December 13, 2007

What's in a Poem?

There's a fascinating and detailed analysis of Keats's "To Autumn" by Tom Paulin in The Guardian:
Opening a school anthology, I find this note to Keats's ode "To Autumn": "The magnificent ode is justly famous, and is often regarded as the most perfect of Keats's poems. Its structure is quite complex, but after a couple of readings it will not be difficult to see that the first verse describes the 'positive' side of autumn - the side that looks back to summer and brings it to fruition, while the third verse describes the 'negative' side - a suggestion of chilliness, a series of thin sounds, and the sadness of approaching winter. The middle verse balances these two with four glimpses of a figure representing both the spirit of autumn and a farm-worker engaged in a series of typical autumnal activities."

This describes, clearly and sensitively, how the poem has been read since its publication in 1820, but in recent years a group of historical critics has offered a more complicated, political reading of Keats. He was passionately interested in politics, and it would be surprising if that interest didn't shape his writing. As a radical, who read and contributed to John and Leigh Hunt's famous weekly journal, The Examiner, he would have seen not so much a "farm-worker", as a member of the rural poor, a gleaner, who has scraped up the grains of corn left after the farm labourers had gathered in the harvest. Gleaning was made illegal in 1818, so by personifying autumn as a gleaner he is characterising the season as a proud and dignified young woman. (read the rest here)
The piece is an advance taste of Paulin's forthcoming book, The Secret Life of Poems. It's a compelling reading, at least to someone who's not a Keats expert; I particularly enjoyed its balance of attention to fine textual details and historical and intertextual contexts. But I can see someone reacting quite differently, along the lines of the discussion that broke out recently in the comments to this post at The Valve. A sample exchange:
LB: That is to say, let’s imagine two critics who write the same excellent account of the formal, stylistic, and thematic features of Blake’s “The Tyger.” Then let’s imagine that while critic 1 stops there, critic 2 builds on that account and shows in clear, well-supported terms how these features connection to biography, cultural history, economics, etc. In that case, critic 2 has clearly added something that critic 1 cannot offer.

DG: Perhaps, if you’re more interested in biography, cultural history, and ecomonics than in art. I’m not, so the critic who provides such an account does nothing for me.
It seems a tailor-made example, actually. Paulin reads Keats's Ode as critic 2 would. But is his therefore a better analysis than a fleshed-out version of the one in the 'school anthology' would be? The school anthology has described the poem an ordinary (i.e. non-specialized) reader would be familiar with; Paulin argues that this simpler account is inadequate, even wrong on some counts, and supports his more 'complicated' reading with a lot of specific evidence. Both readings address what is "actually there" in the poem (a phrase all who teach poetry to undergraduates are familiar with)--that is, both infer the meaning of the poem from the words on the page--but Paulin is less literal and inquires further afield in search of its meaning. I think that the result is a richer appreciation of Keats's art. What do you think: is it fair, or reasonable, or problematic, to consider that you can "understand the poem perfectly well" without knowing any of the additional material or ideas Paulin brings to bear on it? Do you just understand it differently, or do you understand a different version of it? Also, how far does this dispute over the limits of "the poem itself" encapsulate the difference between academic and non-academic approaches to interpretation? And how far do readings of this sort, that set out to correct ordinary readings as simplistic or inadequate contribute, to the dislike ordinary readers sometimes express towards academics?


Stephen Crowe said...

The antithesis you're presenting is an interesting one to discuss, but I think you're backing the wrong horse with Paulin's article. If you read it closely at all (alongside the poem), it quickly falls apart: Keats is referring to Satan because he uses the word 'mist?' The word bend belongs to the 'language of power?' And what's all that stuff about apples? Paulin quotes Keats himself contradicting him:

"Somehow a stubble plain looks warm - in the same way that certain pictures look warm - this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it."

Where does he mention a massacre? Paulin is pulling this stuff out of the air. Crucially, he's neglected to explain why, if Keats had intended to write a political poem, he wouldn't simply have presented his theme clearly, as Tennyson did with The Charge of the Light Brigade. He didn't live in a totalitarian dictatorship. What's with the secrecy? Paulin's not adding to our knowledge of the poem but merely obfuscating it for the sake of a radical reading.

Notabene said...

I agree with Stephen. And add another example of Paulin's hogwash: "There are a lot of "ih" sounds in those lines - river, sinking, wind, lives, hilly, crickets, sing, whistles, gathering, twitter - and they are deliberately unattractive, unsettling." Who says "ih" is unattractive and unsettling...Who says they are used deliberately?

I deliberately chose not to read the poem in advance of reading Paulin's piece. His argument struck me as even less convincing after reading the poem. In fact it ticked me off...reduced my enjoyment, interfered with my direct appreciation of the aesthetic value of the poem.

His piece is just weak conjecture.

Notabene said...

And another thing :)

You contend that Paulin uses a lot of supporting evidence which results in a richer appreciation of Keats's art. I contend that he proves nothing, provides some interesting context, and uses it to distort Keats's art.

His interpretation is the interpretation of an ideologue.

Christian said...

I don't think you can understand a poem perfectly well without additional information (even the stoutest New Critic admits that he or she relies on knowledge that is not in the poem, e.g. knowledge of language and literary history).

However, I believe it's perfectly possible to experience the poem without additional information. Understanding a poem plays a part in experiencing it, but the experience usually consists of other aspects as well. Therefore, determining whether one understanding of the poem is superior to another doesn't necessarily tell us anything about whether the experience the understanding leads up to is superior to another experience based on a less cogent or extensive understanding.

In the end, the readers are the arbiters of the value of a reading. All the critic can do is try to induce his or her experience of a poem in as many readers as possible (or at least in as many important readers as possible) so that the experience becomes a stock-response in the poem's history of readings.

Most readers neither have the time nor any interest to enrich their experience of a poem to the degree a professional critic does. They nevertheless feel that their experience of the poem is rich and satisfactory; so they tend to react negatively to a critic telling them "your understanding is wrong, my understanding is right", because they equate understanding with experience. What the critic should be saying instead is: "Look, my deeper understanding of the poem (or its context, or its author) has led me to experience the poem differently, and I can highly recommend that kind of experience!".

Rohan Maitzen said...

Nigel and Stephen,

It's true that some of Paulin's particulars are more convincing than others; I thought too that leaping from the one word "mists" to Milton was, well, a leap, for instance--though perhaps to Keats scholars who know this intertextual relationship better, it seems reasonable, I don't know. But on the other hand it doesn't do to say that if he had a political idea he would have (or should have) "expressed his theme clearly": there's a lot of literature that has more levels than the immediately literal--a good example in this context would be Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," routinely understood as a poem about much more than the weather. An artist needn't live in a totalitarian environment to choose indirection: literature that makes political claims really overtly is often subject to criticism for lacking subtlety or artistry, or being didactic: I'm not sure "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is the horse I'd back in that race. So unless you reject the idea that a poem may have a subtext, the debate is about whether Paulin makes a convincing case, not about whether his method or approach is legit in itself.


I think your distinction between understanding and experience is a useful one. I certainly agree with your final recommendation: this is the pitch I make when I'm teaching, especially when dealing with a popular author like Jane Austen.

Notabene said...

I believe that is the point I am making Rohan. The arguments Paulin makes are weak. One wonders why he has chosen to interpret the poem in the way he sense is that he wants to stir up order to gain attention and sales for his book.

Speaking of which, I've written a bit more on this topic on my site, in case you are interested

Notabene said...

Christian has been reading his Northrop Frye. This from The Well-Tempered Critic: "First [the critic] has to understand and interpret the experience which forms the content of the work he is reading. Second the impact of the literary work on him is itself an experience, "an experience different in kind from any experience not of art, as T.S. Eliot puts it."

I like the way Frye follows this several pages later with "For the values we want the student to acquire from us cannot be taught. Without the possibility of criticism as a structure of knowledge, culture, and society with it, would be forever condemned to a morbid antagonism between the supercilious refined and the resentful unrefined.