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We all aspire to read well and carefully, with an eye for significant claims and an ear for detail and nuance. A work of verbal art, however, is not only in the business of making claims, and its details and nuances are not just the finer points of an argument. When we interpret a work of literature, we do more than interpret its sentences; we pay attention to all the resources the language has to offer: not just its sense but its sounds; not just its articulation but its silencesâ€”because it is out of all these resources that meaning in literature is made.
Itâ€™s true: In order to read a work of art closely, you must first be able to describe it. But a good description is always also an interpretation. The combination of formal description and interpretation is what we call a close reading.
One can go through a poem and simply list as many qualities as can be thought of and observed; indeed, this is something like what you have done in your annotation assignment, and it might be a useful way to begin writing your essay. But a close reading is both more and less than a list of annotations. Less, because there is no way you could include every quality of a work of artâ€”it would take many more pages than you have, if it were possible at all. More, because a comprehensive list of qualities would be unreadable, or pointless. A close reading must offer a thesisâ€”a statement of interpretive argumentâ€”in the light of which your descriptions take on significance. Your argument, once it emerges, will also provide a principle of selection (so that you can give less attention to aspects of the poem that are not relevant to the argument you are trying to make) and will help organize your descriptions in some logical order to show how they support and exemplify your interpretive claim.
A few cautions:
- A) Though any formal feature may contribute to our experience of a poem, not every aspect of a text is crucial to the meaning of the poem as you construe it. You will want to be selective about the phenomena that you choose to emphasize, directing your readerâ€™s attention toward the meaningful ways form and sense interact.
An example: When thinking about sound in poetry (as in the example below), critics are often tempted to assign sound patterns an obvious emotional significance: e.g. to claim that regular rhyming is â€œsoothing,â€ or that hard consonants and strongly marked stresses indicate â€œanger.â€ The problem here is that such claims tend to be subjective or arbitrary. What if I happen hear those strongly marked stresses as expressing confidence rather than anger? What if I find the regularity of rhyme boring or irritating rather than soothing? Your saying it doesnâ€™t make it so. What does make it so? An argument about what the poem is doing will have to defend its claims by offering evidence internal to the poem, and showing us how the evidence counts. Thus,
- B) All claims about a work of verbal art must be substantiated by quotation and interpretation. Poemsâ€”or passagesâ€”are short; you might be tempted to assume that your reader will be able to find or remember the bit you have in mind. Donâ€™t!Back up your claims by citing lines from the poem, and by showing us exactly how those lines work the way you say they do.
For this final essay, you will write a 5-7 page close reading of a single poem.
The sample introduction I have included here poses a question at the end of the first paragraph and proposes a thesis at the end of the second. The author claims that â€œsimilarity of soundsâ€ is the central or â€œgoverningâ€ formal feature of Yeatsâ€™s poem, and that the repetitive and conjoining effects of sound are also central to a proper understanding the poemâ€™s meaning. The author would then presumably go on to organize her account of the poem in order to support or defend that interpretive claim. Note that while this essay might emphasize one aspect of the poem, it would also leave others out. This essay might make less the poemâ€™s strange imagery (the collar-bone of a hare??), for example, while another author might have chosen to make an argument about the images in this poem, and would organize her descriptions accordingly.
In a close reading you are laying the foundations of care, attentiveness, judicious selection of emphasis and precision of argument upon which interpretations of any textâ€”literary or philosophicalâ€”will be built.
The Collar-bone of a Hare
Would I could cast a sail on the water
Where many a king has gone
And many a kingâ€™s daughter,
And alight at the comely trees and the lawn,
The playing upon pipes and the dancing,
And learn that the best thing is
To change my loves while dancing
And pay but a kiss for a kiss.
I would find by the edge of that water
The collar-bone of a hare
Worn thin by the lapping of water,
And pierce it through with a gimlet and stare
At the old bitter world where they marry in churches,
And laugh over the untroubled water
At all who marry in churches,
Through the white thin bone of a hare
Love is Not Love: Repetition and the end of Romance
W.B. Yeatsâ€™s â€œThe Collar-bone of a Hareâ€ opens with an oddly compressed subjunctive phrase. The elimination of a word in a common expression (â€œwould that I couldâ€) introduces the poem with a rhetorical flourish of archaism. The speaker who says â€œwould I couldâ€ is the same speaker whose most immediate association with water and sail is not the modern world of the 20th century in which he seems to live, but an anachronistic world of kings and idealized romance that he longs for. While the omission of the expected â€œthatâ€ helps us to hear the poemâ€™s speaker as a romantic, with concerns not quite appropriate to the contemporary world, it also helps us to hear something about the formal character of the poem. By bringing â€œwouldâ€ and â€œcouldâ€ close together, the poem emphasizes and makes audible an internal rhyme that has always been part of the conventional phrase (though less audibly than here); as though to call attention to the fact that the similarity of sounds will be the poemâ€™s central feature. But why? What is the relation between the speakerâ€™s â€œromanticâ€ tendenciesâ€”his insistence on seeing the world in an anachronistic wayâ€”and the poemâ€™s emphasis on its sounds?
In what follows, I argue that sound-similarityâ€”first rhyme, but, increasingly as the poem goes on, repetitionâ€”is not only the dominant formal feature of the poem, but part of its central thematic concern as well. Yeatsâ€™s poem is not just one in which words are placed into a relation of similarity or identity; it is a poem that gives expression to an unusual desire: to see one lover as exchangeable for another lover, just as one word â€œkissâ€ is exchangeable for another word â€œkiss.â€ By transforming the ordinary relation of rhyme (in which different words are joined together on the basis of their similarity) to the relation of repetition (in which the same words appear again and again) this â€œromanticâ€ speakerâ€™s song imagines an alternative to our ordinary understanding of romantic love itself as a kind of rhymeâ€”the special fit of one distinct individual to another. In place of a love that unites and preserves differences, Yeatsâ€™s poem gives expression to a strange idea: that â€œthe best thingâ€ might be a perfectly in different loveâ€”one in which you could just as easily love any person as any other (â€œchange my loves while dancingâ€), without â€œbitternessâ€, or loss, or cost. The best love, the poem suggestsâ€”if it could existâ€”would not just be unselfish; it would be opposed to the idea of individual selves altogether.
Here are some poems in the Norton Anthology you might consider. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list– just a list of poems to get you started thinking.
John Donne, â€œA Valediction Forbidding Mourningâ€
George Herbert, â€œThe Collarâ€
Anne Bradstreet, â€œA Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Public Employmentâ€
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, â€œFrost at Midnightâ€
John Keats, â€œOn First Looking into Chapmanâ€™s Homerâ€
Emily Dickinson, 788 (â€œPublicationâ€”is the Auctionâ€)
William Butler Yeats, â€œThe Circus Animalâ€™s Desertionâ€
Wallace Stevens, â€œThirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbirdâ€
Langston Hughes, â€œThe Weary Bluesâ€
Elizabeth Bishop, â€œThe Fishâ€
Gwendolyn Brooks, â€œmy dreams, my works, must wait till after hellâ€
Frank Oâ€™Hara, â€œThe Day Lady Diedâ€