Guidelines for close reading

What I gave my lit students a few hours back. With the advisement, the heavy lifting begins about now. Posting it here cuz it may not be a bad protocol to follow, if you’re ever asked, please close-read this poem, and you don’t know how to begin. Fellow teachers, yours to steal from; credit if you grab a lot?


Assignment: Close Reading Draft

Close reading is the heart of literary study. And it asks a challenging shift – from thinking about what a poem says, to thinking about what it does. With that difficulty in mind, I’m making some other things easier for you in this assignment. Specifically, I’m going to give you a template for this draft, so you don’t have to think about how to organize it. Later, when you revise, you can bust out of the template, find your own organization, one that suits the guiding question(s) or WTF moment(s)[1] you’ve uncovered in the drafting process.

Your draft should be in paragraph form, but follow the template below; include subheadings. Some sections will be short, some long, depending on the poem, and what in it interests you.

(0) Paraphrase

Begin by writing a paraphrase of the whole poem. This won’t be part of the essay, but it will ensure you know what the poem is actually saying, phrase by phrase. You can check your paraphrase against one you find online, but do not go to an online paraphrase before you do your own of the entire poem. If a paraphrase you find disagrees with yours, go back to the passage in question; if your source changes your view of that passage, change your paraphrase accordingly. But do not incorporate any wordings (cited or otherwise) from any source you find. The wording of your paraphrase must be your own, because at some point it may find its way into your essay.[2]

(1) Prosody

Scan the entire poem – mark each line for stresses and divide the line into feet. Also locate the caesuras. (We’ll go over this some more in class.) Don’t include this complete scansion in your draft; you may however want to include scansion of individual lines that are especially interesting. Do identify the dominant meter. Would you describe the meter as fairly regular or somewhat irregular? Most interesting will be spots where the meter varies in a way (a “substitution”) that mimics, underscores, or complicates the meaning. Locate any such spots and describe what happens there. And, any other interesting metrical or rhythmic effects you notice? Be sure to read the poem aloud; do any particular spots land strangely or interestingly on your ear?

 (2) Rhyme and stanza

Describe the rhyme scheme. Describe and/or name the stanza form. Do the rhyme scheme and stanza form have any noteworthy characteristics? (E.g., an abba quatrain has a feeling of closure and completion, while an abab quatrain has a leapfrog quality of forward movement.) Do those characteristics complement or complicate the poem’s content? Are there any internal rhymes or cross-rhymes worth noting? And, remembering that rhyme draws two words together in mind by drawing them together in sound, are there any rhymes that stand out as interesting or unusual? Finally, is there a refrain? If so, how is it varied, if it is? How does the refrain work in the poem? (imagine it gone – how does the poem change?)

(3) Other sound effects

Any noteworthy alliteration, assonance, consonance, euphony, dissonance, onomatopoeia? What relationship does that move (what the poem does) have to the content (what the poem says) at that moment? It might emphasize, complement, complicate, even undercut the content.

(4) The line

The line is the fundamental unit of the poem. It’s what makes a poem a poem. Each line is, in a sense, a little world – all we know of the real, for as long as we’re there. If there are lines that strike you as resonant, strange, important, or WTF, treat them as compositions: how do meter, rhythm, sound, diction, figures of speech, other moves come together in them, work in concert?

Also, think the line end, whether it’s end-stopped or enjambed. An enjambed line breaks in the middle of a syntactic unit. A poem can use enjambment to create suspense or forward momentum, or even to layer one meaning over another: you get one meaning at the line end, another one a bit later, when the thought completes in the next line. Look for such moments. If you find any, identify and describe them.

(5) Diction

Are there words that stand out as especially charged, interesting, strange, difficult, or problematic? Trust your WTF reactions here; they may mean that word that had a different use than it has now; or maybe its use was strange even in its time (e.g., “newfangleness”). Research the word in the Online Etymology Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary – what can you learn about the history of its usage? what secondary meanings did or does it have that might enhance your reading of the poem?

 (6) Metonymy

Are there any words or phrases that have a particular metonymic charge – that, more than most others, use our habits of association (“contiguity”) to call to mind other things, feelings, conditions, qualities, or actions? Be careful not to project modern or personal associations onto the poem; try to judge, from the context the poem provides, plus the cultural context you’ve been reading about, what associations the word or phrase would elicit in a contemporary reader.

 (7) Metaphor and simile

Where metaphor uses contiguity (next-to-ness) to elicit an association, metaphor uses similarity to assert an identity – an identity that’s not actually so, but if the metaphor works, it’s imaginatively right. There are implicit and explicit metaphors, local and extended metaphors, conceits and Metaphysical conceits, and (yuck) allegories, which we may avoid completely. Western literature loves metaphor because there’s something escapist at the heart of both.

What local metaphors are at work in the poem? What effects do they have? Is there an extended metaphor? If so, describe how it’s sustained, developed. Is it a conceit? If so, track its development, the different moves it makes, what gets identified with what. Finally, are there any similes in the poem? If so, what gets compared to what, and what are the effects or implications?

(8) Other figures of speech

You may find pun (double meaning), hyperbole (exaggeration), paradox (apparent contradiction), allusion (literary, historical, or mythological reference), personification (treating the non-human as if human), or others that have come up in class discussion, or that the Norton Anthology identifies. As best you can, identify and describe these, and say how they affect the poem as a whole.

(9) Tone

How would you describe the speaker’s tone? What words and phrases establish that tone? Does the tone change over the course of the poem? How does the tone intersect with other features you’ve identified? (E.g., there might be a bitter, cynical tone, framing a radiant, transcendent metaphor, which would be a peculiar tension – WTF?!)

 (10) Rhetoric and convention

Who is speaking? (It’s not the poet, it’s a persona the poet creates; what is that persona like?) To whom? (And, who is expected to overhear?) To what ostensible purpose? What other purpose might there also be? What words and phrases reveal these purposes and relations to you? Finally, what lyric conventions might the poem be taking part in, when it has its speaker speak in the ways s/he does? (E.g., Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd” is a lyric in the pastoral genre, and conventions of that genre inform everything the shepherd says.)

(11) Structure

What’s the global structure of the poem? A sonnet may be octave–sestet, with a volta (turn) between them; or three quatrains, volta, couplet. A poem in multiple stanzas might have one or more turns – as in “My lute awake!” which turns each time the speaker changes addressee. Once you’ve discerned what the poem’s major parts are, try to describe what it does in each part. For instance, in “They flee from me,” we saw that the first stanza describes the general or collective case, and the next two stanzas illustrates that case by giving a specific instance.

(12) Guiding question(s) or WTF moment(s)

Finally. Some of these questions will have yielded a lot. Some not so much. But by now you know the poem a lot better than you did. Still, it’s not like all your questions are answered. In fact, if this went right, some questions got resolved, while new, deeper, more interesting, more difficult questions arose. Or maybe a question you had from the start got more and more thorny – an image or word that stands out as not belonging, a sonnet convention that isn’t obeyed. For this last part, survey everything you wrote, staying in touch with what you find most interesting, and frame three or four possible guiding questions and/or WTF moments that might serve to organize your close reading when you revise it. A few examples:

What do the second two lines of “Western Wind” have to do with the first two lines?

Why does the speaker of Wyatt’s “They flee from me” present himself as harmless to the women who used to seek him – indeed, as their victim – and yet say categorically that they used to “put themself in danger” in approaching him?

The final couplet of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” by insisting that it immortalizes the beloved, actually emphasizes how quickly she will age and die – does the poem intend that contradiction?

I’ll read your draft with your questions in mind, asking, what in your close reading most warrants development, further exploration, if these are the questions you want to pursue? So please take time and care in framing them. They are how you will guide me in how to guide you.


To be honest – if you’ve made it this far – it’s a heavy-handed programmatic way to approach a poem. I’d much rather move lightly and fleetly over it, touching down here, there, as wish and whim would have it. But I’ve been given the task of teaching lit majors to analyze poetry. So I’ve taken the various things I’ve seen myself do with a poem and arranged them. I hope they own it and also resist it – dive into it and also through it.


[1]Our working term for aporias small and large, brief and enduring. I put it this way in the syllabus:

A WTF?! reaction [is a] spot where something strange and surprising (for you) happens, [and] you don’t know what to make of it, it confuses, irritates, and/or intrigues you. The secret to success as a literature student is turning towards these moments even though you want to turn away from them.

[2]I described to them here the bit of hot water Jill Bialosky’s got herself into.

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headComposter

I write draw teach blog in and from the Pacific Northwest of America.

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