Reading for Organization

Break It Down — Simplify
Reading well requires deliberate attention and the ability to keep relevant information alive in your active working memory. For some people, this task is easier than for others. If you struggle to remember what you read, or if you simply want to improve your reading skills, use this basic method: figure out where the main transitions are in a piece and then jot notes to yourself indicating those transitions. By noting transitions, you'll create categories (or chunks) of information, and you'll not only be sensitive to the main ideas in a passage but—of equal importance—the architecture of the writer's argument—how she moves from thought to thought.

Good writing will direct you, as long as you are attentive to the clues. Well-constructed paragraphs or stanzas have a central focus that is in some way independent from that of previous and upcoming material. You may be given other signs, as well. In the poem above, for instance, Yeats's title mimics the basic organization of his poem.

The first part of the poem presents the father's perspective; the last part, the daughter's. Notice that the father is given the bulk of the lines (5) but the daughter's short comeback (3) trumps him. Yeats is using an old and crucial rhetorical technique, saving the most important material until the end.

Yeats also employs a couple of additional tricks. To convey the father's disapproval, the poet has the father use absolutes ("all," "worst") in a kind of crescendo of hyperbolic ire.


Other than overstatement and rhyme, Yeats turns to no additional poetic devices until the last line. It's all "prose," and the prose exists for a reason.

Notice that in the final line the poet reverses standard English syntax (word order)—a technique known as anastrophe. The previous line was prosaic enough with its simple, resonant expression, "his hair is beautiful." But instead of having the daughter say that her love's "eyes are as cold as the March wind" (which would amount to standard English syntax and which would emphasize the word "wind"), Yeats reverses the order and ends with the more resonant word, "eyes." The very organization of the line emphasizes the daughter's spellbound longing for the man who has provoked such disapproval in her father and others. The simile ("cold as the March wind") is likewise rich. Consider a March wind and how it differs from the winds of other seasons. Consider also how the combination of adjectives "beautiful" and "cold" serve to characterize the man.

Finally, as you read, draw upon old conceptual contrasts that you know from your past experience and your study in the humanities. There are countless such contrasts (for instance, between the old and the young, the city and the country, the respectable and the disreputable, the poetic and the prosaic). Say to yourself, I've seen this sort of thing before—in this case, the bad boy who wins the affection of a girl against her father's will.