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


Poetic form usually refers to the structure that holds or gives shape to the poem—in a way, what it looks like to you on the page; and so one place to begin is to simply describe what the poem looks like, and how this influences how you read the poem. This will include groupings or sets of lines, called stanzas. Another, more interesting way to consider form is to say that it necessarily determines the content of the poem, especially in the case of a particular genre, like a ballad, epic, or sonnet; these specific forms (sometimes called closed forms) often have structures and stylistic conventions that are both structural and that convey units of meaning or conventions of rhyme, meter, or expression. If the poem you are reading has a particular form or structure determined by genre, learn something about the conventions of that genre, since this can direct your attention to certain expectations or pattern of content.

  • What is the physical shape or form of the poem as you see it on the page? How is it arranged? Does it look random, symmetrical, evenly shaped, rigid, continuous, scattered? Long lines, short lines, lots of white space? Does the visual shape initially suggest anything about the poem?
  • Is the poem of a particular genre? What are its conventions?
  • If it doesn’t fit particular genre, how would you describe its form? What does it look like on the page, and how does this influence your response to the poem?
  • Is the form of the poem regular or changing, and what does this possibly suggest?
  • What is the relationship between form and meaning in the poem?
  • Are there clear parts to the poem, and if so, how are they similar/different?

Poems that do not follow determined, formal conventions or genre have an open form.

[Key terms: style, stanza, genre, closed form, open form, ballad, epic poem, sonnet.]