GretaCarroll: January 2009 Archives

What Would a Formalist Do?

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From Allen C. Austin’s “Toward Resolving Keats’s Grecian Urn Ode”:

“At the time that Keats wrote the Ode, his life was uncertain and unhappy.  It is not surprising that he imagines an eternal love that has to him none of the disadvantages of earthly love” (Keesey 54).

Well, despite whatever the Formalists may think and what T.S. Eliot may think about the author’s personality being irrelevant, it would seem that Austin thinks that what was going on in Keats’s life when he was writing his poem was important.  In addition, Keesey comments that, “…when we ask which of these meanings John Keats is most likely to have meant, the number of possibilities diminishes rapidly” (47).  It would seem to me that both Keesey and Austin are of the opinion that taking the author’s situation into account is a valuable tool in eliminating possible readings of a text and finding the most probable meaning.  It is undoubtedly futile on my part to struggle against formalism, but I find it very difficult to leave the author out of my interpretations of most works.  Austin readily admits that the idea of never consummating one’s love is probably not palatable to many of the people who read Keats’s poem, yet he also realizes that Keats in his “uncertain and unhappy” position would much prefer a love that goes on forever and ever (as he hopes eternity/heaven allows) to a love that must end, no matter what the sacrifices may be.  While the reader may therefore wish to attribute a negative attitude towards these immutable lovers to Keats, Austin argues very convincingly that this eternal limbo appeals to him.  However, if we rule out the possibility of taking the author’s intentions and life into consideration, we destroy the possibility of narrowing down our search for the most probably interpretation.  What would a formalist do with the six possible readings Austin lists, say that they are all equally true and that there is no way to eliminate any?      

From T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent":

“…the poet has, not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.  Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality” (Eliot, Part II, Paragraph 15).

Well, I guess I have discovered why writing poetry has never been one of my strong points.  Apparently, one’s past experiences and emotions should not be present in poetry to make it truly great.  In some ways, this makes sense to me.  Writers create stories and write poems full of events they may never have personally experienced quite frequently.  However, I have an extremely hard time believing it is possible for someone to write anything and not have some small portion of their personality seep into his or her work.  Every word choice, every plot twist, every literary device manipulated is to some degree a reflection of the person that wrote it.  I think most people have tendencies to use certain words and have writing styles unique to them.  No two people can write the exact same thing.  And don’t our past experiences and impressions affect how and what we write?  I honestly cannot understand how an author’s experience, impressions, and personality could not be infused with his or her work.  I just can’t grasp how it is humanly possible to distance oneself so much from one’s own emotions that a person would be able to create new feelings and emotions in a work that that person has never felt.    

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A Blast from the Past: Litotes

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Despite my embarrassment, I will have to admit that Eagleton stumped me with some of his literary terms: "There is no ‘literary' device--metonymy, synecdoche, litotes, chiasmus and so on—which is not quite intensively used in daily discourse" (Eagleton 5).  Therefore, I broke out Sharon Hamilton’s always useful Essential Literary Terms to look about litotes.  Even more to my chagrin, I find that the page in question already has my previous notes scrawled in the margins.  It would seem that litotes are a blast from the past.  Yes, indeed, I read this exact same definition about a year ago in LA150, but it would seem I forgot what it was since then.  Maybe this time, I will remember. 

Hamilton reminds me that: “Litotes (LY-toh-teez, from the Greek word for “simple” or “plain”) is a figure of thought in which a point is affirmed by negating its opposite.  It is a special kind of understatement, where the surface denial serves, through ironic contrast, to reinforce the underlying assertion” (57).

While Litotes are not particularly hard to use, in fact, as Eagleton points out most people use them on a daily basis, I do not find their reason for existence quite as “plain” as the word’s Greek meaning implies.  An example of litotes would be something like, “Literary criticism is no walk in the park.”  But why throw in the negative?  One could just as easily say, “Literary criticism sure is a walk in the park,” and the irony laced within the words is still apparent.  Both sentences can be understood to have the same thing, and if it is true that one should try to keep sentences positive (as I have been told by several English teachers), why throw in the extra level of complication with the one little word “no”?

Mighty Mutability

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What is the definition of any word, if it is not based upon our understanding of other ideas and concepts?  And are not these ideas and concepts created by what we consider important enough to name and “define”?  The word “literature” is no different from any of these other words which can only be described by other words which have their limits.  Language in general can only describe and mimic so much.  The problem of defining the word “literature” in many ways echoes the very idea which Keats stresses in the first stanza of his poem—the constraints inherent in all language.  But while our inability to exactly define and categorize something may seem like a weakness, is it not also a strength?  As Eagleton explains (and later concludes himself), “For the Formalists, in other words, ‘literariness’ was a function of the differential relations between one sort of discourse and another; it was not an eternally given property” (5).  In other words, what is considered literature is constantly being reassessed and redefined as language use (which reflects to some degree our values) changes.

 I consider this mutability to be part of what makes language and literature so powerful.  I don’t reread a book because I want to get the exact same experience from reading it as I did the first time; I reread it to discover what new intimacy with the work I can gain.  As Eagleton observes, “All literary works, in other words, are ‘rewritten’, if only unconsciously, by the societies which read them; indeed there is no reading of a work which is not also a ‘re-writing’” (11).  Therefore, I find it hard to imagine a time when Shakespeare would no longer be relevant to his readers, since one can find innumerable relatable aspects in his works.  However, I have to agree with Eagleton that if one day his works are no longer compatible with our values, he should be removed from the “literary.”  I think it is the inability to set a clear definition to literature and the lack of a solid cannon that causes us to be so fascinated by reading.  Our cannon and our literature is mutable, much as we humans are constantly changing ourselves.  We are never the same person as we are now and when we reread something we perceive it differently, so why should the “literary” be chained to a fixed existence?  If it were, it would eventually cease to captivate us.   

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