What is close reading?

Close reading – the practice of reading slowly, intensely, and reflectively – can help us experience poetry on a deeper level. We call it ‘close’ reading because it brings us in towards the text, helping us to see it from new perspectives.

Before we begin, there are a few things to keep in mind. Close reading involves reading the same text multiple times. You’ll want to be able to annotate (make notes on) your text as you read, to help capture your thoughts and ideas. Some people like to do this on paper with pen or pencil in hand, so you may want to print out the poem. Other people are happy to annotate on a screen. Why not try out both ways to see which you’re more comfortable with.

Your ideas about a text are likely to change as you read it over and over again. You’ll start to see things in the text that you didn’t realise were there at first. Some of your initial ideas about the text may be overturned; others might change just a little bit. Being open to these changes are what makes close reading exciting – and they show your development as a reader.

Sometimes you’ll find that there’s more than one meaning in a text, a phrase or a word. Close reading can lead to a sense of uncertainty rather than to clear-cut answers, and we use the word ‘ambiguity’ to describe the quality of being open to more than one meaning. It’s a vital aspect of poetry – one that you can explore and enjoy as you work your way deeper and deeper into the text.

Everyone will have their own way of reading and personal response to the text. Our interpretations are unique because they’re formed by our ideas and experiences. Close reading doesn’t have to be a solitary practice; it can be sociable and collaborative, bringing people together through their shared love of poetry. Sharing our interpretations with others – as we will on this course – helps us to discover new layers of meaning in the text.

Close reading will help you to enjoy poetry in new ways. It can also help you to find out more about yourself, the world, and the people around you.

What’s your experience of encountering poetry for the first time? Have you read any poetry that’s made a big impression on you?

Share your thoughts in the discussion area, below. As you work through the course, you’ll be asked to share your own perspectives and interpretations of how poetry makes you feel. Having these conversations can help you to explore the techniques for unlocking poetry further. Interpretation of poetry is highly individual, so do enter this course with an open mind, and consider the responses and perspectives of others as equal to your own when reading the comments.


Course tip

To help you get to grips with some of the terminology used within the course we’ve provided a glossary.

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A-level Study Boost: Unseen Poetry and the Creative Process

University of Reading