand in order to conduct a proper poetry explication.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

In many poems, the truly important elements that contribute to the major themes of the poem lie beneath the literal language. Effective poetry explication, therefore, must often be based in a close examination of the figurative elements, such as simile and metaphor, contained within the poem. In some cases, figurative language only subtly shades the meaning or tone of the poem. In other cases, however, figurative language can suggest meaning that is completely opposed to the apparent meaning of a purely literal reading. A poem that appears to be about love, for instance, may actually contain strong themes relating to conflict or death that are not immediately apparent after a literal reading.

The rhythm and structure of a poem is also an important topic in poetry explication. In poetry, words and phrases are often chosen very carefully because of the sounds and rhythms that they produce. Such sound and rhythm often has a significant effect on the tone of a poem and may even provide clues as to how one should interpret the poem's meaning. Irregularities in the rhythm or sound are also important and are often the subject of poetry explication because they are almost always intentional and meaningful.

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Discussion Comments


@Hymnomove, I agree about the issues of form and meter; they do tend to be easier than explicating some of the other elements of the poem. I also find it interesting that two people explicating the same poem may come to different conclusions about the meaning or function of various elements; yet neither one is necessarily "wrong."


I had to write several papers explicating poems in college. The first time I was assigned one, I was a little dismayed, but ultimately surprised to find that indeed, one could write a whole essay about a single poem. I thought that when I was explicating the poem, that examining things like form, rhythm, and meter were often the easiest aspects, but not necessarily the most important.

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