The World Through Cynical Eyes: The Science of Literature
So, this is the first of a series of blogs I hope to find time to write about issues I think are important. I'll try and stick to topics to do with writing, but I may find myself straying from that once in a while.
These are my opinions only, and I respect the fact that others will hold completely different views, and I don't wish to insult anyone through what I write. Leave a comment telling me your views, whether you agree or not doesn't matter, the debate is what is important.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the film ‘Dead Poets Society’, but for those of you who are, do you remember the scene where the teacher has one of the pupils read out the introduction to the poetry textbook, which is written by a Dr J Evans Pritchard? In it, Pritchard writes of how a poem’s greatness can be easily worked out by plotting the poem’s perfection against its importance on a graph. The teacher waits for the pupil to finish, and then says, “Excrement, that’s what I think of Mr J Evans Pritchard.” He then proceeds to have the class rip the introduction out of their textbooks.
I can relate to this, because I often find the academic study of literature, and especially poetry, to be incredibly frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t miss studying literature for the world, all the way through my academic life, it’s often been the highlight of my day. Nevertheless, there are some areas, some things that are said, which can make me incandescent with fury.
Perhaps a bit of an exaggeration there, but the general idea holds. My main gripe is that teachers seem to be determined, especially early on in school, to make literature into a sort of pseudo-science. It’s not. It’s art, and it should be treated as such. Anyone who has ever studied literature at school will know where I’m coming from on this. Hours of sitting there and analysing each word and speculating as to why exactly the author has chosen it.
"My main gripe is that teachers seem to be determined to make literature into a sort of pseudo-science."
I wish we could just accept it. Authors and poets don’t sit down and think of the meaning they want to put across, and then pick up a dictionary and begin looking through it, not stopping until they’ve found the word which has all the exact denotations, all the connotations and the exact phonology and morphology to put across the desired message. A word pops into their mind, and then they write it down.
Literature, and I’m thinking mostly about poetry here, is about the poet or author opening themselves up and letting their emotions flood out onto the page. That is what makes it so special; it’s why people read poetry. It offers us a window into a world that we can explore through the wonder of words. It is organic, and often flawed, which gives it that human quality. Often perfection need not be perfect.
But honestly, suggesting that when Tennyson wrote the words “Close to the sun in lonely lands” in his excellent poem ‘The Eagle’ he really went through the process of thinking, I want to present a solitary magnificence which also shows the eagle as godlike, therefore I shall place him close to the sun, near the gods, and also in “lonely lands”, is as ridiculous as proposing that a painter measures the exact vertical and horizontal position of his brush before be begins the stroke. Of course he doesn’t, and Tennyson didn’t (I doubt, anyway) meticulously choose each word he used. It came naturally, and that is what makes a great poet.
"It's as ridiculous as proposing a painter measures the exact vertical and horizontal position of his brush before be begins the stroke."
By all means, talk about the feelings and emotions that certain words create, but please, don’t try and tell me that the poet actually considered this as he wrote it. Afterwards, whilst reading their work back, I’m sure poets do think about the connotations of their words, the way the rhythm accentuates the meaning, but I imagine the writing process is for many purely instinctive. It should be, because art is an extension of a person’s emotion. We don’t think it through before we laugh, smile or cry.
I worry that, through over analysing poetry and other art forms, we risk producing a generation who feel literature can be quantified and spoken of in scientific terms. In short, a generation of inferior writers.
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