Essay #1: New Critical Analysis of a Poem
To Lean to Write a Clear and Cohesive Response to Literature using the New Critical approach
To Use Rhetorical Strategies: Analysis, Synthesis, Argument, Cause and Effect, Compare and Contrast
To Learn Critical Thinking Skills
To Learn MLA Documentation Style: Integrating quotations; Works Cited
In a thesis driven essay of 500 to 750 words, respond to one of the following poems using the strategies of
the New Critic, proceeding on the assumptions of the New Criticism that (1) there is a difference between
a good poem and a bad poem, and (2) good poems have a “spirit” or life of their own because they
incorporate tensions that eventually are resolved into an “organic unity” or autonomous organic whole.
Following the New Critics, you should downplay the authorial biography and historical context of a work,
and focus on the work itself; you should, however, examine the literary allusions contained in the work as
an important part of its total meaning. You need only the primary text for this essay, but you may
incorporate other texts we have read thus far as additional support.
¨ “There’s a girl inside”
¨ “The Fish”
¨ “A Black Rook in Rainy Weather”
¨ “Memories of West Street and Lepke”
An effective close reading will discuss HOW the selected passage communicates meaning (what poetic or
rhetorical strategies are used) as well as address WHY these strategies are used in this particular way.
One of the greatest challenges of a close reading is synthesis. Even as you divide the poem into its
composite elements, you will want to discuss how those elements come together to form a whole. Your
essay should reveal how the parts of the poem relate and form a totality. Ideally, your paper should
reveal some of the excitement that first inspired you to choose this poem.
Ways to Proceed
1. Read the poem closely and get a general sense of what is happening in it. In other words, analyze
the dramatic situation. Who is the speaker? What people appear in the poem? What is the
relationship between these actors or speakers, and who is talking to whom? What is going on in
the poem? How much time elapses in the course of the action? Where is the poem set, and in
what ways is the setting important? Does the poem allude to a specific historical event or deal
with a situation that appears in another literary work (such as a classical or Biblical text)?
2. Look closely at the general formal characteristics of the poem. How would you describe the
meter? the rhyme scheme? Is this poem of a particular genre, such as a sonnet or a ballad? Is it
somehow parodying or slightly changing a generic form? Are there an allusions in the poem to
other works of literature, and if so, how do these allusions function?
3. Great literature, New Critics assert, achieves its effect through tension—the tension of
oppositions, paradoxes, ambiguities, ironies—and resolution. Like the ropes of a suspension
bridge, these poetic elements balance each other to create an organic whole. Try to identify
elements in this poem that are in tension: images that seem opposite to one another; metaphors
that compare two unlike things; images of two radically different things that are used to describe
the same thing or idea; parts of the poem that seem to pull you in two different directions; two
characters or things that are opposed in the poem; symbols that seem to be unstable; irony or
paradox. There even might be two genres “at war” in the poem. What two (or more) ideas or
images or forms seem opposed, or in tension, in the work?
4. Create a working hypothesis about what you think this poem is really about. State this hypothesis
in terms of how you think the poem resolves the tension you identified in #3 above. (You might
think of formula: “This poem puts X and Y in tension and resolves that tension by asserting or
presenting Z.”) Formulate a working thesis sentence (what you think this poem is really doing or
really about) from this hypothesis.
5. Once you have a working hypothesis about what the poem is “about,” work through the poem
meticulously and show how all elements of the poem contribute to this meaning. Each part of
your analysis will illustrate what is in tension (an image, an idea, people, things) and how that
tension is addressed or resolved. Things you might look at:
• The overall organization and genre of the poem: Is the poem of a specific genre? (If
the poem is a sonnet, you might discuss how the sonnet form is important to theme; if the
poem is free verse, you might posit why that form is appropriate to the main idea.) Also,
does the poem break into meaningful parts of some kind? Do stanzas develop the main
idea in some identifiable way? What are the rhyme scheme and meter, and how might
those be significant to the central ideas in tension or the overall main idea?
• The specific organization of ideas and language: Do ideas change in the poem from
beginning to end, and if so, how? Does the imagery change as the poem progresses, and
if so, how and why? Are there any patterns to imagery and ideas?
• Specific language use, including syntax and diction: Is the sentence structure
complex or simple? grammatical? mono- or multisyllabic? Is word choice modern or
archaic? Is word order normal or inverted somehow, and why might that be significant?
How does connotation construct a specific mood, tone, or meaning in the poem? How do
figures of speech (metaphor, simile, metonymy, synecdoche, periphrasis, allusion, etc.)
and language sounds (alliteration, consonance, assonance, etc.) develop from the
beginning of the poem to the end?
6. Put all this together. How do the parts of the poem that you have identified work toward an
Submission Requirements: Please submit an electronic copy to firstname.lastname@example.org
Format Requirement: MLA-style formatting and citations
Length: Your finished text should be between 500-750 words, excluding the Works Cited page.
Research Requirements: none
Works Cited Page
A Works Cited page names all of the sources that were used in an essay or research paper; it credits the
source or sources for the information you present, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize to support your
thesis. A Works Cited page also serves as a reference to the sources that were used so that a reader or
writer can quickly refer to the original text. The Works Cited page for this research project will include
the poem you are writing about. If you use other sources, including other primary or secondary sources
from class, please list those too.
Expected Student Learning Outcomes
§ Demonstrate outlining and brainstorming abilities
§ Demonstrate an awareness of the time needed to plan, search, and write an essay
§ Demonstrate increased awareness of strategies for organizing ideas and structuring essays
§ Demonstrate an ability to use complex sentence structures
§ Demonstrate an understanding of multiple rhetorical strategies
§ Demonstrate active reading strategies by finding textual evidence
§ Learn to integrate quotations effectively and correctly
Previously Learned Skills Required to Complete this Assignment
ü The ability to summarize sources
ü The ability to use multiple rhetorical strategies: Narration, Description, Exemplification
ü An awareness of plagiarism issues
ü The ability to write grammatically correct, clear sentences.
ü The ability to write a clear and concise thesis.
ü The ability to brainstorm material for an essay.
ü The ability to organize an essay
Ø As you (re)read the text, keep in mind the prompt and highlight specific words, lines, or images
that may support your argument.
Ø Write a thesis that helps readers understand both your argument and your reasoning.
Ø Include textual examples that illustrate your points.
Ø Avoid information that is not intrinsic to the piece: That is make sure it is “in the text.”
Ø Avoid telling the reader that something is “interesting,” or “exciting”; instead create images or
use examples that show it.
Ø Come to my office if you are unsure, confused, or behind.
Traps to Avoid:
Ø Choosing a topic that you do not understand or one not on the list that you have not discussed
Ø Failing to assert a clear and strong argument.
Ø Seeking to present the subject from memory or hearsay.
Ø Failing to support the argument with evidence from appropriate sources.
Ø Citing Wikipedia (or other non-academic or unreliable sources) as a source for your paper.