Monthly Archives: February 2016

A Note on Poetics

This week we will be working with a distinction between two kinds of textual work: poetics and hermeneutics.1 This distinction is described well by a professor who teaches at Cornell University, Jonathan Culler, in his elegant little book Literary Theory:  A Very Short Introduction:

Poetics starts with attested meanings or effects and asks how they are achieved. (What makes this passage in a novel seem ironic? What makes us sympathize with this particular character? Why is the ending of this poem ambiguous?) Hermeneutics, on the other hand, starts with texts and asks what they mean, seeking to discover new and better interpretations. (61)

Most literary criticism will draw on the resources of both kinds of work when working on a text. We might be reading a short story, for example, and  identify (or sympathize) with a character we might discuss how that identification would determine the meaning of the story (hermeneutics or interpretation). At the same time, we might discuss how the language of a story creates associations that undermine a narrative point of view or how a controlling metaphor reinforces gender associations (poetics).

When you are interpreting a text to determine what a text means you are involved in hermeneutics. This kind of writing in literary studies, as Jonathan Culler reminds us, comes out of law and religion, fields in which people are working to establish authoritative legal or religious interpretation to guide action (Literary Theory 61). The other interpretive project is poetics. This kind of writing, associated with linguistics and contemporary rhetoric, sets out to examine how texts are made, as well as to account for how the structure of a text (a sonnet, for example) achieves the effects that it does. Culler describes this basic distinction well. “Taking meanings or effects as the point of departure (poetics) is fundamentally different from seeking to discover meaning (hermeneutics)” (61).

Remember that attention to how the text is put together (poetics) will help you make a persuasive case; in fact, your interpretive writing will be in part judged by how well you reach your interpretive conclusions—what you are able to do with the elements of the text you highlight and use to support your conclusion.

Note The term poetics is used to talk about the theory or principles of making poems and, more broadly, in reference to the aesthetic principles of any subject or inquiry (Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space comes to mind.) Poetics also refers to a body of writing that elaborates on these theories and principles, such as Aristotle’s Poetics, Edgar Allen Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” or William Carlos Williams’ “The Poem as a Field of Action.” The term hermeneutics refers to principles employed in the interpretation (or exegesis) of religious writing or in the field of law (“legal hermeneutics”). The work often discussed in accounts of the hermeneutic tradition include Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Hans Georg Gadamer and E.D.Hirsch.

Work Cited Jonathan Culler,  Literary Theory:  A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Living the Liberal Arts

Only a few years ago, Caitlyn McCain was setting up a blog in English 215 and writing her personal essay on her experiences with writing in school. Today she is blogging alongside Jeffrey Sachs, Ralph Nader, and Patricia McGuire at the Huffington Post. The Huffington Post is read by millions of readers, and the Huff Post College pages are frequented by tens of thousands of people.

Last week, our very own Teaching Assistant Caitlyn posted her first essay on HuffPost College.called “The Advantage of a Liberal Arts Living Space” describes the heady life of a student on a campus that values the liberal arts. The essay is a semi-promotional piece written for the Keene State College community in her internship at the KSC Marketing and Communications Office.

As a professor at a public liberal arts college, I appreciated Caitlyn’s glimpse into the experience of “living the liberal arts” at a school that values more than preparation for the specialized tasks of a professional life. I recently read an essay by Cecelia Gaposchkin in the November/December issue of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in which she calls for all of us to share the meaning and value of the liberal arts in an age when specialization appears to be the coin of the college realm. In “Train the Brain,” Gaposchkin argues that the liberal arts are a “means to stoke curiosity, promote critical thinking, and, simply put, make you smarter” (26). A liberal arts education, she goes on to say, “teaches you to distinguish between fact and opinion and to use facts to pursued informed agendas. These skills are sharpened first in the context of an area of major study, but the point is that they are basic transferable skills, to be used in any—or many—contexts. This is why,” she adds, “when employers hire students from liberal arts colleges, they care less about the student’s major than about the student’s ability to talk about his or her major.”

This line of thinking makes a lot of sense the more you spend time with students whose lives after College unfold in unpredictable ways. It also should make sense to students who, as Caitlyn points out, are experiencing “how beneficial a liberal arts living space is to you—not only as a student, but also as a person.”

Reading as a Writer

The activity of reading is a complex process involving the formation of and testing of inferences about the internal relations of the work and about the external relations between the work and the world. Much of the activity of reading remains tacit; that is, we do it for the most part without being conscious of what we are doing.

Reading as a Writer most often involves putting the process of reading to work in writing. The process includes comprehension (summary), analysis (recognition and use of features of text), interpretation (construction of meaning from a text and recognize ways of reading), and evaluation (identifying and analyzing assumptions and judgments)


Marginal notes and annotation on section XLVII of Ezra Pound’s Cantos

Summary: the reader formulates a brief restatement that omits concrete details, in the case of a narrative, in order to isolate the significant actions and formal divisions in the work. We summarize a text so that we have a sufficient understanding of the character(s) and action(s) of the work.

e.g. (exempli gratia or for example) here is a schematic summary of Hart Crane’s The Bridge (a seventy-six page poem): The poem begins with an introductory proem and then is divided into eight parts. In the poem, a young man awakens at dawn, gazes out over the harbour and city, and then spends the day wandering in the metropolis, gradually becoming involved in its corruption, and, after agonizing disillusionment and drunkenness—a kind of spiritual descent into Hades—comes, in the final part of the poem, to an apparently illuminating vision of order or transcendence.

Marginalia: the reader is focused on her response to the work—what springs to mind and into body in the course of your reading. Its purpose is to register your feelings and thoughts as you read to examine, deepen and perhaps change them. We respond to texts in the mode of marginalia when we draw on our own emotions, life experience and intellectual competencies


Isaac Newton’s marginal notations

Annotation: the reader brings to the work factual information from an external source. Its purpose is to clarify apparent ambiguities, obscurities and references. We annotate—or at least we should—when a term or reference in the text slows us down, confuses us or presents an interpretive problem


marginal notes and annotation

Explication: the reader proceeds word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase, line-by-line, with the intent of describing the work’s formal features—the lexical, grammatical, syntactic and sequential choices of an author. Its purpose is to generate awareness of the formal features of a work so as to be more accountable to how the work is put together. We explicate to make explicit the immediate indices of our attention—the lexical, grammatical, syntactic choices of an author; we analyze, relying on all the previous modes—marginalia, annotation and explication—to communicate to your reader something interesting and significant about the passage(s) under discussion

Address the following short poem by Emily Dickinson using marginal commentary, annotation, and explication:

“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see—
But microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Analysis: the reader isolates one or more elements of the work for closer attention. We use analysis to separate the work into parts, or into cause and effect relations, in order to probe different relations, to generate questions, and more fully understand the whole.

Now consider this annotation and explication or this Explication of “Etymological Dirge annotations

Interpretation: the reader sets forth one or more meanings of a work according to a programmatic set of assumptions or ideological beliefs. We interpret in order to make a persuasive case for a meaning of the work.

Blogging: Making the Most of It

I’m not sure if any of you caught the moment on the first day of class when I asked you to give your blog a subtitle, or tagline. What happened was that all of you paused. What I realized was that I had set for you a very simple problem that is at the center of your work as a writer: finding the right words and placing them in the right order. The words “finding” and “placing” of course stand for an extraordinarily complex process that required you not only to think about language, but about form and context and audience and medium.

The taglines you have formulated for your blogs are really good. That is, your blogs are already showing attention to how you might represent your reading, thinking and writing in this course. I encourage you to continue thinking about your blog as more than simply a functional tool (an archive). I am interested in you using the blog to better represent your intellectual work and to help you develop as a writer.

Below is a post by a friend of mine who teaches at Washington College in Maryland, Sean Meehan. Making Use of the Medium: Ways of Doing Digital Writing and Reading says much of what I want to say about your writing on a blog. Professor Meehan and I are both interested in using blogs to develop the reading and thinking and writing  of our students. Here is what he says:

I mentioned in the first class that we would be focusing in the course on ways that we could develop and strengthen our writing by being more aware and making better use of the medium and multiple media of writing. The blog postings you are doing in response to reading and discussion (and on your way to the larger writing projects) are a good example. So here are some tips, offered in response to your initial posts, for ways to develop a stronger response and to experiment with future postings.

  • Provide a  focus for your response–both in terms of summary (what the reading says) and analysis (what you say, your critical thinking in response to the reading). Some simple ways to develop focus:
  • title: at the end, or while writing the blog (I suggest you save or publish the blog before finishing, and then update it once or twice while writing), use this to ask yourself: what am I getting at.
  • at the very least, don’t title it “blog #1″; start experimenting with some creative thinking–you will need a good title for your essays.
  • summary (what you hear the reading say): think 2-4 sentences, an initial paragraph that summarizes in a way that will allow you to later dig in to a key point and elaborate further.
  • elaboration (what you notice; what you want to say about the reading): dig in by providing a  quotation; use the quotation tool (in toolbar) to highlight this.
  • basic paragraphing: though the posting need not be fully edited or as formally organized as an essay, consider some basic paragraph breaks to move from summary to analysis, to distinguish different main points; this will also allow you to do some practice with transitions.
  • tags: after finishing the draft, the tag function invites some reflection on what the focus has been, what some key ideas and keywords are; tags can also be effective later when working on an essay and looking for material–to remember or be surprised by some associations (two different posts that turn out to be related by a tag); tags can sometimes lead to interesting associations to other blogs. Some of the WordPress formats will actually suggest automatically other blogs out there that might relate to your post.
  • Advance your focus by making a link
    • the basic links we will use (and mainly use in writing) are quotations and citations.
    • consider digital quotation: a link to a site that offers definition or explanation or example for your focus.
      • use the link function in the toolbar
    • consider linking/inserting an image or other media, if relevant and effective for your focus
    • think of this as a digital means of forwarding and countering (two key elements of academic writing we focus on in the course)
  • Look ahead: to discussion in class, to the next section of the reading, to your next posting.
  • one way to conclude effectively (wrap up, but not entirely–since a blog by definition is not a finished product, should have more to say): ask a question.

We will go over these suggestions in class, as I am interested in what you think about them. If these suggestions are interesting to you, and you want to respond, go ahead and post a comment on this page below.

Caitlyn’s “English is”

Caitlyn McCain, English 215 Teaching Assistant

Looking back on what I wrote about English as a freshman, I realized that I gave it a very textbook answer. In some ways, that too, is an element of English: formality. However, over the course of my college degree I’ve learned that English allows a person to expand her skills, her mind, her imagination: of all the things that make up English, one’s own genius is at its core: your own ability to make English your own.

True, at the center of “English Studies” is literature and writing. Novels, poetry, drama, non-fiction—you name it, there is a class on it. Understanding how to work with literature, and how to write effectively makes English useful and enriches one’s own experience with it. English taught me everything I could want to know about citations and critical thinking and writing. It taught me how to engage as a student, or interpret a text, or the best ways to convey thoughts and feelings through words. However, what I missed as a freshman was myself. I approached the field of English like an assignment. I thought that if I did the reading, highlighted and annotated passages, and wrote the paper well that somehow my understanding of “English” would evolve and deepen. In fact, the opposite is true. By treating English as merely a discipline, I disregarded the primary element that gave it life: my own experience.

English combines “suppositories of culture” with the people who encounter it. Without the active heart and engaged mind of the student, English is dusty books and fading critical statements. It never comes to life. Around my junior year, I finally realized that by reading and writing without my self, I was missing out on what truly makes English “English.” In my first essay about English I wrote: “People devoting themselves to an English major are opening themselves up to higher thinking, deeper reading, and improved understanding of what came before them and how those ideals remain significant to them.” That’s all true. But even as I wrote it, there was a distance between my self and my studies of what I loved. I’d yet to make it my own, to take ownership of it, and to engage with literature and writing on a personal level.

English is culture, and ideals, and philosophy all bundled up in books that will last through time so future generations will know where they came from. It is the study of language, how it works, how it doesn’t, and the best ways to say things with exactly the right words. It’s about learning how to think deeply and read actively. English is about studying your world through the lens of texts, and applying contexts of the time period to gain a richer understanding of your own (or someone else’s) experience of the world. English is definitely all of that. However, it’s also you.

English is your own experience of a text, your own relation to it, your own feelings and thoughts and how you convey them. However, it’s also taught me about myself—as a reader, a writer, and a thinker. Once I learned that English isn’t a subject outside of myself, but rather, one that includes me and my own thoughts and words, I truly began to engage with it. I found confidence in my writing, and in my own voice. I trusted myself to interpret a text, or to have legitimate ideas of my own, rather than repeating what I’d heard someone else say for fear of being “wrong.” English is essential to who I am as a student and a person, and is far beyond a textbook definition. English is everything a critic can tell you it is, but never leave yourself out of the equation.

Reading in English

“Read as though it made sense and perhaps it will.”

—I.A. Richards

Reading in English is more than finding information as you might, say, in a biology textbook or in a book that describes the major theories of psychology. Reading in English is also more than the act of recording information or summarizing main ideas. Consider what happens when you are faced with reading a poem:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

To read this poem, Ezra Pound’s  “In a Station of the Metro,” is to become aware of the occasion of reading. That is, a reading of the poem requires a reader to note the particular parts and see how they might come together. Who is speaking? In what context? What about the language? Why “apparition”? What about the two lines of the poem? How do I make sense of the second line of the poem? One of the ways to read the poem would be to write about it. Working on a text by writing about it is a way of reading, or rereading, that will help you practice becoming aware of how you are reading, and consider the consequences in the choices you have made in the act of reading.

Writing becomes a powerful tool for reading texts that do not easily summarize—texts that present readers with striking, surprising, even troubling uses of language. One might cite the philosophical dialogues of Plato or the writing about economics by Adam Smith. Consider the following passage from a lecture by the philosopher William James delivered at the Lowell Institute in December of 1906:

We live in a world of realities that can be infinitely useful or infinitely harmful. Ideas that tell us which of them to expect count as the true ideas in all this primary sphere of verification, and the pursuit of such ideas is a primary human duty. The possession of truth, so far from being here an end in itself, is only a preliminary means towards other vital satisfactions. If I am lost in the woods and starved, and find what looks like a cow-path, it is of the utmost importance that I should think of a human habitation at the end of it, for if I do so and follow it, I save myself. The true thought is useful here because the house which is its object is useful. The practical value of true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us.

Or consider the opening of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s astonishing essay on the creative process he titled “Circles”:

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. . . . [E]very action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

Most readers can follow these passages. But this is not language readily summarized. In fact, placing these excerpts back in the context of the lectures from which they are taken requires the reader to do some work. Marking the text in the margin, or underlining or bracketing phrases or sentences that are particularly difficult or even mysterious, begins the process of making meaning. What does James mean that we live in a world of realities? Why the plural? What does it mean to say that these realities are “infinitely useful or infinitely harmful?” Can I begin with an analogy to a situation that translates the “we” into “me”?

The point is that the reading begins with your encounter with the text and acknowledging that the work of making meaning begins with your thinking. Sure, you could go to a book that summarizes James’ essay (and theory of truth) for you. But in doing so you merely repeat what someone else has concluded from her or his way of reading. More importantly, you miss an opportunity to learn how to read. Working on a text that challenges you is like mastering a sequence of chords on a guitar or learning how to throw a Frisbee. After spending time going over the passage you will be able to do more with that passage. With texts that are well put together, which deserve this kind of attention, you will most likely feel a sense of incompleteness, of not quite being able to sum it up. Not to worry, as this feeling is common in an experience of reading writing that matters.

Literary texts are texts that have mattered to readers. Literature, Ezra Pound quips, is “news that stays news.” The literary texts that remain news in a community of readers are texts that imagine ways of thinking about or being in the world that are useful in some way to readers. Literary texts, in this sense, might be understood as forms of reasoning that we use to reason—to think with, or imagine, our selves and the world. “Literature is a point outside of our hodiernal circle,” Emerson writes in “Circles,” “through which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.” A comparable case is made by the poet Adrienne Rich in her essay  “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision”: “We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.” Such a use of literature, or a need to know, begins in the act of reading—attentively, as well as with generosity and humility—and the critical activity of thinking and writing that might follow.

Sonnet and Song

“Sonnet and Song,” the inaugural event of the Shakespeare 400th anniversary celebrations on the campus of Keene State College, is next week  (Wednesday, February 10th) at 2 pm. Please come to the Mason Library (Marion Wood Reading Room) for the opening reception, short readings and performances of works of Shakespeare by faculty, staff, students, and community members.  We hope to see you at this opening and  at other planned Spring events celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare.