Two things have been happening: Monsieur Big Bang has been watching copious amounts of British mystery shows, (I’m attributing this to his turning 50 and needing to feel a sense of justice in the world), and I’m taking an open, online class about how reading has changed, for the better or worse, with the introduction of digital devices.
These two things came together beautifully this week when our class starting talking about all the various reading strategies people employ on different mediums, including academic “close reading” which is particularly relevant to poetry. This is a strategy coined by the Formalists or New Critics, a faction of Modernists in the 1930s/40s with practitioners such as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren and tangentially T. S. Eliot and Imagists like Ezra Pound. Close reading focuses solely on poems with a careful explication of word choice and scansion, all other contextual information, (cultural, biography, psychology, whatever), to be completely excluded as beside the point. New Critics believed poems were whole and separate systems unto themselves. Likewise, they tended to believe the same politically and socially. Self-reliance. Each poem for himself.
I was trained to do close readings and I have a nerdy passion for breaking things down to their connotative, syllabic operations, but I’ve never liked these guys or their grand theories and so I tried to work it out this week in our forum discussions: what was it exactly that I didn’t like?
Close reading focuses on qualifying word choices, word types, word order, systems of meaning between words, how words look and sound together, in other words, how the machine of a poem operates. It's fascinating to track the craft of a poem this way, to explore the connotations of words and the denotations.
However, words themselves are historical and political systems. Their meanings evolve for cultural reasons and due to cultural pressures. The word “fag” is a perfect example. And words are chosen by a poet for biographical reasons, even if subconsciously.
Our professor in his lecture on close reading referred to plants and humans, suggesting they are individuals like poems. But we know with certainty that plants and humans aren’t at all individual, self-sustaining systems and neither are poems; they are parts in a larger system and the more you "look closely" at them, the more you see how hard it is to define where a plant ends and water, air and soil begin. If you look closely at a person, you see they are not only the physical sum of water, air and soil, but the social sum of all the help and influence of thousands of other people they’ve known in their lives. You couldn’t survive 3 days after birth without the help of another person. The same with a poem: it’s a complicated system. A close reading is one tool of many exploratory tools to understand how it works. The study of biographical, historical, political context are other tools among many. To ignore all the other tools would be like a detective insisting he would only limit his knowledge of a murder to the physical scene of the crime.