Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1501
Explicating poetry begins with a process of distinguishing the poem’s factual and technical elements from the readers’ emotional ones. Readers respond to poems in a variety of ways that may initially have little to do with the poetry itself but that result from the events in their own lives, their expectations of art, and their philosophical/theological/psychological complexion.
All serious readers hope to find poems that can blend with the elements of their personal backgrounds in such a way that for a moment or a lifetime their relationship to life and the cosmos becomes more meaningful. This is the ultimate goal of poetry, and when it happens—when meaning, rhythm, and sound fuse with the readers’ emotions to create a unified experience—it can only be called the magic of poetry, for something has happened between reader and poet that is inexplicable in rational terms.
When a poem creates such an emotional response in readers, then it is at least a partial success. To be considered excellent, however, a poem must also be able to pass a critical analysis to determine whether it is mechanically superior. Although twenty-first century criticism has tended to judge poetic works solely on their individual content and has treated them as independent of historical influences, such a technique often makes a full explication difficult. The best modern readers realize that good poetry analysis observes all aspects of a poem: its technical success, its historical importance and intellectual force, and its effect on readers’ emotions.
Students of poetry will find it useful to begin an explication by analyzing the elements that poets have at their disposal as they create their art: dramatic situation, point of view, imagery, metaphor, symbol, meter, form, and allusion.The following outline will help guide the reader through the necessary steps to a detailed explication.
I. The Initial Readings
A. Before reading the poem, the reader should:
1. Notice its form and length.
2. Consider the title, determining, if possible, whether it might function as an allusion, symbol, or poetic image.
3. Notice the date of composition or publication, and identify the general era of the poet.
B. The poem should be read intuitively and emotionally and be allowed to “happen” as much as possible.
C. In order to establish the rhythmic flow, the poem should be reread. A note should be made as to where the irregular spots (if any) are located.
II. Explicating the Poem
A. Dramatic situation. Studying the poem line by line helps the reader to discover the dramatic situation. All elements of the dramatic situation are interrelated and should be viewed as reflecting and affecting one another. The dramatic situation serves a particular function in the poem, adding realism, surrealism, or absurdity; drawing attention to certain parts of the poem; and changing to reinforce other aspects of the poem. All points should be considered. The following questions are particularly helpful to ask in determining dramatic situation:
1. What, if any, is the narrative action in the poem?
2. How many personae appear in the poem? What part do they take in the action?
3. What is the relationship between characters?
4. What is the setting (time and location) of the poem?
B. Point of view. An understanding of the poem’s point of view is a major step toward comprehending the poet’s intended meaning. The reader should ask:
1. Who is the speaker? Is he or she addressing someone else or the reader?
2. Is the narrator able to understand or see everything happening to him or her, or does the reader know things that the narrator does not?
3. Is the narrator reliable?
4. Do point of view and dramatic situation seem consistent? If not, the inconsistencies may provide clues to the poem’s meaning.
C. Images and metaphors. Images and metaphors are often the most intricately crafted vehicles of the poem for relaying the poet’s message. Realizing that the images and metaphors work in harmony with the dramatic situation and point of view will help the reader to see the poem as a whole, rather than as disassociated elements.
1. The reader should identify the concrete images (that is, those that are formed from objects that can be touched, smelled, seen, felt, or tasted). Is the image projected by the poet consistent with the physical object?
2. If the image is abstract, or so different from natural imagery that it cannot be associated with a real object, then what are the properties of the image?
3. To what extent is the reader asked to form his or her own images?
4. Is any image repeated in the poem? If so, how has it been changed? Is there a controlling image?
5. Are any images compared to each other? Do they reinforce one another?
6. Is there any difference between the way the reader perceives the image and the way the narrator sees it?
7. What seems to be the narrator’s or persona’s attitude toward the image?
D. Words. Every substantial word in a poem may have more than one intended meaning, as used by the author. Because of this, the reader should look up many of these words in the dictionary and:
1. Note all definitions that have the slightest connection with the poem.
2. Note any changes in syntactical patterns in the poem.
3. In particular, note those words that could possibly function as symbols or allusions, and refer to any appropriate sources for further information.
E. Meter, rhyme, structure, and tone. In scanning the poem, all elements of prosody should be noted by the reader. These elements are often used by a poet to manipulate the reader’s emotions, and therefore they should be examined closely to arrive at the poet’s specific intention.
1. Does the basic meter follow a traditional pattern such as those found in nursery rhymes or folk songs?
2. Are there any variations in the base meter? Such changes or substitutions are important thematically and should be identified.
3. Are the rhyme schemes traditional or innovative, and what might their form mean to the poem?
4. What devices has the poet used to create sound patterns (such as assonance and alliteration)?
5. Is the stanza form a traditional or innovative one?
6. If the poem is composed of verse paragraphs rather than stanzas, how do they affect the progression of the poem?
7. After examining the above elements, is the resultant tone of the poem casual or formal, pleasant, harsh, emotional, authoritative?
F. Historical context. The reader should attempt to place the poem into historical context, checking on events at the time of composition. Archaic language, expressions, images, or symbols should also be looked up.
G. Themes and motifs. By seeing the poem as a composite of emotion, intellect, craftsmanship, and tradition, the reader should be able to determine the themes and motifs (smaller recurring ideas) presented in the work. He or she should ask the following questions to help pinpoint these main ideas:
1. Is the poet trying to advocate social, moral, or religious change?
2. Does the poet seem sure of his or her position?
3. Does the poem appeal primarily to the emotions, to the intellect, or to both?
4. Is the poem relying on any particular devices for effect (such as imagery, allusion, paradox, hyperbole, or irony)?
Although explication is not a science, and a variety of observations may be equally valid, these step-by-step procedures can be applied systematically to make the reading of most poems a richer experience for the reader. To illustrate, these steps are applied below to a difficult poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson.
Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal,There where the vines cling crimson on the wall,And in the twilight wait for what will come.The leaves will whisper there of her, and some, 4Like flying words, will strike you as they fall;But go, and if you listen, she will call.Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal—Luke Havergal. 8No, there is not a dawn in eastern skiesTo rift the fiery night that’s in your eyes;But there, where western glooms are gathering,The dark will end the dark, if anything: 12God slays Himself with every leaf that flies,And hell is more than half of paradise.No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies—In eastern skies. 16Out of a grave I come to tell you this,Out of a grave I come to quench the kissThat flames upon your forehead with a glowThat blinds you to the way that you must go. 20Yes, there is yet one way to where she is,Bitter, but one that faith may never miss.Out of a grave I come to tell you this—To tell you this. 24There is the western gate, Luke HavergalThere are the crimson leaves upon the wall.Go, for the winds are tearing them away,—Nor think to riddle the dead words they say, 28Nor any more to feel them as they fall;But go, and if you trust her she will call.There is the western gate, Luke Havergal—Luke Havergal.
E. A. Robinson, 1897
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 97
Once the poem has been placed in context, the prosodic devices analyzed, and the function of the poetical techniques understood, they should be correlated, and any discrepancies should be studied for possible errors in explication. By this time, every line should be understood, so that stating what the poem is about is merely a matter of explaining the common points of all the area, supporting it with specific items from the poem, secondary sources, other poems, other critics, and history. The reader may use the specific questions given in the outline to help detail the major themes.
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