In space no one can hear you explode, Or, Teaching literary convention in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies

I don’t lecture much. Boring to do, boring to be done to. Conversation’s far more fun. But two or one times a quarter I talk for around ten minutes from prepared notes. (Which in practice takes most of an hour because we break to chat.) Here’s one such set I range from, on why what seems odd in Shakespeare’s plays, ain’t half so strange as stuff we take for bread and butter. And why artmaking is worldfashioning.

My notes are kind of telegraphic, but I’ll try to flesh out, and put interpolations in


and texts we go to in

block quotes.

To start, we read Twelfth Night 2.4.79-124. Viola, a young woman recently shipwrecked, has disguised herself as a young man, Cesario, and entered the service of one Count Orsino, with whom she has fallen in love. Orsino, however, is infatuated with Olivia, whom he sends Cesario to woo on his behalf.

ORSINO   Once more, Cesario,
Get thee to yond same sovereign cruelty:
Tell her, my love, more noble than the world,
Prizes not quantity of dirty lands;
The parts that fortune hath bestow’d upon her,
Tell her, I hold as giddily as fortune;
But ’tis that miracle and queen of gems
That nature pranks her in attracts my soul.

VIOLA   But if she cannot love you, sir?

ORSINO   I cannot be so answer’d.

VIOLA                                                   Sooth, but you must.
Say that some lady, as perhaps there is,
Hath for your love a great a pang of heart
As you have for Olivia: you cannot love her;
You tell her so; must she not then be answer’d?

ORSINO   There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much; they lack retention
Alas, their love may be call’d appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That suffer surfeit, cloyment and revolt;
But mine is all as hungry as the sea,
And can digest as much: make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.

VIOLA                             Ay, but I know—

ORSINO   What dost thou know?

VIOLA   Too well what love women to men may owe:
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter loved a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.

ORSINO                           And what’s her history?

VIOLA   A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
We men may say more, swear more: but indeed
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.

ORSINO   But died thy sister of her love, my boy?

VIOLA   I am all the daughters of my father’s house,
And all the brothers too: and yet I know not.
Sir, shall I to this lady?

ORSINO                           Ay, that’s the theme.
To her in haste; give her this jewel; say,
My love can give no place, bide no denay.

Viola’s love for Orsino is clear. But on the page, is Orsino in love with Viola, yet?

We decide he’s not. Maybe dawning interest, and maybe hesitation in “Ay, that’s the theme,” but on the page, that’s about it.

So what do we make of it, that in Act 5, as soon as she’s revealed to be a she, he falls for her, asks her to marry him? Unrealistic, right?

This group had a ready explanation: Orsino’s actually gay, and was attracted to “him” all along, but couldn’t express that or admit it, till the “boy” was revealed to be the woman.

That reading anticipates Trevor Nunn’s in his production – not “Orsino is gay,” but, desire for a man that leaves him confused and divided. This clip will do for illustration:

So there’s one way to make the speed of Orsino’s love for Viola psychologically plausible: it wasn’t fast, it was slow, and held secret. Here’s another way, in SparkNotes:

[T]he play repeatedly raises the question of whether romantic love has more to do with the person who is loved or with the lover’s own imagination—whether love is real or merely something that the human mind creates for the sake of entertainment and delight. In the case of Orsino, the latter seems to be true, as he is less in love with Olivia herself than he is with the idea of being in love with Olivia. He claims to be devastated because she will not have him, but as the audience watches him wallow in his seeming misery, it is difficult to escape the impression that he is enjoying himself—flopping about on rose-covered beds, listening to music, and waxing eloquent about Olivia’s beauty to his servants. The genuineness of Orsino’s emotions comes into question even further when he later switches his affections from Olivia to Viola without a second thought; the audience then suspects that he does not care whom he is in love with, as long as he can be in love.

What do you think?

They generally like it. This is a setup. I’m a bastard.

So, two ways to explain something that looks wildly unrealistic. One says, seems sudden but isn’t sudden, he was falling in love over a period of time, we just didn’t see it.

Other says, he’s in love not with a person, but with an idea. When he switches from Olivia to Viola, the love object stays the same. Only the occasion, the excuse, changes.

Notice, with both, we’re trying to make the change psychologically realistic, and to resolve an unease that way. Here’s a third way of addressing the question, one that doesn’t try for psychological plausibility, and that may not resolve our unease.

It means appealing to literary convention. A shared understanding of what’s plausible within the imaginal world of the text – the play or novel or poem or movie – even if it’s unrealistic outside that imaginal world.

A literary convention of the 19th century novel – a minor one – is that no one ever goes to the bathroom. For over a hundred years everyone held it in. Unrealistic? Sure. Does it bother you? Probably not. Reading Jane Eyre or Middlemarch, you probably don’t even notice it.

A literary convention of science fiction movies – again, a minor one – is that sound travels in the vacuum of space. Another is that faster-than-light drive is possible. Another, that all the species of the galaxy speak middle-American English, or can be got to easily. Not all science fiction movies hold to all of these, but when one departs from one of them, it’s noteworthy, as an exception.

You can check your own adherence to a literary convention by whether you notice it or not. If you read the whole of Jane Eyre and never notice that no one once goes to the bathroom – you’ve probably bought into the conventions of the 19th century novel.

But if you go to The Force Awakens and can’t get past the fact that the laser canons of the star destroyers can be heard across the vacuum of space – “that’s just not realistic!” – then you haven’t bought into the conventions of the contemporary science fiction movie.

Note that The Last Jedi intervened in that convention …

The ensuing conversation got to some of what’s in the notes following.

Shakespeare’s plays depend on literary conventions also. One convention of his romantic comedies – a major one – is that characters fall in and out of love with remarkable speed and ease.

Characters falling in and out of love with each other makes romantic comedies work. In the same way that faster-than-light drive makes science fiction movies work. You can do a lot more fun stuff on stage if characters keep changing love interests. You can do a lot more cool stuff on different planets if characters can actually get to different planets. By the same token, space explosions are more cool if they make noise – until they’re not.

So it’s not surprising that these became conventions of their genres. Unrealistic, implausible, outside their fictive worlds, but taken as givens within those worlds.

Watching science fiction, if you buy into the world, you stop thinking about faster-than-light-drive – or the sound explosions make in space, or the convenient fact that everyone speaks English.

Watching a romantic comedy, if you buy into the world, you stop thinking about how fast people fall into and out of love. Within that world it’s perfectly realistic.

Here’s the thing though. Genre conventions evolve. So what was perfectly realistic 350 years ago, within these fictive worlds, now seems implausible. We still have romantic comedies, sure, and they still have genre conventions, absolutely, but they’re somewhat different than those Shakespeare worked with.

The small change from The Force Awakens to The Last Jedi is a moment of such evolution. Someone said, what happens if we do silent space explosions, and make that cool?

One thing that happens is, folks think the theatre has effed up. Can’t find a bootleg clip of the scene itself, but here’s an account of the confusion the moment – a ship colliding with another – caused by not being usual.

Many fans will report hearing gasps during this moment (that’s how effective the smash cut to silence is), but apparently some fans have been complaining and blaming the theater for a sound issue. Complains were apparently so consistent that an AMC Theater decided to print out and post signs warning fans in advance about the moment, saying the silence is very much an intentional creative decision made by director Rian Johnson. (Insider)

I’m curious whether the director’s intervention will stick, and how the genre will alter. It struck me as the one original moment in the movie.

Coming back to our first two accounts for why Orsino falls in love so fast.

When we hit Shakespearean conventions that are over with, we kind of go for them, and we kind of don’t. To the extent that we don’t, we try to resolve the dissonance in terms of the conventions we have on hand. Which are generally those of psychological realism – conventions established by movies and TV.

A plausible theory that psychological realism can produce: he’s been falling for her for quite some time (Nunn).

A bullshit theory that psychological realism can produce: he’s just “in love with love” (SparkNotes)

Why bullshit? Because it smushes every lover in every romantic comedy Shakespeare wrote into an undifferentiated porridge. You can say that of all of them. It’s just part of Shakespeare’s vision of romantic love that love loves to love itself. You can take it as a starting point, but if that’s as far as you can get with psychological realism, psychological realism is about worthless. Especially since said realism is about individuality, and with that outcome, it’s totally failed to individuate anyone.

Too, the theory fails to notice that Sebastian and Olivia (twice) fall in love with equal speed and for equally shallow reasons. The only ones who’ve been nursing love for an “appropriately” long duration are Orsino and – Malvolio. Yeah, ugh.

Must also note my ulterior motive, steer them away from SparkNotes, at least one of them, maybe forever. So bad, terrible, that these pre-digested sources are so readily available. Their readings may be rougher but they are smarter. The questions they’ve been asking! V. good.

So, to sum up, three ways of accounting for the speed with which Orsino falls for Viola once she’s revealed as Viola. (1) It wasn’t fast, he was falling for her all along (Nunn). (2) He’s not falling for her, he’s just “in love with love” (SparkNotes). (3) It’s realistic within the conventions of Shakespearean romantic comedy, because quick moves in and out of love are, for these plays, a condition of the real.

The first is quite reasonable though it denatures, modernizes, Shakespeare’s play somewhat. The second is unfortunate – it pounds all the romantic comedies into a homogeneous love-mush Shakespeare would ne’er recognize. The third is easy to ignore because to stand there means discomfort; we have to abide in understandings of the text, which in turn are understandings of the world, that are not ours, though they underwrite ours.

So they are uncanny, intimate to us, unknown to us. At a wonderful dinner last night with friends, Lunar New Year, we touched briefly on the profundity and/or banality of Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Ironic the know-it-all missed the fourth category, the unknown knownthe uncanny.

Be careful about projecting 21st century expectations – psychological realism – onto 17th century plays. Our literary conventions have descended from Shakespeare’s, he’s had a major part in creating the conventions we hold to, but also they’ve changed over time. Don’t be too quick to erase the strangeness of these that ours came from, their uncanniness.

Addendum. I’m writing this up a couple weeks after the fact – and am v. glad to report, they’re putting this convention notion to work. I asked, last class, how we could make sense of Iago’s evil, when it seems to far exceed all its possible grounds. (It may be as much a problem for Othello as Hamlet’s boundless nausea is, by Eliot’s account, for Hamlet.) Here the bullshit psychological realist accounts are internal to the play, offered by Iago himself. The Moor slept with my wife, or I’ve heard maybe he did, and I’ll take it for hard fact, and burn him down. The Moor passed me over for promotion, and for that I’ll burn him down, and all he loves. Yeah, whatever it is, it ain’t that.

There’s a plausible psychological story, that he’s a sociopath, and it works to account for him, but at the cost of a modern imposition, smothering the mystery he poses. There are also plausible sociological accounts – that Iago is the diffused racism of Venetian society, or Shakespeare’s English imagination of it, concentrated to a dagger point. We touched on all these and did good work with them. But the point that delighted me the most, in a class that delights me lots and often, not because it’s more right than the others but because it’s harder to get to, and it shows they’re thinking and feeling the plays as formally deliberately made things, with their own felt conditions arranged in a coherence, is that Iago is as evil as the play needs him to be. The play needs a villain sufficient to its hero if it’s to be a tragedy. The plot and the moral balance of the play make Iago what he is. In other words, literary convention, as it belongs to genre, form, and ethos. These kids, they doing it.


Major Authors Seminar: Pound and Williams

Description for a spring course I’m way excited to teach again.

We know Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams for a few hit singles

The apparition of these faces in the crowd.

so much depends

and maybe a few sayings fit for a bumper sticker. Go in fear of abstractions. No ideas but in things. What these soundbites miss is each poet’s complex and ongoing self-reinvention. Both started as Imagists, rejecting the sentimentality they found in late Victorian verse, instead carving small hard moments of perception. From there, the two diverged, Williams becoming more invested in the local, the scruffily irregular, Pound in archetypal patterns that for him made ancient history current, distant cultures present. Both remained committed, however, to reinventing the epic, and to bringing mythic awareness to the crush of modernity.

Pound read mythology as if it were the morning newspaper.
Williams read the morning newspaper as if it were mythology.
                  —Donald Revell

Between them they initiated strands in the web of American postmodernism that continue to spread and bear fruit and further ramify to this day. Be ready for close reading of sometimes very difficult texts; the postmodern epic, there’s no mastering it, only entering and being swept through and by it. Assignments will include regular critical responses; a seminar paper to be presented to the class and revised for final submission; an allusion chart mapping a chosen passage from The Cantos; and line-by-line meticulously close reading of a chosen passage from Paterson. Our texts: Pound, selected early poems from Personae, Cathay, selections from the Cantos, selected critical writings; Williams, selected early poems, Spring and All, Descent of Winter, Paterson books I-III, selected prose.

The image atop, a detail from Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers (Sho-Sho Hakkei) by Sesson Shukei (1504–ca. 1590). A time-honoured theme in Chinese and Japanese landscape painting; one such series was inspiration for Pound’s “Seven-Lakes Canto,” Canto XLIX, still point in the book’s burning wheel.

Not, as far as I know, Shukei’s; it’s just for instance. The whole of it


Student work: Asemic page

Last day of my poetry workshop today. We ended on a sweet sad silly happy blue note, or several of them, everyone is feeling lots, and it’s all good. Delicate uncertain care. I’m honoured to be in the presence of so much true feeling. The texture of such a moment can’t always be got across – though, poets, we try – in words. Thank goodness there are for these occasions unwords!

Strained transition but man I’m blasted. Sometime when it’s over I’ll write why. Right now I want to share a few of their asemic compositions.

The exercise: Compose a page of asemic writing. The post I wrote round it here.

This first one is peacock. And bravery and has such boldness in its made mark. I love it for that and learn from it. Some of its sworls – that big blue swoop with the edge of a robin’s egg, e.g. – are not just proto-charactery but the prelim of true things.

Then there’s that centred square of no-sense going on as if it were all the order in the world – ain’t no thing, just move on. Five by five, or almost, like a Tang dynasty poem. But yet not. This poem is but yet not.


This one to me marks an opening for its author. Every crook and curve is of note, as if it belonged to a musical score. And her work after, it got smaller, sharper, every syllable counted (literally – she grooved to syllabics) and enjambments suddenly heartbreakingly present. 

Every student in this striking group had a breakthrough poem. I do think this was hers. Look how even as it proceeds it opens and bravens. 

This one touches the spirit of Oulipo, or something ‘Pataphysical, geometry of a universe soon to be invented. And of all the ones that came in, it took the most care with the page as a material object, which like a universe has more than one side, is all turnings.

This one is wholly free in its spirit of gesture and direction. The poet said she didn’t think much of it but what I love is she didn’t think much in it she just did it. Her not-thinking transmits with no loss of energy her embodied gesture to this embodied eye and the mind of it.


Dōgen: “When Yaoshan was sitting, a monk asked him, ‘In steadfast sitting, what do you think?” Yaoshan said, ‘Think not-thinking.’ ‘How do you think not-thinking?’ Yaoshan replied, ‘Non-thinking.'” This is that!

My conversation with the poet of this one went something like

—Why does this work so well??! (me)

—I don’t know! (her)

—I don’t either but it does!

—I know!

It’s barely more than scriggles. But that it gave me a word, scriggles, totally for free, means lots. It’s second-order creative; it creates creativity; it’s generative. Those earth and vegetal tones are life-in-potential. (Even what colourblind I thinks to be purple, the chlorophyll of the low-light set.) Just as asemic writing itself is meaning-in-potential.


A student in my other class, damn but I love her ambition, and so see myself in it, wants to elicit from Marvell’s “A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body” the whole mind-body problem, link back to the Buddha on that and connect forward to modern materialist theories positing mind as an emergent property of material systems. Had to say, that’s an MA thesis, not a ten-page critical research paper. But emergence is where it’s at, complexity, new reals irreducible. (Why the eff am I advisor to a journal called Occam’s Razor?) And I trust her to find a scope to make it work. And – point of the digression – emergence is what’s here, too.

I do love this teaching thing. However good I may be at it, it is better to me. I hope the overseers will let me keep doing my work as intuition says to. How do you say, though, to an office oriented to conduct codes, chapters and verses, that I want and try to teach from prajna?

Exercise: Asemic writing

Gave my poetry workshop an exercise in asemic writing. First time I’ve tried it & they done good. Will post some of their scriptures soon. For now, the exercise, with prelims.

In class, showed some alphabets invented or divined. Hélène Smith‘s Martian:


Something cool by Andrew Clark I found:


Razorsharp letterset, with pareidolia, by Christopher Skinner:


Wish I’d remembered the Deseret writing created by Brigham Young:

DeseretMore widely used perhaps is Klingon:


And then an in-class exercise: Create a new alphabet. You have 15 minutes.

There was time when they were done (!?) so I had them write their names in their alphabet and put them on the board.

photo (9)

Click this one to biggen it, so worth it.

The characters illegible but full of character – I can almost tell, weeks later, whose letters are whose. (Of course the palindrome’s a giveaway.) And that’s asemic writing for you: all the meanings semantic meaning was veiling, when we were distracted by it, shiny toy, creep forth, peek out.

The exercise they went home with: Compose a page of asemic writing. And man did some come out good. I will post post haste.

To those who had trouble with the ex, I said, try it anew with your eyes closed. (Makes me no better than some Obi Wan voiceover, I know.)

Examples of asemic writing I had for them, who now are you, to look at.

Zhang Xu‘s “wild cursive,” or loosely (or wrongly) “wild grass cursive”:


A few by Henri Michaux:

A couple by Paul Klee:

And this wonderful ongoing project, The Geranium Lake Properties, by Lyn Tarczynski, maybe my favourite asemic compositor out there.

And this bed of asemic misadventure, The New Post-literate, edited by one of the mode’s current progenitors, Michael Jacobson.

Also had them read these good orientations on the practice:

Tim Gaze on asemic writing.

Michael Jacobson on asemic writing.

Minnesota Center for Book Arts, “Making Sense of Asemic Writing.”

Postscript. Orientations, orient, Orient, Orientalism. Can’t help but wonder, worry a little, as I play around in the asemic stream, what kinds of othering might be going on. It’s pleasing to make a script one recognizes and doesn’t, cognizes and doesn’t. It gets fantasy circuits firing without any durable duty to, I dunno, the actual world of beings bedded in history. Sort of the way paintings of Turkish harems might have got Euros turned on in the 19th C?

Play’s okay, we all need to sometimes. But while most of the asemic stills in SCRO, my current project, are redolent of leafs and bugs and unraced faces, there are those that might mind one of an ethnographic rattle, or petroglyphs I saw somewhere, and others please me maybe for imping the fluidity of Arabic.

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What the fuck am I redoing the Mikado for the 21st C or something? I don’t mean to, but do I get to claim the privilege of not meaning to? A couple friends and I are putting together a proposal for next year’s CCWWP Convention, theme of necessary conversations in a time of racial and gendered violence. Had thought to propose on this – show some, say my self-questions, see what other questions flew. (Our thinking’s gone another way, another post on that.)

Post-postscript. Are many Arabics gorgeous and asemic to me meaning God.

In the name of Allah
“In the name of Allah beneficent and merciful”

There needs to be room for play of equals. That astonishing face is full of play.

Post-post-postscript. The book that got me started on this whole misadventure – erasure, asemia, the limen, the lumen, the clinamen, compostery even I’d maybe say, is Imagining Language, eds. Steve McCaffery and Jed Rasula. I met Hélène Smith there, e.g. Now out of print. SAD!

Grrr on health care

Shitty news in the mail today.


First third post-it, “Thanks lots” was “FUCK YOU.”

Even as revised, glad it’s not searchable. Yay post-its.

That said, am mad enough to post it goddamn everywhere. After a whole afternoon feeling pissed as hell about my second-class status at work, thinking well at least I have good health insurance – bam, the thing I need it for, taken.

I’ve had these headaches for years, I soldier up and teach through them, meds come at a personal cost almost not worth it, thought I was on track to ease out of them. Fucking fuck.

Someone should start a religion about how bad luck comes in flocks, and it’s okay, or something. Oh one did, and I signed on. Not doing very good at staying on right now. Though shouting FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING BASTARDS to my empty house does seem to have cleared the migraine I was in all day.

Anyway. It is health care rationing. Cloak of reason, cloak of clinical evidence, whatevs. It’s market forces pretending not to be, pretense of disinterest. GAH. It’s about the money, assholes, so say so.

I am so selfish. I am, and that sickness, no insurance can cover, it’s on me. But my headaches, you jerks, could you? I have a little good to give, and it goes to my students, whom I do love and you did hire me to teach.

I give more and better when I’m not in pain, right, you get that?

If I put it as a calculation, a trade of commodities, do you get it?

“Jerks,” “assholes” – stop. It’s like road rage. You can be mad at a car as long as the person in it’s an abstraction. (That abstraction is the same sort of abstraction money is. I’m doing what I’m accusing of.) Whoever’s made this decision is caught in the same web I am. It’s just, it hurts, and it’s going to hurt a bit more, in head body or pocket, and I want someone to lash out at for it.

Why you shouldn’t post in the heat of the moment. People have lost their homes in Santa Rosa and others are drinking water from hazardous waste sites in Puerto Rico. (And that’s abstract to me.) My troubles are what. Low-level chronic pain is tough, yes, and I’m in it. (And it’s concrete to me. Arg.) Loss of almost every material thing you own is tough too. Abandonment by your arrogant government is tough three.

I have a bumpersticker: IMPEACH. The rest is self-explanatory. But it has to mean, impeach the Trump in you – don’t be a blowhard, self-concerned, always putting the wrong on others.

I can’t impeach Trump! (Oh if only.) I can though impeach the Trump in me.

Sorry, Washington State Health Care Authority, the people who make you up. I think as an abstract entity you’ve done a dumb thing. It does me a modest amount of harm – I’ll have to cut into precious savings to get the treatment I want and need. But the people who make you up, I’m sorry. I forgot you were there behind the glass as you drove by.

Close reading worksheet: Wyatt

The close reading guidelines I posted last week got more attention than I’d of expected. So thought to post, also, a worksheet I slapped together to help students build the skills they need to do all the damn fool things I say they might should.

This one’s on four of the six poems we’ve read by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Two sonnets, one sonnet on steroids, and one song that ne’er was, it thinketh me, no song never, and his lute be damned.

You might find the sheet haphazard and’d not be wrong. But a bunch of the Q’s on it, I framed after we’d talked about the poems some, so we had some lines we were thinking of them along, and I wanted to continue those.

We talked through about 1/2 of it today, and while they didn’t find it near so fun as wondering whether he did or didn’t do X with Anne Boleyn, they did brave and well. Noticing, e.g., how the fricative alliteration in “Fainting I follow” (in “Whoso list to hunt”) makes for a heavy breathing mimicking the breathless faltering hunter’s. And the echo, in “Since in a net I seek to hold the wind,” of the bag of winds given by Aeolus to Odysseus – a connection I admit I’d not have made, but I do think may be there, via Ovid if not from Homer straight.

Wyatt Worksheet

Apportion tasks as you see fit – but do collaborate, so as to come to the most complete answer to each of these questions. Take thorough notes, so you can report back to the class as a whole.

“Whoso list to hunt”

  • Describe the rhyme scheme (ab etc.) and locate the turn. What changes, rhetorically, at the turn? In other words, what is the speaker up to, before the turn, and how is what he’s up to different, after?
  • There are spots where alliteration becomes prominent. Find them. What’s the effect of the alliteration?
  • There are two lines that are metrically regular iambic pentameter except for a trochaic substitution in the first foot. Find them. What’s the effect of the substitution?
  • Feel your way into this metaphor: “Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.” What does it say, reflect, embody, about the speaker’s endeavour?

“My galley”

  • Describe the rhyme scheme of the sonnet. How is the rhyming practice here different from that of “Whoso list”? How does it support or complement the poem’s content?
  • We said in class that the extended metaphor in this sonnet qualifies as a conceit, in which unrequited love is equated with a sea voyage. Identify every point of connection you can find between the two terms of the metaphor: literal (ground) and figurative (figure). E.g., “A rain of tears,” rain = the lover’s tears; “The stars,” stars = the beloved’s eyes.
  • Paraphrase lines 7–8: rephrase them in modern English with no loss of detail.
  • What do you make of the paradox that the speaker’s “enemy” is also his “lord”? Does it matter that these two descriptors are on two different lines?

“They Flee from me”

  • It’s never specified in the first stanza who or what “they” are. We can surmise, of course: they’re deer (figure), they’re lovers (ground). Why might Wyatt leave it implicit though – both deer and lovers unnamed?
  • “Busily seeking with a continual change” seems to apply well to young ladies of the court, not so well to deer. Is this a flaw in the poem, a metaphor fail? If not, why has the metaphor collapsed before the stanza and the sentence are done?
  • What do you take lines 18–19 to mean? What tone are they spoken in?

“My lute, awake!”

  • Scan stanza six. There are four trochaic substitutions in the stanza – find them. Is there anything that can be said about the effect they have?
  • Find the spots in the poem where the addressee, the thing or person spoken to, changes. Are these shifts important to the poem, rhetorically, structurally?
  • The poem imagines someone speaking (singing), someone spoken (sung) to. To what ostensible purpose? Is there some other obscured purpose we can discern? While we’re on the subject, does the poem imagine, in addition to its addressee(s), anyone overhearing?

That last one because these poems are as complex rhetorically, as aware of their ostensible audience, of possible intended unintended audiences; of their manifest purpose, of secret but broadly acknowledged purposes; and of purposes secret to all but the speaker, also of purposes the speaker has kept secret perhaps from himself – as any of the machinations were at that royal court, Henry 8’s, in which precincts these poems became so sharp and multiple, deadly and fine.

The image, in its whole glory, is Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello.


Click on, to see if you know where is an hind.

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.