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

Speaker & Addressee; Narrative & Narrator

All poems have a voice, which can be called a speaker (or in some case speakers, if there is more than one person speaking the poem).

  • Who tells the poem? Are there things you can say about the speaker’s personality, point of view, tone, society, age, cultural position, or gender?
  • Does the speaker seem to have a particular kind of vocabulary? What kind of vocabulary is it—simple, odd, familiar, formal, etc?
  • Does the speaker assume a persona at any point in the poem, and speak as a particular person (e.g., I am Lazarus, come from the dead . . . I shall tell you all)?
  • Does the speaker seem attached or detached from what is said? That is, is the speaker somehow distant from (above) the poem’s subject or action?
  • What effect do the speaker’s characteristics have on the poem?

Likewise, all poems have a silent or implied listener/reader, an addressee.

  • Is it possible to figure out to whom (or what) the poem is addressed? Is there an ideal listener or reader?
  • Do you feel the speaker is speaking to you? And if so, what makes you think this? Do you like the speaker?
  • Does the speaker seek anything from the listener/reader (sympathy, support, agreement, etc.)?

Narrative & Narrator. Poems capture thoughts, ideas, feelings, impressions, experiences, and incidents, but sometimes poems also feature a clear story. Ask yourself:

  • Who tells the story, and what relationship does the narrator have to the story? Is the narrator more of a particpant or an observer?
  • What is happening in the poem? What action, drama, or conflict is present? Is there more than one event in the poem?
  • Does anything change in the poem (is an action completed, does an attempted action fail, or does someone change in an important way)?

[Key terms: speaker, addressee, tone, persona, point of view, ideal reader / listener, narrative, narrator, voice, conflict, dramatic monologue, lyric poem, irony, theme.]