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

Word Order: Patterns, Repetition, & Rhythms

Focus on how the words are ordered. Look for patterns.

  • Is the word order or sentence structure ( syntax) unusual in any way, and what is the effect of this?
  • Is the word order straightforward and clear, or does it create ambiguity ambiguity in certain places?
  • Are some phrases and words repeated, and what is the effect of such repetition?
  • Are there any noticeable patterns in the ordering of words? If so, how do the patterns affect your reading and contribute to meaning?
  • Do the lines have strong end-stops, or do they break across lines (enjamb)? Do the lines end with a final stress or rhyme? Does each line tend to be a self-contained, grammatical unit, or does it vary?
  • Are there lots of long, complete sentences (simple or complex?), or are there many sentence fragments and phrases? Does the poem stop and start, or does it move or flow continuously? What is the effect of this?

Punctuation. Punctuation organizes and creates relationship between words, phrases, and sentences. In poetry, where lines are often seen as units of meaning, the importance of punctuation is sometimes magnified, though often overlooked. Punctuation can create or reinforce rhythm. It can also control meaning or make meaning uncertain by its placement and usage, especially if it is used minimally, or in some cases, not at all.

  • What role does punctuation have in the poem? Is it consistent? What does punctuation tell you about the pace and movement of the poem?
  • Does it follow accepted rules and conventions, or is it used in unusual ways?

[Key terms: syntax, ambiguity, enjambment, end-stopped line, stress, rhyme.]