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?

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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
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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.

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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
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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.

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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? 

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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?