Posts Tagged ‘close reading’

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Helen Vendler: Close Reader In Action

posted: 9.28.09 by archived

by Andrew Flynn

Helen Vendler is famous for reading poems closely. Her skills are certainly on display in this discussion with master interviewer Christopher Lydon a couple of years ago. It appeared on his Internet radio show Open Source.

Vendler talks about her then-new book on W. B. Yeats, Our Secret Discipline, offering thought-provoking analysis of a number of poems, including the famous “An Irish Airman Forsees His Death”:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My county is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Vendler makes many illuminating observations (the discussion of the poem begins at minute 5:12)—about the poem’s history, its form, and its content—but I was particularly struck by her analysis of time and place. Vendler notes:

The thing that Yeats does that to me is astonishing in this poem is that he makes the airplane take off. When the Irish airman begins speaking, he’s on the ground, saying “I know that I shall meet my fate/Somewhere among the clouds above”—so he’s looking up to the clouds in the sky, the clouds are above. Later, he says, “A lonely impulse of delight/ Drove to this tumult in the clouds”—this tumult that he is now experiencing in the clouds, where he is surrounded by the clouds and is up in the air. And, somehow between line two and line twelve the plane has gone up into the air and he is speaking from the air, where he began speaking from the ground. And that seems to me one of the sort of amazing things Yeats could do in a poem, without telegraphing it, without saying, “First I will show him speaking on the ground, then I will show him aloft in his plane.” He doesn’t say a word. He just makes it happen. It’s all show and no tell with Yeats.

I’d read this poem a dozen or so times before, but I’d never noticed this major shift in time and place. Her analysis makes for fresh reading of this well-read poem, though I’m still trying to figure out what happens between lines two and twelve.

The quality of Vendler’s reading is that it reveals both subtleties that benefit academic debates on interpretation and also make the act of reading more pleasurable.

In her Poems, Poets, Poetry text, Vendler includes “An Irish Airman Forsees His Death” in chapter 6 on “Constructing a Self.” The chapter focuses on space and time, testimony, typicality, and motivations—considerations that help readers understand how poets create their speakers. Vendler advises:

As you read a poem, ask yourself question about the speaker constructed within the poem. Where is he or she in time and space? Over how long a period? With what motivations? How typical? Speaking in what tones of voice? Imagining life how? Resembling the author or different from the author? The more you can deduce about the speaker, the better you understand the poem. If you think about what has been happening to the speaker before the poem begins (if that is implied by the poem), you will understand the speaker better.

Helpful advice—and the entire Open Source interview with Christopher Lydon is well worth a listen.

Take a favorite poem that you think you know well. Then consider Vendler’s advice quoted above. How do these considerations about the poem’s speaker change the way you read? How does it change your understanding of the poem’s meaning?


Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Critical Reading, Discussion, Genre, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature
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5 ways I help students to work with quotation

posted: 6.15.07 by Barclay Barrios

When I teach expository writing I tend to spend a lot of time helping students use quotations effectively to support their arguments. Too often, students just sprinkle quotations throughout their text without providing any sense of how those pieces of text relate to their larger argument. I have a few strategies I use to get them to engage the text closely in ways that support what they want to say:

1. The Super Secret Formula
This activity is designed to help students build a paragraph that works with two authors in support of the paper’s argument. This exercise has to be one of the most successful activities I’ve ever created. Not only is it the one that seems to help students the most but it’s also the one that other teachers seem to bring into their classrooms the most often. The Super Secret Formula is:

Cl > I > Q1 > E > T > Q2 > Ce

Students start their paragraphs with “Cl,” a sentence that states the claim of the paragraph. Then, with “I,” they introduced a quotation from the first author, adding a sentenced that explains it (“E”). The next sentence makes a transition (“T”) to a quotation from a different author, “Q2.” Finally, students take a sentence or two to explain the connection between the two quotations (“Ce”) and how it supports the argument they’re making in the paper.

The concrete structure of a “formula” provides a good scaffolding for students to build a solid paragraph that works with quotation but the risk is, of course, that all their paragraphs will becomes (literally) formulaic. When I use this exercise in the classroom, I start by having groups use the formula to make a sample paragraph. Then I challenge groups to come up with other formulas for working with quotation.

2. Close Reading
Sometimes students have difficulty analyzing a quotation; pieces of text will be sprinkled through a paper seemingly with the assumption that their relationship to the argument is self-evident. Here’s an exercise that can help students with this problem. Ask students to write or type a quotation they want to work with. Then ask them to underline the key sentences or phrases of the quotation, the parts that they feel are most important for the point they’re trying to make. Then have them construct sentences that use these pieces of the quotation and that explain how they relate to their arguments.

3. Facts and Ideas
Quotations that only contain statements of fact provide little opportunity for analysis; quotations with ideas do. Bring in examples of each kind to class for discussion and then during peer review ask students to identify each quotation in the papers they’re reading as either fact or idea. This exercise will give them practice distinguishing between the two and will provide useful feedback for paper authors on what type of quotation they’re favoring.

4. Short and Long
Another problem students seem to have in working with quotation is choosing quotations of appropriate length: they might choose quotations that are too short and thus don’t provide enough support or they might choose very long quotations and then say little about them. Have students look through their drafts and determine the length of each quotation by noting how many typed lines it takes. They can use the resulting report to reflect on their tendencies with quotation: do they always use very short ones? Always use very long ones? After the exercise challenge students to use a variety of lengths in their papers.

5. Peer Review Boost
During peer review, ask students to suggest at least three quotations that could be added to support the paper. This exercise will encourage paper authors to use more quotation while helping peer editors to dig deeper into the text to locate quotations that can help the paper authors.

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Categories: Citing Sources, Integrating sources, Peer Review
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