This blog has moved to Please make a note, and I look forward to seeing you there.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


As a writer, I will forever have an affection for the close reading of prose and poetry. For me, nothing helps me on the micro-elements of my craft than paying close attention to what others, whom I respect, are doing.

Just in case any readers are unfamiliar with the "intentional fallacy," I'll explain it in the next two paragraphs. Oftentimes, close readers pick up stuff that is clearly there but was not intentionally placed by the author. This often happens to me not only with the small stuff, but large scale themes as well. Friends of mine, some of whom do not often read literature, will frequently see something that is evident in the work on the thematic level that I never picked up on.

All this is to say that a close read for me is not an effort to read a writer's mind, it's an attempt to see how he or she works the language as a craftsperson. The degree of intentionality is not important in a close reading ( though it certainly is in more autobiographical & historical readings of literature).

I want to look at four sentences on page 132.

"It is not because we want to regress that we explore the past. That would be a complete mischaracterization of our intentions. Nor are we the type to look back upon yesterday with a milky, romanticized eye, an eye that does not scrutinize, an uncritical eye.

"Rather, we look to the past because we must find the errors of our ancestors."

First, I want to emphasize that what is being said here about why we may study history is not necessarily Lily's beliefs. Point of view in this book is complicated, to say the least.

What interests me is that we have four sentences, only two of which have commas. One of those, however, is just after a brief introductory word, so it hardly counts. For all practical purposes we have three fairly simple, very short sentences without commas. Then, in the middle of these three, comes a very long one with three commas central to the expressive power of the sentence.

These commas contain the phrases that help explain the metaphorical "eye" with which this "we" looks at the past. There's an insistence on completely denying the romanticized mind by not having the sentence end at the first "eye," but having us readers hover over its negation for an extra half sentence.

On top of that is repetition and rhyme. "Eye" is repeated three times, the rhyming syllable "ize" twice in this one sentence. There is a tremendous determination to keep the word and the sound "eye" before us for the entire lingering, last half of the sentence.

She does this with no awkwardness, and nothing feels forced. I read to the bottom of the page and felt that something remarkable had happened, so I went back to look for it. I think she is able to keep the emphasis so strongly on "eye" without sounding clunky largely through her rhythms (I will not do a traditional scan, but I looked at it from that view point and there does seem to be some interesting emphases that come up) and her long consonants. When we get to the last half of the sentence hard consonants are usually buried within words, where they lose some of their fricative power, and she begins words with soft consonants.

In short, she draws us through the heavy repetition in the last half of the sentence by using rhythm and sound. The heavy repetition helps to thoroughly negate the "romanticized" way of looking at the past.

My next entry on this book will be a review of the book itself.

No comments:

Post a Comment