For most of us invested in poetry—as writers, scholars, teachers, students, and readers—close reading is a fundamental practice. In this blog post, I consider what is involved in and produced by close reading, why we do it, when we do it, and its political effects.
Close reading is a form of study driven by inquiry. When we engage in a close reading of a poem, we are asking, “What does it mean?” Which produces additional questions: How does it mean? Why does it mean? To whom does it mean? Each of these questions then expands in relation: What does it mean in relation to the way language works? What does it mean in relation to my personal experience as a reader? What does it mean in relation to the social world in which it is written and/or read? What does it mean in relation to other poems—e.g., in this book, by this author, written in English, written in the 20th century, written in the New World? As the questions multiply, so do the answers, such that a web of ideas, feelings, stories, theories, and counter-theories, is produced around the poem. When we return to the original question: What does it mean? We have a lot to say, as well as more questions to ask. Yet when called upon to provide an answer to the question—”What does the poem mean?”—since we can’t say it all, how do we choose? Here, we don’t select from our study whatever is most “True”—the contents of the web are in non-hierarchical relation, all of the answers our inquiry have produced are valid and valuable. Rather, we respond to what we understand to be most at stake in the question at the moment in which we are called upon to answer it. In other words, the question “What does the poem mean?” transforms into “What is the effect of understanding the poem to mean x or y at this historical time?” To answer this question, we move out of the activity of close reading as a form of study to the action of political decision.
I don’t mean to suggest that engaging in close reading as a form of study is not itself a form of political action or decision. Rather, I want to propose that the politics of close reading is measured by the real political effects that result from two distinct yet necessarily cooperative activities—study (close reading, reflection, discussion) and decision (right/wrong conclusions, yes/no choices). My argument is that you have to suspend one in order to do the other well. In order to study, you have to temporarily suspend decision; in order to make a decision, you have to temporarily suspend study. Though they are always informing one another. The risk of study without decision is apolitical inaction, while the risk of decision without study is reactionary politics. In practice, study and decision are not in tension with one another in such absolute terms, since they are co-constitutive. Yet the political history of close reading is tied up in the terms of “study” and “action” as divided and antagonistic.
The term “close reading” has origins in the New Criticism of the mid-20th century, a movement of literary criticism that privileged the poem as an autonomous aesthetic object whose interpretation and significance was to be found within its own system of meaning-making. In contrast to the biographical and historical methods of philology from which contemporary literary criticism derives, the New Critics promoted “formalism”—emphasizing that the text “alone” was all one needed to interpret it, and that any “external” information about the author, reader, or social context, could only cloud what the text itself had to say. In the later 20th century, New Criticism would be challenged by Reader-Response Theory, New Historicism, and Post-Structuralism for its inability or unwillingness to engage the social, cultural, and historical context and pressures that necessarily impact the writing and interpretation of literature, charged with participating in a deliberate ahistoricism that conveniently universalized the dominant subject position (typically European, white, heterosexual male) as transcending such contexts.
Because close reading was denigrated in these debates as a tool of New Criticism’s apoliticism, we continue to contend with the wariness that close reading is an indulgent form of political inaction, keeping open a divide between poetry and politics that we are otherwise ready to close. But by understanding close reading as a necessary form of study that informs political decision, and vice-a-versa, we can turn to what I believe is the more pressing question of our current moment: how to cultivate the temporal ground for the practice of close reading when time seems scarce.
We are used to the ubiquitous pop diagnose of contemporary U.S. culture as distracted and busy, incapable of the sustained attention that close reading requires—observing closely, reading carefully, zooming in on the detail to meditate on its composition, looking again from another angle. Here, I am talking about close reading in relation to poetry in particular but also as a metaphor for study in general. The cause of this state of inattention is often understood as regressive, a sign of the degradation of literacy, thought, and engagement, due to mass consumerism, a disastrous public education system, the normalization of being overworked and underpaid, life as a pendulum swinging between two extremes of anxiety and escapism. But when we reframe the problem as one of political urgency, then we can make a better argument for why close reading is itself a necessary response to the political stakes of our moment.
In the face of global militarized capitalism, the rise of nationalism, refugee crisis, and environmental disaster, our sense of political urgency leaves little time for sustained inquiry. We want to know immediately what is the right political position. We don’t have time to hold multiple positions at once, or to engage in lengthy debates, as we find ourselves always facing a hard line in the sand between right and wrong; we need to know who are our allies and who are our enemies, and act accordingly. At the same time, this urgency, however justified, produces a problem—since it doesn’t provide the time necessary to study the issue(s) at hand before rushing to judgment. Effective political action has to do both: create the time to study the complexity of the matter and recognize when it is time to put complexity aside in order to make a decision. Otherwise, we lose track of how we are making the decisions we are making, what options are available, and what their effects might be.
While the time of decision is impatient and the time of study is expansive, they share a common point of intersection in the time of the present, with distinct relationships to the past and the future. The time of decision attends to the present as a consolidated expression of the past—what we currently have to work with—in order to make a wager on the future. While the time of study attends to the present in order to project a vision of the future—an articulation of possibility that emerges from a close reading of the past.
As a close reading of close reading, I don’t have a conclusion to reach in this blog post, but here’s one more thought: I wonder how, outside writing and the classroom, we might make collective close reading a more regular part of our literary communities and public discourse, how to make time for this urgent practice; plus, a recommendation to read Dale Smith’s 2009 edited collection Slow Poetry: An Introduction which features a series of important meditations on some of the questions I raise here.
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Adra Raine is a writer living in Durham, NC. She is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she teaches literature and writing and is completing a dissertation on contemporary U.S. poetry titled Resonance Over Resolution: Resisting Definition in Nathaniel Mackey, Ed Roberson, and Susan Howe’s Post-1968 Poetics. Otherwise, she is working on a series of poems and prose about parenthood in late capitalism of which Want-Catcher (The Operating System, 2018) is the first chapter.