Close Reading Assignment


Using the annotation assignment as a point of departure, students will compose a 2-3 page close reading (double spaced, 12-point font, standard margins) of the poem analyzed in the previous exercise. Rather than focus on making a particular argument about the poem, the emphasis of this assignment will be on unfolding the various interpretive problems presented by the text, attending to matters of form, style, historical context, intertextuality, and obliquity. The key here is not to resolve any of the text’s difficulties, but to bring them to light in as thorough a manner as possible. In addition to the close reading, students will also complete a 500-word reflection on the process of completing the assignment.

Both the close reading and reflection are due via email by 5pm on Friday, November 13th. When submitting your electronic copy, please send it as one document named in the following format: “last name_first name_close reading assignment”.


The close reading is the second phase of the multi-stage capstone project on your chosen contemporary poetry collection, which began with the Annotation Assignment and will culminate with the Argumentative Essay. The goal here is for you to translate the work you’ve already done in the Annotation Assignment into formal sentences and paragraphs, offering a more comprehensive description and interpretation on your chosen poem.

Note: You may choose to write your close reading on a different poem from your chosen collection than the one you tackled in the Annotation Assignment. If you do choose to do so, however, be sure to include an account of why you made this decision in your reflection. I encourage you to stick with the poem you’ve already been working on simply because a lot of the work for the Close Reading will already have been completed in the earlier assignment.

What is a Close Reading?

Close reading is one of the chief tools of any literary critic. Although it can take many forms, close reading involves attending very carefully and patiently to both the form and content of a given text and providing a detailed explication of what and how it means. That is, a close reading unfolds the complexity of a text and makes it available to other readers. In the words of Janet Gardner, the point of a close reading is two fold: “to point out particular, salient elements of style and to explain the purpose and effect of these elements within a text” (56).

I’ve provided a copy of Gardner’s description of a close reading—what she calls an “explication”—as well as a useful example of a completed close reading assignment here. Please read them both carefully as both an inspiration and a model for your own close reading assignment.

Two things I’d like you to keep in mind as you complete the assignment. First, the aim of a close reading is less argumentative than it is descriptive and interpretive. That is, I am not asking you to devise and then argue for a particular thesis about the poem or the collection in which it appears; this will be the goal of your Argumentative Paper. Rather, I want you to unfold the poem at hand as completely as possible and in as concrete terms as possible. If we think of the poem as a meaning-making machine, I want you to take that machine apart and show me how it works. Be sure to make specific references to the text to support your interpretation and explication. The “closeness” of a close reading depends on that concrete engagement with particular moments in the text.

Second, as Gardner notes, marching through the poem line by line is not an effective way to complete the assignment. Instead, try to organize your essay around particular features of the poem you find compelling—its use of imagery, for example, or meter—and then supply relevant examples from the poem to make your point. Again, look to the example provided by Gardner as a model here. You needn’t do precisely what this student does, but do pay attention to the way in which she organizes her paper and her evidence.

A note on sources: You are free to explore secondary sources to fill in background information on your poem. If you do so, please provide in-line citations and attach a works cited page to your close reading formatted in MLA style. The Purdue Owl is a great resource for all things MLA, so do check it out first if you have any questions regarding citations or the works cited page.


I will evaluate the close reading based on the following criteria:

  • Does the close reading offer a convincing and thorough explication of the poem at hand?
  • Does the student successfully connect the style and form of the poem to its content? That is, are the poem’s formal features linked to its meaning?
  • Is the close reading organized in a compelling and successful way? Is there a clear logic to the composition of its paragraphs and the sequence in which they’re presented?
  • Does the student demonstrate a close attention to the text of the poem, providing concrete examples for each of the points he or she wishes to make?
  • Is the student able to write clearly and specifically about the choices they made in preparing their close reading in the reflection? Does the student address in detail how they selected the features to focus on as well as moments in the text on which to base their explication?

Note that the close reading assignment is worth 15% of your overall grade. A full grade breakdown can be found on the Assignments page.

All references and excerpts are from Janet Garnder’s Reading and Writing About Literature, 3rd Edition (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013).