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, no exact method, or even a sense of exactly where to start—except, well, to start reading closely.

Where should interpretation begin? How do you begin beginning?

Sometimes a first impression of the poem is a way in, perhaps something that strikes you as odd or unsettling or familiar; 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 often tells you things that your eye cannot; sometimes just looking at the physical shape of the poem (the organization of the words and lines on the page) can tell you something about the poem, and for this reason, putting two poems beside each other and comparing their shapes can tell you much; and sometimes it takes a while to get any impression of it at all—poetry can both invite and resist, and sometimes at the same time. The goal, however, is constant: you want to come to a deeper understanding of 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. We should also remind ourselves that reading a poem is itself a kind of experience—a real experience.

And as you go through these overlapping questions, don’t be content with a yes or a no answer. Naturally, there is much else behind, as it were, any poem: history, contexts, culture, biography, psychology, gender, politics, and all those things tied to material time and place and person—and in the end you may go there, since some poems demand it, and some more than others. And very often, operating behind and within a poem is other poetry; here, understanding of things like a literary tradition and allusion can swell the meaning of a poem. There are also a variety of literary theories and critical approaches that can be used as a lens to see the poem.

But first things first: read closely!

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 more extensive lists, you can consult either of these sites: Poets’ Grave or Representative Poetry Online.