Welcome to Terry's web page, devoted to the subject of thinking and writing on literary matters. Captured at an early age by the vocation of writing essays about literature, I've spent decades pondering why this genre, of all things, claims my energies. This page allows me to unfold some thoughts about writing prose about literature. It doesn't replicate the lessons and techniques I use in the classroom and the coaching session, but it sets out some principles about the kind of writing – and reading – that I teach.
This web page wouldn't exist without the expertise and tending of Fritz Vandover: thanks, thanks, and ever thanks.
with my English Department colleagues, I teach reading, thinking, and writing skills with which
students can write lucid prose in well-built argumentative essays. We are always thinking and talking about this, and trying out new things. In my courses, this work takes place in
periodic classroom sessions, in one-on-one conversations between student
and teacher, and in the student's reading of the books on the
writing crafts. In my own courses, I build in a lot of reflective writing and a lot of means by which to draw out the personal elements of literary essays.
Here's my formulation of our department's pedagogy. I teach toward these goals.
• In our department's 100-level courses, students learn to develop attention in the
composition of clear, precise sentences; to sustain a line of thought from
paragraph to paragraph; to pay close attention to discrete units of meaning; to
assay interpretation of the meanings of the text at large. We work a good deal on ways to develop a thesis from emergent interests and observations. We
study what it might mean to have a literary experience of reading a work. We think about the nature of evidence in literary thinking. We read writings by professional literary people in many fields – among them scholars, reviewers, critics, editors, other creative writers – with an eye to perceiving their varied purposes and means of analysis, and students try their hand at communication in these many modes.
• At the 200-level, in which
students immerse themselves in specific periods of literary history, I teach
students how to incorporate into their thinking the great historical traditions
and genres, and how to set out on close
reading as a crucial activity in the discipline of literary studies. (See more on close reading by clicking on the button "Reading and Close Reading" at the top of this page.)
• At the 300-level, we work
on structuring arguments, sustaining lines of thought, and engaging the work of
other scholars. Students learn how to create conversations with the ideas of other writers: how to extend, refine, refute, invert, or otherwise be creative with scholars' ideas. We also study essays and responses to the literature of the course, specifically essays formative of literary criticism and scholarship as fields in their own right. With Macbeth we might read the Romantic writer Thomas De Quincey's "On the Knocking at the Gate, in Macbeth;" with the Odyssey we read Erich Auerbach's "Odysseus' Scar" from Mimesis. I have always found the traditions of response to literature to be great, generous gifts to us now, and have found them amazing for the energy and love that goes into them. And, of course, they are the ancestors of our own literary cultures, and ancestors always call for honor and gratitude.
• In the 400-level course, we refine research skills in literary studies; we seek to build a complex argument that begins with inventive questions, then thinks deeply about formal qualities of language and how these qualities make meaning; we pursue the multiple steps of a tightly reasoned argument; we aim to engage scholarship flexibly and actively; we work minutely with details of language in the process of close reading; we study ways to create vigorous, vivid, reflexively alert prose, apt to aims of the essay.
We want students writing at this level to stretch their wings and move among levels of attentive concern. For instance, we want arguments that utilize textual evidence to advance and complicate claims; that develop and extend themselves, rather than simply amassing evidence to make a single point; that organize sequences of and relationships among arguments effectively; that arrive at a plausible, non-obvious, non-trivial, inventive conclusion.
Creative Reading and Writing
Here’s a secret in plain view, a great, unexpected thing. This kind of writing is creative. Analysis of literature is imaginative work. In my own long experience as a writer, writing in responsive creativity about literary works is exhilarating and joyful. In my even longer experience as a reader, some essays can take your breath away. Thinking itself is a beautiful venture. Paragraphs can take flight, arc, and bring one to a graceful landing. Sentences can call to one another across the intervals that separate them.
The justly well-known formulation about creative reading comes from Emerson, in his amazing manifesto "The American Scholar." There he says,
But in spite of Emerson, you
wouldn’t know that the composing of literary essays is a possible occasion for joy and exhilaration, were you to read standard writing books. Writing skills can too often sound like
packaging wrapped around a thought that’s already been fully formed.
In fact, the kind of writing that I teach is a process of discovery. The writer comes to ideas and their fit with one another in the process of writing. Writing need not be tacked on at the end of thinking; it may chart the emergence of thinking. Just as fiction writers sometimes say that their characters let them know where a story should unexpectedly go, so with the writers of literary essays: you might find in your investigations that a simile, or a line of imagery, or a concept from literary history, sets you off along new lines of thinking.
As Brian Massumi rightly points out, "If you know where you will end up when you begin, nothing has happened in the meantime" (Parables for the Virtual, page 18). The wonderful thinker Jessica Benjamin has written a long essay about this unknowing, in which she discusses the way she's making a case that "the truest form of concentrated attention to an object is actually subjective:"
A writer setting out on a writing project has questions and topics to pursue, and literary works that draw her. She has methods and procedures, many time-tested, some new, giving her pathways along which to think. She also has hunches, inklings, glimmers, and the literary work itself as guides on that path. Eventually a thesis emerges. I often experience this as a moment of surprise, relief, and fitness: That's it. That's what's been wanting to crystallize as I've worked with this material in all these different ways.
It is true, alas, that trusting your mind's capacity to discover emergent ideas isn't always easy: sometimes it feels like floating on that current, sometimes it's more excruciating. You need to welcome a certain amount of anxiety as well as pleasure in the quest. Therefore I love knowing what I learned from John Bean about rough drafts (Engaging with Ideas, page 16):
Writing Is Liberatory
Language is among the most powerful instruments for the creation of freedom. Writing may keep us both honest and intimate with language, and create pathways for independent thinking. The nimbleness of language nudges into form and consciousness those experiences that had been inchoate, inarticulate.
Writing offers freedom in a private sense, as the poet William Stafford says:
Writing itself is one of the great, free human activities. There is scope for individuality, and elation, and discovery, in writing. For the person who follows with trust and forgiveness what occurs to him, the world remains always ready and deep, an inexhaustible environment, with the combined vividness of actuality and flexibility of a dream….Working back and forth between experience and thought, writers have more than space and time can offer.
But a writing life also create possibilities for freedom (though not guarantees of freedom) in a political sense. Whatever any writer’s political views, the actions of writing are cleansing and restorative, and offer resistance to the calcifications of everyday, instrumental, unloved language. Language in everyday use becomes stale, clichéd, thick, and dull-witted. This is what Geoffrey Hill means when he says that “the inertia of language” is also “the coercive force of language” (in The Lords of Limit, page 2).
Writing about literature, implicitly an engagement with the mind of another, is like creating what postcolonial theory calls "contact zones." Contact zones are those geographical places where people of two or more cultures encounter each other, interact, jostle, mingle, conflict, shape and reshape each other. In the postcolonial sense, power is usually at play, as in imperial presences in Africa, India, or the Americas. In the writing of an essay in which the reader's mind encounters the author's mind, power may be involved – some authors' style or claims work to compel submission in the reader – but here I just want to introduce the creative reader's entering into the contact zone of writing about a literary work, thereby getting outside that reader's initial comfort zone. Lately my students in Shakespeare, Gender, Race have been pondering this, because structures of experience of race and gender from 400 years ago are so different from ours yet eerily familiar. Encountering them becomes a process of undoing the threads or the neural pathways in our own brains, and reweaving the threads or pathways. That work takes energy, but it also creates new energies. (Thanks to Madeline Stone and Kimberly Goodnight for thinking about this process with me.)
Lisa Robertson, Canadian feminist, poet, social-theory writer, speaks powerfully of these processes.
. . . which makes me wonder: Then would writing about literature, understood as the most intense and intentional form of writing, is political and emancipatory in the same sense? If literature at its best resists the inertia of language, then writing about it would redouble its transformative powers.
And again Robertson:
Perhaps we owe it to the world to bring our responsive creativity to the phenomena we love. Theologian W. H. Vanstone says,
I love these passages! I
love Vanstone’s sense of the “precariousness of . . . creativity,” and the
notion of tending a fragment of reality: both of these are so tender. The etymology of this latter
word and the related verb to tend, in
tenet, to offer, to extend: there is
something generous in this cluster of words, or in the gestures toward “material
creation” implied by them. As Macalester student Erin Schulz says, "So much of reading texts that are so far removed from us – in culture, language, and geography – must be done creatively. Readers have to search through clues in the text for any way to make sense of the shocking and violent world they've entered on the page." (She was speaking of medieval Icelandic sagas when she said this, by the way.)
Really, it's all about love, for one of the high arts. Ortega y Gasset calls his book about Don Quixote "essays in intellectual love." When the poet Hayden Carruth agreed to review a new edition of the poetry of Edmund Spenser, he did a little searching into the large context of work on Spenser, and was amazed at what he found:
It's also about the fertility of increasing the world's reality. As Brian Massumi puts it:
Writing can increase the world's reality in this way, in part, because it unfolds what is not entirely perceptible, what is infolded – say, in a literary passage. Reading and writing about already-written literary works is a way to seek understanding of the ways that the world is so much bigger, older, and stranger than whatever we can perceive of it on the surface. The world has temporal and spiritual and affective vastness. Whole realms of feeling and soul lie hidden in the words of those long dead (our ancestors, our brothers and sisters long dead); the complicated life of heart, soul, and mind needs to be unfolded and articulated. Improving the world is a much more complicated, ethically dubious enterprise than our college leads us to believe, and without a sophisticated intelligence about language, heart, and soul matters, wishes to improve the world run aground and turn into destruction.
In the mid-1970s, the writer Alice Walker went looking for perceptible signs of the great Zora Neale Hurston. She wrote about it in an essay called "Looking for Zora," in which she said, with some righteous heat, "We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. If they do, it is our duty as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children. If necessary, bone by bone."
As the child of people that do throw their geniuses away, and throw their histories away – northern European peasant immigrants, and people escaping families reft by drink and violence – I feel fierce that a people do not throw their geniuses away. In our culture, any one of us probably belongs to a number of peoples. When Alice Walker set about searching for Hurston, it was because she needed Hurston as an ancestor. This is the act of an African-American woman writer who hungers to expand her tradition, and as the finding of an ancestor to cleave to, it's also a religious act. We need the ancestors. This is powerfully so for writers and other artists; it's true of a people as well.
A people is recognizable in part by its rich array of language forms. A people has stories, songs, poems, genealogies, scriptures and sacred narratives, chants, prayers, liturgies and hymns, idioms, dialect words, dreams put into words, messages from gods and spirits, children's games, nursery rhymes, lullabies, laments, speeches, possibly sermons and letters and legal decisions and written laws. These are some of the forms that hold a culture, and hold a people together. If you belong to a people – and we all do – then you need your ancestors, your geniuses, and your language.
Gary Snyder recognizes the richness of having a language, of being a native speaker, welcoming the forms by which language can help to make and preserve a people:
Writing about literature can be utopian, political, creative, relevant, and hopeful, because it changes the future. Here's a story showing how that can happen.
When I was in grad school, I was taught that a scandal of literary reading is that interpretations change over time, that each age finds in Shakespeare, for instance, what it needs to find. But turn this inside out, and it gives reason for hope: we study Shakespeare, we discover in our own time new interpretive principles, we use them to transform our study of Shakespeare. We generate new pasts, paradoxical as it sounds, by understanding our living relationship to Shakespeare. In my life, the most electrifying instance of this was the creation of feminist theory. Look to analyze gender, instead of take it as given? Imagine that assumptions about women, or men, or desire, or gender, were grounded in interestingly different biological models than we now have? Find new ways to define the tragic or the comic, by looking at male characters' flight from the feminine? Amazing.
If literary study only tells the story, "Once upon a time, Shakespeare said..." over and over again, then we may as well quit writing, however much we may privately love the plays. But literary history tells the story, "It will have come to pass that Shakespeare said...", which is thrilling. There's actually a verb tense for this: the future anterior -- not much used in English, but familiar in French. Here's what thinker Catherine Clément says of it:
One powerful example how how it 'will have come to pass' arises in connection with Toni Morrison's fiction, which has shown us how to understand William Faulkner's writing about race in his Southern novels. Morrison's fiction has actually opened up a new story about Faulkner and race.
8) "Reading is a high art," says Mark van Doren, "because it is a generous art, like listening." Listening itself, listening with alertness, energy, non-bossiness, imagination--this takes some practice. Listening may be one skill that literary study can teach best of all. We listen for the stories within, underneath, in the shadows of written words; for the stories that passages and pages create among themselves in their rustlings; for the breaths of a human spirit in the shapes of sentences. We really don't know what to expect when we read, nor how we might be formed and transformed--and if we are re-reading a familiar text, we may be most surprised of all. As Mary Ruefle says in her wise and funny book on poetry, Madness, Rack, and Honey,
And a good part of what we hear, without knowing what we are listening to, are the voices and spirits of real people. Saul Bellow says this:
In the reader's writing about a literary passage, we are hearing, discerning, a story of its signature – of the heart of its writer. Even more wonderful, writing about a passage or a work from multiple angles, or more than once over a period of time, discloses multiple stories, plural worlds. This is partly because a work itself may be inexhaustible, partly because your listener's ear, the uniqueness of yourself as a listener, having grown and changed right along with the rest of you, perceives new stories and new relations among all the parts of a work.
Say two people are sitting together, sharing speaking and listening of a focused kind. Say one of them is intently listening to another struggling to tell a snatch of her own story, discovering and disclosing that she has a story worthy of speech. "Listening [someone] to speech," is how the great feminist theologian and educator Nelle Morton speaks of it. It's possible that both listener and speaker come to recognize the story and the storyteller as the latter comes to articulate a dimension of her experience that not been heard before, even by herself. The speaker's story and her selfhood gain in dignity, density, spaciousness, and radiance. Listening and speaking in this way calls forth, in both speaker and listener, patience, quietness, attentiveness to the ways that language works in persons, sometimes courage, and willingness to get out of the way of one's own assumptions.
In my experience, this kind of dynamic can unfold in writing about literature, too. "You build a temple inside their hearing," Rilke says in the Sonnets to Orpheus, praising an Orpheus whom he imagines having moved from the rhetor's dominance over the creatures listening to him, to an immanence and sense of solidarity with them. "A temple inside our hearing:" what a wonderful figure for our capacity to hear. Or again there are the words of the late lamented Seamus Heaney, who begins one of his sonnets in "Squarings" by remembering a scene:
and ends this sonnet by uttering something like a prayer for hearing and its transparent openness and exultation:
A high calling, then, to become capable of listening.
9) Finally, a dizzying passage by Erin Manning, about the emergence of thought. Writing as that which opens us to the feeling of thought coming into being: