West Chester University
Home Notes for Introduction to Literature
Notes for Introduction to Literature
LINES OF CONTINUITY:
The point to be made here is that poetry has much in common with fiction, and with drama as well.
Archibald MacLeish tells us a poem "shouldn't mean but be," most readers
look for meaning in poems anyway. When you read and consider "Those Winter
Sundays," for example, you may come away with the idea that love can be
expressed in unexpected, enigmatic, even austere waysbut it is still love;
or you may feel that the poem expresses the sad truth that we often take our
family for granted, and that we may come to regret our lack of real gratitude.
Poems are "open to interpretation" to a very high degree. Consider
"My Papa's Waltz" (p. 671). Students often give this poem widely divergent
readings. Some see a happy childhood memory, a romping father and son, and a
loving relationshipsome see a carefully veiled figurative expresssion
of the way the threat of violence hung in the air when an alcoholic father came
"waltzing" home, forcing the family to dance around his abusiveness.
The text of the poem seems to support these two widely divergent readings.
along with many other kinds of writers, have that ironic sense. A few excellent
examples are "First Party at Ken Kesey's with Hell's Angels" (p. 715)
and "Richard Cory" (p. 614). In "Richard Cory" what appears
to be true is not really true beneath the veneer. Richard Cory has wealth, education,
good looks (grace), fame, and maybe even humility. He has everything we envy,
which we've been conditioned to believe will bring us everlasting happiness.
What child doesn't fantasize about being famous? What American doesn't fantasize
about getting filthy rich? What American doesn't want to be "one of the
beautiful people" (to quote John Lennon). But fame, wealth, and beauty
aren't the recipe. We'll have to look elsewhere. When Richard Cory kills himself,
his death challenges all our assumptions about the real meaning of wealth, fame,
and good looks. Richard Cory is not an enigma; his suffering and despair make
perfect sense when we hear how others see him. No has ever bothered to get to
know him beneath his glossy surface. His superficial relationships have apparently
SYMBOL. Recall "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Remember how the speaker visits those snowy woods, which might symbolize that final resting place, his attraction to death? And how at the end of the poem he leaves the woods and chooses life? Well, other poems can be read symbolically, too. Excellent examples include "The Tyger" (p. 670) by William Blake, and the three "rose" poems in your handout: "The Sick Rose," "My Luv is Red Rose," and "One Perfect Rose." In "One Perfect Rose" Dorothy Parker treats the conventional symbol of the rose, used to effect in the previous two poems, sardonically. By preferring a "limousine" to the rose, the female speaker lets us know she's not interpreting her lovers' intentions the way they'd prefer. Does she seem ungrateful? But she fully understands the "language of the floweret," and it's a cliched language without originality and without committment. Inwardly, she rejects it. She's not fooled anymore, she seems to be sighing to her fellows. She's been there too many times, in the kind of passionate, romantic relationships that flame and then fizzle. The rose represents a kind of love that has its limits, and she wishes she would meet a man who'd offer her something more. Something exciting, maybe--an opulent joyride, something luxurious for a change, or perhaps marriage. Is she just a material girl, or is she wising up to the knowledge that her boyfriends only seem interested in one thing?
How can something like "much madness" end up being "divinest
sense"? How can two seemingly opposite attributes be reconciled? Emily
Dickenson explores that paradox in her poem "Much Madness is Divinest Sense"
(p, 750). So how can madness be sense? How can insanity be rational? In this
piece of conceptual wordplay, Emily Dickenson observes that our definitions
for these terms are at best arbitrary, even a bit meaningless, or, at least
paradoxical. How does one get to be considered "sane"? By going along
with the crowd (by conforming, like Auden's "Unknown
Citizen," (a poem we unfortunately didn't get to study, since it's
not in your textbook) and never questioning "authority"). But is that
really sane? What if the authority/majority wants to keep the institution of
slavery, or wants to exterminate an ethnic group, or wants to do some other
immoral or greedy or stupid thing? By challenging the majority, you'll be labeled
insane, yet what could be more sane than challenging immorality, greed, or stupidity?
It's the rare, democratic society that tolerateseven valuesprotest.
I wonder how many of us consider American society that kind of democracy? Many
places in the world, if you don't go along, the authorities like to come along
and drag you away with a chain. Is that true here?
Questions? Contact me.
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