Poetry Explications: When Living Was a Labor Camp
A poetry explication is a relatively short analysis which describes the possible meanings and relationships of the words, images, and other small units that make up a poem. Writing an explication is an effective way for a reader to connect a poem's plot and conflicts with its structural features. This handout reviews some of the important techniques of approaching and writing a poetry explication, and includes parts of two sample explications.
- READ the poem silently, then read it aloud (if not in a testing situation). Repeat as necessary.
- Consider the poem as a dramatic situation in which a speaker addresses an audience or another character. In this way, begin your analysis by identifying and describing the speaking voice or voices, the conflicts or ideas, and the language used in the poem.
The Large Issues
Determine the basic design of the poem by considering the who, what, when, where, and why of the dramatic situation.
· What is being dramatized? What conflicts or themes does the poem present, address, or question?
· Who is the speaker? Define and describe the speaker and his/her voice. What does the speaker say? Who is the audience? Are other characters involved?
· What happens in the poem? Consider the plot or basic design of the action. How are the dramatized conflicts or themes introduced, sustained, resolved, etc.?
· When does the action occur? What is the date and/or time of day?
· Where is the speaker? Describe the physical location of the dramatic moment.
· Why does the speaker feel compelled to speak at this moment? What is his/her motivation?
To analyze the design of the poem, we must focus on the poems' parts, namely how the poem dramatizes conflicts or ideas in language. By concentrating on the parts, we develop our understanding of the poem's structure, and we gather support and evidence for our interpretations.
The explication should follow the same format as the preparation: 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: "This 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.
An undergraduate recently began an explication of Wordsworth's "Composed upon
" in the following way: Westminster Bridge
This poem 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
, the speaker looks at Westminster Bridge 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. London
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 here, 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.
Tips to keep in mind
1. Refer to the speaking voice in the poem as "the speaker" or "the poet." For example, do not write, "In this poem, Wordsworth says that
is beautiful in the morning." However, you can write, "In this poem, Wordsworth presents a speaker who…" We cannot absolutely identify Wordsworth with the speaker of the poem, so it is more accurate to talk about "the speaker" or "the poet" in an explication. London
2. Use the present tense when writing the explication. The poem, as a work of literature, continues to exist!
3. To avoid unnecessary uses of the verb 'to be' in your compositions, the following list suggests some verbs you can use when writing the explication: