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

Keywords: Diction, Register, & Tone

Pay very close attention to what individual words mean—and especially to what you think might be keywords, since this is where meaning can be concentrated.

  • Which words stand out, and why?

Consider how words may carry more than one meaning. A dictionary is useful, especially one based on historical principles, since it will point to how the meanings of words may have changed over time. For, example, silly once meant helpless; awesome might not mean really cool, but suggest feelings of deep reverence or inspiration—or even the sublime.

  • Do any words carry non-contemporary or unfamiliar meanings?
  • Do any words likely carry multiple and/or ambiguous meanings?
  • Do repeated words carry the same meaning when repeated, or do they change meaning? Words often evolve in meaning when repeated.
  • Do particular words or phrases seem drawn to or connected with each other? These often add up so that a clearer sense of the poem emerges. Words with similar sounds can also draw attention to each other?
  • Do certain words seem to clash with each other, and what effect does this have? Think in terms of oppositions, tensions, conflicts, and binaries..
  • Do you notice lots of things (nouns) or lots of action (verbs)? Is the poem concrete, about specific things and places, or is the poem more abstract, about concepts or ideas? Is the poem full of movement, or does it seem to stay still and look at or consider one thing?

Consider word choice, or diction:

  • Is the word choice distinctive? Does it add up to a kind of style—for example, is it elaborate, dense, simple, old-fashioned, formal, conversational, descriptive, abstract, or any other quality?
  • How would you describe the level of language and vocabulary ( register): informal, formal, common, casual, neutral, mixed?

Tone. Address the tone of the speaker or narrator, which is the attitude taken by the poem’s voice toward the subject of the poem:

  • What is the attitude taken by the voice of the poem toward the subjects of the poem? Is the tone serious, ironic, amorous, argumentative, distant, intimate, somber, angry, playful, cheerful, despondent, conversational, yearning, etc.—or is it mixed, changing, ambiguous, or unclear? Remember that tone often changes in the course of a poem.
  • Is there any kind of realization about the subject that the speaker of the poem comes to? What is that realization?
  • Does that voice seem to be aware of YOU, the reader? Can you even tell this? In short, what is the attitude of the speaker to YOU, since, as reader, you are part of the poem’s subject?

[Key terms: style, diction, register, tone, irony, ambiguity.]