All comments welcome; and, welcome as additions to the site:

Unless otherwise stated,
all content © A.E.M. Baumann

Unless otherwise stated,
all content
© A.E.M. Baumann

Close Reading and Aesthetic Sophistication
– originally posted to the PDC Mar. 10, 2013
– edited on blog June 9., 2013 and Mar. 30, 2014

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

"The Little Georgia Magnet" by R.T. Smith – Poetry Daily, 3/10/13


from The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O'Connor
(Louisiana Literature P)
poem found here


close reading and aesthetic sophistication


This week I've had little opportunity for direct attention to this blog endeavor, so today I try to write out what has been brewing in my head.

Somehow – actually, I know how* – close reading has gotten a bad name in literature, when, in truth, every English major should be forced to take a class that is dedicated to the idea. Proof of the necessity of the class lies in that weakness of contemporary literature, of English departments, of poetry especially, but of creative writing cripplingly, is how great a many of the participants have never learned how to read. How to truly read: to pay attention to the words, to understand the consequences of the chosen semantics and syntactics, to see what is on the page, rather than, what is the majority case, to gloss through and see what is conventional, what is habitual, what they as readers have been told to see, what is easy.

When it comes to it, close reading is nothing more than learning to pay attention to the text. Which means, in no small part, learning about things like poetics, and narratology, and grammar (god forbid). But it also means learning to reject what has been said about a text and to see what is actually there for yourself.

One of the great jokes played upon the public based upon the inability of the public to read (and on that the public, rather, looks instead to convention to tell them what a text means) was the movie Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoeven. This film is a whole and unending play on the stereotypes and conventions that surround the 'hero' idea in film, particularly (but not exclusively) in the genre of war films. And the audience is magnificently manipulated as they bite on the hook of every convention, to the point of (in the two times I saw it in the theater) the audience cheering quite loudly at the appropriate moment of victory at the end.

Except that they are cheering for the bad guys. The humans in this film are a future version of the Nazis: if you but pay the slightest attention, that identification is put forward again and again and again. There is no doubt to be had: they are the equivalent of the Nazis. They are the self-acclaimed Aryans destroying an inferior race, simply because it is their destiny — their moral right, as it were — to do so. And when the audience cheered at Nazi victory, I laughed and laughed and laughed.

Simply, close reading is paying attention. More complexly, close reading is reading, is looking for oneself at the words on the page, seeing what those words make of themselves, ignoring conventions (or, recognizing that they are conventions), genre, the social layers plastered on the text (which is to say, ignoring any statement that begins with "what this means is"), and experiencing the text for oneself.

Now, where an aesthetic concept of close reading breaks from the, say, formalist, or New Criticism (U.S. style) idea of the concept (i.e., as it has concreted over time), is that the aesthetic recognizes that New Critical close reading has itself become rather convention laden — which is the exact opposite of the aesthetic want of those writers from out of whose works the idea of close reading developed. As such, an aesthetic close reader will beware of, pay attention to, and then ignore any conventions and genres that actually developed within close reading itself: for example, the idea that the more technical the text, the better; or, perhaps a better way to say it, the more the poem offers to close reading the better. Another such convention is the idea that great literature must be based on irony. Another, that great literature must have a specific psychological, moral, and/or emotional depth. Each idea does carry some true observation about literature, yes; but, once that idea has been turned into a rule, it fails literature.

An aesthetic approach to the idea of close reading will recognize that different readers — and different writers — will approach a poem with a different degree and nature of sophistication. Thus, a less sophisticated person will have difficulty entering a text of both high sophistication and high complexity. That does not make the text bad, in any way; nor does it make the response of the less sophisticated reader invalid; rather, it merely forces you to stay aware to the fact that all texts are not created equal, to wit, and nor are all readers, and to think otherwise leads only to falsities and confusions. Every reader approaches a text from out their own knowledge and sophistication. What close reading demands is not that hey get it "correct," but that what they get, they get on their own. That they engage, think about, and study the words and semantics and metaphor and structure on their own, with effort sufficient to the task. (Indeed, the very idea of a "correct" reading is counter to aesthetic close reading.)

But, this does not relieve the writer from the burdens of successful creating. A text, whatever the degree of complexity, whether it be Edward Lear or E.E. Cummings, must still be a successful text. Which is why we can equate Lear and Cummings as poets in the issues of creating successful works: Lear's poems may be much more accessible than Cummings's, but they both are still of a high degree of poetic sophistication.

Which is to say, there is a bar in writing. Or at least there should be. At least as far as publication — and critical approval — is concerned. A poem must succeed in what it is trying to do. And, there must be a certain degree of sophistication in the poem: and that degree of sophistication might most easily be described as being able to hold up against attentive reading.

You can not wave away the effects of the implied author of your text simply by claiming ignorance. If a close reading reveals your text to, say, have racist undertones, you can not simply wave it off by saying "well, I don't mean for someone to read the story that carefully." That is tantamount to saying, "I only write for idiots." (And if that is how you make your buck, go crazy. There are plenty of willing idiots out there. But do not then claim any quality for your work.) You cannot throw together a poem with lines that form no obvious purpose and defend the lines with "You are not supposed to make anything out of the lines," because a good reader will, that is what being a good reader is: it is saying, to every poem, "there are line breaks here, what is their purpose? what is their effect?" You can not write lines that form no coherent unity in the expectation that the reader of the poem will only surface read: that is nothing more than writing crap and hoping nobody notices.

But not only that, it is the absolute defeat of the idea of poetry, and literature, and any art form as a creative endeavor. A writer should always be striving to write beyond what they had written before, should always be striving to develop in sophistication. Not to do so is not being creative, it is being repetitive, or, worse, diaretic. To strive to write literature is to strive to be brilliant, which is to say to accomplish what, at the start of it, you could not before accomplish. It is to make something beautiful. It is to write by the philosophy "I strive to make brilliant things, and I want my readers to strive to be brilliant readers; and in that I write brilliantly I push them to read brilliantly, and in that they read brilliantly, they push me to write brilliantly."

Of course, not every piece can be a magnum opus, nor should they be. But every new collection should surpass the previous (i.e., should demonstrate a development in sophistication, even if it is, in the least, exploration of new areas). If not — I'll be honest — I don't, won't have much care for your work. And the lack of strive will show in each individual work: it absolutely does, do not deceive yourself. There is a difference between poetry that is written and poetry that is created — though, there does seem to be a relationship wherein the less sophisticated the poet, the more they are blind to the difference. I would argue it is most often that very lack of striving — of close reading while writing — that blinds them.

Writing is supposed to be very hard work. If it is not, you are wasting your time as well as mine. If you want to write whatevers, knock yourself out. Just don't submit them . . . to anything. When you put a poem out to be published, it should not be merely with the thought: I wrote something, hopefully you'll publish it. Rather, it should carry with it an implied declaration: I accomplished something here; it is worth publishing. And its quality should meet, if not exceed, that declaration.

That said, I offer these questions about today's poem. And the above is not meant to be directed critique against today's poem, it is merely broad background strokes, both for this post and for all posts here. And, in turn, these are merely questions intended to give you something to think about. If I write them with a critical tone, it is merely to give point to the prod.

In no particular order:

  1. Why have the words gee and haw in italics? They are words, after all, no more or less than the press or sweat that precedes or follows. 
  2. Assuming there is no valid reason for the italics, what is the consequence of the italics to the reading and reception of the poem?
  3. (Are they even used correctly? supposing they were not, what is the result to the reading and reception of the poem?)
  4. Near the bottom of the second stanza there are these lines:
    an inch. Furthermore, in a chair, she could not
    be raised. She had a power so much deeper
    than the naked eye can gaze. Magic or leverage,
    The two sentences beginning with "Furthermore" are, actually, on their own, a rhymed ballad stanza:
    Furthermore, in a chair,
    she could not be raised.
    She had a power so much deeper
    than the naked eye can gaze.
    (Yes, the second line is not the best as far as a ballad stanza goes, I know. But you get my point.) Though, there is no apparent use of it, or even awareness of it. In fact, the poem, as far as meter and rhythm go, is paying attention only to the visual length of the lines. What is the effect on the reading and reception of a poem that is free verse that has in its midst, apparently without the author realizing it, a rhymed ballad stanza?
  5. Finally, on that note, since the poem is sentences broken into lines, and, apparently, the primary consideration as to the line breaks is the visual length of the lines, why not simply write it as paragraphs and shrink in the margins? What is the effect on the reading and reception of a poem when, to all intents and purposes, it made up, simply enough, of paragraphs with left-justification and narrow margins?
  6. And, what would be the result to the reading and reception of the poem when, once attention is paid to the sentences that make up the poem, it realized they may not make such great paragraphs after all? To rephrase it, can arbitrary line breaks save a bad paragraph?


* The answer is: because close reading is an undefeatable threat to the majority of what falls for social criticism (and bibliography-as-criticism). As social critics rose, especially within the realm of post-colonialism and all is associates, they kept finding themselves being faced with the point of the simple sword of "except, if you pay attention to the text." Now, I am not using this as a blanket statement against social criticism: in fact, the difference between really good social criticism and run of the mill criticism (and that distinction is not to be confused with popularity of the critic) is, in fact, that very issue: whether the text can sustain the criticism. Unfortunately, post-colonial criticism and social criticism is really easy to write — and build a career upon — if one ignores the text and goes, instead, for grandiose, pc, socially 'enlightened' emotions about the oppressed state of, well, the oppressed. (If you wish one example, I offer Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives by Marianna Turgovnick, a lauded book by an established cultural critic that at nearly every turn fails against "except, if you pay attention to the text . . . .")