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?

An “allusion chart” for Pound’s Canto II

One assignment for my Pound and Williams seminar is to create an allusion chart for one of Pound’s Cantos. I hope that, freed from the paper demand to make an argument, students might follow lines of reference further and more curiously and with greater rigour also, than they otherwise might.

Here then, the in-class work they start with, and the sample allusion chart I give them, for Canto II, my first love.

Your fifth hour assignment for Pound is to complete an allusion chart for one canto (or a passage from a longer canto). Today’s work will give you some practice with that.

You’ll need:

The Cantos

Carroll F. Terrell’s A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound (Vol. 1. Vol. 2.)

Begin by choosing, with your partner, a canto to work with. Then turn a sheet of paper sideways and creating three columns: “Line or Phrase,” “Allusion or Translation,” “Significance, Issues, Questions” (see example below).

Working together, from the start of the canto, note every allusion you find (left-hand column); use Terrell and your own wits to explain the allusion (middle column); and consider the significance of the allusion, issues it raises, and questions left unanswered (right-hand column).

If you note allusions that aren’t in Terrell, you can track those, too. For instance, we noted in class that the rhythm of Canto I echoes the rhythm Pound’s “Seafarer.” So, we might enter “(four-beat accentual rhythm)” in the lefthand column; in the middle column, something like “Recalls Pound’s translation of “The Seafarer” and Old English rhythm generally”; and, in the right-hand column, something like “Overlays two sea journeys: seafarer’s and Odysseus’s; and a search for beginnings here: the roots of poetry in English, the roots of the epic.”

In the middle column, the challenge is to choose the salient information from Terrell, or any other source you use. Don’t just plunk it down verbatim – select and digest. (Any other sources should be noted in a Works Consulted page at the back.) In the right-hand column, the challenge is to make appropriate inferences from the allusion. Don’t be afraid to have questions and to ask them. Pertinent questions are just as good as clever inferences.

An allusion chart for Canto II

Line or phrase Allusion or Translation Significance, Issues, Questions
Hang it all, Robert Browning Robert Browning, author of Sordello, who treats the poet Sordello as a dramatic mask. • EP regards Sordello as the last epic in English—will pick up where RB left off. • Material recycled from first attempt at Cantos. Signals EP will use dramatic masks (personae) just as Browning does—so “I” may or may not mean Pound himself. • The Cantos are an epic but what “epic” means is up for grabs. • EP recycling own work and recycling culture’s work as well.
but the one “Sordello” The hero and mask of Browning’s poem. Italian troubadour (singer and poet, from French, trouver). Abducted the wife of his patron—some­what in the style of courtly love—but, oops. Fled. • Returned a gift of five castles (for military service) because felt he was “far richer through his poetry” (CT). Masks as above. • EP’s early work translating (and imitating) troubadours comes into play here. How and why do troubadours matter? • Love and love’s transgressions introduced as theme. Connection to come between human love and earth’s fertility. • Tension (or interplay) introduced between material productions (castles) and artistic ones (songs).
Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana “Sordello is from Mantua” (Italian). EP uses places (and persons) as metonyms for values and practices—how does Mantua work in that light? • First use of Italian—after Latin at end of Canto I, and several Classical Greek allusions. Signals attention to Mediterranean cultures.
So-shu churned in the sea Reference uncertain. May be corruption of “Shiba Shojo,” Japanese for a Chinese poet who, according to Li Po, created “foam instead of waves” (CT). • Or, contrary to CT, may be a Japanese transliteration of Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuangtse. If former—would seem to mark what a poet should not do—and stands in contrast to Browning. • If latter—may be an approving reference—do all of EP’s references mark either approval or disapproval? (Compare to his treatment later of “Taozers.”) • Either way—line marks transition to seascape.
daughters of Lir Lir—Celtic god of the sea—seals are for EP his daughters. • Seals closely linked with Greek figure of Proteus—minor god who shifts shapes. Pun on Lear? • Proteus—minor Greek God—charac­ter­ized by transformation, as in “protean.” Figures in story of Odysseus (c.f. Canto I).
eyes of Picasso “evokes the artist’s faculty for changing the shape of the things he sees” (CT) What do Proteus and Picasso have in common? Metamorphosis. One alters his own form, the other alters the forms he sees. Not a coincidence that canto centres on a story out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. • Could Lear fit in here too? He goes through a profound change of condition—if not of form. (C.f. tragic figures of canto IV.)
daughter of Ocean Capital “O” makes ocean either an abstraction—not EP’s style—or a being. Makes the sea a god. From class: “gods are a way of seeing nature.”
Eleanor, ελεναυσ and ελεπτολισ! Eleanor: Helen of Troy, Eleanor of Aquitaine. • ελεναυσ: ship-destroying. • ελεπτολισ: city-destroying. Helen of Troy was “cause” of Trojan War—in which ships and in the end a city were destroyed. Curious misogyny by which a woman is blamed for a war men started, fought, and killed women and children in (as well as each other). Connect to efforts in later cantos to find a single cause for WWI and WWII: usury. • Eleanor of Aquitaine: “archetype of the femme fatale, inspiring both strife and poetry” (CT). Women and men both stand as types or archetypes in Cantos … do either ever stand as individuals?
“Let her go …” Voices of old men of Troy (“murmur of old men’s voices”) who wanted to send her back to Greece and end the war. EP seems to disdain their timidity—a failure of the life instinct—and yet they share his aversion to war. What gives? • Note how he reconfigures his source: instead of admiration—rejection, as in Homer, he gives us rejection—admiration—rejection. Why?
Schoeney’s daughters Schoeneus, father of Atalanta, “who, like Helen, through her beauty caused the death of many men” (CT) So we have three femmes fatales now—Helen of Troy, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Atalanta—brought together for what they have in common. Is this misogyny or a working method (or both)? Depends (in part) on whether he treats male archetypes likewise. A sense here of the ideogrammatic method though: bringing together three things (rose, rust, robin) to express what they have in common (redness).
by the beach-run, Tyro In the Odyssey, Odysseus, in Hades, sees Tyro, who fell in love with the god of the river Eni­peus. Poseidon, god of the sea, took on his form, put her to sleep, and raped her. Reference to O.’s journey to Hades connects this canto to Canto I. • A vignette from the Odyssey but has all the marks of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—a transition, then, from the first canto’s focus on the heroic archetype (Odysseus) to the second’s focus on the theme of transformation (Bacchus).
arms of the sea-god Poseidon—though Proteus is here too—from a bit earlier—and Dionysos’ theophany (revelation of the god), soon to come, makes him a sort of sea god, also. The identities of the gods are themselves protean—ever-shifting—Proteus becomes Poseidon becomes Dionysos. So the way he treats women (triad of Helen, Eleanor, Atalanta) he also treats gods.
And by Scios Chios, an Aegean island. The transition begins to the canto’s second major movement—the theophany of Dionysos—starts by locating us in spot where that theophany begins.
to left of the Naxos passage Naxos another island—and a center of the Dionysos cult. Continues the specification of location. Interesting that something mythic will happen as if historic—i.e. in a particular place (also, at a time?).
a young boy Bacchus, god of wine and fertility, also known as Dionysos, Zagreus, Iacchus, Lyaeus. A central motif of the Cantos. As Canto I belongs to Odysseus, Canto II belongs to Dionysos.
loggy with vine-must Loggy: heavy, sluggish (OED). Vine-must: new wine. The source is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The god of wine is drunk? I guess that fits.
“Cum’ along lad” A Classical Greek myth, taken from a Roman source, rendered in British Cockney voice. From class: One time laid on another as if on a flat plane (post-Cubist). But why lay times on one another in this way? Pound said, “All times are contemporaneous in the mind.”
And I said Who is “I”? Sixteen lines later identifies himself as Acoetes—captain of the ship. From class: The information necessary to interpret an allusion or a foreign phrase is often sitting nearby in the poem. Same thing done here with identity of speaker. • Pound’s use of personas.
And an ex-convict … a little slave money. Acoetes still speaking. Retells the story of Dionysos’s abduction. Why is Acoetes given such a prominent speaking part? Is he as important as Odysseus? Or is he just here as witness and storyteller? Either way, EP likes him because he honours the gods.
God-sleight then, god-sleight: / Ship stock fast in sea-swirl Long, slow syllables resemble rhythms of “The Seafarer.” • Repetition prominent. Three sea voyages overlaid now: that of Odysseus, that of Dionysos, and that of the seafarer. Is EP composing an ideogram? • Repetition foreshadows extended repetitive patterns both in this canto and in canto IV. Something here about suspension of time.
King Pentheus The king to whom Acoetes is speaking. “Acoetes is telling the story of his crew’s attempt to kidnap the god as a warning” (CT). Pentheus will refuse to honour the god and will end up torn to pieces by the god’s ecstatic followers. Pentheus lines up with sailors who don’t honour the god—who treat the sacred in a profane way—as a means of profit. EP’s values implicit here.
grapes with no seed but sea-foam The theophany begins. EP is doing more than translating Ovid. He’s reimagining the story Ovid told—passing Ovid’s tale through the prism of Cubist practice—so that the gist of it is made new again.
And the sea blue-deep about us, / green-ruddy in shadows Theophany culminates. Note subject-rhyme with end of passage immediately  before the Dionysos section—“a wine-red glow in the shallows.”
And Lyaeus: “From now, Acoetes, my altars …” Lyaeus: name for Dionysos “in his function as the god of wine and ecstasy” (CT). The god adopts Acoetes as his priest. This is EP’s own addition to the story—the god says, in effect, “From now on, Acoetes, you’ll tend to my altars.” (Elisions like this are common … when a passage, though in English, is obscure, try to feel out what words have been trimmed away.)
Black snout of a porpoise / where Lycabs had been Lycabs is a member of Ulysses’s crew. (Ulysseus is Latin form of Odysseus.) By importing Lycabs from crew of Odysseus to crew of Acoetes, EP has spliced stories of Odysseus and Dionysos together. Highlighting their importance to these early cantos: Odysseus, the journeying hero, is central figure of I, Dionysos, metamorphic god, central figure of II. • Lycabs makes no appearance in Homer’s Odyssey—only in Ovid’s telling, elsewhere in the Metamorphoses, of Odysseus’s journeys. So this is EP’s retelling of Ovid’s retelling of Homer. Compare to end of canto I: EP’s translation of Divus’s translation of Homer. Another way of laying different temporal plans flat on top of each other.
Medon’s face like the face of a dory Medon another member of Ulysses’s crew in Ovid’s telling of Homer’s story. But Medon does appear in Homer’s Odyssey—he’s Odysseus’s herald, and at home on Ithaca, not part of the crew.
And you, Pentheus, / Had as well listen to Tiresias Tiresias—seer of Thebes—in Ovid sometimes male and sometimes female. Blind but given the power to see the future. Like Acoetes he advises Pentheus to worship Dionysos. Not to heed a seer is really dumb. Not to heed someone who’s stood beside a god is also pretty dumb.
and to Cadmus Grandfather of Pentheus and founder of Thebes. “[T]he stones of the walls of Thebes rose to the rhythm of the music Amphion played on his lyre. The walls are conceived as the magical protective walls around the archetypal city which were traced in the air by ritual dance, music, and incantation.” CT seems to think city walls are important—why? Note second line of canto IV: “Troy but a heap of smouldering boundary stones.” Something about how a gesture—a dance—can assume a durable form—as a wall. Something about relation of energy to matter, act to thing, verb to noun. Compare to “the tensile light” in later cantos—light that’s both energy and substance.
Ileuthyeria “an inadvertent conflation of Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, with Eleutheria, H [Greek], a marine organism of the genus of bisexual jellyfish” (CT) Significance obscure. Connection of bisexuality of jellyfish to gender transformations Tiresias goes through? But that’s connecting dots mostly outside the poem now.
Fair Dafne of sea-bords Daughter of Peneus, a river god. A subject-rhyme with Tyro, in love with a river god, Enipeus? At least, a return to the mouth of the river, where the canto began—its long central section having taken place mostly at sea. And beginning of the transition from Dionysos back to Tyro.
So-shu churned in the sea (As above.) Canto structured almost like nested parentheses: ((( ))). It opened with So-shu, and now returns to him; and will return shortly as well to Tyro.
glass wave over Tyro (As above.) After so much transformation, a return to where we were, at the outset. Suggests almost an eternal now—in which the rape of Tyro is always occurring. Traumatic and yucky, unless, as suggested before, gods are a way of seeing nature—here, a way of seeing the point where the river meets the sea? How is this “way of seeing nature” different from our common sense or scientific ways of seeing it?
Hesperus “Evening star sacred to Aphrodite” (CT). Near end of canto II, just as near end of canto I, an invocation of or to Aphrodite—goddess of love, and, for EP, of what else? What’s her role in this poem? The patron of Odysseus was Athena, who’s not shown up yet at all.
The tower like a one-eyed great goose Whose tower? CT is silent. Suggestion of a prison, a watch tower; also phallic.
And we have heard Identity of “we” unclear. “We” confirms we’ve left persona of Acoetes behind—he speaks only as an “I.”
the fauns chiding Proteus Proteus—sea-god with power of metamorphosis. How many gods here associated with metamorphosis? Dionysos, Proteus, Poseidon … mythological overkill? Or is Pound building an ideogram?
and the frogs singing against the fauns Reference to Aristophanes’s The Frogs—in which Dionysos and his companion, down in hell, try to drown out the croaking of “infernal frogs” (CT), perhaps with a “hemichant,” a technique of Aristophanes’s comedies that sets “one part of the chorus against the other”—i.e. it’s polyphonic. Reference to hell recalls Odysseus’ journey to hell in canto I. • Allusion to hemichant—fauns singing against Proteus, frogs singing against the fauns—suggests something about the working method of the Cantos themselves: voices will be juxtaposed, some aligned with each other (within one subset of the chorus), and some at odds with each other (different subsets of the chorus).

The image atop is a detail from

The Dionysos Cup by Exekias (fl. 545–530 BCE)

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.