by Zofia Burr
The following is a three-part assignment designed to make it possible for the student to engage a poem deeply on her/his own terms, to become familiar with the criticism, and, finally, to relate her/his own take on the poem to what she/he finds in the criticism. As it stands, the assignment addresses the work of Emily Dickinson. With some modification, it can be adapted for work on any poet, or poetry.
CLOSE-READING: Start with a poem that especially interests
Work through the text, charting your steps and taking note of whatever decisions (about meaning or reference) you make along the way. Start out by working with the places in the poem that give you trouble, seem confusing, or just plain stick out of the rest of the poem. You must show the reader how you come to the conlusions/ decisions you make about the text, whether it be by way of textual or extra-textual cues. Avoid making any general assertions at the start about what the poem is trying to say, or what the poet is trying to say by way of the poem: such an assertion should follow as a consequence or conclusion of your close-reading; it should not function as a premise for your reading of the poem. If you find you cannot resist making assertions about what the poem says, make sure that you take the time to back up from those assertions and show me the steps by which you arrived at them.
PART TWO: USING THE CRITICISM: You need to do this research in order to be able to place your own critical practice in relation to established "traditions" of critical practice that bear on the reading of Emily Dickinson's writings.
For this assignment please look at least three critical articles (or chapters) that discuss the poem you have chosen to write about. You should start by trying to find out what has been written about your particular poem. You may not want to use everything that has been written about the poem, but you should consult enough of it to be able to decide which are the three best sources for your purposes. If you don't find any articles or chapters that discuss your particular poem, then--but only then--you may resort to other criticism about other poems that bear interesting similarities to the poem you have chosen.
For every source that you choose to you I ask that you write two to three pages answering the following questions:
(1) What else is the critic arguing (about the world or life or women or books or poetry or American culture or whatever) by way of his or her argument about Dickinson and her poems?
(2) Is the critic's reading of each poem faithful enough to the text of the poem? Does it account for the things you would notice in a close-reading of the text? If so, how? If not, how not?
(3) What does the criticism tell you about the critic's historical and political situation? What does it tell you about the context in which he/she is making an argument about Dickinson?
(4) How does the critic's argument relate to your argument about the poem?
(5) How do your goals as a critic relate to or differ from the other critic's goals?
Be sure to include full bibliographic information for each source you consult. Evaluation of this assignment will be based on how carefully you engage the critical materials, and how clearly and cogently you evaluate their investments, uses, strengths, and weaknesses.
PART THREE: RESEARCH PAPER. The research paper should combine and relate the close-reading and reading of the criticism, and accounts for the various contexts in which the poem has been published. In relating other critics' perspectives to your own perspective, the first hard part is in coming up with a thesis around which to organize the paper. Aim to write a paper in which the argument is absolutely specific to the poem you are discussing, an argument that illuminates that particular poem in a way that no one else has. This means that though you may start out with a relatively general argument like "Emily Dickinson's Poem #____ articulates a religious perspective," you will ultimately need to to figure what is most important and interesting about how this poem articulates a religious perspective, (and what--exactly--you mean here by "religious"). The answer to the question "how does the poem do what you say it does" should be incorporated into your thesis directly. Then again, it may be that neither the poem nor Emily Dickinson is the subject or agent of your thesis. You may want to focus, instead, on what readers need to do or be aware of in order to get out of the poem what you think it is most important for us to get. Any approach is alright so long as it gets you deeply into the workings of the poem and the significance of the various critical contexts in which it is (or has been) read.
Some things to remember that I'll be looking for: (1) that your paper is organized around a thesis/argument that is specific to the poem you are focused on; (2) that you demonstrateóand not just assertóyour points about both the primary texts (poems and letters) and secondary texts (criticism, biography, etc.) that your argument takes into consideration; (3) that your in-text citations and works cited list work together in such a way that makes it easy for your reader to consult exactly the moments in the criticism that your argument refers to; (4) and that you have always been clear to distinguish your own argument from the perspectives of the critics whose voices you are quoting and/or paraphrasing.
Some steps to take that should help you begin to articulate a good thesis: (1) reread your "close-reading" of the poem, and write a paragraph about what seems to be most important about what the poem does and how it does it; (2) reread you "using the criticism" paper, and write a paragraph about those particular aspects of the criticism that best illuminate the poem; (3) also, write a paragraph about those particular aspects of the criticism that seem furthest away from your sense of what is most important about how the poem works, and/or that seem to miss the boat entirely; (4) Look back at these three paragraphs. If you can find a thread connecting the ideas in them, write a paragraph in which you articulate that connection.
© 1999 Zofia Burr All rights reserved