The strange world of Language Arts, Reading


One of the most common questions I get from learners embarking on the Steck-Vaughn Language Arts, Reading workbook is, "What's e-x-c-e-r-p-t- mean?" It has occurred to me more than once that the average citizen doesn't encounter a lot of textual criticism or literary analysis.

Among the many Orwell essays I've enjoyed is his review of Eliot's short anthology of Kipling's poems. I don't always agree with Orwell here, but I appreciate what he has to say as an example of thinking and writing about poetry. It helps me with my own appreciation of Kipling and other poets.

I remember I found it once, forever-ago, at my public library. Nearby, I also found a short essay on Raymond Chandler's writings. The author compared a passage from a very early short-story with a passage taken from his later novel The Big Sleep. Both passages described similar scenes, but the Big Sleep version was more interesting and arresting, and the essay tried to explain why.

Around about the same time - this was a period of forced unemployment, you understand - I came upon an essay by Eliot on something or other by Shakespeare. Other than a chance essay by George Steiner, it was the first time anyone was able to explain to me what a modern reader might find interesting in Shakespeare’s choice and arrangement of words. A little further down the stacks there lay a challenging essay on why Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, for all its merits, doesn't count as literature. As with Orwell's essay, I found myself disagreeing (can we not, at least, have poor literature?), but I appreciated the essay nonetheless.

I'm not confident that any of the four essays listed above are readily accessible. They are not introductory pieces. Moreover, Orwell assumes a readership that already knows Kipling as well as a great deal about British misadventures in India and changes in English public life between, say 1870 and 1920. From what I can remember, Elliot assumed both a familiarity with Shakespeare and a comfort with Greek mythology. While I confess to not remembering much about the essay on Chandler, I'm sure it assumed some awareness of the content and state of detective fiction magazines in the mid-1900s. The essay on Tolkien was the easiest to read, I think. Or maybe not. In any case, it too was written for people familiar with reading about writing.

I suspect our learners would benefit from a chance to read introductory examples of commentary on literature and poetry. Ideally, the commentary would need to be clearly written, employing plain language and an easy to follow argument - something written to explain a poem or passage ought itself be reasonably self-explanatory.

Here are two examples of what I mean; one on a poem by Cohen, and another on a poem by Yeats. I don't suppose they are very good examples. (When I asked a learner to test drive them, her sole, disconcerting remark was "Shorter is always better.") But, at least, they will illustrate what I mean by examples of literacy criticism.

Are there such things? Are there genuine, high-quality, low-level explanations of poems that demonstrate someone identifying the theme and/or main idea, reflecting on the use of metaphor or simile, and ruminating on lesser details like voice, tone or whatever?


A lack of readable, interesting literary criticism is a problem because, like I said, the average citizen doesn't do a whole lot of textual or literary analysis. It's easy to see why people are tempted to drop literature and literary appreciation from the curriculum altogether.

I think that would be a mistake.



P.s, I notice in (Google's) Chrome web-browser the linked documents, uploaded as Word docs, contain formatting errors.  When I download and re-open it in Word, the formatting is restored.  Such is the state of "the Cloud" in 2012.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

just saying hello, wendell - haven't blogged for years......

will endeavour to become a little interactive again.

in my life: it's all good!

regards, susan/Grace/Ozgrace