portray and new criticism

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Task: You will write a paper of interpretive literary criticism on two of the poems from the Close Reading Packet: The Best American Poems 2017. You will analyze the two poems individually in the body of your essays, in effect writing two short papers. But you will also compare and contrast them in the conclusion (and in the introduction), showing some pattern or connection between the two poems as you have interpreted and analyzed them according to the principles of New Criticism. Do they handle tension in similar/different ways? Do they make use of nature imagery in similar/different ways? Do they utilize figures of sound to convey their subjects and themes?

Your method of interpretation must make use of the Tyson chapter on New Critical theory as well as the many poetic tools we have discussed in class. According to Tyson, the New Critics ask only one complex question about texts: “What single interpretation of the text best establishes its organic unity? In other words, how do the text’s formal elements, and the multiple meanings those elements produce, all work together to support the theme, or overall meaning, of the work?”

But as I have stated from the beginning, I am less concerned about what these poems mean than how they mean. So, tell me the how of the poems: their rhythms, rhymes, metaphors, similes, figures of speech, images, and sounds. But try to bind these observations together with a why using one of the four linguistic features the New Critics valued: ambiguity, irony, paradox, and/or tension. So you might write an essay that:

  1. examines how rhythms, rhymes, metaphors, similes, figures of speech, images, and sounds work together to create a central tension in the poem, perhaps between sets of images or between meaning and language or between potential themes, OR
  2. examines how rhythms, rhymes, etc. work together to create ambiguities about individual images or the poem as a whole that may or may not get resolved into an organic unity by the end, OR
  3. examines how rhythms, rhymes, etc. work together to create ironies or a main irony, that is a meaning that seems to accept varying, even conflicting, perspectives, which Harold Bloom described as “being true and false at the same time,” OR
  4. examines how rhythms, rhymes, etc. work together to create paradoxes which reflect the complexity of human experience

Taking one of these approaches, you might specifically focus on nature imagery in a poem. Is the imagery used in a specific or general way? What does the speaker of the poem think and feel about nature? How does nature relate to the theme of the poem? Look at the way figurative language is used to convey these thoughts and ideas.

In a very different way you might focus purely on sound. In poetry sound is critical, and poets use many types of rhyme (from true rhyme to alliteration) and meter to control the sound of their poems. How does your chosen poem make sound an important part of its art? Explain how the sound of each poem relates to its subject matter and contributes to its theme.

Please make good use of the sample student essays I have posted online on writing about poetry and symbols, metaphors, prosody (rhythm and rhyme), and imagery as well as the essays on tone (irony), comparison and contrast writing, and the method of close reading.

Audience: As always with literary criticism, this is a critical paper, not a book review. You can assume your audience has read the poem, so there is no need to waste space with summary of the poem.

Purpose: Since this is a critical essay, you will need to find repeated patterns in the poem that support your interpretations and readings. Keep in mind, while there is no one “correct” reading to a poem, there can be many wrong ones. It is not “all up to one’s interpretation.” You need to find multiple citations from the text to support your analysis.

Format: Essays for this course must use MLA style formatting and citations. Failure to use MLA or excessive errors can result in a failing grade. The MLA style guide, any good English manual (like the Diana Hacker series), or the OWL at Purdue website (owl.english.purdue.edu) can give you help on using this style correctly.

Highlights include:

  • All essays must be typed and double-spaced
  • Margins must be 1-inch on all sides of the page. Align the left margin only.
  • Use 12 point Times font
  • On the first page (only) type your name, professor name (“Professor Smith”), course number (English 1B plus section number), and date at the top left corner margin 1″ from the top of the page
  • On each page put your last name and page number in the upper right hand corner outside the margin, ½” from the top of the page (most insert page # commands will default to this placement)
  • The title (not underlined or italicized or in quotes) should be centered above the first paragraph
  • Proper MLA citations for all outside sources (the poems and Tyson plus any others used)
  • A Works Cited page

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