This blog is a little experiment in seeing what would happen if I posted snippets of “close readings” of poems and excerpts from fiction on a semi-regular basis.
I have begun by copying the full text of two short papers I wrote as an undergraduate, for the course COMPLIT 121: Poems, Poetry, Worlds. As someone perpetually too embarrassed to review old work, I am rather pleased to find that what I wrote back then is still quite interesting and possibly helpful. Moreover, I find myself warned by reviewing these materials that I may be repeating myself in more recent projects. It is seriously valuable to re-examine past work, especially when it comes from a period of intellectual infancy.
There is also evidence in these papers that it is not particularly difficult to make observations about poems. It merely requires some time and love. It’s a little odd to me that it doesn’t happen more often. At least, I don’t really know how others read. I hardly see literary scholars take an interest in small questions, what does this word mean, why is this sentence lineated in this way, etc. Maybe that’s just because I’m too isolated. If you are or know anyone who loves to read poetry and record their own ways of reading, please reach out.
“Close reading” is not an innocent term, however. Doing analysis of this kind sometimes comes with a degree of guilt, of ignoring broader questions of meaning, particularly in the socio-political realm, or even of ruining one’s appreciation of a work of art. But it seems evident that most poems are robust creations meant to be re-read, and that they are often so difficult and complex that they don’t make much of an effect unless one takes the time to repeat them like prayers, sing them like songs, or “practice” them like études. I may be a little shy on the socio-political front, but these repetitive reading motions surely will find their use in the world, provided they are repeated and propagated widely! And with skill! Indeed, there might be something virtuosic about learning to read, in the way that our brains move along with the poem’s own contorted thinking, in all that flourishes through the constraints created by reader, poem, sequence, oeuvre, period, language, world.
While I admire products of this kind of virtuosic absorption in the text, I have a certain amount of distaste for the long-winded, difficult, and antisocial nature of many academic publications, or for those which are, on the other hand, so glib and smooth that they are best skimmed incompletely. As a graduate student who finished his first year in quarantine and now reflects on his first year in quarantine, I am thinking a little more carefully about my relationship to this discipline. I have mentioned some stylistic traits, but I believe that my distaste for the academic format has less to do with its conventions and more to do with the risk present in all disciplines: the failure to approximate an act of love, the failure to act with humility, care, and attention to detail.
Some might prefer to embark on journalism as an alternative to scholarly criticism. I respect the work of some journalists and see their work as broadly important, but disagree with certain postures endemic to the field. The negative review, for instance, seems to almost always rest in a kind of personal misunderstanding which doesn’t merit public attention. They could always be kinder, more helpful from a pedagogical standpoint, and more descriptively substantive. I say this as an irascible person, who recoils at the idea of being given a platform from which to criticize. The idea of becoming even more full of my anger than I already am in private is frankly horrifying. I also recognize a parallel falseness in some positive reviews, those which are too vague to have any utility to the artist or the audience member. Ultimately, there’s just something too polarizing and quick and egotistical about journalism, for me at any rate. I’d much prefer to be a hapless, ineffectual, private academic.
Could there be a certain value to writing snippets that amount to not much more than observation, instead? Nuggets of seeing, small spans of attention which entrain me to read while also helping out others? Here there shall be no arguments, and the judgments will come from the reader. The main affect shall be one of enthusiasm, of rapt attention. Maybe you are a high school student, a college student, struggling through an amorphous literature class, or a graduate student like me, or even a professor, who needs the treat of some gossip about a text at the end of a long and hard day in isolation. Then this could be a little helpful to you, perhaps? Miniature exercises to sharpen the mind and pen every day. I, for one, just want to read better, and not get overwhelmed by everything there is to read.