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

Time & Setting

  • Does the poem take place in one time (the present, the past, the future) or does it move back and forth between times?
  • Does the poem present single actions in time or continuing actions?
  • Does the poem bring different times together or set them apart (e.g., then vs. now)?
  • Is there a particular occasion for the poem (for example, an incident, an event, a sight, a thought, a realization)?
  • Are different parts of the poem located in different times? What effect does this have?
  • Is the speaker of the poem strongly situated at a certain point in time and purposely looking at another point or points in time (very often the past, but sometimes, too, the future)—and if so, what relationship does the speaker have to those other times (these could be feelings or thoughts of, for example, regret, resolve, possible clarity, uncertainty)?
  • Does the poem focus on indicative states (I am, I will be) or conditional states (I could be, I would be)? Does the poem seem certain of things?
  • How does time move? Smoothly? Abruptly? In an uncertain way? Are different states of being, or different ways of thinking, associated with different times? (I used to think ‘X’, but now I think ‘Y’)?

Setting answers the questions Where? and When? in the poem, though often poems are not set in a specific location or time.

  • Is a sense of place clear (urban, pastoral, forest, desert, beach, etc.), or does the poem seem to occupy an abstract time and place (such as mental or emotional state—or an imagined place, like circles of hell)?
  • Where is the speaker? In the scene or setting of the poem? Looking at the scene? What relationship with the setting does the speaker seem to have (close, distant, uncertain)?
  • Does the setting itself suggest or create feelings or mood—in what way is this achieved?
  • Places like snowy woods, dark forests, gardens, crowded cites, and barren deserts all have fairly determined cultural meanings and associations. Does the poem invoke these associations or challenge them?

For some poems, a difficult but key question may be this:

  • Where are we?