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

Ideas & Theme

  • What are the ideas or thoughts or purposes in the poem? Are they simple or complex, small or large, many or few, hidden or clear, abstract or practical?
  • Does the meaning or significance of the poem seem intimately tied to a particular time, place, or person, to a certain culture or context? Or do the poem’s ideas move from the personal or particular to the universal—and if so, how and at what point does the poem seem to achieve this larger significance?
  • Is there one main problem in the poem? How does the poem think through that problem? Does the speaker seem to be struggling or confident about the larger ideas the poem expresses? Does the speaker seem to come to any conclusion about the main idea or ideas in the poem? What are those conclusion?
  • What are the ideas that the poem seeks to embody in images?
  • What is the poem’s process of thinking? Does it change its mind as it proceeds?
  • Does the poem proceed logically or illogically? Can you tell the way it is thinking, or is it unclear, opaque, and confusing?
  • How do the ideas change from line to line, stanza to stanza? Or does the poem keep probing the same idea throughout the poem?
  • Does the poem offer an argument? What is that argument?
  • Does the poem signal connections with other poems or texts, and to what extent do these connections change or form the meaning of the poem?
  • Does the poem primarily reflect a particular experience, feeling, or concept?

Theme. Purity is a subject, not a theme; purity is vulnerability or nothing is pure are themes. Theme, then, refers to a larger, more general, or universal message—a big idea—as well as to something that you could take away from the work and perhaps apply to life. One way to determine a theme is to

1) ask yourself what the poem is about;

2) come up with some one-word answers to that question (subjects of the poem); and

3) ask what general attitude ( tone) is taken towards those subjects in the poem.

You might conclude that, for example, love, trust, or loss are subjects. Now, try to figure out what the attitude in the poem is toward that one-word subject and you have theme—for example, love is dangerous, you cannot trust people close to you, loss makes you stronger. But don’t think this is always easy or straightforward: many poems resist reduction to simple themes or even subjects, and such resistance—sometimes in the form of ambiguity, paradox, abstraction, irony, or complexity—strengthens our interest in and engagement with the poem; uncertainty and mystery can be powerful. Poems are not necessarily answers, but they may announce or represent problems or questions.

[Key words: ambiguity, theme, tone, paradox.]