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


You probably first read a poem to yourself, silently, but most poems also create sense though sounds, unlike concrete poetry, which generally operates visually. Try reading the poem aloud. Sound brings attention to both individual words that are drawn together through their sound as well as to the overall feeling or experience. For example, repetition of sounds like s, m, l, and f might encourage a soft or sensuous feeling: Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness . . .

  • What sounds do you notice in the poem? Does the sound of certain words stand out, and how do you think this influences meaning? Are some words drawn to each other by sounds—and what is the effect of this? What tone do these sounds create (quiet, loud, sensual, soothing, harsh, aggressive, etc.)?
  • How do the poem’s sounds contribute to its meaning? Does a particular sound or sounds dominate the poem? What is the effect of this?

Rhythm. A poem’s rhythm can be regular or irregular. When it has regular rhythmical sound patterns, we say the poem has a certain meter. The type of meter is based on the number of syllables per line and how many unstressed (x) or stressed (/) syllables there are. (“I WAN-dered LONE-ly AS a CLOUD“; x / x / x / x / ). A small, distinct group of accented words is called a foot (for example, a CLOUD; x /). The various meters—tetrameter, pentameter, etc.—are based on the number of feet per line. The meter in the above example has four regular feet, and is therefore tetrameter; each foot has an unstressed syllable [x] followed by a stressed one [/], and is called an iamb. We would then say that the line is in iambic tetrameter; if it had an extra foot—that is, five feet—we would call it iambic pentameter.

  • When you count out (scan) the syllables of a line, do they follow a rhythm? Is there a name for it?
  • How does the rhythm affect your reading? Does the rhythm have any influence on the poem’s meaning? If so, in what way or ways?

Also, think about the poems’s pace, whether it moves slowly or quickly, jerkily or fluidly.

  • Does the poem move differently at different places in the poem? What effect does this have? And how is this pacing achieved—with sentence structure, with more or less punctuation, with short or long lines?

Melody. Melody refers to sound effects, such as rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance, with each producing a unique melodic effect. Rhyme is a type of melody, and rhymes can be perfect with identical vowel sounds (guy and high) or slant, when the sound of the final consonants is identical, but not the vowels (shell and pill, cement and ant).

  • Do words at the end of lines rhyme? Why kind of rhymes are they? Do they form a pattern (a rhyme scheme) that is regular or irregular?
  • Do the rhyming words have any relationship with each other? Does the rhyme concentrate meaning in any way?

[Key terms: concrete poetry, rhyme, rhyme scheme, rhythm, meter, stress, alliteration, consonance, assonance, scansion, prosody, foot / feet, iambic pentameter, melody, slant rhyme, perfect rhyme, couplet, blank verse.]