by Sara Lundquist
First of all, read it over and over. Read it out loud. Then read it out loud again. Practice different ways of placing emphasis to get the most meaning. (Poetry is a spoken art; it needs the human voice, your voice, to really live.)
All of the following can be part of a written explication, depending on the poem. Let the poem dictate to you. The extra dimension of poetry is in its insistence that meaning cannot be divorced from form. The purpose of an explication is to show, for an individual poem, how this is true. Therefore an explication is a discussion of the art and craft of language. An explication shows how the form deepens the meaning of the content.
Look up anything you don’t understand: an unfamiliar word, a place, a person, a myth, an idea. Look up words you DO understand, to help you articulate connotations. Become a dictionary addict. Make friends with the OED.
- State, very literally and in one or two sentences, what the poem is about. What is the most obvious statement you can make about the situation that the poem concerns itself with? Do not scare yourself with “deep meaning”: start literally. Paraphrase the poem.
- What is the emotion of the poem? How does the speaker feel about what he/she is talking about? What can you infer about this speaker, what kind of person is he/she? Remember that because most poems are about human beings they are often expressions of complicated, mixed, and conflicting emotions; always try thinking in terms of both/and rather than either/or. To whom is the speaker talking: to him/herself? to someone else? How does the audience of the poem affect it?
- Look at the poem. Describe the form of the poem, the design it makes on the page. For instance, is it divided into stanzas? Does it have long or short lines, or irregular? How does the form contribute to the content? Is it an inherited form (sonnet, sestina, etc.) or an invented one?
- Listen to the sounds of the poem. Does it rhyme? Does it use alliteration (repetition of beginning consonant sounds)? Does it have an interesting rhythm? What do the words sound like? Are they smooth, or harsh, or lilting, or dull? Do they move quickly or slowly?
- How did the poet organize the poem, and why? Is it a question and an answer? Is it a story? Is it a list? Is it a conversation? Is it a description? Where (emotionally speaking) does the poem begin and where does it end? Be willing to be surprised. Things often happen in poems to turn them around. A poem may seem to suggest one thing at first, then persuade you of its opposite, or at least of a significant change or qualification. Discuss the “journey” the poem takes from beginning to end.
- Be very alert to word choice. Discuss the kinds of language the poet uses. Are they simple and everyday words? words from a particular occupation or walk of life? are they slang words? abstract? philosophical? from religion, or sports, or banking? from the world of nature or love or domestic life, or politics or painting or childhood or computers or psychology or law? From what “world” of experience does a group of words derive? Be alert to unusual words or usual words used in an unusual way. Try to say why this word is effective, what kind of very particular meaning it communicates, what it suggests. Try substituting a synonym of the word and explain to yourself why the poet’s choice serves his/her purpose better. Look up the word in the OED and find out how old it is, what kind of journey it has taken to get to this poem.
- Be alert to repetitions of any kind: a repeated word, a repeated sound, a repeated idea, punctuation, part-of-speech, syntactical arrangement. Since repetition always serves to emphasize, what is being emphasized and why?
- Figurative language: What metaphors, similes, images does the poem use? When and why does the speaker use them? Keep in mind that a poet uses figurative language when more literal ways of speaking seem inadequate or inappropriate. Discuss what further dimensions of human experience can be delved into when the literal gives way to the figurative. (note well: both metaphors and similes are essentially comparisons: say what is being compared to what and why.)
- Meter??? Do you want to deal with it?
- Theme: take a stab at the poem’s theme. A poem’s subject will be its wonderfully particular, local, personal concerns; its “theme” will be that part of it that communicates more widely, that tries to say a “truth.” Be careful that you don’t reduce the poem to a cliché. Don’t turn corny or glib. Good poems record hard-won and sometimes devastating “truths.” Reading them well makes us struggle to know, feel, and express those things about living that are not easy to know, feel, or express.
Here is some of the specialized vocabulary of your profession; extremely beautiful and useful words.
© Sara Lundquist 2011
Alliteration is a literary device that repeats a speech sound in a sequence of words that are close to each other. Alliteration typically uses consonants at the beginning of a word to give stress to its syllable. Alliteration plays a very crucial role in poetry and literature:
- It provides a work with musical rhythms.
- Poems that use alliteration are read and recited with more interest and appeal.
- Poems with alliteration can be easier to memorize.
- Alliteration lends structure, flow, and beauty to any piece of writing.
Today, alliteration is often used to make slogans more memorable or to make children’s stories more fun to read out loud.
To further understand the meaning it often helps to take a look at examples of alliteration in poems.
Alliteration in Poems
There are numerous examples of alliteration in poems. For example:
Here are examples of alliteration taken from The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe:
- Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary
- ...rare and radiant maiden
- And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
- Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before
In this Poe poem, weak and weary; rare and radiant; silken and sad; deep and darkness; and wondering and fearing are all examples of alliteration.
Other Literary Examples
- Hot-hearted Beowulf was bent upon battle - from Beowulf. This example of Medieval Anglo-Saxon poetry contains alliteration using Beowulf, bent and battle.
- Behemoth, biggest born of earth, upheaved His vastness - from Paradise Lost by John Milton. This example also contains alliteration with Behemoth and biggest born.
- Fly o'er waste fens and windy fields - from Sir Galahad by Alfred Tennyson. The example contains alliteration with fly, fens and fields.
- Mary sat musing on the lamp-flame at the table - from The Death of the Hired Man by Robert Frost. Here, the alliteration is Mary and musing.
- For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky - from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Sky and sea are alliterative devices here.
Alliteration in Nursery Rhymes
Mother Goose poems contain a great deal of alliteration. For example:
Betty Botter by Mother Goose
Betty Botter bought some butter, but, she said, the butter’s bitter; if I put it in my batter it will make my batter bitter, but a bit of better butter will make my batter better.
So she bought a bit of butter better than her bitter butter, and she put it in her batter and the batter was not bitter. So ’twas better Betty Botter bought a bit of better butter.
Three Grey Geese by Mother Goose
Three grey geese in a green field grazing, Grey were the geese and green was the grazing.
Baker’s Reply to the Needle Salesman by Unknown
I need not your needles, They’re needless to me, For kneading of needles, Were needless, you see; But did my neat trousers, But need to be kneed, I then should have need of your needles indeed.
Alliteration in Tongue Twisters
Alliteration also makes tongue twisters even more difficult to say:
- Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers How many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?
- How much wood would a woodchuck chuck If a woodchuck would chuck wood? A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could chuck If a woodchuck would chuck wood.
- Silly Sally swiftly shooed seven silly sheep. The seven silly sheep Silly Sally shooed shilly-shallied south. These sheep shouldn’t sleep in a shack; Sheep should sleep in a shed.
Alliteration in Children's Books
Dr. Suess commonly used alliteration to make his books imminently readable. For example:
Through three cheese trees three free fleas flew. While these fleas flew, freezy breeze blew. Freezy breeze made these three trees freeze. Freezy trees made these trees’ cheese freeze. That’s what made these three free fleas sneeze.
Alliteration in Advertising
Alliteration has also become a common tool in advertising. Check out these two examples:
- “You'll never put a better bit of butter on your knife." (advertising slogan for Country Life butter)
- "The daily diary of the American dream." (a slogan of The Wall Street Journal)
Alliteration Then and Now
The application of alliteration in poetry and literature began ages ago, at the time when literature was born. It was widely applied in the 8th century poem entitled Beowulf for instance. Alliteration was widely celebrated in the writings of the most ancient Germanic and Norse works, including the prose, Edda.
Alliteration is a creative tool used in turning prose and poetry into more interesting and memorable pieces of literature, especially when recited. This device is now even commonly used by advertisers to create witty and memorable catchphrases and tag lines. It’s a fun play of words that brings out the imagination of the writer and the reader.