How to Write a Poem ExplicationOr: Bane of the Literature StudentBy Christopher GreenSeptember 13, 2004To the chagrin of almost all Literature students, poems form a significant, if not equal, part in the courseas other forms of literature. This means that you really must be able to decipher their enigmatic mysteriesin order to succeed in the literary world. For those who have no aspirations in the literary world — youneed to know how to deal with poems to pass your classes, so you won’t be refused graduation fromcollege because you never passed your Freshman literature course.It is the sincerest wish of this author that he could present some encouraging advice to you regardingpoetry and its explications, but in his experience he found poems the most treacherous and difficultelements. Novels are usually straightforward. Short stories are pretty reasonable. But poems?Incomprehensible!Of course, that being said, we will now proceed to make sense of the insensible. The trick to explicatingpoems lies in the realization that you have a huge variety of options to choose from. You can pick ahandful of elements from dozens to discuss — structure, diction, subject matter, imagery, and so forth.The simplest method of explaining some of these things is by seeing them in a poem. Let us thereforelook a relatively unknown poem by Walter de la Mare, “The Listeners.”The Listeners‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,Knocking on the moonlit door;And his horse in the silence champed the grassesOf the forest’s ferny floor:And a bird flew up out of the turret,Above the Traveller’s headAnd he smote upon the door again a second time;‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.But no one descended to the Traveller;No head from the leaf-fringed sillLeaned over and looked into his grey eyes,Where he stood perplexed and still.But only a host of phantom listenersThat dwelt in the lone house thenStood listening in the quiet of the moonlightTo that voice from the world of men:Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,That goes down to the empty hall,Hearkening in an air stirred and shakenBy the lonely Traveller’s call.And he felt in his heart their strangeness,Their stillness answering his cry,While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,’Neath the starred and leafy sky;For he suddenly smote on the door, evenLouder, and lifted his head:-
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,That I kept my word,’ he said.Never the least stir made the listeners,Though every word he spakeFell echoing through the shadowiness of the still houseFrom the one man left awake:Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,And the sound of iron on stone,And how the silence surged softly backward,When the plunging hoofs were gone.