John Stenzel
English 46C
Spring 2000

Assignment 1--Close Reading and Explication

750-1000 words (3-4 pages, double-spaced)
Due Thursday, April 27, at beginning of class (please don't come late)

In this assignment you will come to terms with a chunk of poetry, and demonstrate your insights in a short, well-constructed essay Your intended reader is an intelligent English major who has not yet taken this class. You will take a 14-30 line section, selected from our reading so far, and address four main questions:
  1. what does it say? (what do the words, phrases, sentences mean?)

  2. what does it do? (if you've chosen a sonnet, try to put it into what you know of the larger context of the poet's life and the traditions that s/he was embracing or abandoning; if a chunk of a larger work, try to articulate the ways it functions in establishing character or tone, setting up action, invoking other works and events, evoking political / philosophical resonances, etc.)

  3. how does it work at the level of language--structurally, poetics, word choice, metrics, etc.?

  4. how does your close look at this passage deepen your appreciation of this poet's work? how does it contribute to our understanding of the poet's work?
To perform part 1), you will type out your selection accurately, with triple-spacing, and hand-write in an accurate, readable line-by-line paraphrase underneath. You may judiciously include very short parenthetical remarks here to show you understand particularly interesting word choices or significance, but your main object is to show that you comprehend the basic meaning of the passage, and have grappled with some of the subtleties. [Hint: The sooner you choose your passage and do this, the sooner you can buttonhole me or Melissa or Greg someplace and make sure you understand what's going on. We can also steer you away from passages that would be unsuitable for this assignment.]

Your actual 3-4 page essay begins with part 2), as you briefly indicate what the passage does--how it works with respect to imagery, plot, theme, characterization, poetic convention, and/or dramatic effect, as appropriate)--and discuss how it works at the level of language. Quickly walk your reader through the passage, commenting and highlighting as you go, and delve more deeply where indicated. Do use the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), smoothly integrating linguistic insights into your analysis. Do work hard to untangle inverted syntax and unexpected locutions. What insights does your analysis furnish into the themes, images, and patterns the poet is pursuing? Is this a pivotal moment for some reason? Does it tell us something particularly significant about a character or event or interaction? If you like, you may deftly make connections to other literary works you have read, to other resonances it sets up, but you must maintain your focus on the passage, and you should avoid seeking "help" in the critical or analytical sources.

Above all, your essay must promote a clear thesis, exhibit good organization, and feature solid development--it has to hang together as a coherent and well-written essay. Proofread for strong constructions, good grammar and correct spelling. Enjoy the opportunity to share and refine your insights, and you should learn a lot from this exercise.

Be sure to check out the Hints on Essay Writing

Last updated: 12 April 2000