NB: a close reading is not a description from beginning to end: it is a view on a narrative that sees it as a whole, and has a critical opinion on it.
The process of close reading is twofold: first, read the text; second, interpret your reading. Interpretation is a kind of inductive reasoning: you should move from the observation of particular facts and details to a reading based on those details. A close reading does not mean a close description - the reading element indicates activity on the part of the reader. This activity should be thought of in terms of the analysis, synthesis, and interpretation of the formal features of narrative. The formal features of narrative are the narrator, the plot, the characters and what is known as focalisation (who sees or describes what is going on). What to do
As you read the text, annotate it: ‘annotating’ means underlining or highlighting key words and phrases - anything that strikes you as surprising or significant, or that raises questions - as well as making notes in the margins. Focus on particulars and specifics: who is speaking? where is it located? at what time of day? what kind of language is being used? what allusions are made? What symbolism is present? Is the text ambiguous, if so why? What is the author trying to achieve? etc. Any word you are unsure of, or which looks strange in the context given, look up in any dictionary. When you have a list of particulars you’ve noticed about the text and have looked up all words you’re not sure of, you need then to formulate this list into an essay. Don’t state the obvious: close reading requires that you account for why certain words are important in the context and why the author would be using them. What is being achieved? Similarly, formal features do more that set a mood: you need to think about why a particular mood has been evoked. Many of you are good at spotting when a text becomes odd, uncomfortable, strange or tense, and note how these moments are
indicated by the text, such as grammar being reversed, punctuation used, cohesion becoming tenuous; changes in narrative voice, ambiguity, fragmentation of identity or reality, etc. Work towards finding meaningful links between the moments that you draw out for comment and use them to come up with a perspective that can see the elements in dialogue with each other.
The close reading essay is designed to bring out your reading of a text, and as such, will involve you making an argument (remember, close reading is not just a description of the text). Remember to include a brief statement of your argument in your introduction: it is best to write the introduction after you have finished a draft of the essay so you know what you’re introducing (you can also start with a rough introduction that can be deleted or rewritten later). An argument looks to persuade, not insist; it engages the reader as a thoughtful listener, who could be imagined as responding to, or questioning, your claims. An argument also takes its observations to the ‘next level’ by using its initial answers as the stuff for questions. If you notice the recurrence of certain motifs or tendencies in our texts, a first step would be to draw the reader’s attention to its presence. Then take this observation and pose it as a question that needs to be further examined. What are the implications of these representations; what are the stakes in presenting matters in this way? An argument also depends on the analysis you have already done in the annotating process: you should then relate all of the relevant details to your argument statement. Those ideas which do not support your argument should be omitted from your essay: excessive detail about unimportant features will draw attention away from the argument (although make sure not to ignore details that contradict your argument: reassess these details and use them to re-evaluate your argument). The order of the textual evidence presented in support of your argument should not follow the order of the passage being discussed. Rather, the order of the evidence depends on how it relates to your central argument.
Things to avoid
Do not attempt to slot the text into preconceived ideas of the historical time period or movement. Avoid making general statements without backing them up: do not claim that your chosen text is, for example, ‘expressive of the postmodern’ without showing how the text conveys features related to postmodern techniques; neither should you give a definition of the postmodern unless you do so through the text.
Include a bibliography (even if it’s the single text your chosen poem is from). (this is not required in the exams) Include references after every quotation at the end of the sentence in the text, rather than in footnotes. Remember that close reading takes time. Spend as much time as you can reading and re-reading the texts, working to trace the logic, finding the moments of argument, drawing out associations, establishing the techniques being employed. If you spend too little time on this stage it will show up in your essay, as it will result in a piece that is hesitant at the beginning and only starts to get going as it concludes. By spending time before writing, you will find this will help you firm up your perspective on what is being expressed, and will give imaginative shape to your essay.
Some starting points
When annotating the text, try and think about the following questions:
• Metre, rhythm, rhyme: how does metre work in the passage you’re reading? How are units of meaning created by the line divisions? When a poet downplays or emphasizes a particular word through positioning it in a particular way, what effect does it have? How does the poet manage tone, pace and register with his or her use of rhyme and rhythm? • What is the structure of the poem? Are there abrupt changes or a progression from one idea to another? Are there any symmetries or dialogue? • What is the narrator doing with the text? How does the narrator function in the text? Is the narrator trying to persuade the reader? What is the plot doing? How are the characters represented and why? • What is the dramatist doing? How do
the stage directions work and what mood or interactions with the characters do they create? How do the characters interact? In what manner does the dialogue work, fast and snappy or long and drawn out? Is it in colloquial language or in blank verse. • Are there any words you don’t understand? Look them up. • Grammatical features: tenses, conditional constructions, the passive voice. Is the poem in the first, second or third person? Perhaps there are tense or person shifts; what effect do these produce? • Predominance: are there several words that mean the same thing? repeated adjectives or pronouns? • What kind of language is being used, or what register is the text written in? Common, elevated, earthy, legal, lyrical, rhetorical, religious, colloquial, standard English? Why? • Are there any rhetorical features? metaphor and simile, hyperbole and litotes, personification, metonymy? • Look at punctuation (but remember this could be the intervention of a printer or a later editor). Look out for: enjambment, parentheses, direct speech. When the punctuation is sparse, why? Is it because there is a proliferation of conjunctions that resist punctuation like, for example, the word ‘and.’ Are there ellipses, what do they do to the speed or movement? • Allusions and references, to biblical or classical stories. • What is the tone of the text? Is it Serious, playful, comic, anxious, joyful, melancholy or ironic? How is this effect created?
• While reading the close readings of other critics will help you learn how to close read, it is not necessary to refer to secondary criticism in your non-assessed close reading or of the exam.
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