Kendra Stead's close reading of the Margaret Atwood poem "Spelling" works line by line and even word by word, searching for networks of meaning. But Stead hasn't considered Atwood's biography, other critical interpretations of the same poem, or works by authors with related concerns or techniques.
Go to your university's library and conduct a search using not a general purpose search engine like Google, but rather, an academic subscription-based electronic index service like those available through Gale—the Literature Resource Center or the MLA (Modern Language Association) Bibliography.
Your key search term should be the keyword:
Then search for returns related to Margaret or Margaret E or Margaret Eleanor Atwood.
You might start by reading a short biography or a list of publications by the author. Notice her place of birth and residence. Notice the number and kinds of books she has published. As you rethink your experience of the poem, consider:
- When was the poem written/ published? What were some significant world/ national events at thattime? You might need to search for a timeline here. Which issues might have been important to feminists at that point?
- How, if at all, does the knowledge that Atwood has a daughter affect your reading of the poem? How, if at all, does Atwood's education and personal history affect your reading?
- Scan the titles and/or short summaries of Atwood's books. Note any recurrent themes. Does "Spelling" seem to fit in any of these patterns of interests/ themes?
- Search the MLA database for an article that contains both the words "Atwood" and "Poetry" in the title. You should discover several articles. Search for one available in full text (perhaps as plain text or email). Find and scan the article to see if "Spelling" is interpreted there and what, if any, comparisons are made to other examples of Atwood's work.
Library research should supplement rather than take the place of a close interpretative reading of a piece of literature. History and biography can prevent some obvious misreadings, but literature is imaginative by definition, and authors aren't limited to writing about events they have experienced. Consequently, you can make an imaginative interpretation that's grounded in the text but that may not align with either a biographical detail or another critic's interpretation. Your task is to write an essay that is a convincing web of meaning spun from the language of the text.