Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Defences of Poetry Part One, Sidney



An Apology for Poetry/The Defence of Poetry (1595).  Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)

Part one: A Brief Summary

Sidney's Essay was not published in his own life time. A discussion of context will appear in part two.

As with Shelley and Pound, we can see Foucault’s 'Author Function' at work. Sidney’s defence is validated, not by the poetry he wrote, which in many ways contradicts it, but by the myth of his life that was generated soon after his early death. Regarded as the epitome of the Courtier, the learned renaissance hyphenated man, patron of learning, writer of poems, man of action. The myth validates the Defence. As a piece of writing it's more coherrent than others, but this is not an essay that's gone through a review/editing process.  

Firstly the defence is a defence of imaginative literature. Sydney follows Aristotle in insisting that because  ‘poesy’,  and poetry,  come from the Greek word for ’making’, 'poesy' signifies the making of fictions, and not the use of verse. For Sidney, Poesy will be defended in terms of what it can do. Its effect, not its nature, is what is at stake.

Poesy is superior to other intellectual pursuits because the historian can only say what happened, the philosopher may well know what is good but will teach it in a way that is off putting.  Only poetry by its ability to delight and present ideal and admirable version of the world can offer instruction in a way that will be amenable to all men. According to Sidney,  there are three types of poesy. 

The first is created by the religious poets: psalm writers for example; the second philosophical and moral and the third “indeed right poets” for these third be they which most properly do imitate to teach and delight, and to imitate borrow nothing of what is, hath been or shall be, but range, only reined with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be and should be.(p11)

Sidney distinguishes between the first sort, which he calls ‘Vates’, and the third sort, ‘Poets’. For these indeed do merely make to imitate, and imitate both to delight and teach, and delight men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger (11).

The third sort can  be subdivided into heroic, lyric, tragic, comic etcec but he makes an important distinction: ..verse being but an ornament and no cause to poetry, since there have been many most excellent poets that never versified and now swarm many versifiers that need never answer to the name of poet. (11) Sidney obviously felt the need to reiterate the point: When he comes to consider objections to his claims, he makes the following distinction. ”But that which giveth greatest scope to their [the poet haters] scorning humour  is rhyming and versing. It is already said (and as I think truly said) it is not rhyming and versing that maketh poesy; one may be a poet without versing, and a versifier without poetry.) (32) at the same time he explicitly defended verse: “So that verse being itself sweet and orderly, and being best for memory, the only handle of knowledge it must be in jest that any man can speak against it” 33
Writing a poem, does not make you a poet. Nor does writing verse mean you’re writing poetry.  This is the first of the distinctions which will continue to be made up until the present.

What underlines the value of poetry, rather than mere verse, lies in its functional ability to instruct; to teach men moral goodness by representing what can be. At the same time poetry is not effeminate or feminising (which may have had particular relevance to Sindey because he had written his first major piece of Poesy, the 'old‘ Arcadia at the request of his sister for her and for her small circle of female friends, at her request.  Opponents of poetry claim that before poets ‘were in price’, ‘our nation had set their hearts delight upon action and not imagination, rather than doing things worthy to be written than writing things fit to be done  (36)  To which Sidney categorically states; For as poetry itself, it is the freest from this objection, for poetry is the companion of the camps. 

This idealised version of poetry naturally elevates the poet who has all from Dante’s heaven to his Hell under the authority of his pen (p20). The problem which by now is nagging at Sidney’s reader is one he has obviously considered because he pre-empts the obvious objection: Which if I be asked what poets have done so. As I might well name some, so yet say I, and say again, I speak of the art and not of the artificer. (p20) He returns to the point later, when considering objections to his claims that poetry is the superior art: First that there being many more fruitful knowledges, a man might better spend his time in them than in this. Secondly, that it is the mother of lies. Thirdly that it is the nurse of abuse, infecting us with many pestilent desires, with a siren’s sweetness drawing the mind to the serpent tail of sinful fancies and herein especially comedies give the largest field to ear as Chaucer saith (33) His response to the third objection is that … grant I say, whatsoever they will have granted, that not only love but lust, but vanity, but-if they list-scurrility possesseth many leaves of the poets’ books; yet think I, when this is granted, they will find their sentence may with good manners put the last words foremost, and not say that poety abuseth man’s wit, but that man’s wit abuseth poetry (36).  Shelley will make the same argument, in almost exactly the same cadence (grant that Homer was a drunkard, Dante a coward, Spenser a poet laureate) but will drift off the point to claim that great poets can’t be evil men.

On the one hand this strategy of discussing the art not the artificer and refusing to give specific examples allows Sidney to make his claims for the art without having to deal with every exception.   On the other hand it means he can never substantiate his claims except in rhetorical terms which makes it very difficult for a reader to stop and consider the truth of what he’s saying. How seriously Sidney took his own defence is difficult to judge. It begins with an anecdote which warns the reader against theories.  At the end he writes  I conjure you all that had the evil look to read this inwasting toy of mine…  This could well be the Aristocrat’s dismissal of effort, Castiglione’s sprezzatura, but at the same time when Sidney was dying, it is reported that he wanted his writings burnt. Even before that he had turned from writing poesy to translating psalms and then seems to have stopped writing all together.

With the exception of the doubt expressed in the last three sentences, such a reading of Sidney’s essay is conventional:  I have outlined his argument.  Traditionally it might lead to a statement like J.A.Van Dorsten’s, in his introduction to his 1966 OUP Edition of the Defence: : “Sidney’s treatise illustrates how an Elizabethan could look  at literature.” Or more enthusiastically: ’The poet’s task therefore though called ‘imitation’, is not to represent this world as it is seen by our imperfect eyes but to figure forth a ‘nature” of a higher order, re-creating in his imaginative mind the world as it may have existed in the creator’s mind”(12). We are imperfect, but the Poet has a task which requires him(sic) to be Godlike.  We will meet this semi-divine character in the effusions of Shelley, Emerson and Pound. 

As Van Dorsten continues: “this doctrine, ambitious and humble at the same time, is not only crucial to an understanding of Sidney’s life and writings, but also indicates how poetry could cease to be regarded as a mere rhetorical art. In the Defence the limitless scope of poetry was defined in terms such as no English man had ventured to use before.”  Leaving aside any quarrel  with that “ambitious and humble  or  ‘limitless scope”, we might ask why it had been defined in such terms? Anyone who knows Sidney the poet, and today that probably means some acquaintance with the sonnet sequence Aristophil and Stella on which his poetic reputation could be said to rest, would realise, reading the defence, that Sidney has both included himself in the ranks of poets, and excluded his own work from his definitions of poetry.  

However such a simple outlining of the argument fails to take into account why he felt Poesy needed to be defended, and the particular historical, biographical, and cultural moment he was responding to.

Which will follow.

(A note on quotes and references. A small anti plagiarism move.  If you read this and want to use it you may, as long as you acknowledge sources: but be aware that page references are to specific editions, and one or two quotes are deliberately left in need of checking.  If you do want to use any of this, then leave a comment and I will provide the references.) 



Friday, December 27, 2013

The Year in Books


Every year round about now a certain type of newspaper heralds the new year with a generic article called something like “best books of ….” In which any round number of mostly obscure writers choose their Best Book/Ten Best Books/Favorite book of the year.

Every year I read the bloody things, having sworn I wouldn’t, and every year I buy books from them having sworn I wouldn’t and every year I regret the decision.

So I’m an obscure writer, and instead of reading someone else’s, here’s mine.

Literary biographies.

My favorite genre, and it’s been another good year for them. (2012 was also good with the publication of good biographies of Wyatt, Spenser and Jonson).  I started 2013 by finishing Hadfield’s Spenser, which is an excellent scholarly biography, and Byron Rodger’s biography of R.S Thomas which is simply excellent, and ended it by reading Leo Damrosch’s Swift which is not so scholarly or so excellent but enjoyable and informative. 

The “most anticipated literary event of this year”, for me anyway, was the publication of Richard Burton’s biography of Basil Bunting A Strong Song Tows us.  Only the announcement that Alan Garner had written a new book (2012: Boneland) has had an equal potential for crushing disappointment.  Fortunately the biography was the one Bunting deserved and even if you don’t know who Bunting was it’s worth reading as a history of English poetry in the twentieth century.

Poetry:

It’s been a bad year for new poems. I began the year by buying a book called Meme which was recommended in one of these lists. Still it’s memorable for its awfulness, which can’t be said for a lot of the new poetry books I’ve bought this year which were neither awful nor memorable. I Have To Go Back To 1994 And Kill a Girl wins the most memorable title award but I don’t remember anything else about it.

Best poetry reading experience of the year was rereading the Complete Poems of W.B.Yeats in chronological order, twice.  Other enjoyable moments, though not necessarily of books written in 2013: Tom Pickard’s ‘The Ballad of Jamie Allan’;  ‘Crazy Horse in Stillness’ by William Heyen  and encountering (I think that’s the right word instead of reading) Frank Standford’s ’The Battlefield where the Moon says I Love You’. 

Michael Longley edited a selection of Robert Graves’s poems for Faber which demonstrates both the strengths and weakness of Graves’ poetry, and the intro is worth reading.

Come to think of it, the best new poetry I’ve read this year has been in email attachments from people I know and in the journals I subscribe to.

My other ‘eagerly awaited’ event was the publication of Broken Hierarchies. It's not the kind of book you come to terms with overnight and a good decade or so should give me the necessary perspective.

It could have “and sod you reader” as the subtitle.  I've never read a book before where the reader seems so utterly irrelevant. No editorial intro, although it’s edited by the same man who edited the complete prose which at least has a page explaining the editorial policy;  no explanation of the dust jacket claim that these are definitive versions; no indication if this is a collected or complete which given Hill's penchant of the nuances of his trade seems a bit odd.  

Of course Hill has long been devoted to the modernist cult of impersonality, and has always followed Bunting’s advice (though whether he’s ever read anything by BB is an interesting question): “Never explain, your reader is as smart as you are”.  However, the modernist cult of impersonality is in itself an obvious contradiction. There is nothing more personal than a poetry in which the poet relies on a range of  literary references no one else can possibly share.  And I can’t think of any other modern poet where the poems and critical prose rely so heavily on the guarantee of the man’s name. A Hill poem by Hill is a work of obvious genius regardless of whether or not anyone understands the thing. A Hill poem by me would be needlessly obscure and incomprehensible.  Still, there are so many great poems in this book it is worth having all of them between the covers.

Seamus Heaney died. Time will sift the poems against standards we can’t predict, but hopefully the way in which the man brought a wry dignity to the role of poet will be remembered. One has to wonder at Faber’s decision to reissue a hard back copy of Opened Ground so soon after his death. But then, whoever designed the cover is a genius. Heaney is standing slightly to one side of the picture, and although he’s looking directly at the camera, the expression is not quite.  He could be smiling, or weighing up the reader, or just squinting into the cold.  Perhaps he's trying to avoid looking at the quote near his left ear:  "The Greatest poet of the age"...He in fact, looking awry…which sums up so much of the man’s poems.

These two books seem the wrong way round. Hill is still very much alive so a definitive, complete, or collected seems premature, while Heaney deserves (and will doubtless receive) a good quality collected or complete rather than a reissue of poems written before 1996.  However, it's good to replace the dying paperback with a good hardback edition. 

History

Wade Davis’ mammoth Into the Silence and Barry Cunliffe’s Britain Begins were two of the best History books I’ve read this year.  Davis sets the British attempts to climb Everest in the context of their historical time and in doing so manages to explain so much. Cunliffe  takes detailed specialist information and makes it into a coherent narrative which for all its maps and details manages to evoke what it might have been like to live through the periods he describes.  Unlike some TV archeologist he is also aware of the limitations of his own discipline.

Richard Holmes continued to do what he does best, and although I have no interest in the History of Ballooning Falling Upwards was one of the most enjoyable books i read in 2013.  I’ve never read a dull book by Holmes.

Also excellent, though not from 2013, was Jonathon Rose’s The Intellectual life of the British Working Class which should be compulsory reading for every literary critic and theorist who wants to bang on about the ideological effect of books or the evils of the “Canon”. 


Misc

Scariest read of 2013,  though not published in 2013,  Remembering Satan by Lawrence Wright, with the chilling statement “the fact you don’t remember these crimes prove you did them. Confess to them and you will remember”. I was lead to it by Peter Brooks’ Troubling Confessions.  

That should be enough. A list of critical books I've read would be painful. 

Anyone who buys a book on this list does so at their own risk. 

The Defence of Poetry: Part one...Introduction


 A short and perhaps erratic tour of the Defences of Poetry,  from Sidney to the present day. In numerous installments appearing at irregular intervals. 


The Prologue: 


In an artistic field which has reached an advanced stage of its history, there is no place for naïf’s: more precisely, the history is immanent in the functioning of the field, and to meet the object demands it implies, as a producer but also as a consumer, one has to possess the whole history of the field. (Bourdieu 56/57)

The recirculated  assumptions that underwrite modern discussions of Poetry, most recently in David Constantine’s Poetry (Oxford. 2013) can be traced back in English at least as far as Sir Phillip Sidney (1554-1586), whose Defence of Poesy (Or An Apology for Poetry) is one of the first English attempts to make a case for poetry in English.

Sidney consciously and explicitly idealised the art and split it from both artifact and artificer. For the next four hundred years writers including Shelly, Emerson, Pound, T.S Eliot,  Dana Gioia, and David Constantine would make similar claims for the effects of an idealised art which had little empirical justification. Part of their rhetorical strategy would be to recirculate previous claims without ever stopping to evaluate their truth.

The literary historian or the biographical critic might study the Defence as contemporary evidence of attitudes to poetry, or as the thinking of a particular Biographical subject. There are articles on Sidney’s use of Aristotle; his understanding of Aristotle; the rhetorical structures of the Defence; how the “meaning” in the defence is qualified by the rhetorical structures; the contradictions in the argument; the literary and intellectual sources of the defence., The theorist might contextualise the arguments to see how it negotiates the cultural discourse in circulation at the time.

But reading as a writer, I want to know if what Sidney said was factually true. Given the fact that these defences often avoid giving evidence for their claims, that in Sidney and Shelley’s case their history is a blend of wishful thinking and an apparent inability to distinguish between history myth and legend,  the question that is rarely investigated in the university setting: “was he right?”, is the one I want answered. Could I base my practice on their claims for the art I wish to produce?

“Poetry’ is possibly one of the oldest of art forms.  Rhythmically organised language appears in every culture in every period of history.  As numerous commentators have pointed out, anyone who takes the writing of poetry seriously needs to know at least the tradition of poetry in his or her own language. Most who make the effort are aware that the obvious danger is to think that what qualified as “good poetry” in Chaucer’s time is the same as what gets published in the twenty first century, or that the label ‘poet’  had the same meaning and social connotations for Wyatt as it does for Cieran Carson or Les Murray. 

 However, Wyatt’s poems can still be read with profit and enjoyment by someone with no knowledge of the history or poetics of his time. Ironically, despite the academic trend over the past thirty years to insist on the importance of the context of the poem’s production, what does tend to be forgotten is that the Defences of poetry are always an individual’s move in a contemporary argument,  always historically local, always culturally contingent.

In Bordieu’s words:

Ignorance of everything that goes to make up the mood of the age produces a derealization of works: stripped of everything which attached them to the most concrete debates of their time ( I am thinking in particular of the connotations of words) they are impoverished and transformed in the direction of intellectualism or an empty humanism.(32)

Bourdieu goes on to claim that this is particularly true in the history of  ideas, and particularly in philosophy where there is a tendency to present philosophic activities as a “summit conference between great philosophers”(p32) This is even more true of the defences of poets. What tends to be forgotten is that 'poetry' is not the same thing for Shelly as it was Sidney or T.S. Eliot. When Pound and Eliot discuss 'Poetry' they are using the term in ways that we might recognise. We could find their ‘poetry’ in the poetry section of a book shop or a library. But the fact that we can read some of Sidney’s poems for enjoyment seduces us into thinking that Sidney’s definition of poetry is the same as ours. It wasn’t. Shelley’s  “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” is an often quoted piece of nonsense, but how many of those who quote it have either read the essay it appears in or know what Shelley meant by “poets” or ‘poetry’?  

 The two most famous of the defences, Sidney’s and Shelly’s, define poetry in ways that are radically different to contemporary usage. To examine the way their claims have been recirculated, it is first necessary to identify that. We shall be able to see that not only what Sidney was claiming for poetry but why he was making those particular claims, are the product of an interaction between social historical and literary forces.  And because Sidney is some ways the paradigm that the others follow, I will deal with him first and try and do it in some detail.



Monday, December 9, 2013

The Anathemata, David Jones and does it or ought it.


The Anathemata

First thoughts. Which I may well regret later.

In his Preface,  Jones states “for the artist the question is ‘does it’ not ‘ought it’”.  But The Anathemata rides on an “ought’.  And that ‘ought’ is a very dubious way of thinking about words.

The preface is not a logical and concise argument. I’m not sure if what passes as the argument works, but I do know that at its heart is a failure to make an important distinction between literary allusion (what words do in texts) and what individual words can do in the language.

To some readers no allusions are obscure; to others all are. When Eliot wrote “The Journey of the Magi”, given his readership it is unlikely that he felt a need to explain who they were, or what the three trees on the hill, the white horse, or the men dicing for clothes alluded to. Today the poem needs footnotes, and even in an Anglican school I have given up using it. 

Jones, quoting C.S.Lewis calls this  “unshared background” and implies that his footnotes can “open this up”.  So if you have read the Mabinogion before you start on Jones.  you don’t need to  be told who Branwen is. Her name evokes a situation  and a story. If you haven’t read it, the footnote can tell you who she was and where to find her story. That much is straightforward. The question that goes begging is what is the effect of an allusion which context does not explain,  on someone who didn’t know the story before reading and what happens with that association after they’ve looked it up.  
This problem is universal when writing poetry and hoping your readers know some of the poems you do.  Jones like Pound, had been down some fairly obscure rabbit holes and was unlikely to meet anyone who would know the same combination of obscure texts as he did.

However, Jones takes the argument one step further and here I think ‘ought to’ kicks in. For Jones, the word Wood, carries in it the meaning “wood of the cross” and a whole spiders web of linked associations the word ‘wood’ will evoke.

For this to work Jones has to believe that a word is not just a polysemic sign which is given meanings by current usages, but somehow a fixed object like a weathered stone which contains all its prior meanings and usages, and all their historical connotations, and that personal or contemporary usages are somehow drowned by the cultural and historical. But who associates loaf with Lord, or Music with dream? Cross might well evoke Calvary or Crusaders (or both) for Christian readers, but it might also evoke childhood memories of Mummy being cross or learning how to cross the road, or dotting the Is and crossing the Ts, or Hot cross buns or riding a cock horse and those might be much more present for a reader than the religious or historical.  

The sound represented by the letters CROSS does not automatically explode onto the mind the mental image of Calvary. Nor is it capable of doing so without a great deal of help. (In Eliot’s poem the three trees evoke Calvary because they are at the end of the (then well known story) story that begins with the Birth the Magi have come to witness. In that context three trees is not random nor can they stand for an ancient Celtic fertility cult. Sorry Robert)

But if the idea is problematic with English usage Jones’ desire to apply it to foreign words takes it even further.  His argument is dodgy.

Or to give a concrete instance: whether within its context my use of the Welsh title ‘Gwledlig’ was avoidable and whether the English translation ‘land-ruler’ could have been so conditioned and juxtaposed as to incant what ‘Gwledig’ incants . The ‘grave problems’ referred to a few paragraphs back have mostly arisen over questions of this sort. It must be understood that it is not a question of ‘translation’ or even of ‘finding an equivalent word’, it is something much more complex. ‘Tsar’ will mean one thing and ‘Caesar’ another to the end of time.   

Last things first. Words do change their meanings and they shed old ones. Lord and Dream are good examples.  So there is no way of knowing what a word will mean at the end of time. Ironically Gwledig is also an inconvenient and probably unintentional example. It’s given twice in my Welsh Dictionary.  Jones’s usage is marked as obsolete or archaic.   The modern meaning  is given as ‘rural rustic boorish’.  So the word does not mean one thing til the end of time and a modern Welsh reader might find the whole thing as confusing as non Welsh speakers.

Secondly,  Branwen exists as a character in a story which gives the sign a (reasonably) stable resonance and meaning.  Tsar,  Caesar and Kaiser are words in the language. They may all have the same root but in English we don’t write about Julius Tsar or Kaiser Peter the Great, not do we talk about Caesar Bill.  Unless we’re Monty Python or the Goons.  Whatever their origins in other  languages,  we use them differently in English and meaning is always about context and usage.  

While this might seem to support the argument, English speakers don’t use the word Gwledig. It has no meaning for a modern English Speaker.  Having to explain a specific archaic meaning of a foreign word in a footnote does nothing except question why the foreign word was used in the first place.  I think Jones’ poem, like a lot of the Later Cantos, degenerates into a private language. These words may have had powerful associations for him. Whether or not is it possible to make such eclectic meanings available to anyone else is a question  I don’t know the answer to yet.

So currently I think Jones’ text relies far too heavily on a theorised “ought to” and the real question for the reader if they can side step the usual modernist intimidation is,   “does it?” 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Teaching Poetry.


So I've been doing this for a quarter of a century.

A very brief survey of the use or poetry in high school since the 1980s,  poetry, with bookends…


Riding and Graves made the problem of critical readings obvious in A survey of Modernist Poetry (1927):
‘what in so many words’ ’the critic reader will ask, ‘is this all about’?’ Now to tell what a poem is all about ‘in so many words’, is to reduce the poem to so many words, to leave out all that the reader cannot at the moment understand in order to give him the satisfaction of feeling that he is understanding it. If it were possible to give the complete form of a poem in a prose summary, then there would be no excuse for writing the poem: the ‘so many words’  are, to the last punctuation-mark, the poem itself.’(p 67)  

In their discussion which follows, they describe and criticize the way in which the critical reader goes hunting for the meaning of the poem, or what Riding and Graves called ‘the prose idea’ which they say is supposed to have proceeded the poem. 

The idea that the poem is something to get behind or inside,  to find the ”prose meaning” that must underwrite it, has been the staple of English teaching in high schools and universities since the inception of literary studies.  Although the type of question changed, the movement was from “what the poet was trying to say” to “which discourses are evident in this poem” (whatever that might mean) the assumption that the poem is a carrier of something that can be separated from it remains.

In ‘Enjoying Poetry” (1981) a book that was ubiquitous in schools here,  Sadler Hayler and Powell, introduced their choice of poems:

‘Poetry like other fine arts, exists to be enjoyed and appreciated. The difficult task for any teacher is that of developing this sense of  appreciation and enjoyment in students who initially ‘don’t like poetry’…
Students must learn to examine poems critically and thoughtfully, to see what the poet is driving at, to consider how well he or she is saying it, develop appreciation of poetry.”  (p.xi)

Exactly why all students are supposed to learn to enjoy and appreciate poetry when 99.9 percent of the adult population don’t, is an intriguing and unanswered question.  The students, reading thoughtfully, must learn to see “what the poet is driving at”. How they learn to do this is by treating poetry as a comprehension exercise.  Reading a poem and Analyzing a poem are always treated as synonyms.

For the “Man From Snowy Rriver” (p15-20) part of a section called “Our Land” there are 13 questions and a discussion point. The first question sets the tone: “Why was Old Regret’s Colt Worth Chasing?’ but the questions get less factual and move towards critical statements which then ask the student to speculate about what the poet did and why.  Questions 11, 12,and 13 (p20), end respectively: ‘Can you suggest why it might have been written this way; why did the poet write it this way; can you say why?” 

The final discussion point, separated graphically from the questions, states: ‘The qualities of courage skill and endurance shown in this poem are still present and still needed in Australia today. Do you agree?’

The change in the class room, or at least in the Syllabus, can be seen in Miller and Colwill’s Queensland Senior English: Theory –practice connections’ (2003 Macmillan Education Australia, South Yarra) a book which was marketed as being a resource for the then new 2002 Qld English syllabus.

The authors quote the Syllabus document in their introduction:

Central to the study of language in this syllabus is the development of understandings of how discourse, genre, register and textual features interact and are interdependent in texts, and how they are used in making meaning or producing readings from, texts.
           Queensland Board of Senior Secondary school studies (QBSSSS) 2002 English, Senior Syllabus 2002.

And go on to say, “the main focus of this book is on developing understandings about the constructed nature of texts, with particular emphasis on how discourses shape and are shaped by, language choices.

The questions have changed, though the underlying assumption is still there. The poems are to be got inside and behind. But poems are no longer poems, they have become “texts” and the assumption was, and still is, that what the novel and the recipe and the poem as texts have in common is what is important.

Discussing Komninos ‘if I was the son of an englishman’:

There are five questions (p29), ironically framed in a box labeled ‘discussions’: the second: ‘In what way does the narrator position himself as being excluded from dominant discourses of Australian Identity’: the fourth, ’The poem, although it is satirical, still privileges masculinist discourses and representations of Australian Identity? How does it do this?’ (‘Ironic’ because in teaching terms these are NOT open questions which explore the text but closed. A statement tells the students the writer’s preferred answer and then forces them into proving it. We are in the world of Right Answer English. It’s called indoctrination when your enemies do it. Masculinist is always a negative term and whatever “discourse” might mean its presence is one of the markers that “Literary Theory has entered the classroom.)

Discussing two poems by Oodgeroo, there are four questions: Question one: ‘In these two poems consider how Oodgeroo constructs the impact of colonization on Aboriginal experience and identity’. Question Four; ‘What version of the dominant culture is offered in these poems and what discourses are mobilized to construct this version?” (p34)

In case I’m giving the impression that all this radical work was going on in Queensland alone    Insight, Literature for Senior Students, by Robert Beardwood Insight Publications  written with the VCE in mind..2006

The section on “the nature of poetry” which heads the section on poetry in Chapter 1-guide to literary technique and analysis (p47-62) ends ‘because of the condensed and often abstract quality of poetry, the meaning of many poems is not immediately apparent, and the skills of interpreting and analyzing poetry take a long time to develop’ (p47)

Having learnt the technical terms selected for attention, the student then learns  how to do ‘close analysis”,  which differs from the comprehension tasks of Enjoying Poetry in that the generic poetry worksheet (p92) now includes questions not only on “concepts and ideas’ and ‘major concerns: themes and issues”, and ‘values’ but ‘multiple readings: summarise alternative viewpoints you have read or developed” with references to Chapter Six: which includes a section on Theoretical Perspectives (p166=172) with subsections on ‘Practical Criticism and New Criticism’,  Marxist, Feminist, and Post Modern readings. (as though a few pages were enough to help a 17 year old understand and operate efficiently in any of those intellectual fields. )  Leading to the sample student response on poetry dealing with three poems by John Donne with the assessor’s comment:

This is rather a ‘safe’ discussion-the student allows the dominant reading of the poems to be the strongest voice in the this presentation. However, they do acknowledge that an alternative feminist reading could easily be performed. [The student writes: ‘Such a masculine perspective presents a challenge for some modern readers but would have been less of a concern for the readers of Donne’s time.’ The student writer offers no evidence for the latter claim but that’s ok cos in class she learnt they were all intolerant misogynist racists back in the day] This might have been more confidentially explored.  (p221)

(anyone used to the way such comments are phrased and read in the world of education will immediately realise the implication which is that ‘might have been’ translates as ‘she should have done this’.) 

The underlying concerns in this change in reading practices were not literary, and were made explicit in such books as Reviewing English (ed Sawyer, Watson, Gold 1999 St Clair press Sydney Rozelle NSW.) and Reviewing English in the 21st Century (ed Sawyer and Gold Phoenix education , Melbourne 2004)

In his introduction to the latter, Graham Little wrote:

However , to argue that a close reading of the eighteenth century poems of William Cowper and James Thompson for aesthetic purposes is more valuable and useful for students than a deconstructive analysis of advertisements for a McDonald’s Breakfast is the kind of nonsense we get from those with vested interest in socializing students in compliance with prevailing consumerist patterns of thought. The massive profits of the health degenerating fast food industry is evidence of the need for deconstructive work on a McDonald’s breakfast! p15

Not only is this paragraph is a good example of the use of language and level of argument  but it epitomizes the arrogant assumption that my students are so thick they can’t see through MacDonald’s advertising without my help.

In an attempt to explain and make sense of Post Structuralism, and show how it could be imported into the English classroom, Ray Misson wrote;

The theory of the discursive construction of subjectivity (i.e. the construction of our subjective selves through discourse) does give an urgency to work on examining how texts are positioning us, because these texts may in fact be quite powerfully creating us and our belief systems. We may need to deconstruct the texts in an attempt to defuse their potential power over us. (p99)  

The number of conditionals in this quotation illustrates the fragility of the base on which a teaching method was constructed. This historical shift to treating poems as carriers of ideological viruses, where the perceived politics of the poem and the poet became the subject of scrutiny, and where readers had to learn to insulate themselves with a prophylactic reading practice, ‘We may need to deconstruct the texts in an attempt to defuse their potential power over us’,  may have made some teachers who didn’t really care much about poetry in the first place feel as though they were doing something of earth shattering importance, but the reality was that we were dragging students through “texts’ they weren’t ever going to read so we could teach why they shouldn’t be reading them.

The absolute, obvious,  idiocy of the approach can be seen when the idea that poems are going to infect us ideologically is actually questioned. Outside the classroom where students do whatever they have to do to survive and get the marks they need on the way to somewhere else,  real people use ‘texts’ in whatever way they want.  

In The Intellectual Life Of The British Working Classes, 2001 second edition(2010)  Yale University press New Haven and London  (which is a beautiful and thought provoking door stop of a book) Jonathon Rose, having studied the evidence for what people read and what they did with that reading wrote:

The failure of political criticism, as it is actually practiced, is methodological , with some exceptions, it ignores actual readers. In this terrain, critics repeatedly commit what might be called the receptive fallacy; they try to discern the messages a text transmits to an audience by examining the text rather the audience. This blind spot is not easy to excuse or even explain, given that over the past two decades we have become used to the notion that readers make meaning: they may enjoy a wide latitude in interpreting what they read. We can discover how an Edwardian housemaid read ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles but only if do some serious scholarly retooling. (p4)

Schools and universities can, and will, continue to use poems in whatever way is currently fashionable in the sealed acoustic of their own institutional needs, and it will always be academically fashionable to make claims for your preferred practice without ever having to validate it with what would pass for evidence in the daylight world. Pretending that your version is in some ways better than the ones it superseded is good for your career and your self-esteem.

The danger for the writer of poems is that with so few people reading poems outside the academy, a usage gets confused with the thing being used.