All posts for the month February, 2010

One of the biggest challenges to close reading is finding your own voice in the analysis. When I was an undergraduate (and even sometimes still today) I would look at what someone else has written or said about a work of literature and think: What can I add to this?!

Sometimes I would make the mistake of letting someone else’s voice take over my paper: the other writer’s ideas just seemed to make so much more sense! Yeah, I agree with what she or he wrote. My teachers would write in the margin of these papers: Where is your voice? What do you think about this topic?

This common error is one of the reasons why the works we analyze in our papers for Literary Methodologies are not as well known or written about. If I give you a text that 110 scholars have written about, the temptation to quote or paraphrase what someone else has thought and written about is strong. If I give you a text that few people have written about, then, by necessity, you need to work through the close reading “on your own.”

However, as scholars and readers, we rarely do such work completely alone. We often read alone and write alone . . . but the process of thinking about literature is also a very social activity. Books clubs exist because of the need and desire to discuss literature with others. We focus so much on discussion in class not just to practice these tools, but because the process of thinking through a text is often helped by bouncing ideas off each other.

A lot of our scholarship is done alone. Lots of good thinking is done alone, too. However, I would encourage you to keep bouncing ideas off each other. Work through interpretations with your friends, family, and instructors.

Reading and writing about literature is a social activity. I assign papers—assignments that let you express your arguments about a text—to formalize this conversation. Looking forward to reading your papers!

I was especially struck by the poetry included in the section “Many Tones: Poems about Family Relationships” from the week’s reading.

From the snuggly “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” to the colder ways and modes of love’s expressions in “Those Winter Sundays” the poetry sent me along an emotional tide. I enjoyed hearing what the class made of the different tones and themes expressed in this collection of poetry.

On a side note, I was also happy to see the work of one of my former undergraduate professors, Daniel Tobin, included in this selection. His writing is rich and I would encourage anyone, and especially those with Irish ancestry or interest in Irish culture, to check out his work (especially his latest book of poetry).

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the relationship between visual form and content (the subject of an optional reading in Fussell). How would you compare the visual form in “Postcard from Kashmir,” with its rather short lines, with the longer lines of “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps”? How does their shape match their content? How do all the poets in this section use space to their advantage (or, perhaps, to their disadvantage)? Compare, for example, the nearly box-like shape of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” with the waving lines of “Postcard from Kashmir.”

I’m also hoping that any difficulty you were having with the citation of poetry has been resolved. Keep in mind that you usually cite the lines of poetry in the text citation. And, titles of poems are put in quotation marks (as I have done above). If you did not buy the MLA handbook, some of the basics are provided for you in the Norton (look for the chapters called “The Research Essay” and “Quotation, Citation, and Documentation” in the Norton).

There are lots of resources on the Internet to help you do just what we’ve been practicing for the first four weeks of class: close read a poem.

I want to point out to you to a couple of additional references for understanding and putting into practice the tools and goals of close reading and close reading poetry, in particular.

Sometime we learn best when we watch (or in this case read) someone do the task we need to do. Imagine learning to play a sport without ever having seen someone play it?! Here’s an example of a close reading of poetry:

Play special attention to the second paragraph in this essay. Note how the writer is doing just what we’ve been practicing in class. The writer is slowly taking the reader–step-by-step–through the process of showing how form and content inform each other. I would like to see something similar in your own close reading papers.

You might also want to take a look at how this student conducts an explication of a few lines of poetry:

How does the student discuss the poem? How does the student connect her evidence and argument?

Here’s a good site on “Critical Reading”:

As you look through this site you will see that the professor asks 13 questions, many of which we have covered in the class and a few that are still on our horizon to cover. As you work on your poetry paper you might point your browser to this page and work through the various questions.

“Explicating” is another word for close reading. Here is a site that breaks down the process you need and gives the “cheaters” ways to scan. (Okay, this method is not really cheating–in part because it is labor intensive–but it can help build your confidence and an ear for how to scan. When in doubt, I use this technique to check my “ear” for the line and what is stressed and unstressed.)

Understanding and Explicating Poetry:

The returning of the first paper marks the end of the “honeymoon” stage in teacher and student relationships. Up to this point we’ve been working together in the blissful grade-free zone . . . and while I hope we still are working together after the evaluations are read . . . the process of grading brings another set of dynamics to our relationship. There are issues of power, of authority, of fairness, and of ego that suddenly come to the fore.

As you read my feedback, please keep in mind I evaluate writing, not people. And yet, grades are so connected to one’s identity, and so I understand that this is often hard to keep that in mind when you are reading feedback and looking at a grade.

I expect a lot from my students’ writing because I know you all are solid thinkers and writers. My job is to push you and help you find and practice the tools you need to be successful in your other Literature and college courses. I want you to be successful in your writing, and I want to read awesome papers.

Below are a few common weaknesses that I noted in the OED papers. Think about these aspects as you begin to draft your poetry close reading paper.

Writing Point to Think About: Form and Content

In this first paper I noticed that some writers didn’t really have a key focus other than using the OED and moving, stanza-by-stanza or (sometimes random) word-by-word through the poem. For the next formal assignment I want everyone to consider how his/her form (paper organization) relates to his/her content (the explication of the text).

Now, if your analysis about the poem hinged on showing a certain kind of development (a development of the diction, for example), then a chronological working through of the poem that pointed out the key words and their meanings that demonstrated that development would be called for. Your organization, in that case, matches the content.

However, some of the papers that I read that used a stanza-by-stanza strategy did so as a tool to work through the poem’s plot, which really wasn’t the focus of this paper at all. In other words, such papers often explained that the first stanza was about X (and I looked up some words in it), the next stanza was about Y (and here is a word in it), etc. Such papers often lacked a strong focus in part because the argument’s form was not connected to the analysis.

Our analysis of how a poem’s form and content relate can translate to your own writing, even if you are not writing poetry. Cool, huh? Understanding how poetry works can make you a better writer!

Writing Point to Think About: Thesis Statements

Which of these thesis statements would you say best focus on the task at hand: that complete this assignment that charged you to use the OED to explicate the poem? How might you improve (revise) all of these thesis statements? Which thesis presents the most interesting argument?

a) The OED is a very helpful tool for reading poetry. I learned a lot from this assignment.

b) Understanding the diction with its connotations and multiple denotations leads to a better understanding of the poem.

c) This poem was difficult. However, by looking at specific words the poem’s significance becomes more obvious.

d) “Revenant” exploits language’s ambiguity to paint a picture of a hopeful end of the world.

e) The best way to understand this poem is to look at it stanza-by-stanza.

f) The poem’s use of ambiguous and precise meanings of three key words (revenant, condemned, and Easter) emphasizes a complex relationship between death and life.

Writing Point to Think About: Citation of Dictionary Definitions

Several students did not put quotation marks around the OED definitions. This is plagiarism. If you did not summarize the definition completely in your own words and/or did not put those words from the OED in quotation marks, you plagiarized from the OED. This is bad, bad, bad. You must either fully summarize the definition and put it in your own words (and you still need to use in-text citation so your reader knows where you got this information) or, you need to put the word-for-word definition in quotation marks. Here are two examples:

Correct Quotation:
A) According to the OED, the word “sand” means “A material consisting of comminuted fragments and water-worn particles of rocks (mainly silicious) finer than those of which gravel is composed; often spec. as the material of a beach, desert, or the bed of a river or sea” (def 1a).

Correct Paraphrase:
B) According to the OED, the word “sand” means tiny rocks, which are smaller than gravel, that are often found in locations like a beach, desert, or riverbed (def 1a).

Plagiarism Example 1: Word-for-Word
C) According to the OED, the word “sand” means a material consisting of comminuted fragments and water-worn particles of rocks (mainly silicious) finer than those of which gravel is composed; often spec. as the material of a beach, desert, or the bed of a river or sea (def 1a).

Plagiarism Example 2: Plagiarism by Paraphrase
D) The word “sand” means tiny rocks, which are smaller than gravel, that are often found in locations like a beach, desert, or riverbed.

Plagiarism Example 3: Mosaic Plagiarism
E) According to the OED, the word “sand” means a material consisting of water-worn particles of rocks, mainly silicious, and finer than gravel that are often found in locations like a beach, desert, or riverbed (def 1a).

Note the errors each plagiarism example makes. See Dr. J if you have questions about proper citation.

Writing Point to think about: Titles

What do you do with titles? Many students failed to underline or italicize The Oxford English Dictionary. As a whole, the class did a better job with the title of a short work; in this case, the poem’s title: “Revenant.”

Here’s a site that goes over the basics and discusses how scanning can be useful for close reading:

Poetry explication handout (w/ scanning hints):

I’m not the only person in the world that thinks a computer program could/should be written that scans poems:

Short, sample explication:

Longer, sample explication w/ discussion of meter:

Hope this helps!

One reason I like teaching “Literary Methodologies” is that it allows me to go back to material that I maybe haven’t thought about for a while . . . or perhaps at least since the last time I taught this course.

As I primarily read and write about contemporary American fiction, I don’t often get the chance or take the time to think much about sonnets or poetry more broadly or any literature written before 1865. But, whenever I do, well . . . I’m charged by the experience: I should think and write more about poetry.

Our thinking about sonnets and external form in the last class period got me surfing for more information. I wanted to know if there were other standard sonnet forms (besides the English and the Italian) and what folks were doing with sonnets.

Here’s some resources where I found the answers to these and other questions:

“Basic Sonnet Forms”:

“The Sonnet”:

Other things on Dr. J’s mind . . .

This week you all have the challenge of writing your OED paper and creating a blog.

I imagine that these are new experiences for most of you . . . and when things are new it is not unusual to feel frustrated and confused. As I mentioned in class, I purposely selected a poem for your OED paper that not many (if any!) people have written about and you probably have never read before. What’s a literary critic to do with this poem that seems to use language so differently?

Well, starting with the key words as a tool to unlock the meaning is a start. And, new poems remind us to slow down in our reading. Interpretation is not to be rushed into. One starting point might be to consider: Is this a serious poem? Funny? Witty? What insight do its words and their OED meanings give you in this regard?

I’m looking forward to reading the efforts this weekend.