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If you know one thing about me, it's that close reading is my cup of tea. All you have to do is check out The Well-Wrought Urn to see that I read a text for what it has to say to me. Tell me that Hamlet had an Oedipus complex or that T.S. Eliot was trying to tell us he was gay in "The Waste Land," and I might sock you. You must read a poem for its metaphors, symbolic imagery, wordplay, alliteration, and so forth. You might even have fun with the semi-colons—they serve a purpose, too. I also recommend that you read a poem a few times and if you find paradox and contradiction in the poem, embrace it!
In short, everything you need to know is in the poem. Read every line, every word slowly and carefully—that's how you'll come to an understanding of each and every poem that comes your way.
These are just two words I pulled out of my bag of critical terms. New Critics used a lot of words like these in our interpretation of poems. Because we weren't very interested in authors or in historical contexts, we had our own vocabulary for looking at a poem as an object of authority and beauty in itself.
When you go down that road, you end up using words like intelligence and complexity to describe the poem as if the poem wrote itself and has a mind of its own. We're talking about the intelligence and complexity of the poem here.
We also liked to dwell on the importance of metaphors and on the "tension" within a poem. We loved the poetry of John Donne and T.S. Eliot; it just had so much intelligence and complexity.
Okay, so this isn't exactly a phrase I threw around a lot, but the sentiment is crucial to an understanding of my project as a New Critic.
Sometimes people read poems looking for clues, as if the poem were the scene of a crime or something. Poems aren't whodunits, there to give up all sorts of hidden information so that you can figure it all out and finish off the job. Poems are works in progress. You can't boil them down to one single message, as if they were mini self-help gurus. There's too much going on in a poem for that.
Think of a poems as something active. The meaning is there, but it's always moving between the lines, in both the form and the content. You have to actively search it out, never settling for one easy, neat interpretation.
I have strong feelings about paraphrasing, which is why I titled one of the chapters of my masterpiece (The Well-Wrought Urn) "The Heresy of the Paraphrase." Hardcore, I know.
This time, it's personal.
In my well-wrought opinion, the connection between a poem's content and its form is inseparable. As a result, you can't say that Ezra Pound's imagist poem "In a Station of the Metro" is just a poem about a bunch of people who look like a damp tree branch. If you try to paraphrase the poem like you, you lose the totality of the poem.
Pound's poem doesn't mean the same thing without the spare form, even if we're just talking about three pieces of punctuation.
Think of it this way. Have you ever read a great novel and been really moved at the end of it? Did you then try to tell the plot of the novel to someone else? They probably weren't as moved as you were. Why is that? Because the form of that novel mattered. You had to read it in a certain way, over a certain period of time, with all the description and punctuation intact, to really get the full experience.
What I'm saying is that any paraphrase can never capture the totality of a work of art.
We're talking about poetic unity here, folks, and it's serious business. By unity, I mean that in any text (novel, play, or poem—but especially poem), all words must be oriented toward the larger meaning the writer is expressing. I often refer to this as "organic unity" in order to convey how the words must naturally work toward the poem's overall ideas of, say, love, mortality, or even a nice pair of sneakers.
Unity is what makes a poem excellent. A poet really gets it when everything in the poem is oriented toward the poem's meaning, and there's nothing left over or out of place.