Interpreting Poetry Poems

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A Guide for Explication of Poetry

What is SWIMTAG?

S   W(x2)   I   M(x2) T(x2)   A   G

Sounds - What do you hear?

  • alliteration
  • assonance
  • repetition of words or sounds?
    • B, D, G, P, T, K - stops - hard, harsh sounds
    • S, F, Z, H - softer: wind, whispers
    • M, N - nasals - moaning, humming, rumbling, possibly sadness
    • L, R - liquids - flowing, trilling
    • O, U - round, impressive, monumental, solemn sounds

Read passage aloud, noting any obvious effects. (Consider Sound with Meter)

Word Order - First and last positions in line are places of importance.

  • Note series of words, phrases, sentences (build-up, let-down).
  • Note:
    • juxtaposition
    • oxymoron
    • asyndeton (non-stop action)
    • polysyndeton (heaping, piling-on)
    • ellipsis
    • chiasmus (balance, completion, embracing)
    • synchesis (often interlocks meaning also, impressionistically), framing (words actually surround central objects)
    • anastrophe
    • tmesis
    • hysteron-proteron (overturning, reversal, emphasis)
    • anaphora (demands attention)
Note HOW these figures affect the message.

Word Choice - any unusual words, or unusual use of ordinary words; echoes of law, religion, other literary passages; exotic or foreign words?

Images - What pictures form in your mind as you read? Note similes, metaphors, hyperbole, contrast, colors, concrete objects.

Meter - Scan by reading aloud

  • note preponderance of dactyls or spondees in any lines
    dactyls - faster, lighter, lilting; spondees - slower, heavier, grander.
  • Several elisions together - halting, emotional, fearful. Rhythm often reflects pace or mood of narrative.

Mood - What feelings come through?
Look at adjectives and verbs. Is it formal, tragic, frightening, joyous, foreboding?

Tone - Can you sense or infer the author's attitude about the characters or the action (from choice of words or actual comments to reader)?

Theme - How does the passage relate to the overall theme(s) of the work?
Note philosophical beliefs and/or political program.

Allusions - Note proper nouns - myths, customs, beliefs, history, geography. Note significance and how and what these add to the passage.


  • Look at pattern of verb tenses - any unexpected?
  • Look at person of verb. Who speaks? - To whom?
  • Tone formal or intimate? (2nd sing. - more intimate)
  • Many passive verbs?
  • Imperatives imply authority;
  • Gerundives, obligation.
  • Interjections imply strong emotion)
  • Is sentence structure convoluted, complex? Are sentences short, abrupt? Does sentence structure reflect action?

Source: Sally Davis, American Classical League

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J.Jahnige 2000
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