Engl 1100 Class Recap: 9/11/18

Today we began class by summarizing our current list of essential questions as well as the answers that we have come up with so far:

1. What is the value of studying literature?

  • A salary
  • Building empathy
  • Touching our emotions
  • Fostering discussion
  • Addressing the affective domain (i.e., rather than memorizing and listing the facts of what a horse is, such as how many legs they have [the cognitive domain], instead considering what the experience of being next to a horse is like or even of what the horse’s personal experience or emotions might be)
  • Addressing cultural controversies

2. How do authors and readers construct meaning?

  • voice
  • characterization
  • sound
  • plot
  • narrator/speaker

3. What is the significance of literature as a form of art?

Regarding the third question, about art, I began by wondering what the significance is for the study of literature that the primary evidence is an art form.  After all, literary studies is one of the humanities disciplines. What does this particular form of evidence add to our study of humanity? Archaeology, for instance, tends to look at evidence that consists of the sort of artifacts that societies leave behind. One of you suggested bowls, for example. The evidence that a psychologist may be interested in, by contrast, may be in the data from experiments involving humans or from questionnaires. As many of you noted, college students will do just about anything for $2, some pizza, or a cool t-shirt. Drawing on the responses from college student populations or from the national population is the basis for much study in psychology. So what could focusing on art as evidence suggest about humanity that bowls or human experiments do not?

One suggestion from one of you is this:

  • Suggests the interests of both the creator and the audience

This is a great point, since generally creators will be creating things that are of particular interest to them. Yet at the same time, they are generally not going to create things that no one else cares about. If the creator has an audience in mind, that creator is going to want to interest both the creator and the audience. Sure, we can get people to catalog their interests through a questionnaire, but this is a way to determine interests that does not depend upon the researcher first developing a sufficiently targeted questionnaire or experiment. The art work serves itself as a data point from which one could interpret the interests of those creating and receiving the art form.

Another of you suggested this:

  • Conveys emotion

This is another great point, and I want to emphasize here the word “convey.” I think a good followup question is this: what about emotion is being conveyed? This student’s suggestion intrigues me because I think it goes beyond merely the conveyance that emotion is happening or what the intellectual description of what that emotion is. Rather, the the thing that the artist could be attempting to convey is the emotional experience itself. This is an interesting way to gain insight in humanity because it leads to reflection upon our own emotional reactions and how they may compare to others and to the artist’s experience. We can talk about what the emotional experience might have been like for those people who drew cave paintings, but that is quite different than the prospect that the emotional experience the artist had could engender an emotional experience within ourselves for us to consider.

 

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After considering the enigma that is art, we turned our focus to Yeats and his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” After taking some time picking this poem apart, one of you noted that is similar to Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Both poems involve the speaker reflecting on a tranquil natural scene. After considering this, we decided that there is some difference between the speakers. Wordsworth’s speaker can reflect from his couch; Yeats’s speaker would not only rise from that couch, he would go to that natural scene and build a cabin so he could live there. This becomes an interesting contrast between these reactions to the peace of the nature. Does the memory support us as we continue to live in civilization, or does it tempt us away from civilization altogether?

This conversation led us into a discussion of the whether you thought there was a difference between being calm and in your home and being calm and in nature. The general consensus was that no, those are two different kinds of calm experience. Some of you thought that you would be calmer at home, where you are safest, and some of you thought you would be calmer in nature, away from stressful reminders. But you also thought that they felt like different sorts of calm, even when they were at roughly the same level. At this point, I suggested that one of the values of literature is in hitting these delicate differences in human experience that perhaps cannot be touched in any other way. To make my point, I turned to an analogy to music theory while drawing the following on the board:

music theory

First, we considered how emotions could be expressed kind of like the power chords often used in heavy metal music. They are formed of the 1st and 5th note in a key. These chords have zero nuance and amount to the emotional impact of a sledgehammer. Nonetheless, they can have a powerful affect. I compared this to the simplistic but heavy emotional impressions frequent within superhero action movies today, twitter flame wars, and soap operas where everyone is either ecstatic or trying to murder each other. A more nuanced set of emotions might be similar to the major chord, which has a third note (the 3rd note of the key) that permits tonal nuance. This chord is the bedrock of much of the rock, pop, classical, and other music that we listen to today. It can be found in anything from the Rolling Stones to a complicated piece of classical piano music. Even more nuance can be found by adding a fourth note (such as the 7th note of the key), which is the something that jazz music does routinely. After explaining all this, I asked you to consider how the human heart could be thought of like a string instrument with two, three, four, or maybe even hundreds of strings. Part of what literature is often trying to do is to hit multiple strings at once in order to set up complex emotional experiences with subtle tonal differences. This is something that the class’s wisdom regarding the difference between being calm at home and being calm in nature suggests warrants attention. Humans are fully able to be sensitive to such subtle differences, but what in our everyday lives points us to consider these delicate gradations of the human experience? If much of everyday life hits us like a power chord, what can also pluck the more nuanced melodies of the heart? And how can we train ourselves to be more sensitive to literary works that are the emotional equivalent of complex jazz?

person woman music musician
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Based on the above, the following has been added to our list of values that literature provides:

  • conveying nuanced tones of the human emotional experience that are not easily conveyed otherwise and training us to become more sensitive to those subtle tones

We next moved to “The Second Coming,” for which I drew the following terrible picture on the board demonstrating a falconer launching a falcon who then flies in circles that expand ever outward as the bird searches for prey:

gyre

The point of this picture was to get you to imagine the ever expanding circles that would develop as the falcon flies farther and farther out. A most certainly better picture of what Yeats had in mind is this:

Double_Cones_MRD2

Notice that at the point that the circle reaches its widest point, a new center is born from which a new ever-widening cone extends until it reaches the original birth of the first cone. These cones capture Yeats’s conception of the cycles of history. For an interesting summary, if you are interested in learning more, click here.

Turning to “The Second Coming” with all this in mind, the poem becomes more understandable, but the class still raised a number of important questions. For instance, is the “beast” supposed to suggest something about Egypt and the sphinx? Is the beast supposed to be biblical, suggesting the apocalypse? Should we be afraid of the beast? Does our answer change if we step out of a western, christian worldview? How do we determine whether the beast’s slouch toward Bethlehem is good or bad? Don’t we need some sort of “center” to which to tie such value judgments? But what if that center has fallen apart? What if that center cannot hold?

ancient art cosmos dark
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This conversation of ever-widening questions led into a discussion of Carl Jung’s work on dreams and the collective unconscious. We discussed dreams, and one of you shared a pretty crazy one that reoccurred nightly for a week as part of an ongoing war story involving her family. Jung was interested in what dreams and the images within them may reveal about the workings of our unconscious, which can include workings of the mind that have not or cannot be yet articulated within the conscious mind. Furthermore, since individuals share many aspects of the same culture, there can be some sense of the imagery in dreams tapping into a “collective unconscious.” Are there things that society in general is trying to work through that the individuals in that society process unconsciously?

Yeats felt that an important part of poetry was to attempt to convey the workings of this collective unconscious, using imagery that would affect readers in a fashion that is somehow deeper than can yet be expressed. I admitted that there was something about “The Second Coming” that always freaks me out, and many of you agreed. There is a disturbing underlying feel that is on one level certainly expressed with words likes “slouching,” “pitiless,” and “slow thighs,” but there is something about the language that also aspires to affect us in ways we cannot quite articulate.

black-and-white-blood-creepy-8578 (1)

This discussion prompted us to add the following to our list of literature’s values:

  • addressing the collective unconscious

A few of you noted that this poem seems relevant to today and our current political moment. There is a sense some can have today that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Likewise, the sense of things falling apart and anarchy could resonate today. On the other hand, some of you noted that this could be a generational perspective. Someone who is sixteen may not share the same sense of things falling apart that an older person may feel. These are excellent points; we should be attuned to what perspective the reader brings to the interpretation and to consider what bearing that perspective has on the poem’s significance.

Abe

For next class, we will finally turn to James Joyce and then to two difficult poems: Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Engl 1100 Class Recap: 9/6/18

We began class by summarizing where we are on our discussion on the value of studying literature with a review of what we have listed as possibilities so far:

1. What is the value of studying literature?

  • A salary
  • Building empathy
  • Touching our emotions
  • Fostering discussion
  • Addressing the affective domain (i.e., rather than memorizing and listing the facts of what a horse is, such as how many legs they have [the cognitive domain], instead considering what the experience of being next to a horse is like or even of what the horse’s personal experience or emotions might be)

Our ongoing discussions so far have also raised a second question. For instance, our discussion of how the 1920s newspaper article we read was constructed or of how we as readers respond to texts suggests another question:

2. How do authors and readers construct meaning?

ask blackboard chalk board chalkboard
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To begin working on these questions, we first turned to Lydia Davis’s poem “Head, Heart.” During our discussion you all raised a number of thoughtful points:

  • The head and the heart are in a discussion with each other
  • The language used by each is different. For instance, the voice suggesting heart that is in the first line (“Heart weeps”) seems reminiscent of the simpler language an upset child might use. In contrast, the long and seemingly wise voice of head–“You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even….”–suggests the intellect.
  • One of you even noted that the sound of heart’s voice in the poem suggests the tha-thump sound of a heart beat.
  • We noted that the sound of the poem seems to start with heart, pass through the change in voice to head’s wisdom, only to return to heart, who is still in trouble: “Help, head. Help heart.” This suggests that for all head’s wisdom, there is a gap of experience that the heart is feeling across which the head just cannot quite reach, leaving heart unhelped and alone.
  • The last line also raised the question of who was speaking at the end, since it seems to be a request asked of head to help heart, meaning neither is speaking. However, the speaker seems to be in tune with heart, judging by the sound of the line. But despite being in tune with heart, that speaker is turning to the head to help the heart. Perhaps this suggests our inclination to turn toward the head to solve our emotional issues, even when we can see that there is little the head can provide.

This discussion was helpful in that it together demonstrated how meaning can depend upon multiple elements which can be responses to our second essential question above:

  • voice
  • characterization
  • sound
baby child close up crying
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We then moved forward with our discussion of some general subgenres of poetry, for which I had offered the following test to help you distinguish them:

poetry test

To help explain this test, we went through a number of poems as examples. Our first poem was Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory,” which sparked a lively discussion about the surprising twist at the poem’s end. Many of you noted that the poem suggests that financial and social prosperity cannot guarantee happiness. I also offered that the poem suggests that even the seemingly least likely of persons may be more of a suicide risk than we may think. Rather than be silent in our admiration, we should reach out to others and affirm them while we can, because you never know what private tribulations they may be going through. This discussion prompted adding another item to our list of the possible value that literature can provide:

  • Teaching lessons

To return to our genre test above, I first explain that the term “Action” refers to the events in a story. “Plot” involves the events of the action plus the consideration of how those events were sequenced. For instance, did the story start at one moment of time, then flashback to twenty years in the past, then return to the present? You have two general time periods–past and present–but they are sequenced as present, past, then present. To help remember this distinction between action and plot, I suggested to think about the word plot as used in a crime story: the criminal mastermind “plots” the perfect murder. So to can you think of the plot as how the author–the “mastermind”–has chosen to construct the sequence of events in the story.

Based on this information, we can determine that “Richard Cory” does have a plot in that we first see him as alive and apparently successful and then he is dead (sequenced in that order). So the answer to the first question in our test is “yes.”

For the narrator question, I asked you whether there was a sense of one person, almost like a storyteller, relating the events that happened. In poetry, such a voice is generally called the “speaker.” You all seemed generally sure that the answer is “yes”: the poem feels like a person is telling us a story. Because the poem has a plot and a narrator, it would therefore generally be categorized as an example of “narrative poetry.”

In contrast, Thomas Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid” did not seem like the presentation of one voice. Instead, as you figured out during our discussion, the poem seems to be the dialogue between two young women with similar backgrounds as poor country girls. They seem to have encountered each other in town after some time apart, and one girl is expressing surprise about how affluent the other girl’s appearance and speech has become. Meanwhile, the other girl keeps responding with variations of her change being the consequence of being “ruined.” When I asked what this word “ruined” suggests, one of you helpfully noted that she appears to have had to give up everything she was before, molding herself to the model of who she is supposed to be as a woman, rather than being able to be herself. Another of you noted that she seems to be unhappy, perhaps in her marriage to the man who buys her all her things. I pushed this one step further: why do we even think she is married? She might be “ruined” in the sense that she has entered into an illicit relationship, out of marriage, in which she receives fancy clothes as part of being a “kept woman.”

Returning to our test, we decided together that there is not the same sense as in the prior poem of one voice relating us the narrative, even though there does seem to be a plot, even if a short one as these two women talk back and forth. Instead, there are two voices: both of the women. We could picture this conversation on a dramatic stage or in a movie. The poem is constructed from the dialogue of multiple characters, rather than being a retelling provided us by a central voice. Because the poem consists of the dialogue of multiple characters, without the intervening presence of a central narrator, Hardy’s poem is an example of “Dramatic poetry.”

We then turned to William Wordsworth’s [I wandered lonely as a cloud]. When I asked you whether there seemed to be an evolving plot with a sequence of events, many of you decided “no.” While there is a sense of the speaker looking back to his past at the memory of vales, hills, lakes, and golden daffodils, the poem seems to be instead focused on the expression of a particular experience from a moment in time. Less about a series of events, the poem is more about the personal expression of the speaker’s state of being–an expression that can also suggest an experience of universal significance. The answer to our first question, whether there is a plot, is “no” here because the focus is on the moment of the speaker’s experience, rather than a sequence of events, marking this as an example of “lyric poetry.”

Finally, we covered a subgenre that does not quite fit neatly into the above categories: the “Dramatic monologue.” These poems can be confusing because they would seem to have one voice like in a narrative poem. However, what marks these poems as different is that there is still a sense of multiple characters interacting with each other in the poem, even if one of those characters is silent. We can see an example in Robert Hayden’s “A Letter from Phillis Wheatley,” which has the form of a letter from “Phillis” to “Obour” that starts with the line “Dear Obour.” The letter is, of course, all the voice of Phillis. However, we are also aware that this letter represents the communication between two characters. The presence of both the speaker and the silent “auditor” (the character receiving the communication) marks the poem as dramatic. As we question the poem, we are questioning not only the speaker but also how that speaker is positioned in the poem in relation to the auditor. This distinction can be tricky, but if you remember back to Wordsworth’s poem, there is no similar suggestion of the presence of a silent auditor. Moreover, Hayden’s poem relates a series of events that together suggest the plot of a story, but Wordsworth’s poem did not. In many ways, it is more similar to Hardy’s poem about the two women talking to each other–if you just imagine that one of those women stays silent the whole time while the other does all the talking. One final example that may be helpful is to think about dramatic monologues in plays like Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech has a performance element to it, even though Hamlet’s voice is the only one present in that speech. In a dramatic monologue poem, there is also generally a performance element in which there is a feeling of a character performing in some way for the benefit of an imagined audience.

man wearing crown
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This discussion of the subgenres of poetry suggested to us adding the following possibilities to our “how is meaning constructed” question:

  • plot
  • narrator/speaker
brown wooden cubes
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After our break, we turned to discussing the “Woman Question,” which is a phrase that has often been used to refer to the controversy over the rights of women, especially for our purposes during the Victorian era. Our focus was on considering what the relationship between literature and culture may suggest about its value. For this discussion, you read Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” As we started, one of the female students remarked that the readings made her feel grateful to be alive now, rather than in the 1800s. For Chopin’s story, many of you noted that the medical diagnosis of death by way of the “joy that kills” was certainly wrong. One of you pointed out that the doctors at this time were certainly men. These men are “man-splaining” her death completely wrong to fit their notions of how they perceive a wife ought to react to her husband being discovered to still be alive.  For Gilman’s story, the depiction of the wife creeping (probably on all fours) resonated with similar “creeping” images from horror movies. There is an animistic, deviant, and uncanny quality to the creeping, even though it is an action we are all capable of doing.

black and white person feeling smiling
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The use of the image suggests the extent to which this woman’s imposed “rest cure” has debilitated her.  In both of these stories, therefore, men are reading women wrong, imposing unhealthy limitations on women , and causing women psychological harm as a consequence. Both of these stories speak to the imperative of answering the “women question” in favor of greater autonomy for women. Both of these stories also suggest another value for literature:

  • Addressing cultural controversies

However, this role for literature opened up a new line of questioning. What is significant about using an art form, creative literature, to address controversies? Why not just debate them? What is the reason for using an art form instead? 

multicolored abstract painting
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We will continue this conversation next class while talking about a selection of poems by Yeats and the first two stories from Joyce’s Dubliners. As you do the readings for next class, you should think about the questions and ideas we have been talking about so far. After today, our current revised list of essential questions and possible answers is the following:

1. What is the value of studying literature?

  • A salary
  • Building empathy
  • Touching our emotions
  • Fostering discussion
  • Addressing the affective domain (i.e., rather than memorizing and listing the facts of what a horse is, such as how many legs they have [the cognitive domain], instead considering what the experience of being next to a horse is like or even of what the horse’s personal experience or emotions might be)
  • Addressing cultural controversies

2. How do authors and readers construct meaning?

  • voice
  • characterization
  • sound
  • plot
  • narrator/speaker

3. What is the significance of literature as a form of art?