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This guide imagines you are sitting down to read a text for the first time on your way to developing an argument about a text and writing a paper.To give one example of how to do this, we will read the poem “Design” by famous American poet Robert Frost and attend to four major components of literary texts: subject, form, word choice (diction), and theme.
Most poems follow rules or principles of form; even free verse poems are marked by the author’s choices in line breaks, rhythm, and rhyme—even if none of these exists, which is a notable choice in itself.
Here’s an example of thinking through these elements in “Design.” In “Design,” Frost chooses an Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet form: fourteen lines in iambic pentameter consisting of an octave (a stanza of eight lines) and a sestet (a stanza of six lines).
Make notes in the margins, underline important words, place question marks where you are confused by something.
Of course, if you are reading in a library book, you should keep all your notes on a separate piece of paper.
We can use them as a guide for our own as we go forward with our close reading. When you look at a text, observe how the author has arranged it.
After thinking about local questions, we have to zoom out. If it is a novel, is it written in the first person? If it is a short story, why did the author choose to write short-form fiction instead of a novel or novella?Examining the form of a text can help you develop a starting set of questions in your reading, which then may guide further questions stemming from even closer attention to the specific words the author chooses.A little background research on form and what different forms can mean makes it easier to figure out why and how the author’s choices are important.If you are not making marks directly on, in, and beside the text, be sure to note line numbers or even quote portions of the text so you have enough context to remember what you found interesting. It’s easy to think of novels and stories as having plots, but sometimes it helps to think of poetry as having a kind of plot as well.Design I found a dimpled spider, fat and white, On a white heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth— Assorted characters of death and blight Mixed ready to begin the morning right, Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth— A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth, And dead wings carried like a paper kite. When you examine the subject of a text, you want to develop some preliminary ideas about the text and make sure you understand its major concerns before you dig deeper.If you want even more information about approaching poems specifically, take a look at our guide: How to Read a Poem.As our guide to reading poetry suggests, have a pencil out when you read a text.Fiction writers and poets build texts out of many central components, including subject, form, and specific word choices.Literary analysis involves examining these components, which allows us to find in small parts of the text clues to help us understand the whole.Even when you read prose, our guide for reading poetry offers good advice: read with a pencil and make notes.Mark the words that stand out, and perhaps write the questions you have in the margins or on a separate piece of paper.