To “explicate” means, according to the Latin root, to ‘unfold.’ An explication is a close reading of a single poem. The purpose of this exercise—originally a staple of French literary training from secondary school onward—is to talk about the meaning(s) of the poem primarily in terms of how the poem works—that is, through diction, stanza and line structure, meter, rhythm and imagery. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia explain, “Not intent on ripping a poem to pieces, the author of a useful explication instead tries to show how each part contributes to the whole.” A good explication shows some basic familiarity with the language of poetry and makes the primary goal to let the text guide the argument rather than to come into the poem with a preconceived agenda. Explications interpret a poem (or other brief passage) intensely and persistently, talking carefully about the words, explaining the patterns of imagery, the meaningfulness of rhythms, the suggestiveness and power of the sounds–trying to show, in essence, how the text works. An explication should not be confused with a paraphrase, which puts the poem’s literal meaning into plain prose. While an explication might include some paraphrasing, it does more than simply restate, it explains a poem in great detail, showing how each part contributes to the whole. You’ll find that solid explication skills are truly valuable, forming the basis of concrete, exciting and intelligent work. A skilled explication can be dazzling.
Instructions and Requirements
In MLA format with a Work Cited, in at least two (2) pages, but no longer than three (3) pages, please explicate one (1) poem from our book, no longer than 20 lines.
Examples and Writing about a Poem: View the example explication at the end of the assignment, as well as in chapter 41 in our book (which also explains how to quote a poem), and the other examples available on Canvas.
In writing your explication, keeping the following in mind:
Start with the poem’s first line, and keep working straight through to the end. As needed, though, you can take up points out of order.
Read closely, addressing the poem’s details. You may choose to include allusions, the denotations, or connotations of words, the possible meanings of symbols, the effects of certain sounds and rhythms and formal elements (metrics and rime schemes, for instance), the sense of any statements that contain irony, Identity and situation of the speaker(s), hyperbole, understatement, ambiguity, imagery and symbolism, figures of speech (similes, metaphors, puns, personifications), line breaks and stanza form, and other particulars.
Show how each part of the poem contributes to the meaning of the whole. Your explication should go beyond dissecting the pieces of the poem; it should also bring them together in a way that casts light on the poem in its entirety.
You should, however, only discuss the formal poetic elements insofar as you find them significant to our understanding of the poem’s meaning (which should be most of the time). Be sure to present your observations in the form of a coherent essay—unified by a clear argument about the meaning of the poem—not as a series of separate comments about the different features of the poem. Follow the structure of the poem itself, starting with the first line, and ending with the last, include ample textual support, documented in MLA format, and logical analysis. Introduce the poem and poet you’re explicating by informing the reader of the conflict(s) dramatized and describe the dramatic situation of the speaker. Organize the body of your essay into logical subdivisions that expand the discussion of the conflict explaining the poem line by line in terms of by focusing on details of form, rhetoric, syntax, rhyme, rhythm, meter, and vocabulary. Use transitional sentences. Suggest something of the wider significance of your analysis in your concluding sentences.
Formatting & Style
Although you may draft your exam in handwriting, your exam must be typed.
Use MLA paper format, citation format, and Works Cited.
The paper needs to be 2 full pages, and no more than 3 (the Works Cited is the additional page).
Give the title of the poem and poet’s name (first and last) early on.
Only refer to the poet’s last name, if necessary.
Do not cite the poet’s last name since you are only using one work. Only cite line (or line numbers).
Effectively blend/integrate quotes from the poem using signal phrases and include citations (refer to line numbers).
Blend lines using a slash / or virgule.
Use Standard English; an academic tone.
Do not use a conversational or informal tone.
Do not informally conjugate pronouns such as the “I,” “you,” “we,” or “they.”
Use literary present tense.
Unless you’re deliberately referring to the poet, refer to the speaking voice in the poem as “the speaker.”
Do not use block quotes.
Do not include any secondary sources.
Avoid vagueness by precision and exactitude replacing any: this, that, it, these, those
Avoid unnecessary uses of the “to be” verb in your compositions, the following list suggests some verbs you can use when writing the explication:
Submission and Due Date
Upload your final draft to Canvas by Friday, Dec 4 at 11:59pm
Any of the following file formats are acceptable: doc, docx, pdf, odt, otg, ods, odp, or odf
How do I upload a file as an assignment submission in Canvas?
Links to an external site.
You may not revise the poetry explication (there’s not enough turnaround time).
Late papers or work not submitted to the correct Canvas assignment automatically receive a “0.”
Your poetry explication assignment is worth 20% of your Final Grade. The assignments relies upon completion of drafting and peer review. A grading rubric is attached to the assignment on Canvas.
The poem from our text is the only source you may reference for the exam.
If you need to consult a dictionary or general reference work to help track down historical references and literary allusions, feel free to do so; also, you should certainly use the editorial headnotes and information within our book that helps you better understand terms and definitions. However, please do not define terms within your paper or cite the dictionary, etc.—presume your reader knows what literary devices and allusions mean. You may need to look them up, but your readers already know the allusions and definitions. Your job is to, as well. Your job is to apply the terms, and show you understand them.
Plagiarism and Academic Integrity
Do not include any secondary sources.
The purpose of this assignment is for you to show that you can use the basic tools of literary interpretation and explication. Therefore…Please do not, under any circumstances, consult secondary literature, monographs, journal articles, or any websites or Internet sources such as sparknotes.com, shmoop, enotes, cliffnotes, or any analysis or research as you work on your exam. Plagiarists who commit fraud to deceive others are viewed as dishonest, incompetent, and incapable of expressing original thoughts.
In “real life,” such deception can result in losing your job, your credibility and prestige, and public embarrassment. On this exam, if you commit literary (academic) fraud, the consequences include the following: “unintentional” plagiarism
(Links to an external site.)
may results in an “F” on your exam.
A paper that appears to be an intentional attempt to deceive through the submission of plagiarized work (in whole or part) may result in an “F” on your paper as well as an “F”/ failing grade in the course.
Please review the Syllabus Policy, which follows Del Mar’s Policy (B7.13.7) on Scholastic Dishonesty, Plagiarism, and Academic Integrity
(Links to an external site.)
Please ask if you have any questions and realize that you can also request help as you draft from the staff at the Stone Writing Center
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Step One: Read Actively
Choose a poem that speaks to you. Writing about something you dislike will be a dismal experience. Writing about something you enjoy will communicate your enthusiasm.
Allow yourself to get comfortable with your subject. Your lack of comfort will show if you don’t fully understand what you’re writing about. The more familiar you become with the poem, the easier it will be to write about it. Expect to read the poem several times—over the course of several days.
Read the poem straight through once without reading it aloud; then read it a second time aloud. Then, read it again with a pencil in hand.
Mark it up; write in the margins; react to it; get involved with it. Circle important, or striking, or repeated words. Draw lines to connect related ideas. Mark difficult or confusing words, lines, and passages. Read closely and painstakingly.
Look up unfamiliar words, allusions, references.
Make several general points about the poem’s structure and main purpose before you start discussing individual lines. This will save you the trouble of repeating yourself as you go through the text, and help you ensure that your explication is working to relate individual parts of the poem to the poem as a whole.
Consider three key tasks as you explicate: first, to take the poem apart into its smallest units and study them on their own terms; second, to talk about how those units relate to each other; third, to make some connections between these smaller units and the poem in its entirety. You may find it useful to work on each of these tasks in this order—as a first, second and third draft of your explication—or it may be easier to put all these different levels of analysis together from the start.
Remember that poetry explication is a focused type of textual analysis, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to formulate a thesis.What is the poem doing and how is it doing it? These are the questions at hand; let your close reading guide you to the answers.
Step Two: Thinking about the Poem
Examine the basic subject of the poem
Consider the title of the poem carefully. What does it tell you about the poem’s subject, tone, and genre? What does it promise? (After having read the poem, you will want to come back to the title in order to consider further its relationship with the poem.)
What is your initial impression of the poem’s subject? Write out an answer to the question, “What is this poem about?”–and then return to this question throughout your analysis. Be precise; aim for more than just a vague impression of the poem. What is the author’s attitude toward his/ her subject?
What is the poem’s basic situation? What is going on in it? Who is talking? To whom? Under what circumstances? Where? About what? Why? Is a story being told? Is something–tangible or intangible–being described? What specifically can you point to in the poem to support your answers?
Because a poem is highly compressed, it may help you to try to unfold it by paraphrasing the poem aloud, moving line by line through it. If the poem is written in sentences, figure out what the subject of each one is? The verb? The object of the verb? What a modifier refers to? Try to untie any syntactic knots.
Is the poem built on a comparison or analogy? If so, how is the comparison appropriate? How are the two things alike? How different?
What is the poet’s attitude toward the subject? Serious? Reverent? Ironic? Satiric? Ambivalent? Hostile? Humorous? Detached? Witty?
Does the poem appeal to a reader’s intellect? Emotions? Reason?
Consider the context of the poem
Are there any allusions to other literary or historical figures or events? How do these add to the poem? How are they appropriate?
What do you know about this poet? About the time period in which the poet wrote this poem?
Study the form of the poem
Consider the sound and rhythm of the poem. Is there a metrical pattern? If so, how regular is it? Does the poet use rhyme? What do the meter and rhyme emphasize? Is there any alliteration? Assonance? Onomatopoeia? How do these relate to the poem’s meaning? What effect do they create in the poem?
Are there divisions within the poem? Marked by stanzas? By rhyme? By shifts in subject? By shifts in perspective? How do these parts relate to each other? How are they appropriate for this poem?
How are the ideas in the poem ordered? Is there a progression of some sort? From simple to complex? From outer to inner? From past to present? From one place to another? Is there a climax of any sort?
What are the form and genre of this poem? Explain how the form is used and what is expected in this form.
Look at the word choice of the poem
List all the verbs to see the action in the poem. What do they tell you about the poem?
Are there difficult or confusing words? Even if you are only the slightest bit unsure about the meaning of a word, look it up in a good dictionary. Poetry before the twentieth century, requires you learn to use the Oxford English Dictionary, which can tell you how a word’s definition and usage have changed over time. Be sure that you determine how a word is being used–as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb–so that you can find its appropriate meaning. Consider possible meanings words and be alert to subtle differences between words. Poets use language carefully; be a good reader and equally sensitive to implications of word choice.
What mood is evoked in the poem? How is this accomplished? Consider the ways in which not only the meanings of words but also their sound and the poem’s rhythms help to create its mood.
Is the language in the poem abstract or concrete? How is this appropriate to the poem’s subject?
Are there any consistent patterns of words? For example, are there several references to flowers, or water, or politics, or religion in the poem? Look for groups of similar words.
What sort of figurative language is used? Metaphors? Similes? Is there any personification? Consider the appropriateness of such comparisons. Try to see why the poet chose a particular metaphor as opposed to other possible ones. Is there a pattern of any sort to the metaphors? Is there any metonymy in the poem? Synechdoche? Hyperbole? Oxymoron? Paradox? A dictionary of literary terms may be helpful here.
Ask, finally, about the poem, “So what?” What does it do? What does it say? What is its purpose?
Step Three: Organizing the Explication
The explication should follow the general format as your preparation or drafting: begin with the large issues and basic design of the poem and work through each line to the more specific details and patterns.
The first paragraph
The first paragraph should present the large issues; it should inform the reader which conflicts are dramatized and should describe the dramatic situation of the speaker. The explication does not require a formal introductory paragraph; the writer should simply start explicating immediately. According to UNC‘s Professor William Harmon, the foolproof way to begin any explication is with the following sentence: “[Poet’s name—First and Last] and [Title of poem] poem dramatizes the conflict between …” Such a beginning ensures that you will introduce the major conflict or theme in the poem and organize your explication accordingly.
Here is an example. A student’s explication of Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” might begin in the following way:
William Wordsworth’s poem “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” dramatizes the conflict between appearance and reality, particularly as this conflict relates to what the speaker seems to say and what he really says. From Westminster Bridge, the speaker looks at London at sunrise, and he explains that all people should be struck by such a beautiful scene. The speaker notes that the city is silent, and he points to several specific objects, naming them only in general terms: “Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples” (6). After describing the “glittering” aspect of these objects, he asserts that these city places are just as beautiful in the morning as country places like “valley, rock, or hill” (8,10). Finally, after describing his deep feeling of calmness, the speaker notes how the “houses seem asleep” and that “all that mighty heart is lying still” (13, 14). In this way, the speaker seems to say simply that London looks beautiful in the morning.
The next paragraphs
The next paragraphs should expand the discussion of the conflict by focusing on details of form, rhetoric, syntax, and vocabulary. In these paragraphs, the writer should explain the poem line by line in terms of these details, and he or she should incorporate important elements of rhyme, rhythm, and meter during this discussion.
The student’s explication continues with a topic sentence that directs the discussion of the first five lines:
However, the poem begins with several oddities that suggest the speaker is saying more than what he seems to say initially. For example, the poem is an Italian sonnet and follows the abbaabbacdcdcd rhyme scheme. The fact that the poet chooses to write a sonnet about London in an Italian form suggests that what he says may not be actually praising the city. Also, the rhetoric of the first two lines seems awkward compared to a normal speaking voice: “Earth has not anything to show more fair. / Dull would he be of soul who could pass by” (1-2). The odd syntax continues when the poet personifies the city: “This City now doth, like a garment, wear / The beauty of the morning” (4-5). Here, the city wears the morning’s beauty, so it is not the city but the morning that is beautiful …
The explication has no formal concluding paragraph; do not simply restate the main points of the introduction! The end of the explication should focus on sound effects or visual patterns as the final element of asserting an explanation.
Or, as does the undergraduate in the example below, the writer may choose simply to stop writing when he or she reaches the end of the poem:
The poem ends with a vague statement: “And all that mighty heart is lying still!” In this line, the city’s heart could be dead, or it could be simply deceiving the one observing the scene. In this way, the poet reinforces the conflict between the appearance of the city in the morning and what such a scene and his words actually reveal.
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