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Expert Explication: Understanding Art on “Leda and the Swan”

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Nerdwriter, you’ve sent my body into nerd tingles.

wbyeatsI am something of an authority on explicating poetry since close reading is the cornerstone of the College Board AP English Literature curriculum, and that’s been my jam for the last 13 years. When it’s done really expertly, like in the “Understanding Art|POETRY|Leda and the Swan” video essay by Evan Puschak, Nerdwriter, a juicy, insightful explication can make an ol’ square sonnet suddenly seem like the heavens opening and enlightenment being conferred upon you by the hand of God herself.

At least, that’s how it makes me feel. And this response is truly rare. Because doing an expert-level explication is HARD, though Puschak makes it look effortless. I’ll be showing this video to my students and breaking down the levels of interpretation, analysis, and synthesis he’s doing as a model for how they might achieve their own mastery in close reading.

The poem itself is seemingly a retelling of a moldy, old myth–Zeus’s “seduction” of Leda while in the form of a swan–but as Puschak makes clear, this poem is full of blood and urgency, even to a modern audience. It is a poem that speaks not only to the personal pain of sexual assault but also the epic machinations of whole societies rising and falling. In only 14 lines. Wow.

Bonus: “Leda and the Swan” is by one of my favorite poets, the myth-obsessed Irish nationalist William Butler Yeats, and Puschak includes an explanation of Yeats’ historical gyres theory as well, tying “Leda” to “The Second Coming.”

Author: Erin Perry

I'm a high school English teacher specializing in AP Literature and Film Analysis. I'm interested in most things geeky, including superheroes, vampires, zombies, teen culture, postmodern philosophy, pop culture analysis, and combinations of the aforementioned. Follow me on Twitter @eriuperry.

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