Posts Tagged ‘Close reading’

Konichiwa bloggits!

Close-reading poetry is about tearing language apart. You have to barbarically cut up a poem and inspect its tiny pieces. Then, when satisfied, you slot them all together and kick back.

You can do this with ANYTHING.

If you don’t believe me, read this.

This blog, Verbatimlooks for poetry in places you wouldn’t expect it. It catches the poetry of the everyday, in signs, or phone conversations, or comments on an internet forum. Repetition, patterns, and words that sound strange in a certain context are often the features that transform ordinary language into the poetic. There’s no obvious line between what counts as poetry and what doesn’t. It’s up to YOU to decide!

This is my favourite from the blog:

I mean I actually have to
send him a link 
to the thing I want.

I mean I would almost
rather him not buy anything for me…
because he just goes
and buys me something

really SHIT. And he’s started being
really funny about it, like now
he buys me something
and says I probably won’t like it

even before I unwrap it. And I
just said to him that it’s better for me
to SAY I don’t like it and take it back,
than to pretend. And

I must have mentioned like
twice a day that I want
some stacking rings. But he
sees that as like an engagement ring,

like I’d MARRY him
for Christ’s sake. I mean if I want
to find out what HE wants
I would ask his friends.

Why doesn’t he do that? Oh, and then
he goes online to Sophie
to ask what I want
and she tells him that I want

some black jeans and this poster
I linked to on Facebook, and he
just didn’t pay ANY ATTENTION to her…
Yes but I shouldn’t have to say

what I want.

Taken from a phone conversation overheard on the train from London to Pewsey, 4.36pm, December 19th. 

Extempore poetry. Excellent.



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I set up this blog with the intention of showing you how easy it is to close read language. It’s when you take the time to look at words, phrases and sounds in serious detail that you come up with original thoughts about a poem. And when you’re talking about poems or books that have been discussed over and over again, an original thought is GOLDEN.

To try and hammer home to you just how easy it is, I have a chosen to analyse Carly Rae Jepsen’s seminal piece ‘Call me Maybe’. You may know her from works such as… no wait, just that one.

hey i just met you

In case you are unfamiliar with her work, here it is in all its resplendent glory:

I’ll just look at the first four verses. It’s long and stuff pretty much just gets repeated. Over and over.

I threw a wish in the well,
Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell
I looked to you as it fell,
And now you’re in my way

I’d trade my soul for a wish,
Pennies and dimes for a kiss
I wasn’t looking for this,
But now you’re in my way

Your stare was holdin’,
Ripped jeans, skin was showin’
Hot night, wind was blowin’
Where do you think you’re going, baby?

Hey, I just met you
And this is crazy
But here’s my number
So call me, maybe?

Let’s start with Jepsen’s clever play with rhythm. The first three lines each contain 7 syllables, and for the first four syllables of each line, there is a hint of iambic rhythm: unstressed followed by stressed syllable. (See my post on meter for more explanation of this!) We have “I THREW a WISH”. But then we end with “in the WELL” – a three syllable anapaestic foot (unstressed, unstressed, stressed) that allows Jepsen to end with emphasis on the main rhyming sound of this stanza: ‘ell’. It gets repeated three times.

We see the same thing in the next stanza: “I’d trade my soul for a wish.” Note here how the ‘iss’ sound seems to gets passed through the stanza. But Jepsen, fiendish lyrical mastermind, is a fan of ­half-rhymes. “Wish” does not fully rhyme with kiss. Is this a product of laziness – of the senseless, manufactured, hit-hammering, plastic pop-paganda music industry?!? NO! We are of course overlooking the bigger picture! Jepsen is simply rejecting the frequently delimiting nature of a strict rhyming pattern, instead allowing her meaning to transcend what began life as a self-imposed pattern. The sound ‘iss/ish’ washes comfortably through the passage. It remains distinctive enough to feel part of a definite rhyming schema.

carly rae quote

Even more inspirational writing from Jepsen. 60 unfilled diaries’ worth. Celebquote.com

The refrain line “But now you’re in my way” is perhaps the cleverest part of the whole song. Notice how the 7 syllable pattern, the iambic/anapaestic hybrid line, gets broken here. We now have SIX syllables, and the rhyming word we have grown to know vanishes. Instead, Jepsen laments that a young man is obstructing her way, just as she obstructs the rhyming pattern. Oh you couldn’t write this stuff!* Genius! I beat my fists upon the ground in delirious awe of you, ye silver-tongued songstress!

*(She probably didn’t)

Now the tension is buildin’. We’re at the bridge. We powerfully hear Jepsen’s Canadian twang, helpfully represented by the elision of the g that creates the word endin’ of the participle ‘holding’. It also feels colloquial. “Your stare was holdin’” – now that’s not a real sentence. Holding what? Is it grammatically incorrect in order to imitate the informal speech of young, hip, grammatically incorrect Jepsen? Or is it purposefully unfinished – an enigmatic introduction to a male figure that proves equally enigmatic? Or does it rush past its own conclusion, caught up in the verse’s spine-tingling acceleration towards the explosive climax of ‘HEY I JUST MET YOU’.

We’re at the chorus. Overcome with a kind of babbling, euphoric hysteria as she speaks to the young man, Jepsen – and oh my, oh boy is this crazy, no seriously, it really is unhinged – Jepsen HANDS OVER HER TELEPHONE NUMBER. We’re hurried through the chorus in breathless, unpunctuated excitement; the conjunctions that begin lines 2, 3, 4, “and” “but” and “so” respectively, give the semblance of logical progression – as if Jepsen is constructing an argument that has reached its conclusion, something suggested by the summarising ‘so’ of the last line. But do not be fooled! We know that handing over your phone number to a stranger is almost unacceptably kooky. Jepsen structures the verse to give the impression of rational thought but in reality, this is a woman too adrenalized by her erotic encounter to do anything calmly. Asking him to call! Well, I never.

It is not uncommon to chance upon a blogger analysing cheesy pop. Rebecca Black’s unforgettable ‘Friday’ is a must-have set-piece. Here’s one analysis.  Here’s another.

Steph Hicks has written a more serious post about the poetry of modern pop. A lot of people agree with her! What do you think?

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Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is not a poem.

But I wanted to write about it because 1) so many schools doing the WJEC board do it for A Level 2) I am nostalgically looking over the notes I made for it when I did my A Level and 3) people often assume that the prose passages in plays do not require the kind of analysis and close-reading you would give to a poem.

You can tear apart prose as much as you would a poem. Be just as creative with it. Even stage directions are falling over themselves to hand you good essay points. Especially Miller’s stage directions.

I want to look at the very end of Death of a Salesman – Linda’s farewell speech to Willy. It is tragic, despairing – but ambiguous. Is it happy or sad? I don’t know! Let us see, shall we!

“Linda: I’ll be with you in a minute. Go on, Charley. (He hesitates.) I want to, just for a minute. I never had a chance to say good-bye.

Charley moves away, followed by Happy. Biff remains a slight distance up and left of Linda. She sits there, summoning herself. The flute begins, not far away, playing behind her speech.

Linda: Forgive me, dear. I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry. I don’t understand it. Why did you ever do that? Help me, Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you, Willy, dear, I can’t cry. Why did you do it? I search and search and I search, and I can’t understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home. (A sob rises in her throat.) We’re free and clear. (Sobbing more fully, released.) We’re free. (Biff comes slowly towards her). We’re free… We’re free.”

So the Loman family are at Willy’s funeral. And nobody has turned up. This passage is often interpreted as a final note from Miller on the frustrating, and endless disappointment of life in a capitalist society – on the brutal pointlessness of Willy’s death, and the emptiness he has left behind. But there is something equally uplifting about this final speech, and it can be found in very small touches.

  1. Look at words like “summoning” and “released” in the stage directions. Combine this with the ethereal sound of the flute in the background, the word “free”, and that ellipsis (the ‘…’) right at the end. They make this conclusion strangely spiritual – definitely not the feel of everything that has come before.
  2. The flute: this music keeps drifting on stage at significant points during the play. It opens the play, described as “small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon.” It is immediately something otherworldly, transcending the ugly tower-blocks that form the backdrop to the play. It speaks of dreams not yet realised; a sad reminder of the distant world outside the Loman family. But it is not completely hopeless. At other points in the play, it appears when Willy recalls a happy memory. Therefore there is always a kind of sweet sadness attached to the sound of the flute, and it is that tension that is reproduced here at the end: Linda’s regret at losing Willy mingled with a sense of freedom that the burden of loving, and pitying, and caring for Willy, has evaporated. 
  3. In this way, “summoning” and “released” are fitting descriptions for Linda here. ‘Summoning herself’ is Linda attempting to gain self-control, but ‘summoning’ can easily suggest the summoning of spirits – of a ghostly Willy figure that Linda must let go of. Here is the crunch of the passage – the final confrontation with an invisible, but tangible Willy figure, and the friction this creates. This  forms the top of the speech, where Linda insists, again and again, on her inability to cry. We are “free and clear” she says, where ‘clear’ is a financial term referring to the final payment on the house. But then the passage slips quietly into a new mood. Linda drops the word ‘clear’, and suddenly they are simply ‘free’. The ‘we’ seems no longer to include Willy, but instead the new Loman unit – Linda, Biff and Happy – however disjointed a unit they may remain. And now the tears come easily! She is “released.” Willy’s death could be seen as solving more problems than he is given credit for.
  4. If you ever see an ellipsis in ANYTHING I would jump straight on it. Why would a writer need to use three full stops in a row? It’s got past an editor for a reason. Ellipses create space. They really stretch out and open up a sentence. “We’re free… we’re free.” It’s like it marks the passing of Willy, easing away gently.  Or it’s a breath – of relief, or of satisfaction.

Look! So many possibilities! Who knows what the real answer is!

Also the 1985 film of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman playing Willy is good. It’s all over YouTube.

Curtain. x

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Things to remember when close reading a poem, or part of a play:

  • You’re still always answering a question. In an exam, the question will pick up on a particular theme of the poem and will ask you to demonstrate how the poet works through this theme. This means picking up on points of language that relate to this theme, like ‘loneliness’ or ‘mother/son relationships’. You HAVE to use the language to answer the question; it is the only evidence you have. But only talk about points of language that are relevant to the question. Don’t just bombard your answer with random stuff. (Obviously if you are just annotating a poem in class, this doesn’t apply. In that situation, tear apart the poem completely.)
  • So this means being very SELECTIVE when writing your answer. Go through the poem line by line, and circle anything you feel relates to the theme addressed in the question. You will more than likely have too much to put in one answer, so prioritise your points. It is much better to talk about one point in depth, and really push your analysis as far as you can, than sprinkle your answer with point after point and never really move beyond the surface.
  • This means that you should NEVER just list what you see, i.e. ‘here Keats uses a metaphor’. You must always say WHY. You must always give the effect of this and make clear how it is relevant to the question.
  • Make sure you have an overriding point to make. In your opening paragraph, state, for example, how Keats generally treats the theme of loneliness in the poem. You might say, ‘In this poem, Keats is despairing about the oppressiveness of loneliness.’ Then you would produce points that support that. But to give your answer more depth, always look for places where you can contradict yourself. You might say: ‘But in other places, Keats seems to cherish the idea of solitude’. Do not be afraid to DISAGREE WITH YOURSELF. No poet ever produces a poem that is free of contradictions, or presents a perfectly consistent treatment of a certain topic. That is not how the human brain works. And this is never more apparent than when a poet tries to put a jumbled mesh of thoughts down on paper. Contradictions SHOULD be there. Drag them out.


Here are the points I’d be making if I was asked to talk about female cruelty in this passage from Shakespeare’s King Lear:

Behold yond simp’ring dame,

Whose face between her forks presages snow;

That minces virtue, and does shake the head

To hear of pleasure’s name;

The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t

With a more riotous appetite.

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,

Though women all above:

But to the girdle do the Gods inherit,

Beneath is all the fiend’s: there’s hell, there’s darkness,

There is the sulphurous pit – burning, scalding,

Stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!

‘They are Centaurs’: Lear’s evil daughters, Goneril and Regan, are repeatedly described as carnivorous, predatory animals. Albany famously calls them “Tigers, not daughters” and Gloucester disgustedly refers to Goneril’s “rash boarish fangs.” Here is another animal reference, and the fact that it is a centaur, part man, part animal, is the PERFECT image to encapsulate the real ambiguity of the whole play. Animal imagery works to dehumanise the women, stripping them of the compassion and empathy that distinguishes the human race from animals. Remember that an important question asked throughout King Lear is WHAT IS MAN? The play’s answer to this always returns tentatively to the feeling that ‘man’ is at least kinder, and more sensitive than animals. But the answer is ambiguous because it certainly cannot apply to so many of the ‘human beings’ that we watch cause unfathomable destruction and despair throughout the play. We see a degenerate people, blurring the line between human and animal that has helped to demarcate ‘human’ identity. The ‘centaur’, a man/animal hybrid, is the ideal image to contain all this confusion.

“Beneath is all the fiend’s”: That means exactly what you think it means. The top half of a woman may look pretty nice and virtuous, but when you reach the terrifying PIT OF DESPAIR below their waist, they are revealed to be rampant, destructive nymphomaniacs. Goneril and Regan’s vicious animality is always implicitly linked to a ‘monstrous’ female sexuality; violent, powerful, but always degenerate. They stand in stark contrast to the holiness of Cordelia, something made very apparent here with the cluster of ‘hell’ images: firstly the ‘fiend’, i.e. the devil, “hell”, “darkness”, “sulphurous pit”, “burning.”The last 3 lines see Lear overcome with emotion as he excoriates (current favourite word) his daughters. These lines burst out of a structured sentence pattern; instead words follow on relentlessly from each other as Lear’s rage consumes the verse: “There is the sulphurous pit – burning, scalding, / Stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!” The last five monosyllabic (i.e. ONE syllable) words are effective staccato punches to close this outburst. As much as they are noises of disgust, and of exasperation, they also sound like the hissing, and boiling of the female sulphurous pit Lear is obsessed with. This is an incredibly potent image of female cruelty. ALWAYS look for places from Act 3 onwards where Lear’s language becomes like this: disorganised, rambling, unrestrained. Gone are his eloquent and poised speeches of Act 1. His breakdown of language signals his impending madness.

“Behold yond simp’ring dame”: Note Lear’s ‘presentational’ style here. The ‘behold’ allows Lear to introduce the topic like a learned schoolmaster presenting a case-study. This style is very typical of Lear (and a lot of the other men in the play) when they try to sum up women. It begins in such an orderly fashion – the man thrusting his own interpretation of women on his audience. But as Lear finds by the end of this passage, there is no ‘neat’ interpretation of ‘woman’. As he tries to pin the female sex down, his definition spirals out of control. The sudden rush of words escape him and he is only able to produce inarticulate sounds, ‘fie’ and ‘pah’. The suggestion here is that ‘woman’ is massively more complicated and independent of male categorisation than Lear thought.

Okay I’m all Leared lectured out. Class dismissed.

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