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


Terms used on this site

Addressee: The person or thing (for example a tree, idea, or emotion) to whom the voice in the poem is speaking.
Allegory: A story in which objects, actions, or characters have a hidden message or larger meaning beyond it, often a moral one.
Alliteration: The use of the same consonant sound to begin two or more words or stressed syllables.
Allusion: What appears to be an intentional reference to something outside to the poem (a person, place, thing, event, a text), often indirect, but adding to and sometimes complicating the meaning; often an allusion in a poem is made to another poem.
Ambiguity: The presence of two or more possible meanings in a word, phrase, or figure of speech. Ambiguity allows for alternative meanings without necessary incorrectness. In a more general sense, ambiguity tells us things are not as they seem.
Assonance: The use of the same or similar vowel sounds in two or more words or syllables, which draws attention to the connection between the two words or syllables, and can draw attention to what the sounds mimic or suggest (e.g., cave/fate).
Ballad: A simple narrative poem often in four-line stanzas, usually on a tragic subject, and often with a refrain. The rhyme is usually in the 2nd and 4th lines, and is characterized by certain repeating elements. Its origin is in popular song.
Blank verse
Blank verse: Poetry of ten regular beats per line, but not rhymed; most often iambic (and therefore iambic pentameter); perhaps the most common form in the English tradition.
Closed form
Closed Form: Type of poetry that follows a classified, general, or traditional form (as opposed to open form).
Concrete poetry
Concrete poetry: Poetry shaped by a visual organization of the words on the page; most of the meaning is determined by how the poem looks.
Conflict: Opposing elements within the speaker (inner conflict), between the speaker and something else, or between elements.
Connotation: A word’s suggested meaning in addition to its literal meaning, often conveying an emotional or sensory response (as opposed to “denotation”).
Consonance: The repititon of the same consonant sound or sounds in two or more words or syllables following different vowel sounds, which draws attention to the connection between the two words or syllables, and can draw attention to what the sounds mimic or suggest (e.g., black/block).
Couplet: Two consequitive end-rhyming lines of poetry, and often of the same metric length, and often acting as a contained statment.
Denotation: The literal meaning of a word (as opposed to what it suggests).
Diction: The poem’s manner of speaking; affected by tone, register, and general style; in general, word choice or vocabulary.
Dramatic monologue
Dramatic monologue: A poem with a created speaker and strongly implied listeners; often we learn more about that speaker than her or his subject.
Enjambment: A line of poetry that runs on to the next line without being end-stopped by punctuation. A line not enjambed is usually called end-stopped.
A line of poetry that comes to a natural stop at its end, as a result of its punctuation or the completion of a thought (a line not end-stopped is enjambed). This can be complicated by lines that appear purposely end-stopped without a completed thought.
Epic poem
Epic poem: A long, serious, narrative poem, usually centered on the adventures or deeds of a hero; often has mythological or nationalistic dimensions.
Figures of speech
Figures of speech: Words or phrases that are unusual and not literal in their meaning; metaphors, similes, personification, puns, allusion, and irony are all examples.
Foot: The basic metrical unit of poetry: a group of syllables determined by accent, either stressed (/) or unstressed (x); the trochee (/ x), iamb (x /), dactyl (/ x x ), spondee (/ /), and anapest (x x /) are the most common feet.
Genre: In the case of poetry, a distinct category of poems with its own history, conventions, style, form, and/or subject; for example, the epic is a genre. In a more general sense, genre refers to a literary type, like fiction, poetry, and drama.
Ideal reader
Ideal reader: The type of “imagined” person receptive to and understanding of the poem.
Imagery: The poem’s sensory content, when senses are evoked by words (for example, imagery connoting death and darkness).
Irony: Something is ironic when an obvious meaning differs from (and quite often contradicts) a suggested meaning.
Lyric poem
Lyric poem: A poem (usually short) with one speaker; often expresses a person’s feelings, thoughts, and/or observations, though impersonal lyrics also exist. The most dominant poetic form since the Romantic era.
Metaphor: A figure of speech in which two different things are compared implicitly, so that the comparison clarifies and expands the meaning (for example, “All the world’s a stage”). However, some metaphors challenge or complicate the meaning, and require some work or conjecture for understanding.
Meter: The pattern of stressed (/) and unstressed (x) syllables in a poetic line. There are several basic types of meter. Each type depends on how many metric feet there are in the poetic line.
Melody: The overall sound structure of a poem, as opposed to its rhythm (for example, rhyme, consonance, and assonance all contribute to a poem’s melody).
Iambic pentameter
Iambic pentameter: A ten-syllable line of poetry composed of five iambic feet. An iamb has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, and is the most common type of English poetic foot.
Narrative: A series of connected events that form a story.
Narrator: The person who tells a story.
Open form
Open Form: Type of poetry that does not follow a traditional form (as opposed to closed form).
Paradox: A figure of speech that seems contradictory and impossible, but might actually be true (“cold fire” is a paradoxical phrase).
Persona: The character or assumed voice in a poem; not the actual poet; for example, the persona of a poem might be an animal, an assumed character for poetic reasons or particular point of view.
Personification: A figure of speech in which an idea, object, or thing is described as if it were human (for example, in “The breath of autumn’s being,” autumn is personified).
Point of view
The perspective from which something is spoken.
Register: The level of language often determined as either formal or informal, and recognizable mainly by vocabulary, syntax, subject, and context.
Rhyme: Effect where two words have the same, or nearly the same, final consonant and vowel sound. When these sounds are identical, it is a perfect rhyme; when they are not quite identical, it is a slant rhyme (for example, “less” and “loss” form a slant rhyme; “less” and “dress” form a perfect rhyme).
Rhythm: The speed at which and cadence of how lines, stanzas, and poems move, as determined by their meter and/or their length.
Simile: A figure of speech in which two very different things are directly compared using the words “as” or “like” (for example, “My love is like a melody; She is as the world”).
Slant rhyme
Slant rhyme: A kind of imperfect or non-exact rhyme; sometimes called a near-rhyme, half-rhyme, or imperfect rhyme. For example, world/worm, all/soul, moon/on.
Speaker: The person “speaking” or writing the words of the poem—not the author of the poem, unless the conditions of the poem make the connection between the speaker and the author unambiguous.
Sonnet: A poem of 14 lines, often in one of two styles—English (Shakespearean) or Italian (Petrarchan)—and usually introducing, in order, a problem, a turn, and a resolution.
Stanza: A group of lines, separated by a space from another group. Stanzas often share a distinct “shape” based on line length, meter, and/or rhyme scheme. Free verse stanzas often have no fixed shape.
Stress: The emphasis placed upon a particular syllable (called a “stressed syllable”).
Style: The way a poem expresses itself; the qualities that, taken together, make the poem distinct.
Symbol: Something (person, place, thing, event) that represents a quality beyond itself, often an abstract quality; a rose represents love, and is therefore a symbol of love.
How words and phrases are organized and arranged in sentences.
Theme: The larger, more general, or universal message (or messages) in the poem.
Tone: The attitude taken by the poem’s voice toward the subject or subjects in the poem.
Voice: The sound of a particular poetic speaker, encompassing tone, diction, rhythm, and melody; it may or may not be embodied in a definable character.