English 2600 Section 002
Essay One

Assignment: Select a poem of your choice (and please include a photocopy of the poem with your submitted essay). In an essay of about 4-5 pages, (1) explicate the poem—i.e., produce a defensible reading of the poem’s meaning with recourse to its lines alone; (2) explore other possible sources of meaning for a reader of the poem, explaining what—if anything—you think is added to a reader’s understanding when these additional contexts are considered. In achieving these two goals, try to write an essay that is coherent and unified. You should not think of this as two mini-essays that happen to be spliced together, but as an engaged exploration of a central critical question: Where does meaning come from?

Guidelines: Although few, if any, literary critics today would claim to be New Critics, the New Critics’ influence remains great to the extent that explication, or close reading, is considered central to any critical argument’s effectiveness. While contemporary critics usually dispute the New Critics’ assertion that only the lines of “the poem itself” are relevant to readers, few dispute the importance of close reading itself.

In explicating the poem, you might consider the sorts of things with which New Critics were preoccupied:

To this point, you will be practicing New Criticism, more or less as a critic in the mid-1900s would recognize it. You should also, however, update your approach by considering the sorts of contexts that recent literary theorists have argued are important to an understanding of literature:

In your view, do such considerations add to one’s understanding of the poem—and, if so, in what ways? (Be specific: A miniscule amount of research might or might not be useful in this regard.) Or, on the other hand, are they merely distractions from the poem’s “real” meaning, as the New Critics claimed? In short, where is a poem’s meaning found, from your perspective?

Due date: Wednesday, Sept. 13 (graded draft; an optional revision may be submitted, with a deadline one week after graded essays have been returned to class, and the two grades will be averaged)