English 213

Introduction to Poetry

American Poetry

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Close Reading ("Explication") Assignment


What is a Close Reading?

Being able to write a close reading (Explication) of a poem is one of the skills that you are expected to master as an English student at Reed. In fact it is one of the three basic skills that you are asked to perform on the Junior Qualifying Exam (the other two are analysis of an argument [Précis], and analysis of narrative).

To "explicate" comes from a Latin word meaning to unfold. The purpose of an explication or close reading is to unfold the significance of a poem. Explication pays close attention to the parts of a poem in order to support a larger argument about its overall impact. For your paper you will want to choose one of the "In-depth" poems for the day you are assigned. You do not need to focus on all of the qualities of the poem, but you do need to cover at least the aspect of the poem being discussed for that day. For example if the chapter in the Norton we have just read is on "tone," you need to talk about tone. You may of course discuss other poetic techniques that are relevant to your argument.

One of the greatest challenges of an explication is synthesis. Even as you divide the poem into its composite elements, you will want to discuss how those elements come together to form a whole. As writer Diane Hacker points out, division--like classification--should be made "according to some principle": she notes, "to divide a tree into roots, trunk, branches, and leaves makes sense; to list its components as branches, wood, water, and sap does not, for the categories overlap" (and seem random and disconnected). [Diane Hacker. The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd. ed. Boson: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1991: 91] Your essay should reveal how the parts of the poem, like the parts of a tree, relate and form a totality. Ideally, your paper should reveal some of the wonder and excitement that first inspired you to choose this poem.

Evaluating a Close Reading Paper

Before class you should read at least two of the Close Readings your classmates have sent you. To assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Close Reading ask yourself:

1. Did the paper provide an argument about what the poem means? Do you agree with that argument?
2. Did the paper provide evidence of how the poetic techniques (tone, speaker, figurative language, form, rhythm, etc.) enhances or creates that meaning? Is the evidence effective or is anything important being left out?
3. What information would you delete?
4. Are there any instances of wordiness? any instances of confused syntax or meaning?

Here are some more suggestions to get you started as you write your Close Reading

Summarizing: Pre-writing
Once you have chosen a poem, paraphrase it (i.e. put it in your own words). You will want to deliberately avoid using figurative language. The purpose of this step is two-fold. First, it ensures that you know what the poem is saying. Second, it allows you to see the moments where the poet uses an intense kind of language.

Poetic Techniques
The following are some poetic techniques that you may want to consider in your paper. In your final exam you will want as wide a variety of techniques as possible. In earlier papers you may focus on only the ones covered in the day's readings or that we have covered so far. These questions are only the most basic ones: As we cover more poetic techniques this semester you will want to create your own list of questions that you ask yourself.

1 . Examine the language of the poem. Look up any words that seem important or unclear in the OED. How does the text make use of the particular connotations of its words? Are there patterns of word choice (diction), such as language associated with religion or with everyday speech? What images and image patterns are prominent? What are the associations of these images? Do the images take on larger significance as symbols? What other metaphoric language contributes to the poem's meaning? Similes? Puns? Are there larger patterns of allegory or allusion?
2 . How is the author using the form? How does the form suit the poet's intent? What variations are there in meter and rhyme scheme? How do these variations affect the meaning? How does the poet use the break between octave and sestet or quatrains and couplets? What other sound effects do you notice (alliteration, assonance, etc.) and how do they fit the larger effects of the poem? How does the poem use line and stanza breaks? How does it use syntax to emphasize or enact its meaning?
3 . Who is the speaker of the poem? How would you characterize the speaker? What is the tone of the poem? How does it change? Does it use irony? What techniques does poet use to get this tone across? What is the relationship between the speaker and the audience? How does this relate to the message of the poem?
4 . What are the main ideas, themes, or concepts in the poem? Does it have a point you could summarize? Does it set up a contrast or debate? If so does it resolve the debate somehow? How does this relate to the sense of closure in the poem? How do the other elements of the poem support or enhance this theme?

5. What is the meter of the poem? Why might the poet have chosen this meter or what does it add to the poem? Choose a few instances in which the meter does something unexpected. How does the poet use rhythm to add meaning to the poem?

More tips on doing a close reading of a poem:

Sample Close Readings of Poems

Please note that these are just examples. They are not perfect, nor are they intended as models to be followed slavishly. Rather you should read each one critically and assess its strengths and weaknesses.

Formatting: I would like you to use MLA format for your papers. To see sample papers (not on poetry) in this format see Diana Hacker's Online Bedford Handbook.

For more help with Writing About Literature see the Norton Writing About Literature Website or the final section of the Norton Introduction to Poetry.

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2003 Prof. Laura Leibman, Dept. of English, Reed College Print SyllabusInfoAssignmentsGroups
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