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Like a sprat in a pickle jug.
How to do close reading
I wrote about dishwashers for my series Man Made Miracles in The Critic. This is the correct link for my podcast with Charles C.W. Cooke. And I went on a rant about the moral problem of NIMBYism for the New Statesman.
A reader writes:
Have you any advice on the technique of close reading, or how to more adeptly identify where form is and what it is doing? More widely, could you offer a short reading list for a disenchanted humanities student?
This reader feels like their literature degree has been too modern, too theoretical, and not enough about close reading. Before the general recommendations, here is a short example of close reading using a Sylvia Plath poem and some lines of Elizabeth Bishop.
You’re contains several choriambs, a metrical foot where the stress goes on-off-off-on, as opposed to the usual iambic stress on-off, on-off. They are italicised below:
Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish. A common-sense
Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode.
Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,
Trawling your dark as owls do.
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
Of July to All Fools’ Day,
O high-riser, my little loaf.
Later on another choriamb is used:
Snug as a bud and at home
Like a sprat in a pickle jug.
Note that the first seven lines begin with a stressed syllable. This allows Plath to stress words like snug and mute, and to emphasise the unusual and bizarre: clown, feet, gilled. Theoreticians would talk about defamiliarising the foetus. I would point to the playful language, how the choriambs enact that playfulness with their swooping rhythms, which reflect the way the foetus moves, like the way the internal rhymes in the line Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode are like the sort of bumping movements foetuses make. This sense of movement is further emphasised in the enjambement of the third line.
The way the child fits into the womb is not just depicted in the image of a sprat, but in the internal rhyme of snug as a bud, picked up again in jug. There are also anapests in this poem (which go off-off-on) and that lilting meter is used in phrases like in a spool so that it almost literally sounds like unrolling action, which is further emphasised by the way spool has such a long vowel sound. The poem bumps along with alliteration, half-rhyme, and internal rhyme as the baby bumps along inside Plath.
Look too at the way Elizabeth Bishop makes the boring domesticity of the lines
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say
sound almost mystical through the arrangement of sounds. The ‘r’ sound of arranges gives way to its long ‘ay’ sound, before alliterating with rows. The line then resolves the long ‘ay’ to the short ‘a’ of cans, which is euphonically equivalent to resolving a cadence. The long ‘ay’ recurs at the end of the next line in say. Say is a half-rhyme with arrange, and an internal rhyme with ‘they’. The meter works against all this, with stresses on that and soft, meaning these effects echo, they are not at the fore. With this euphonic arrangement, Bishop creates the poetry of enchantment by describing a petrol station.
If you want to do more close reading, subscribe today to join the Common Reader Book Club.
First, read anthologies. The Oxford Book of English Verse is indispensable. If you really can’t read Milton, maybe this isn’t the degree for you. But one book of Paradise Lost every morning isn’t such an ordeal, however much we might agree with Samuel Johnson that no-one ever wished that poem longer. The Longman Annotated Poets are treasure-houses of information.
Second, go all the way through. I believed Anglo-Saxon poetry to be, as Harold Bloom said, from the great age before the flood. But I did enough to get a sense of it. I disliked, too, the theory-ridden medievalists who were interested in everything other than the aesthetic qualities of writing. (One of them told me that Anglo-Saxon texts were useful to impose critical ideas onto.)
It doesn’t matter how much you dislike this stuff though—how can you understand literature without understanding the chain of influence? The recent brouhaha in the New Yorker about the decline of the humanities was hugely overstated, as I wrote about. But the fact that you can apparently get an English degree from Harvard without studying poetry is preposterous. If students don’t show enthusiasm for some aspects of the syllabus, as I didn’t, it is the job of the university to induce such enthusiasm.
Anglo-Saxon poetry came alive to me one day in the basement of the Oxford English Faculty when Carl Schmidt, a man of sweeping hair, long cloaks, and silk pocket handkerchiefs, played tapes of himself reciting The Dream of the Rood and The Battle of Maldon. The best lecture I ever attended was in the chapel of Lincoln College, where the lecture on Donne was followed by a dramatic reading of a Donne sermon. The chapel is the only one in Oxford to date from the time of Donne, and the whole thing was electric.
Third, read critics like Christopher Ricks. If you want a modern book of criticism that carefully traces chains of influence, I enjoyed Hollis Robbins’ Forms of Contention last year. See also: Shakespeare’s Language by Frank Kermode. For prose, try a book like Reading Jane Austen by Jenny Davidson.
Fourth, look every word up in the dictionary. Did you know that snug originated as a description of the compact design of a ship?
Fifth, write short essays explaining poems word-by-word, line-by-line. It’s not so easy to explicate someone like Donne in this way. You will learn a lot.
Sixth, learn the basics. Close reading relies on a knowledge of form, structure, syntax, and so on. An Introduction to English Poetry by James Fenton. The Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch . The Harvard Guide to Prosody. Syntax As Style by Virginia Tufte. You will get a lot from the Longman annotations also. It is not good enough to identify something technical. You must account for it.
Add any other advice—or reading recommendations—in the comments.
The first meeting of the Common Reader Book Club on April 16th at 19.00 UK time will be about Gerard Manley Hopkins. We will read his poem The Windhover and compare it with the Seamus Heaney poem Oysters and Elizabeth Bishop’s poem The Fish. Heaney and Bishop were both influenced by Hopkins—Heaney talked about the “big voltage” of Hopkins’ language—and I will be tracing the different techniques we find in The Windhover through Bishop and Heaney.
Subscribe today to learn about Hopkins, Heaney, and Bishop at the Common Reader Book Club.
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