About Close Reading

Learning how to read a poem actively is a great skill – it makes you much more aware of language, of sound, of metaphors behind common phrases, of the intricate ways that words nestle inside other words. And if you like poetry, it’s actually a lot of fun – finding out how the magician did the trick. (Or how someone else thinks they did it …)bishop 13 ways

There are lots of ways of going about this, and plenty of books that will walk you through the process. I learned first from Wendy Bishop’s Thirteen Ways of Looking for a Poem, where it was called “Reading for Writing”. Another good starting point is How to Study Modern Poetry by Tony Curtis (who just happened to be my thesis supervisor at the University of Glamorgan. Hi Prof!).How to study modern poetry American poet Edward Hirsch does his own version of this process in How to Read a Poem, as does Irish poet Tom Paulin in The Secret Life of Poems. My absolute favourites are Ruth Padel’s wonderful 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and The Poem and the Journey. You’ll also see it referred to in LitCrit as “close reading”, which is a good way of thinking of it.

hirsch how to read a poemUltimately, the only questions you need to ask a poem are:

  • What’s going on?
  • How?
  • Why?

Paulin secret life of poems

For those of you who would like a more specific approach, below is my default list of questions to put to a poem that I’m analysing. It originated in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poem, and grew from there as I discovered more things that I wanted to know. Quite often the answer is “not applicable”, which is fine – it’s about finding lots of different ways of looking at how the poem works. It’s an evolving process. Feel free to adapt it to your own needs.

  • Check any unfamiliar words/ phrases/ references.
  • How many stanzas are there?
  • How many lines?
  • Is it a form?
  • What expectations does this create/fulfill/confound?
  • How many sentences?
  • How do the sentences break over lines/stanzas?
  • What punctuation is there?
  • What effect does this have?
  • Other schematic devices?
  • Any patterns? (Sound, structure, development?)
  • Read aloud – is it easy/hard to read? Why?
  • Rhyme?
  • Alliteration/assonance?
  • Words repeated?
  • Effects of specific groups of sound?
  • Relation of sound to mood/theme?
  • Are there any ambiguities?
  • Are there any paradoxes?
  • What images are used?
  • What symbols are used?
  • Any exceptions to norm/errors? What effect do they have?
  • Does it work? (Explain why/not)
  • Any associations/resonances for me personally?
  • What’s it all about?
  • What can I learn from this poem?

For an example of this process in action, below is the list of questions I used when analysing poems for my MPhil thesis, Weaving Complexity: beyond the single linear narrative in contemporary poetry. You can read the resulting analysis of Pascale Petit’s Mirador here. In this case, I was looking at ways of weaving multiple threads into a poem – specifically how Mirador used multiple levels of memory. The poem that I was working on, and that I used Mirador‘s example to construct, was the third poem of the Cowarral sequence, A Summer Storm. I hope you find it interesting.

  • Mark any words or phrases that you don’t know, and look them up.
  • How many stanzas are there?
  • How many lines?
  • How many syllables per line?
  • Is it in a form?
  • How many sentences?
  • How are they deployed across lines/stanzas? With what effect?
  • What punctuation is used? With what effect?
  • Are there any other schematic devices used? With what effect?
  • Do a mechanical scansion of the poem. Any patterns? Effect?
  • Read aloud. Easy or hard to read?
  • Any areas that are rough, or odd? Assuming they are intentional, why?
  • Colour code end words, and check for assonance/consonance, internally and externally.
  • Are there patterns in sound or structure? With what effect?
  • Are there any biases to note? Does the poet intrude into the poem?
  • What could be the poet’s motivations?
  • What are the threads of this poem?
  • How are they signalled?
  • How are they related to each other?
  • How does the poem unify them?
  • What technical question does this poem answer?
  • What would have been lost if the poem had been constructed as a single, linear narrative?
  • Is there anything else particularly notable about this poem?
  • How (mechanically) does the poem weave its threads together?
  • How, if you followed this example, would your poem be structured?
  • What are the pros and cons of applying this approach to your poem?

One thought on “About Close Reading

  1. When are you doing another workshop? If I knew about the one in 2015 I would be there. I am not a poet but am looking at writing a book.

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