Closer Readings Commentary

The Birth of Close Reading

“If poetry is worth teaching, it is worth teaching as poetry.”
—Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren

Recently Catherine Gewertz* in Education Week reported on the problems school districts are having finding appropriate Common-Core instructional materials. Some large districts have purchased million dollar ready-made curricula; others have decided against doing so after reviewing the quality of the publishers’ offerings. Still other districts are undertaking the mammoth task of creating their own materials.

We sympathize with the needs of those who manage school districts, dealing—as they must—with the emerging literacies of ethnically diverse student bodies. However what individual teachers need is a sound and useable method for doing close reading with plenty of practical examples of that method in action. Surprising as it may sound, such a method has long existed.

In fact, it is arguable that the best resource for the close reading of poetry ever written was first published 75 years ago. That’s when two young professors at Louisiana State University, Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, published the first edition of Understanding Poetry, a volume which has been called the most important literature textbook of the twentieth century.

How did the close reading movement begin?

According to Garrick Davis in Humanities magazine, the textbook grew out of the “dire” situation the two young academics encountered in the English classrooms of LSU when they began there in the 1930s. Not only was modernist American literature—T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway—nowhere to be found in the curriculum, the approach to the study of literature was anything but “literary”.  As Davis observes:

"What the typical professor of that era taught was a sub-department of history (facts being teachable exam fodder) with an emphasis on biography (the author and his circle), and a penchant for fuzzy, emotional uplift in the responses to reading material."

Brooks and Warren focused on literary fundamentals such as metrics and imagery, genres and poetic devices, and filled out the book with copious examples of “close reading.” In their opening salvo “Letter to the Teacher” they announced that “if poetry is worth teaching, it is worth teaching as poetry.”

This approach, which launched the movement known as the New Criticism,** begins with the need for readers to connect with the text in the proper way. One approach familar to contemporary students is called "text to self" in which the student is asked to relate the poem to her own experience.  Brooks and Warren would probably encourage taking a long, slow, close look at, and listen to the poem before one relates it to one's own experience.  The poem is itself a new experience of the world.

As human beings we want more than the facts or information that we receive via the media. We want the meaning and wisdom to be found in great works of the imagination. At the same time, bogus emotional uplift and pseudo-wisdom in the form of versified homilies are all too common and offensive to the lover of poetry.“We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us” wrote John Keats. Rather, follow Emily Dickinson’s notable directive, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Yet such meticulous poetics makes close reading of poetry all the more necessary. Every word, every line, must be considered and reconsidered, as well as their place in the whole structure.

The Jefferson Lecture

In 1985, Cleanth Brooks, age 79, gave the Jefferson Lecture at the National Endowment for the Humanities, which I was privileged to attend. In this speech entitled “Literature in a Technological Age” he raised questions about the value of literature in a world where science reigns supreme. Brooks showed how literature at its best serves life: “it lets us observe and overhear men and women as they choose, make decisions and express their inner most hopes and fears.” From this we can learn if we judge well.

After almost 30 years, what I remember most vividly is the way the man spent most of his time reading fromand gently, lovingly taking apartthree poems: Thomas Hardy’s “The Converge of the Twain,” Robert Frost’s “Provide, Provide,” and William Butler Yeats’s “Prayer for My Daughter.”

He must have thought these three works especially appropriate for the Washington audience in the 1980s. All the while, he was giving us a master class in close reading of great poetry in the service of life.

Some examples from Brooks through Ferris

You can preview Understanding Poetry online here.

* Gewertz, Catherine. “The Frustrating Search for Good Common Core Instructional Material.” Education Week, 18 December, 2014.

** The term New Criticism refers to the dominant critical approach to literature in English Departments in the United States in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Brooks and Warren were two of the leading proponents of this approach, which views the work of art as an autonomous object that can be analyzed on its own terms. There are other approaches to close reading that are not part of this school.