Friday, September 2, 2011

More on Lit Crit

After my previous post on literary criticism, my friend Gary comments, then we exchanged some e-mails about it. Gary is, among other things, a literary critic. Not for a career, but he does this. Where I would critique a poem or book of poetry, he would provide a traditional literary criticisms of it, interpreting the poem or book according to how it spoke to him.

They used to have us do that in school It seems for several years in a row we studied Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening". Each year the teacher would say how this was a suicide longing poem, or a death wish poem. The narrator—whom they always said was Frost speaking autobiographically—wanted to lie down in the woods and die instead of facing his heavy responsibilities. Well, I don't see that in that poem. I see a pretty picture, a farmer, laborer, or businessman in olden days returning home late from some engagement, taking a moment to enjoy a thing of beauty. That was never good enough for those teachers, however. If you didn't see the suicide wish in it, you were stupid. That killed poetry for me for thirty years.

Then there were the questions on the quizzes, or in class. "What was the poet thinking when he wrote this?" Or, "What is the poet's intent with this stanza?" Hey, stupid teacher, the poet's dead. He died before I could talk to him. How the hell do I know what he was thinking or what his intent was? I can't know that. All I can do is say what the poem says to me. I guess that kind of questioning was another thing that helped kill poetry for me for those several decades.

So where does that leave me relative to literary criticism? The teachers wanted me, the whole class, to write our answers with certainty. "This is what the poet was thinking...." "This is the poet's intent...." "The poet added this hidden meaning...." And I think that certainty is what bugs me most. Interpret the poem all you want. Unless you talked with the poet, or unless he left a documented trail of explanations, it's all personal interpretation. It's a guess. You can't state it with certainty. Yet, that's exactly how you are supposed to do it.

Confidence is one thing. How you state that confidence is something else. To say, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is a suicide poem seems to me not confidence but hubris. To say, In "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" I see a man contemplating suicide" is confidence. The critic is confident in what he sees in the poem. To say what the poet mean, in terms of absolute certainty, is wrong—again, except when the poet has left a paper trail saying "this is what I meant in that poem."

I suppose this applies to all lit crit, not just poetry. I've seen interesting things in my own poems. When I post them for critique, not criticism, I often get critiques that are more like criticism. I was especially amused when one critter described one of my poems as referring to death. As the poet, I know what I meant, and it was far, far from being about death.

Have I sufficiently flogged this horse? I hope so. Maybe on to other subjects with my next post.


Gary said...

Beaten like a rug.

I will say that lit crit is exploratory fun for me. Allusion and metaphor and multiple meanings skillfully rendered are a delight.

David A. Todd said...

Gary: In my e-mail to you, I included that ditty about not finding a hidden meaning, but focusing on "the pretty picture". It's probably an overstatement of my position. If a poet wants to include multiple layers of hidden meanings in his metaphors, that's fine. I actually find them myself from time to time, and even include them in my own poems at a similar frequency.

I'll say again, my objection to lit crit is not looking for and finding hidden meanings. It is when the literary critic says, "That's the way it is," rather than "That's the way I see it."