creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by Clearwater Public Library System Photos:
creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by Clearwater Public Library System Photos:

A close reading is used in poetry interpretation. It can be done alone or in a group. The ideas that follow are based on work by Jenny Mackness and after her participation in an Modern Poetry course to study the pedagogy of said course. The course uses collaborative close readings as a pedagogical vehicle to teach modern poetry online to a large number of students.

The idea is that you take a poem and take a close look. The emphasis is on the need to slow down, one cannot do a close reading quickly. For most people meaning making and understanding requires slow reading. There are many strategies that can be used to take time with writing: read it out loud, repeat a line, read it backwards, select keywords, map keywords. If you were doing it with others you could take a sentence each and explore different meanings, create arbitrary distinctions and force debate to unpack assumptions or personal interpretations and associations.

Can you see resonances between this approach and Insight dialogue?

My first experience with Insight dialogue was reading scripture as the contemplation topic. We read. We paused. We were told to speak truth about associations the reading brought out for us, to just repeat a word, a sentence in different ways. The strategies for a close reading can be used with any text. From scripture, to poetry to your assignments in order to deepen understanding and prepare for writing these. We all know how difficult it can be simply to read and understand an exam question. Jenny quotes Julia Bloch saying  ‘You can close read a cereal packet’ to hint at the idea that the mindset of a close reading can be applied to any text.

What strikes me here, are the resonances between the two approaches. On this course we are not just learning to practice insight dialogue. We are setting it in the context of mindful communications and other theorists and approaches so it is relevant to explore other approaches support finding a pause in interaction and habit.

I am aware that this course is heavily dependent on reading text and I wanted to offer here a methodology to engage with our readings and the blog posts we are writing. It is not about a quick skim read, it not about being an permanent send and just tell us what you read. It is about two key things that are my overriding criteria for assessing your work on this course: Engagement with the course and emerging Insights new to this group as we engage  in this 15 week dialogue.

Insight and engagement need time and effort. Posting 2 responses unconnected to anything else that has been said, might meet the letter of the grading criteria but does not meet the spirit of it. I will keep pushing you to show how you apply Insight Dialogue in the way you interact with all of us in this community as well as the required readings.

In this context, I thought that the idea of a close reading might offer a non-meditative example of dialogue to help you explore the essence of working from silence (the Pause). Take a look at this video where the process of a close reading is used on a short poem by a group of people. The video is 40 minutes long – how long are you allowing to engage with our texts? There are some tough questions to ask as our lifestyles often allow for skimming not for deepening and repetition. Ask them and write about it. This is what will make  this course even more meaningful to you. 

Feel free to create close reading groups, though this is not a requirement. Below I offer some bullet points to help you learn about close reading and there are many good online guides about the process. It is fun to do it collaboratively but can also be done individually.

 Some guidance,

  • Slow down for  meaning making
  • Stay grounded in the text rather than your interpretations and if you digress be aware of that
  • If the word  in the text is getting you stuck – – take the word out of the text and close read the word before returning to the text.
  • The moment of real reading with focussed attention is precisely when its difficult
  • You need to step back from your personal assumptions about what is easy/difficult
  • You are not seeking for a position to prevail, you stay open to possibility

Literary techniques for approaching a close reading:

  • reading aloud – hear it as many times as possible – bring the language into the room – read the text  as it is – read one line each – read it backwards – read one line multiple times – see words that you might have glazed over
  • create a word map – take certain words that are important – put them on a page – define them – what is their opposite  – how they interact with each other.  How words talk to each other – short texts are good for this
  • assign parts of the text  to different  people – no canonical interpretations
  • create false binarism – split into 2 sides –  each side has to prove their point by looking at text
  • always bring text into the room – some sort of reading
  • annotation the text  –  mark up your own page
  • homework – take a term to carry with you ‘get to know’

A mindset of dialoguing with text will also help you when engaging with the written work of other students. Whilst you may not be able to spend time in individual meditation practice before logging onto our course site each day, you may at least allow the time that is necessary for making meaning through close reading.

One thought on “Dialoguing with text

  1. Thank you for these promising suggestions! It all makes me reflect on how fast my life pace is at times. I will do my best to apply your teachings from now on. Thank you! Patricia

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