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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.)
- Meter??? Do you want to deal with it?
- 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.
- Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles,” by Sara Lundquist
- William Carlos Williams’s “Nantucket,” by Sara Lundquist