Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Brazen serpents for Students of Literature (General Sources for Literary Study)

Moses erects the brazen serpent
to heal the snake-bitten Israelites
Students of literature need to have clear, familiar, and occasionally miraculous sources for help. They need brazen serpents to which to turn. Do you have yours?

Numbers 21:6-9 tells the story of the Israelites getting bitten by fiery serpents. Their cure: a serpent made of brass that Moses affixed to a pole. The bitten could simply look toward the brazen serpent and they would be healed.

I didn't know that story, nor how it could apply to literary study, until I was slogging my way through Shakespeare for the first time in my 9th grade English class at Brighton High School. The teacher, Richard McAllister, had us read Julius Caesar aloud in class. We'd come across a word, like "carrion" and give him that blank stare that only a 14-year old can give.

"Where is your brazen serpent?" he would intone, maybe even looking upward.

We had no idea what he meant. So he would sigh and open the dictionary, read to us that "carrion" meant "dead carcass" and back we'd go to Shakespeare. We'd hit another word like "betimes." Again, the blank stare from us, and again Mr. McAllister sighing and looking up woefully to ask, "Where is your brazen serpent?"

Finally, one of us got brave enough actually to get up, go to the back of the room and consult the huge dictionary from the shelf. "Betimes" meant "at once." Over time, we got better at being "betimes" in seeking the brazen serpents we needed. Going to the effort to consult a worthy source would earn the student what Mr. McAllister called "anti-philistine points." We had to look up "Philistine" to realize getting anti-philistine points was actually a good thing. But we could, now, because we knew at least one reliable brazen serpent to which to turn--the dictionary.

The dictionary is a core source for literary study, but certainly not the only "brazen serpent" to which one may turn. I'd like to introduce just a few.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Nine Ways of Developing a Literary Analysis

As my literature students are grappling with drafting their analyses of various literary works, I want to help them do so by suggesting some concrete ways by which they can develop an analysis. In a finished essay, the analysis portion should be tightly ordered in support of a central argument. However, during the drafting process, analysis really has to be less organized. The clearest expression of ideas often emerges from a critical mass of meaningful mess.

What follows are directions for making that mess (and making it meaningful). It may seem strange to emphasize messiness, but I want my students to feel comfortable in letting their provisional writing be much less ordered and clear than their finished literary arguments. I am not at all pulling back from the need to move from fuzzy ideas to clear claims. I strongly believe students should arrive quickly at a working thesis statement and circulate that claim for early feedback (as described in my previous post).

But a working thesis statement does not a finished paper make. And even though a good thesis statement provides a kind of outline for developing one's complete argument, that outline can at first feel pretty sparse.  A working thesis works if it does work -- and often that work is a meaningful return to the texts so that one can support and improve that claim.

A messy mass is needed during drafting because you need stuff through which your thesis can take its evolving shape. You need something that you can revise and order into a more detailed outline for a finished paper. You need some meaningful accumulation of relevant material. Here, then, are some starting places for the student who is already into his or her topic, but who still needs to do the heavy lifting of coming up with stuff to say in their evolving analysis.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

From Ideas to Claims in Literary Analysis

Literature provokes thought. It animates discussion. It brings people into conversations that require us to discern what we mean and defend what we think.

Our writing about literature should have the same effect. This is why we need to move from the informal and somewhat aimless nature of "response" to the incisive and decisive mode of a persuasive claim. In short, students of literature need to learn how to evolve their responses to literature into compelling thesis statements.

Here's how:

Is it Nonfiction? Is it Creative Nonfiction?

As my students study creative nonfiction this week it has raised certain issues of classification. Some things are not very clearly either fictional or nonfictional. Which are they, and does this matter? Other works are clearly not fictional, but just because they are nonfiction, does this mean they are literary? I pose these examples as problem cases:

Friday, May 24, 2013

Personal Essay: In an Open Field, Near a Gravel Pit

I had a wonderful English teacher at Brighton High School in Salt Lake City, Susannah Kesler. She was one of those special educators who cared equally about words and about us students. She took the time to review with me multiple drafts of the short essay below (which finally appeared in a student journal in 1982, Runes).

As I stayed after school to review each version, she was encouraging but demanding. She made me be accountable for each and every one of this essay's 773 words, weeding out the extraneous adjective and pinning down the core of my experience with just the right image, just the right rhythm in the phrasing. She required of me an almost religious respect for expression and for the rigors of revision. As I complied with her coaching, the writing became more authentic, more interesting to me. I felt connected to things bigger than myself as the little experience I was relating achieved focus, shape, and depth. I realized the joy of being a writer. 

What a beautiful thing it is to discover the poetry of prose, the power of personal expression, and the way literature connects people. The writing of this essay made as much of an impression on me as the experience I describe in that open field. 

Thank you, Miss Kesler.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Creative Nonfiction - An Introduction

Here's a quick overview of the genre of literature known as creative nonfiction.

For the longest time, literature proper (at times termed belles lettres) has been restricted to poetry, drama, and fiction. But it's become clear over time that much writing that falls outside of these kinds of imaginative writing still possesses qualities valued from the more traditional literature. In short, something need not be fictional to have aesthetic appeal. There is a refreshing variety of such literature.

The personal essay is the most prominent genre of creative nonfiction. But even it is part of a larger category which we might call life writing. That category includes not only the personal essay, but also autobiography and biography, as well as memoir.

Phillip Lopate's anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, is a good starting place for exploring personal essays. In autobiography, one can go back to St. Augustine's Confessions or to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and contemporary examples include Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes or Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. A classic biography is Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, and a well written contemporary biography is David McCullough's John Adams.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Annotating a Poem for Analysis

How can annotating a poem lead to interesting literary criticism?

I recently required my literature students to analyze a pair of poems for an exam. They were to write out the poems by hand and then annotate these as a step in their analysis. Those annotations typically took one of two forms:

  1. Simple identification of ideas or formal elements
  2. Attempts at interpreting or synthesizing
The first of these is a very primary level of analysis and reflects one's ability to understand and represent the content (paraphrase) or to identify basic components of literary form (character, setting, diction, rhythm, rhyme, imagery, metaphor, repetition, figures of speech, etc.). The trick is to move from the first to the second of these levels (on the way to more developed literary arguments). Here are some examples.