Thursday, October 02, 2008


Since Sisyphus was kind enough to ask, here's the handout I give when I start teaching explications. (And I can always use help making this better, please!)

An explication is an unfolding of a passage, a thesis-driven essay that makes an argument about how a passage works by focusing on aspects such as diction, form, metaphor, imagery, and so forth. While an explication may include a short paraphrase of the passage, the main focus is on how the passage makes its meaning, rather than what it means.

How to write an explication:

Explications are HARD to write well, but are great at developing skills in really careful, attentive reading. They do take a good deal of work, though, so give yourself time, and don’t plan on doing them at one sitting.

Here are the steps I use (and I use explication when I work on understanding a text to teach it or write about it). I do freewriting and draw in my pre-writing brainstorming because it’s important to me to have notes to work from when I start writing the essay or working on class/essay notes.

1) Read the passage. Look up words. Figure out what the passage means at a basic level.

2) Look up more words. Think about what alternatives or other words might have been used. Think about the connotations of different words and how you react to them.

3) Read the passage aloud (more than once or twice), and think about how it feels in your mouth and how it sounds. In the case of verse, you want to think about enjambment and end-stopping, rhyme and how strong it is, rhythm, aspects such as alliteration, and so forth. Are there places where the verse makes you slow down? Why? What’s the effect? Conversely, are there places where you speed up? There's no singel answer for what a technique such as alliteration "does." On the most basic level, these things make you pay closer attention, draw words together in your mind, and so forth.

4) Draw or work out imagery in some way. This is especially important for literature that describes art (ekphrasis) because there’s often a sense that talking about how graphic art works also gives us a sense of how textual art works. That is, literature about art is often also literature about literature.

5) What do you think the passage is doing? How is it doing that? Is it effective? Ineffective?

Okay, now you have your working thesis (how the passage is doing what it’s doing). Outline or rough out your argument, quoting from the passage when it helps you make your point. Develop your point with examples. You may need to reference other works (the OED, or a work on poetic techniques, if you want to talk about how metaphor works or something).

Once you’ve got your draft written, think of a title that has something to do with your argument. Don’t use “Explication” because it doesn’t help your reader get a sense of your argument.

Final notes: You probably don’t need to talk about the verse being iambic pentameter unless there’s a moment that makes that interesting. Just noting that in and of itself isn’t that useful, mostly.


  1. Hey this is great - thanks for posting it!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Anonymous2:02 PM

    This is fabulous - thanks for sharing, Bardiac (and I love that last para).

  4. Medieval Woman, Thanks :)

    Mrs. C., Thanks, and sure, link away!

    Fifi, thank you :)

  5. thanks for posting this Bardiac, it really helped me for my poetry test!

  6. Adam Glasier3:25 PM

    I'm from Mrs. C's class, and I'd just like to thank you so that she knows I was here! I'm even bookmarking this page for future reference!

  7. Kaley McCarthy2:08 PM

    Thank you so much!!
    I'm also from Mrs. C's class and I fully intend to keep this right by my side as I am doing my final studying for our wonderful poetry test tomorrow

  8. Anonymous9:56 AM

    Thank you for those tips on explication. I shall use those when I have new poems to read and explicate.

  9. Yeah, been losing my mind over a poetry test we've had ages to study for - and of course, I've only really cracked down on that in the last week. This is very helpful! Thank you so much!

    (I'm from Corcoran's class, by the way.)

  10. Anonymous7:48 PM

    I am also from Mrs. C's class and hopefully your advice will help in the future.

  11. Nicole S1:49 PM

    This will be very helpful for the rest of the year. Maybe I'll be able to understand stories better now. (I'm from Mrs. C's class)

  12. Emily W.5:23 PM

    Thank you very much for the wonderful tips. This post has definitely helped me feel a wee bit more confident in understanding poetry and breaking it down.

    (From Mrs. C's class, 2012...woot!)

  13. Nicole S6:44 PM

    This will be very helpful for the rest of the year. Maybe using these tips will help me understand poems better. (I'm from Mrs. C's class)

  14. Devin K1:02 PM

    Thank you so much! This is a really helpful strategy for bettering my understanding of poems. I'll definitely be revisiting this page throughout the year.
    (I'm from Mrs. C's class)

  15. Keely Geise5:50 PM

    (Also a Mrs. C original) I was thoroughly pleased when I realized I already do a lot of these things! This does a wonderful job of organizing the steps in a concise way and I intend on referencing it for my studying our poetry packet and for the test!

  16. Laura Woods6:04 PM

    This is wonderfully written and extremely helpful for our poetry exam coming up. Thank you so much for writing this and I plan to revisit it whenever I need to do some explicating. (I'm from Mrs. C's class.)

  17. Nick Berdyck5:31 AM

    This is awesome. I wish I would of looked at it more and sooner than I did, but still very "halp-ful"
    (Mrs. C's)

  18. This is great advice, very helpful. Thank you! (I'm from mrs. c's class)

  19. Eliz Arnavut4:13 PM

    This is really helpful. Thank you!
    (Mrs. C's class)

  20. Abby K.3:29 AM

    Thank you for the help, I took notes and bookmarked it! (Mrs. C's class)

  21. thank you very much! this very helpful to understand the idea of poetry
    (Mrs. C's class)

  22. Ryan Meredith10:04 AM

    Thank you for the information. I found this very helpful (Mrs. C's class).

  23. I like this... I like this a lot. Thank you Mrs. Corcoran
    P.S. Abby is an overachiever.

  24. This was essential for my tear-down of poetry.