The Close Reading of Poetry
A Practical Introduction and Guide to Explication

Introduction: Poking and Probing with Questions

Welcome to the site! Our modest hope is that this resource offers lots of overlapping questions that may help you work your way into and through a poem.

What you will discover is that there is no single way to do a close reading of a poem, or even a sense of where to start. Where should interpretation begin?

Sometimes a first impression of the poem is a way in, perhaps something that strikes you as odd or unsettling; sometimes the voice in the poem stands out; sometimes it is a matter of knowing the genre of the poem; sometimes groupings of key words, phrases, or images are its most striking elements; sometimes reading the poem aloud can make you hear things that are not clear when you just read it to yourself—your ear can often tell you things that your eye cannot; and sometimes it takes a while to get any impression of it at all. The goal, however, is constant: you want to come to a deeper understanding of the poem. There are steps you can take toward this goal as well as specific elements you can look for and, as mentioned, questions you can ask that might help you to profitably explore the poem.

Keep in mind that whenever you interpret a poem, it has to be backed up by reference to the poem itself—to the poem’s own words and phrases. Remember, too, that no one close reading of a poem has ever solved or mastered that poem, and that rereading a poem or passage is often like doing a new reading: you often see more when you read a poem again, and you might even change your interpretation. Great poetry seems to be able to withstand (and even encourage) rereading.

Finally, a note on key terms: hundreds of terms are associated with the study of poetry. In our Guide, you will see we have selected only a few, mainly those that you might immediately apply to your close reading; you can scroll over these underlined words for their definitions. For a more extensive list, consult either of these sites: Poets’ Grave or Representative Poetry Online.