A note on method
Close reading and annotation
Later today I’ll send my first post on “The Triumph of Love,” but in preparation I wanted to share this brief note on my method for this close reading project.
I am going to break each post up into several sections, the first section being a close reading with no reference to outside sources and the second being more of an annotation, with information about obscure terms, etc.
This distinction is my own—many people would consider close reading and annotation to be the same, but I do not. Annotation is one element of a close reading, and sadly, it gets far more attention than the close reading itself. Students are assigned “annotations,” in which they are graded based on how many comments, definitions, and facts they can include in the margins. This makes reading into an accumulation of facts, rather than an act of presence: of sitting with the language.
With this in mind, we will always begin with a close reading derived solely from the text—no Googling, no definitions beyond what we can learn from context, no special insights from outside sources about the poet or the poem. This is intended to help readers see just how much can be gleamed simply from the language of the poem itself. While no doubt our reading benefits from Google, a dictionary, or an annotation on the poem like this one, I think there is a great deal to be said for simply reading the poem first, many times, and learning from what it contains before we turn to outside sources.
There is a widespread attitude, stemming from many high-school England classes, that a poem is a code to be cracked by the super-intelligent. This is not true. A poem is a living thing that breathes and moves and speaks, and if we listen to it closely, we learn from it how to listen to it, just as we do with a friend or neighbor.
There is another widespread attitude that a poem is, essentially, its “message,” and if we can extract what the poem “means” we have mastered the poem. This is not true. At least it is not true of good poetry. A good poem can no more be reduced to its message than a good person can be reduced to her creed. This ideolization of poetry (I did invent that word, yes), this reduction of a thing of beauty to a single idea or thesis, is destructive. In a good poem, there are probably many ideas at play that do not easily exist alongside each other.
I’ll end with a famous story about Robert Frost: at the end of a reading, during Q&A time, a woman asked Frost what one of the poems he had just read “meant.” For his answer, he opened the book and reread the poem in its entirety. Then he said, “That is what the poem means.”
A poem is like the Eucharist: it means nothing more or less than what it is. What it is, of course, is a matter for debate—possibly a matter of life and death. But when we talk about a poem, we are always talking about its lifeblood. There is no skin on a poem to peel off in an attempt to see what’s beneath. There may be layers, ironies, red herrings, diversions, misdirections. The speaker may be dodgy, sketchy, even downright malicious. But a close reading like the one we are about to undertake isn’t a dissection. It is sitting. It is listening. It is receiving. When we read a poem, we are reading its beating heart.