Close Reading

What is a Close Reading?

Close Reading Assignment

 To “explicate” comes from a Latin word meaning to unfold. The purpose of an explication or close reading is to unfold the meaning, ambiguity and tensions of a moment in a poem. Explication first pays close attention to the language of a moment in a poem or text (the work you do with the dialogic journal). Prewriting: after observing and analyzing your 4-6 lines, you will do some writing to flesh out your various ideas about them. You will use this prewriting to help you hone in on the “phenomenon” (dash, particular image, meter, posthumous speaker, repetition, etc.) that you think is central to the 4-6 lines. What particular ideas or tensions does this particular phenomenon reveal about the 4-6 lines? Essentially, what is important about this phenomenon you are zeroing in on. Your thesis statement or claim will articulate a possible interpretation about this phenomenon. This is less about answering and more about revealing or unfolding, in other words, showing the tension and ambiguity in the moment you’ve chosen. Ideally, your paper should reveal some of the wonder and excitement that first inspired you to choose this particular moment from poem.


This helps you unpack the moment you’ve chosen, to stop and observe all the intricacies and subtleties. No detail is too small; in fact, sometimes it is from the smallest of details that the deepest, most interesting ideas may spring.

Make use of the Oxford English Dictionary (Queens library>Research>Databases) and look up not only words that are unclear, but look up words that seem important. Write out the useful definitions in your dialogic journal.

Pre-writing or 500 words:

1. Start with places of confusion and/or key questions you have about the 4-6 lines. Why is this moment confusing? What can’t you figure out about it? These are the places where you are going to start to name the phenomenon you want to work with for your paper. 

2. Then think through why you’ve chosen these particular lines. How are they important to the poem as a whole? What do these lines reveal or help you to see more clearly about the rest of the poem?

Take some time to get your ideas out on paper after having observed and analyzed with the dialogic journal. Don’t be your own critic, really let your ideas unfold. You will use this writing to help you focus on the particular phenomenon that interests you and is important to the passage. With this, develop your claim.

Claim (Thesis statement)

If repetition is your phenomenon, your claim articulates an interpretation about it in the context of your 4-6 lines. What does repetition reveal? Why is this important?

Your claim should not be a “literary salad” where you list many poetic conventions rather than develop a fabulous idea.

Tone, imagery and alliteration are important to the meaning of this poem. 

The tension of the poem is developed by repetition, imagery and rhyme. 

What is the interpretation in either of these two statements? What is repeated or what kind of imagery? These types of statements are vague and are more about listing than thinking.

The passage (lines 185-206) employs antithesis between the past actions and the current states of two vastly different people in order to show that all humans attain an equally low status upon death.

This claim articulates the phenomenon (antithesis) and why it is important or what idea the student thinks it shows. However, a passage doesn’t employ, an author does. See the revised language below.

In this passage, Shakespeare employs antithesis between the past actions and the current states of two vastly different people in order to show that all humans attain an equally low status upon death.

Developing Evidence Paragraphs

Once you’ve developed a working claim, you will develop it through your evidence paragraphs. You want to both quote from your passage AND spend a considerable time analyzing. Analysis is never a 1-2 sentence paraphrase. It breaks down the language and meaning and illustrates for the reader how you arrived at your interpretation(s). Revealing problems, complexity, confusion inherent in the language is a GREAT thing to do. Again, you are not answering, but thinking through a problem starting from the language of the text.

For more detailed information on paragraphing and citation, please see: ParagraphingCitationGuideBasic


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