SAT tutor: Close Readings and the Literature Subject Test

Posted by Manoah Finston on 6/4/13 9:17 AM

literature tutor

Hello dear readers! As promised, in this and in future posts, I’m going to share my wisdom as an SAT tutor, focus on the nitty gritty of the SAT-II Literature Subject Test, and show you how to approach the kinds of questions that students struggle with the most.

Let’s get right into it! Imagine that you turn the page in your SAT-II Literature test booklet, and you are suddenly staring down this poem by John Crowe Ransom, entitled “Blue Girls”:

Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward 
Under the towers of your seminary, 
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary 
Without believing a word. 

Tie the white fillets then about your hair 
And think no more of what will come to pass 
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass 
And chattering on the air. 

Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail; 
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish 
Beauty which all our power shall never establish, 
It is so frail. 

For I could tell you a story which is true; 
I know a woman with a terrible tongue, 
Blear eyes fallen from blue, 
All her perfections tarnished -- yet it is not long 
Since she was lovelier than any of you. 


Let’s do a very quick reading of the poem.

There are a few places where we should be underlining as we read. Although any piece of literature is always in some sense “talking” to its reader, this poem catches our attention with some particularly strong moments of talking: the phrases that are placed into the imperative, the moments when the speaker is commanding/giving orders directly to his/her audience (we shouldn’t automatically assume that the speaker in the poem is the poet himself!). We know that the speaker in this poem is speaking directly to others because we have the word “your” throughout the poem. Although we have to read to the very last word to find “you,” we know by the presence of “your” that the words of the poem have been addressed to an audience. And we, as readers, become that audience in a sense. But we also can infer that we are not the original audience, nor the only audience.

Let’s dig a little deeper. So what, precisely, is the poet commanding this “you” to do?

In the first stanza, we should underline “Go listen…” as the first command. In the second stanza, “Tie the white fillets…And think no more…” In the third, “Practice your beauty…” Before we do any more analysis of this poem, we can use these imperative phrases to generalize a motive: this poem is meant to tell a certain audience to do certain things.

What audience, precisely? In the third stanza, the implicit “you” is made more clear: “Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail.” OK – this poem is written by an older person (we don’t know the gender for sure) to young women, “blue girls,” in order to give commands to them. And if we look at these commands quickly, we see a pattern: the speaker has ordered the young women to be carefree, to ignore their teachers, tie ribbons in their hair, and “practice” their “beauty before it fail,” that is, before it fades away. This is a very quick scan of the poem, but at least we have a very general sense about who is speaking to whom, and the subject of this speech.

Now, let’s see if we can answer any questions right off the bat.

Let’s turn to the first question, and first things first, cover the answers. Instead of reading the multiple choice options, we’ll just jot a word or two as a provisional answer next to the question in the test booklet or on scrap paper. Think of this as a micro-brainstorming session (pretend you are working with a writing tutor). If we cover the answers, we find just the question prompt:

The tone of the poem can best be described as…

So, with the answers covered, let’s jot down some words. We know from our quick reading that the poem is like a speech given by an older person to younger girls to tell them to enjoy their beauty and their youth while these things still exist. We might write out something like: “warning…admonishment…commanding…ordering…instructing…imperative…” and so on. Now, let’s uncover the answers and see if we find any words in the answer options that are very close to the words we’ve jotted down above. 

 1. The tone of the poem can best be described as

     (A) cautionary

     (B) mythic

     (C) sarcastic

     (D) optimistic

     (E) hopeful 

We can go right down the column and quickly compare the choices to our initial written impressions. Simultaneously, we can decide whether any of these words make sense based on what we’ve just seen in the poem. Let’s get to it. What does “cautionary” mean? Let’s assume for now that we are unfamiliar with this word. So, we will break it into smaller parts and work from there. We see that it looks like “caution,” and we know that to exercise “caution” means to be judicious, to be careful. But we know that the word here is not “cautious.” So it can’t just mean “careful.” It must be related, but not exactly the same. Still, let’s think about it: is the tone of this poem one that asks for caution? This is a little tough. The speaker has asked the young girls to be…young, and youth doesn’t usually go with cautiousness. But the speaker has also commanded the girls to enjoy their youth and beauty before they fade, and this part is really more of a warning. We know that there is a relationship between caution and warning—when something is dangerous or risky, we are sometimes warned about it, and we are told to use caution. So perhaps these concepts are related in the word… And we do have “warning” or something close to it on our brainstormed word list already… But to be sure, let’s keep going with the other answers.

What does “mythic” mean? It is related to myths, stories of grand proportion. Is that happening in this poem? It doesn’t seem that way. We don’t have any allusions to any well-known myths and the audience seems intimate, not expansive. “Mythic” seems like a bad choice. Let’s cross it out.

What about “sarcastic?” Are there elements of sarcasm in the remarks of the poem’s speaker? There does some to be an edge to some of the pronouncements in the poem, but if we didn’t pick up on sarcasm during our first read, it likely isn’t such a strong presence in the poem. Let’s move on and see what else is left, without crossing this out just yet. 

What about “optimistic?” Well, we know that the speaker has told the “blue girls” that their beauty will disappear. That doesn’t seem so optimistic—quite the opposite, in fact. Just to be sure, we can quickly glance over the conclusion of the poem, to verify that it doesn’t become more upbeat at the very end. In the last stanza, we see that the speaker is talking about a woman who has grown old and mean, but once, and not that long ago, she was prettier than “any of you,” the girls being addressed in the poem. We don’t have to spend more time analyzing this—this doesn’t sound optimistic at all, so that choice can go. Let’s cross it out.

Lastly we have “hopeful.” We know that this word is not far from “optimistic,” and we’ve completely ruled “optimistic” out. Is there a chance that the poem can be “hopeful” if not “optimistic?” Maybe, but it seems like a stretch. Let’s consider it a likely cross out. We’ve definitely eliminated “optimistic” and “mythic” and we’ve kinda-sorta eliminated “sarcastic” and “hopeful.” If we return to “cautionary,” we can see that, even if we’re not 100% sure of the meaning, it seems to make more sense than “sarcastic” and “hopeful.” If we bring our brainstormed, quickly jotted down words back into the mix to compare and contrast, we can see that nothing that we’ve written is synonymous with either “sarcastic” or “hopeful.” So we’ve now zeroed in on “cautionary” by two methods: by process of elimination AND by compare and contrast to our brainstormed initial response. This should give us confidence that “cautionary” is the correct choice. So we will go with (A) cautionary. 

Naturally, if the word “cautionary” was familiar to us, this would be a quicker process, for “cautionary” is indeed an adjective indicating a warning or admonishment. But it is helpful to see how this question, and similar questions, can be answered even when the meaning of words eludes us. 

In the next blog post, I’ll stick with the poem and address another question similar to the above, continuing to show you how to deconstruct these questions and arrive at answers with conviction! Stay tuned for more…  


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Tags: expository writing, literature SAT subject test