Close reading Paterson’s line

Another bit of heavy lifting for my Pound and Williams students. I give as example more than I can realistically expect. But I want them to see what sustained close reading, in itself and for its own sake, looks like, to aspire to.


Did a spiel on Thursday, about the difference between writing deductively (state your claim then go about finding evidence for it) and inductively (explore the evidence and learn from it what your argument is).

Said, if you already know the material thoroughly, down to the details and textures, and out to the overarching themes – go ahead and write deductively. But if the material, you’re still learning your way into it, your main discoveries are ahead of you, and really in your schoolwork that should always be the case, forget deductive, do it inductively. Don’t start with a thesis. Start with an interest or question. Then go to the text, places in it that will further your interest, sharpen your question. Ask further questions of the text to learn how it works. This assignment and the allusion chart are just that sort of attention. As insights come about how the poem is put together they may bear towards your initial question or some other more illuminating where. Follow your line of inquiry until you have some insight into the text with heft, more than local. Now you’re in a position to draft an opening paragraph and a working thesis statement. Cuz how can you know what you think till you see what you’ve said?

And they were like, Why didn’t anyone tell us this?

And I was like, I’m telling you now?

And, working it inductively is “no ideas but in things,” in practice.

Fin digression. Follows, the close reading assignment.


The poetic line is what Hugh Kenner called a “patterned integrity.” The lines of the Cantos give off clear energy signatures—we can tell whether we’re in hell or paradise, myth or history, Greece or Provence, smiley face or frowny face, by the musical qualities of the line (stress and duration patterns), by the way it casts an image on the mind’s eye, and by how it plumbs the meanings of its words (diction and syntax). In other words, melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia. The energy signature changes line by line, but as we grow attuned to the Cantos, we learn to recognize some characteristic patterns, and may then be a bit less lost.

In Paterson, too, the style of patterning often changes line by line. But we’ve an added challenge: those patterns don’t settle into distinct types we can become familiar with. Each line real­ly is a new world, with new terms—sonic, rhythmic, sensory, semantic, syntactic—on which it asks to be read.

One way to face that challenge is to isolate the line as a unit of perception. This assignment asks you to do that. Pick a passage you enjoy in Paterson. Isolate one line—

(1) There is no direction. Whither? I

Close read it, without reference to lines before or after, for its qualities of sound, image, and sense, as here:

Sonically, the line seems, at first, directionless. There is no alliteration, and no obvious consonance or assonance; in fact, the values of the vowels are all over the map, as if to create directionlessness in the mouth that speaks the line. Perhaps the line’s sonic variety is part of its point. The consonants are a mixture of voiced ([ð]) and unvoiced fricatives ([ʃ]), voiced plosives ([d], [k]), approximants ([r], [w]), and nasals ([n]); the vowels range from the front middle ([ɛ]) and the near-close near-front ([i]), to the mid-central ([ə]), to the near-close near-back ([ʊ]) and the close-mid back rounded ([o]), culminating in the diphthong [ai], which joins the open near-front [a] to the near-close near-front [i]. Sonically, the sequence seems thoroughly unpoetic, if poetry is understood as shapely speech. At any rate, the line seems to want to bring the whole mouth into play. Only after a few passes do recurrent sounds emerge—the [r] sound repeats in “There,” “direction,” and “whither”; there’s something like assonance between “direction ”and “There”; a common [ð] binds “There” and “whither, while a common [i] binds “is” and “whither”; and that [i] is transformed, in the line’s final thought, into the first person singular pronoun, by the addition of the sound also made by the indefinite article [a]. What at first seems chaos may turn out to be an argument for variety.

[If you’re not fluent in IPA, use the pronunciation key found in a standard dictionary.]

Rhythmically, the line is metrical, iambic pentameter without the initial unaccented syllable—a curious way to begin for a poet wedded to free verse. All the syllables are short except “There” and “Whith-,” both at the start of their phrases, giving the sense that the phrase begins at a fixed point, then rushes or springs forward.

Imagistically, the line is almost empty—curious for a poet who proclaims, “no ideas but in things.” The opening, “There is,” suggests we will be presented with an object, a locale, something that is—but instead we are offered a negation, what is not, and what is not is an abstraction anyway—“direction.” No wonder the next thought is “Whither?” No ideas but in things, and no sense, without things, where to go next. This is the first line of the section—the poet seems to wonder where to go next—suggesting that, as with the Cantos, the crisis of how to make the poem is one of the subjects of the poem. What traces of image or activity remain in the line are etymological: “direction” comes from the Latin dirigere, “to set straight,” from dis- “apart” and regere “to guide,” cognate with regal; the derivation of “whither” is unclear. And that brings us to semantics.

Semantically, the two words connected by the ligature [ð], “There” and “whither,” are a bit at odds: “there,” taken in itself, is an indication of location, as in “there it is,” while “whither” expresses a failure of orientation. The word “direction,” which sits between them, on its own tends toward the former sense, but negated  here by “no,” enforces the latter. (And yet to say “no direction” brings direction to mind as a possibility. As telling someone not to think of pink elephants ensures they will think of pink elephants.)

The first-per­son singular pronoun, “I,” is isolated sonically (there’s no other vowel like it in the line), visually (it’s stranded at the line end), semantically (only a general sense of directionlessness ties the “I” into a framework of meaning), and syntactically: it’s the start of a third sentence. The first sentence is four words long and includes a subject and a verb. The second is one word long and includes neither subject nor verb—if a sentence at all, it is radically elided, stripped down to a raw interrogative. And the third is, as said, barely begun before it is aborted by the line end. On the level of syntax as well, then, the line is committed to asymmetry and disorder, to upending any balance, harmony, or stasis. If these attributions seem too much, consider how much would be lost, sonically, semantically, and syntactically, if “There is” were omitted from the line, or if “I” were moved down to the next.

And repeat. Continue line-by-line for about five double-spaced pages (essay format). Conclude your analysis with a paragraph that addresses this question: What expressive features of the passage has this process revealed? (Avoid using the first person here. Imagine this paragraph is part of a formal essay, in which you are drawing together findings from a sustained close reading, which you can put to work somewhere else.) Please identify, in your title, by page number, the passage you are working with. And … enjoy?

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headComposter

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

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