ModPo pushes forward into the second week. We’ve read Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. We’re involved in Facebook discussions, posted on forums, taken a couple of quizzes, read some interesting albeit disturbing inferences, subtle connotations, and outright fantastic insights, and listened to Al Filreis and his TA’s hash out the poems via a tool called “Close Readings.”
Our first writing assignment was to conduct a personal “Close Reading” of a Dickinson poem.
A Close Reading?
I hear you.
This is the kind of hurdle that brain-blocks those who say poetry is for THOSE kinds of people—THOSE weird poets, or THOSE elite intellectuals. Thus making it no fun anymore. Many of us would HALT right here, our burning callouses sending smoke signals as we skid to a stop in front of this curiously phrased hurdle of fire.
There is a part of me says—Oh, those graduates/elite thinkers, they even have coined a term that terminates the love of language in us ordinary folk who do manual labor or chase kids (ours and others) or those walking with tender feet and trepidation into poetry.
The other part of me says—Oh, this sounds fun!
Instead of quivering in fear, lets just ignore their phrasing (ooh, too scary) and call it a word puzzle. Think: A Close Reading is just a Word Puzzle.
What do you do to solve this kind of puzzle?
In short, read the poem through. Notice repetition, notice theme, notice rhyme, notice word choice, notice form. Then find yourself a good dictionary. My favorite is The Free Dictionary—an on-line Super-Dooper Dictionary. I get the shivers every time I visit that site. (The other day the Mister learned I had a favorite dictionary and he about dropped his teeth. Am I that weird?)
Next step is to look up the words. Simple as that. Learn the other meanings of the words, archaic ones, unusual ones. Decide for yourself if a different meaning is what is meant here. Sometimes you get hints. Does the poem have a nautical theme? Then, maybe the word reel in a poem has something to do with fishing and nothing to do with walking unsteadily. Then, again, maybe it does. Once you find the meanings of pivotal words, you may or may not want to learn a little more about the author. Does he/she generally write about love or nature? Do they have a narrow focus on life, people? Do they write about poetry? These are all parts of the puzzle.
What happens when you do this?
The poem opens up.
Honestly, it is one of the most bizarre feelings you’ll ever have—when a poem opens (“Becomes Accessible to all, is free from limitations, is susceptible and vulnerable, free of prejudice, affording unobstructed entrance and exit”)
Sometimes they open like a bomb, sometimes like a bleeding heart and sometimes like a moonflower in your sleep.
It’s not hard. But, it does take some time. And it’s worth it in the end. We’ll talk more about this in another post.
For a description of a Close Reading see A description of close readings from the UPenn English Department.