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?

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.

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.