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A Guide in Poetry Explication

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A Guide in Poetry Explication
a collaborate guide between @Rumpelstiltskin, @forever_dreaming, and @just.a.willow.tree

What is poetry explication?

This is the attempt to analyze a poem thoroughly, giving full attention to its complexities of form and meaning. It can provide a detailed explanation of the manner in which the language and formal structure of a poem work to achieve "unity of form and content"1 and typically emphasizes the oftentimes complex obscurities of the piece while taking into account a work's meaning and stylistic features.2  In other words, by taking a closer look at the literary devices within the poem and analyzing a poem both as a whole and in parts, deeper and more elaborate meaning can often be found within and interpreted from a poem.

Why is analyzing and interpreting a poem important?

Not only can it this be a highly entertaining way to exercise your critical-thinking skills while you ponder about the potential deeper meaning of words and variances in lines or rhyme, it can also help you more fully understand a poem (or understand the multiple meanings of a poem). In turn, this can assist you in becoming a stronger poet (or learn how to write poetry) as it strengthens your understanding of poetic devices and how they work. It's the hands-on approach to comprehending poetry.

What do you mean by "poetic devices"?

In essence, poetic devices are tools that poets can use to achieve or enhance elements within their piece (ie: create rhythm, alter or intensify a poem's meaning, create and magnify mood or feeling, etc.) While you may be familiar with some of the devices as used in poetry, throughout this guide we will be discussing them in terms of poetry. These devices act as pieces that, when put together, create the entire poem much like the planks used to create a dock or puzzle pieces. 

For the sake of brevity, we won't be going through each device individually (you're very welcome), but +HERE (AA) is a link to absolutely stunning PDF that wraps up the gist of the list of poetic devices (complete with definition) and how they can be used within a poem.

You can use these devices to not only create and enhance your own poetry but to analyze and interpret others' poetry as well (which is exactly what we're going to be doing). 

Holy Wordsworth, Batman! This seems complicated.

It might seem complex at first glance (kind of like cutting a pineapple) but don't let it deceive you. Once we get started, you'll probably find that it's fairly simple and a fun way to spend your Saturday nights (like cutting a pineapple). The problem is that, like with learning anything new (ie: cutting a pineapple), you can be told how to do something a hundred times but it's not until after you've actually taken your knife to that sweet-smelling fruit that you truly begin to understand the 400-something words of gibberish (and super-awesome link to important supplemental material) that have been thrown at you. 

While keeping your list of poetic devices and how they work in mind (that you can find in that glorious link up there ^), I'm going to show you a couple examples of how some of them can work in explicating a poem as well a step-by-step method to explicating a poem.

Alright, fine, show me already.

Well, okay, but only because you put me on the same level as Batman earlier.

We're going to delve more deeply into the elements of a specific poem in just a moment, but before we get started, here is a general checklist of things to notice while reading poetry. Sometimes not all of the techniques below will come into play; this is simply so you might have a clearer understanding of what to look for when reading poetry. If any of the terms below confuse you, here is a glossary of poetic terms+. And without further ado, here we are:

  • Title: What does the title alone reveal about the poem?
  • Denotative Meaning: What is the literal meaning of the poem?
  • Speaker + Audience: Who is telling the story? Whom is the poem intended for?
  • Tone: Which words accurately sum up the characteristics of the poem? (e.g. despairing, hopeful, vengeful, humorous)
    • Additionally: What are the connotations of words that stand out?
    • Tonal Shifts: Is there a section in the poem where the overall tone changes into another?
  • Form: Is the poem structured in stanzas, or are there none at all? What is noticeable about the arrangement of the lines in the piece?
  • Rhyme Scheme: What are the patterns of rhymes, if any?
  • Figurative Language: Are there similes, metaphors, personification, hyperboles, etc.?
    • Sound: How does the poet use alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc. to enhance the poem?
  • Other Details: Is there anything particularly unusual about the piece?
    • How many syllables are in each word?
    • Does the poet use punctuation to quicken or slow down the pace?
    • Which specific descriptions evoke the most vivid images?
    • Is there anything that the poet may have intentionally not used, such as phrases mentioned in previous stanzas but left out in other stanzas?

Now we'll begin analyzing!


First, we'll need a poem. We're going to be using a short poem to keep things from spiraling out of control into a poetry-analyzing fiesta. So, we're going to be looking at "Not Waving but Drowning" by Stevie Smith.

The reason behind wanting to use this poem is because none of this author's poems are easily classified though they are modeled on some simple, conventional forms. (Notable and interesting facts about this author: she was born Florence Margaret Smith in Hull, Yorkshire in 1902; because of her mother's continuous ailments, she was primarily raised by her aunt in Northern London; she often presents her macabre works with surprising humorous or childlike elements that have led critics to believe that she was, in fact, a cunning satirist of "conventional forms of poetic expression".3)

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Good, we've completed step one.


As briefly as possible (ideally in one to two sentences, depending on the length on the poem), explain what the poem was about. In this step, you will be taking everything LITERALLY. Nothing exists past the face-value of each word during this step.

Keeping this in mind, we can assess from this poem something akin to: "A man went swimming and died because his companions misinterpreted his actions as waving while he was, instead, drowning."


Identify the speaker and the speaker's audience. Is the speaker the poet or a character/persona they've created? What is the tone of the voice? Can you find any irony in the speaker's voice?

In this poem, there are two identified speakers ("They" and "the dead man") and one unidentified speaker (the narrator).

The narrator seems particularly impersonal and acts as more of an informant than anything else while the two identified speakers bring a little more to the table in terms of tone.

"They" seem fairly ridiculous at first glance -- a presumable group of companions to "the dead man" who are (at best) only mildly perturbed by the "poor chap's" death and appear to be completely ignorant of the fact that this man died by drowning (and was seeking their help). The tone is further emphasized by the fact that they find another, not-related reason for his death.

The dead man's tone can only be identified as somewhat desperate and brimming with what I can guess is despair.

With all of this being said, I think we can all agree that the irony is STRONG here.


What is the poem's structure and how is it organized? Does it play heavily into rhyme and meter? What about punctuation? Is there any punctuation or are they enjambled? Is there any variation to any of these elements throughout the poem and, if so, where?

As I've mentioned before, it's usually a little difficult to identify Smith's poems and "Not Waving but Drowning" is no exception. The closest form that this poem to which this poem can be related is ballad meter [which contains altering lines of iambic tetrameter (four metrical feet per line) and iambic trimeter (three metrical feet per line) with each using a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable]. It is, however, imperfect in that there are several variances and exceptions to the traditional ballad. For example, in stanza two lines six and eight are too short and line seven is far too long.

The poem is divided into three common quatrains [four-lined stanzas]. The rhymes within the first stanza are imperfect but are still represented in an ABCB pattern (in that the first and third lines do not rhyme with anything but the second and fourth lines rhyme with each other). The words "moaning" and "drowning" are not exact rhymes, which makes them "imperfect rhymes". The other two stanzas follow the same pattern (though stanza two has the exact rhymes "dead" and "said"). This, of course, follows the trend of balladeering with a little bit of imperfection.

Then, of course, if we really take a look at the stresses of the syllables, we'll find even more imperfections. Just look at the first line:

"Nobody heard him, the dead man"

That isn't iambic meter at ALL! In fact, it's the reverse of an iamb -- a trochee. However, we still consider the poem to be presented in iambic meter (with, of course, some trochaic variations) but since the iambs outnumber the trochees, it is technically classified as iambic meter. 

The real question is IS she poking fun at conventional meter or does she have other reasons for altering the form so dramatically? In theory, it could be as simple as altering the flow or rhythm of the work or even creating natural pauses and emphases.

Want to learn more about rhythm and meter? You can find some supplemental information +here.


Next we’re going to identify any devices that bring deeper or alternative meanings to the poem, transforming it from our initial literal interpretation into something else completely. Are there any instances of symbolism? What about imagery? Can you find any similes, metaphors, personification, etc.?

One of the most prominent elements we can identify in this poem is that swimming is a metaphor for life or being alive. When you look at the act of swimming (staying afloat or not drowning) in terms of the metaphor, the entire poem begins to shift. The already dismal tale of the dead man becomes more tragic as we shift gears into the piece’s underlying meaning: the man struggled his whole life with people misinterpreting his plea for help until it was too late and, even then, they still overlooked their own ignorance.

Taking this into account, when we look at the lines “I was much further out than you thought” and “I was much too far out all my life,” the struggle of this man’s life began to fall into place. The metaphorical meaning for life becomes, you struggle to stay afloat in life (asking for help that will not come) until you die.


Take into account any and all devices that affect the sound of the poem. These devices can include use of repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc. How do they contribute to the poem?]

Take a look at this line:

“Oh, no no no, it was too cold always”

We find a repetition of “nos” without punctuation between them, indicating that there is no pause between them. Remember how I previously mentioned that Smith likes to add humorous or childlike elements to her rather macabre works? The satire of this line rings through as a perfect example of this. Combine that repetition of nos with the rest of the line and the tone truly rings through, mocking the speaker (‘they’) who can be said to represent mainstream society (blind to the struggle of others).


Look at anything unusual about the poem. Is there any odd punctuation, purposeful misspelling of words, or strange capitalization? Any unusual diction or atypical syntax? Any instance of unusual rhythm note?

By identifying a poem’s unique qualities, you might be able to identify deeper meaning within them.

Do you really think that the authors intended their poems to be read like this?

That's the age-old question, isn't it? In my opinion, yes (to a certain extent, at any rate). Perhaps the majority of poets didn't weave as much abstract meaning into their works as we can read out of it, but that is the beauty of poetry. We can analyze what we see and relate it to our personal struggles -- what you might see might not be what others see in a piece. Did you catch anything I didn't point out in my explication of Smith's "Not Waving But Drowning"? Did you interpret the poem differently?



Sources Cited

1Baldick, Chris.  Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, Second Edition, University of Oxford (2004), pp. 90
2Baldick, Chris. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, Second Edition, University of Oxford (2004), pp. 90-104
3Pearson Education, Inc. Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes, The British Tradition, Pearsons Prentice Hall, New Jersey (2005), pp.1224

Edited by Rumpelstiltskin
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