How To Explicate A Poem In An Essay

by Sara Lundquist

First of all, read it over and over. Read it out loud. Then read it out loud again. Practice different ways of placing emphasis to get the most meaning. (Poetry is a spoken art; it needs the human voice, your voice, to really live.)

All of the following can be part of a written explication, depending on the poem. Let the poem dictate to you. The extra dimension of poetry is in its insistence that meaning cannot be divorced from form. The purpose of an explication is to show, for an individual poem, how this is true. Therefore an explication is a discussion of the art and craft of language. An explication shows how the form deepens the meaning of the content.

Look up anything you don’t understand: an unfamiliar word, a place, a person, a myth, an idea. Look up words you DO understand, to help you articulate connotations. Become a dictionary addict. Make friends with the OED.

  1. State, very literally and in one or two sentences, what the poem is about. What is the most obvious statement you can make about the situation that the poem concerns itself with? Do not scare yourself with “deep meaning”: start literally. Paraphrase the poem.
  2. What is the emotion of the poem? How does the speaker feel about what he/she is talking about? What can you infer about this speaker, what kind of person is he/she? Remember that because most poems are about human beings they are often expressions of complicated, mixed, and conflicting emotions; always try thinking in terms of both/and rather than either/or. To whom is the speaker talking: to him/herself? to someone else? How does the audience of the poem affect it?
  3. Look at the poem. Describe the form of the poem, the design it makes on the page. For instance, is it divided into stanzas? Does it have long or short lines, or irregular? How does the form contribute to the content? Is it an inherited form (sonnet, sestina, etc.) or an invented one?
  4. Listen to the sounds of the poem. Does it rhyme? Does it use alliteration (repetition of beginning consonant sounds)? Does it have an interesting rhythm? What do the words sound like? Are they smooth, or harsh, or lilting, or dull? Do they move quickly or slowly?
  5. How did the poet organize the poem, and why? Is it a question and an answer? Is it a story? Is it a list? Is it a conversation? Is it a description? Where (emotionally speaking) does the poem begin and where does it end? Be willing to be surprised. Things often happen in poems to turn them around. A poem may seem to suggest one thing at first, then persuade you of its opposite, or at least of a significant change or qualification. Discuss the “journey” the poem takes from beginning to end.
  6. Be very alert to word choice. Discuss the kinds of language the poet uses. Are they simple and everyday words? words from a particular occupation or walk of life? are they slang words? abstract? philosophical? from religion, or sports, or banking? from the world of nature or love or domestic life, or politics or painting or childhood or computers or psychology or law? From what “world” of experience does a group of words derive? Be alert to unusual words or usual words used in an unusual way. Try to say why this word is effective, what kind of very particular meaning it communicates, what it suggests. Try substituting a synonym of the word and explain to yourself why the poet’s choice serves his/her purpose better. Look up the word in the OED and find out how old it is, what kind of journey it has taken to get to this poem.
  7. Be alert to repetitions of any kind: a repeated word, a repeated sound, a repeated idea, punctuation, part-of-speech, syntactical arrangement. Since repetition always serves to emphasize, what is being emphasized and why?
  8. Figurative language: What metaphors, similes, images does the poem use? When and why does the speaker use them? Keep in mind that a poet uses figurative language when more literal ways of speaking seem inadequate or inappropriate. Discuss what further dimensions of human experience can be delved into when the literal gives way to the figurative. (note well: both metaphors and similes are essentially comparisons: say what is being compared to what and why.)
  9. Meter??? Do you want to deal with it?
  10. Theme: take a stab at the poem’s theme. A poem’s subject will be its wonderfully particular, local, personal concerns; its “theme” will be that part of it that communicates more widely, that tries to say a “truth.” Be careful that you don’t reduce the poem to a cliché. Don’t turn corny or glib. Good poems record hard-won and sometimes devastating “truths.” Reading them well makes us struggle to know, feel, and express those things about living that are not easy to know, feel, or express.

Here is some of the specialized vocabulary of your profession; extremely beautiful and useful words.

alliteration
assonance
consonance
apostrophe
personification
anaphora
stanza
verse paragraph
irony
onomatopoeia
synesthesia
elegy
lyric
aubade
caesura
refrain
lineation
enjambment
allusion
dramatic monologue
narrative
oxymoron
hyperbole
slant rhyme, off rhyme, half rhyme
internal rhyme
imagery
metaphor
simile

Sample explications:

© Sara Lundquist 2011

 

The following offers an example of how to explicate a poem.  You should note that explication, much like a standard argument paper, needs a specific thesis with a limited focus.  In poetry explication, we may choose to discuss the tone, the narrative or action, rhetorical devices, characterization, structure, etc.  For an overview of poetry's elements, see the chart on the "Understanding Poetry" page (linked to Introduction to Literature I) by clicking the link.

[The poem for explication is Robert Graves' "Counting the Beats": the explication follows Graves' poem.]

 

Counting the Beats

Robert Graves (1895 – 1985)

 

You, love, and I,

(He whispers) you and I,

And if no more than only you and I

What care you or I?

Counting the bests,

Counting the slow heart beats,

The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,

Wakeful they lie.

Cloudless day,

Night, and a cloudless day,

Yet the huge storm will burst upon their heads one day

From a bitter sky.

Where shall we be,

(She whispers) where shall we be,

When death strikes home, O where then shall we be

Who were you and I?

Not there but here,

(He whispers) only here,

As we are, here, together, now and here,

Always you and I.

Counting the beats,

Counting the slow heart beats,

The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,

Wakeful they lie.

 

            [Explication]

The Negative Tone of Robert Graves’ "Counting the Beats"

 

       The most notable quality of Robert Graves’ "Counting the Beats" remains the tone of the poem, which conveys a stark simplicity that both colors the poem’s "feel" as well as paints a pessimistic image of the events.  In an ambiguous setting, the poem depicts a nameless man and woman engaged in intimate dialogue, complemented by a narrator’s ironic knowledge of events beyond the limits of the couple.  [I intend to argue that] That narrative voice establishes a tone of bleak hopelessness in which the established mood of the poem becomes more important than the limited events of an unidentified man and woman. Their actions are simple at best: while the dialogue between the pair suggests a love affair, it does not progress beyond three short statements, their conversation, coupled with the narrator’s prescient observations that indicate an inevitable unhappy future.

        With the opening of the poem, the man asks a question, rhetorical perhaps, that seems harmless enough: "And if no more than only you and I / What care you or I?"  By his statement, he seems content or resolved that only the two of them remain important—but with regard to what: their place in the universe? their private love? or their fear of the future? The volta, or "turn," at the beginning of the line colors the tone of his question, apparently confirming his suspicion that their love has limitations and exists in isolation, rather than his asking something for which he seeks an answer.  Besides isolation, his statement also suggests loneliness and negativity.  Our suspicions that we should interpret his question in this manner become confirmed by the last two lines in the poem’s more objective reprise, "The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats."  That their hearts beat slowly appears to indicate that passion has been dulled, or perhaps that it goes absent or spent.  Reflection dominates as opposed to action or involvement between the pair, which appears as negative: "bleeding to death" tells us of a slow demise, one of entropy.  Our two protagonists allow life, and with it love, to escape from them in slow, measured time, as indicated by the slow beats of their hearts.

       The ambiguity of the scene, wherein we know nothing of the place, circumstances, or identities of the couple, seems secondary to other considerations, most notably the voltas encountered in the poem and the bleak direction they lead the reader: "And if no more" continues an ambiguous thought, but it leads nowhere.  By phrasing the reflection in the negative—"if no more"—a reader reflects upon limitation, the quiet affirmation of defeat and a smallness of their love that falls even short of sadness in its tone, suggesting rather an insignificance that no reader can rise above in sympathizing with the couple’s affection. 

      Other phrases are just as telling in indicating the overall negative feel of the poem.  The narrator’s reprise states that the pair remain "wakeful," as if worried or deep in thought, which confirms that their questions do not seek answers but appear more like meditations.  So too, the opening line of the twice-repeated stanza—"Counting the beats"—does not supply a subject as to who does the counting or why it becomes necessary.  We must suspect that the implied subject of the line points to the couple themselves, as they count the beats of their wakeful hearts in a quiet, still time that does not give rest or bring them closer together.  The two have few words to exchange with one another and, because they apparently do not wish to disturb each other further, each whispers.  The effects of both quiet and suggestive phrases such as "death strikes home" or "bleeding to death" negatively indicate the sadness of the pair’s love as opposed to anything affirming.  Moreover, their love seems to flow in the wrong direction as their blood does not stimulate, "course" through them with passion, but bleeds out like slow suicide, like self-inflicted wounds.

         So it is that the simple events and intimate setting of the man and woman, those that often situate couples in love poems, here suggest love as a negative: do they force one another into despair?  Once again, the simplicity of the language indicates that feel or impression.  To her question of where they shall be "When death strikes home," he responds "Not there but here." That ambiguity of a place or state of existence as only "there" and "here" seems fatalistic, even as his first word, "Not," abruptly ends whatever question she may have had as to the future.  His rejoinder of a negative and contradiction—"Not there but here"—not only summarizes their predicament, it limits the range of how much we as readers should care.  After all, no specifics are available: where would "there" be and why should we care?  We remain all too familiar with the "here" of the lovers, a depressing place of limitation, absent passion, and the entropy of love—wasted energy that affords no use.

        Indeed, the narrator underscores this fatalism, who, as an omniscient observer possesses more knowledge of the future than do they.  How this information may be possible does not interest us as readers, because we focus on the simplicity—the language, the setting, the ambiguous but unfettered relationship—and thus take for granted that any future for the pair must be as uncomplicated in its inevitability as are the events and conversation that precede it.  Again, the volta serves as the key to the tone, which follows the lines "Cloudless day, / Night, and a cloudless day."  The narrator follows this seemingly hopeful image with "Yet."  The word suddenly causes us to re-think the meaning of the preceding lines.  Now "Cloudless day" reads more like an absence of something as opposed to safety or the freedom from care; we feel a cyclical sameness, boredom, and the inevitability of time, and with it an inevitable future: "Yet the huge storm will burst upon their heads one day / From a bitter sky."  Adding to the more obvious words of "burst" and "bitter," the definite article "the" as opposed to the indefinite "a" adds a touch of simplicity that colors the mood all the more.  Troubles and pain to come are not generic; "the" storm, as opposed to one of generality, forces readers once again to appreciate the couple as fated, a fact the narrator shares with us at their expense.  And still the reasons remain ambiguous: is the storm of their making?  Have they failed to involve themselves in events so as to cause what is to come?  Or is such a future one that demonstrates that their choice to be removed from the world reflects a selfishness offering no excuse and no freedom from pain?  "What care you or I" would seem to imply the latter, as if the narrator wishes to inform us with the word "Yet" that the lack of decision is in itself a choice, and one that offers regret since it comes from a "bitter sky."

        Fatalism suggests not only finality but unfairness.  What could these two do to change the future?  What will that future be; what does the "huge storm" entail?  While all of these questions appear important, the tone of the poem remains dismissive, posing them in ambiguity.  Even the narrator, who, if removed from the mood of the work, seems intrusive—prying, at best—does not appear out of place.  He observes the scene but does not answer their questions for us; rather, the omniscient voice merely states the obvious, the inevitable, as the lovers’ own rhetorical questions suggest that the future, whether set by God, Fate, or Chance, engulfs, overwhelms, and controls them.  And thus the reader’s question—are they the cause of their own destruction or merely caught up in some other design?—becomes meaningless, for the narrator’s own presence adds another negative tone: while the two are not alone, the omniscient voice here will not intercede; it merely knows.

       To underscore the tone’s importance in Graves’ poem, we note that were we to isolate events as to sequence, those elements we assign to plot, the poem would not survive.  Indeed, no scene exists but that which we conjure by virtue of our response to the dialogue of two lovers.  And in this instance, we realize that the tone or feel of what is said surpasses what takes place.  We glean more from the texture of the words and their manner of expression, simplicity in the extreme, than descriptive phrases could possibly detail for us about the two.  Tone indicates the plot’s irrelevancy, since how we feel becomes more important than what we know, and because the simplistic setting involves itself with seemingly basic feelings and expressions.  In fact, only one word in the poem is more than two syllables in length—notably, the word "together."  And even here we do not feel certain that the word should be interpreted as positive, as if "together" denoted union, happiness, or completion.  Rather, because of the poem’s tone, the word "together" suggests a problem, or that which causes the pair to be "Not there but here" in death.  Replacing specifics for the indefiniteness of "here" or "there" would not, we suspect, yield more comfort, because the absence of those details affords small but recognizable relief in a poem that speaks of "the bleeding to death of time."  The less we know, the better.  And in a poem of indeterminable place, event, or speakers, the tone suggests all we need, or perhaps desire, to know.

 

Wayne Narey

 

 

 

 

 

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