The goal of a close reading is to produce a convincing interpretation of a short passage of text, one that will strike other readers as both valid and fresh.
Close Reading Poetry
Unlike shopping lists, traffic signs, or other everyday communications, poems make readers think and feel in new ways. Because we spend our lives in a sea of words, poems take on the task of making those words appear different enough to attract our close attention. This is what Ezra Pound meant when he urged poets to
Make it new (1934). Poetry exists in a variety of forms that are constantly in flux, from more formally rigorous sonnets and sestinas, to free verse, spoken word, and visual poetry.
Even simple poems for children play with language, usually through rhythm and rhyme, and these features preserve them over centuries, even when the original context is lost. The famous nursery rhyme,
Ring Around the Roses, is said to originate with the Black Plague. But children still sing it enthusiastically without thinking about the meaning, because it’s fun to sing and act out.
Poetry and Language
Poems are distinguished from other genres precisely because of their evocative and sometimes abstract use of language, usually enhanced by other features of spoken language such as rhythm and rhyme, and also by features of written language such as the ways words appear visually on the page.
So although it might be fun to think of analyzing a poem as similar to carrying out a murder investigation, there is only one guilty party in a real murder. Yet, as suggested, words mean different things in different contexts, and every reader, every classroom is different.
If this wasn’t the way words worked, we’d need a whole new set every time we encountered new circumstances. Fortunately, old words get re-used all the time. Think of the ways in which the simple three-letter word web is used, for example. (Go to the Oxford English Dictionary and look it up).
Poets often exploit this multiplicity of meanings, rather than trying (as in some academic prose) to restrict meanings and limit their free play. Poetry, then, might best be thought of as taking various features of everyday language and drawing attention to them, marking their difference.
For instances, Gertrude Stein’s
A rose is a rose is a rose could be construed as nonsense; but wait a minute… what do these words convey? Might she be fighting the tendency always to interpret roses as symbolic rather than real?
Poetry and Interpretation
Poetry can frustrate our desire for quick understanding—this might explain why some people don’t like poetry. The poems in this guide, in conjunction with the following examples of close reading, are intended to offer an alternative to that mindset, to allow readers to learn to enjoy the nonsense, the beauty, or even the stern intellectual test of poetry.
Some poetry rubs our noses in the fact that there is no one true story by insisting on its own difficulty, while other poems seem almost too simple and clear to be discussed further at all. Just because poetry is open-ended does not mean that we can make a poem mean anything we want—after all, close readings are designed for readers, who will assess them and decide whether they enrich the meaning of the poem for them or not.
So whoever produced the interpretation of
Ring Around the Roses that tied it to the plague satisfied a lot of people: it was a good interpretation for a long time. But debate has raged over this interpretation recently, as the Wikipedia entry for
Ring a Ring O’Roses reveals.
- Pound, Ezra. Make It New: Essays. 1934. New Haven: Yale UP, 1935. Print.
- Stein, Gertrude. Geography and Plays. Boston: Four Seas, 1922. Print.