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A Note on Close Reading
– March 16, 2013

Originally from the Poetry Daily Critique blog (this post). And, just to say, no, it is not that I universally dislike cultural criticism; I dislike bad cultural criticism. Unfortunately for the field, it is very easy to write cultural criticism – criticism that will be accepted by other readers of the same politics – without actually knowing anything about literature, language, or, even, reading. (As demonstrated so often by post-colonials writing on Shakespeare.)

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. This class because the great weakness of 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 which also means learning to reject what is said about a text and to see what is actually there.

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 at the appropriate moment of victory at the end.

Except that they are cheering for the bad guys. The humans in this film are the Nazis, and, 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, 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, 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 had concreted over time), is to beware of, pay attention to, and then ignore any conventions and genres that actually developed within close reading, one of which is 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 psychological, moral, or emotional depth. Each idea does carry some true observation about literature; but, once made into a rule, each fails literature.

An aesthetic approach to the idea of close reding 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, nor are all readers, and to think otherwise leads only to falsities and confusions.

But, this does not relieve the reader nor the writer from the burdens of successful creating. A text, whatever the degree of complexity, whether it be Ogden Nash or E.E. Cummings, must still be a successful text. Which is why we can equate Nash and Cummings as poets in the issues of creating successful works. Nash's poems may be much more accessible than Cummings's, but they both are of a high degree of poetic sophistication.

Which is to say, there is a bar in writing. A poem must succeed in what it is trying to do. And, there must be a certain degree of sophistication in the poem – something that possibly can be most readily identified as saying that the poem must be 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. 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 the 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 but 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 be repetitive, or, worse, diarrhetic. 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 should be a magnum opus, nor can they be. But every new collection should surpass the previous. 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 where the less sophisticated the poet, the more they are blind to the difference. Though, I would argue, it is most often that very lack of striving that blinds them.

Writing is supposed to be very hard work. If it's not, you're wasting your time as well as mine. If you want to write whatevers, knock yourself out. Just don't submit them, to anything.


† The answer is, in no small part: 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 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.")