What is a Close Reading of a Poem?

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?

 Oh, boy.

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!

A Puzzle

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.


7 thoughts on “What is a Close Reading of a Poem?

  1. Nice post. You know, I can’t remeber the times I was at poetry readings listening to the poet read thru a word list which made no sense to me at all till I flipped my brain over to ask “what do I understand?” and then the words started to make a little more sense.

  2. Puzzles are the fun of it. For me the only time it isn’t fun is when someone decides what’s right for everyone else. I like to come to a poem with a different angle to see a different truth than I did upon first approaching it.

  3. Nice post! I used to walk my high school students through “close readings.” Generally, they caught on, and seeing that moment of understanding or new insight, made for good times in the classroom. Of course, we may read in things the writer didn’t intend; but what the writer puts on the page requires a partnership with his/her readers in order to be complete. Lovely thing, that.

  4. Great post. All poems are accessible, some take more time to uncover the gold than others. Some, like us, are willing to sift for nuggets. I only feel my hackles when people start saying things like this or that kind of poetry is better, deeper, or more important poetry. Here’s to “Tankards”scooped in pearl” and another round of ModPo.

Speak to me of thoughts unspoken.

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