About havenk

My topic is on a new membrane for water purification.


How should one go about analyzing a text? Alas, a worthy question, one we have spent the semester addressing. In my attempt to answer it, I have decided to focus upon a single aspect of the grander picture, a constituent of the overall question: what decides literary and artistic value? Is there something inherent in a text for which analysts should search, or does the reader decide meaning? Let’s say, just for the moment, that literary value is measured in the ability of a text to relay gender stereotypes. Who is to say, then, that a silly YouTube advertisement—“Why men run away: 10 mistakes that women frequently make”—does not hold literary value? The advertisement is trashy; chances are, the author didn’t put a whole lot of thought or effort into writing it. Regardless, I think that such an advertisement does hold literary value; and in this way, I am a true advocate of new historicism.
The advertisement itself does not deconstruct gender stereotypes. Perhaps the kinds of texts that do are in a way more valuable than those that simply relay them. But we cannot deny that throughout history, literature has performed both functions—relaying and deconstructing. The job of a literary critic is not to decide the value or intelligence of an author. Our job is to understand a text within its context—the context of the author’s emotional heartbreak, the context of a warring England, or the context of gender stereotypes in the United States. This is literature in its essence: a contextualized mirror, with the capacity to reflect or deconstruct culture. The YouTube advertisement reflects culture: it appeals to perceived female insecurities, reinforces the notion of men’s emotional disconnect, broadens the gap between the sexes.
“The historicity of texts and the textuality of history”: such is the mantra of new historicism. This YouTube advertisement shall not (nor should it) do down in history as a masterpiece. But the ad has meaning. It should be contextualized within its purpose, if known (to redirect YouTube-goers to Yahoo.com), within its intended audience (probably teenaged to middle-aged women) within culture (gender relations), and of course, within other texts. Let’s look at the ultra-famous novel He’s Just Not That Into You, and this internet ad, and a recently-published thesis on social culture at Dickinson College.
As I continue on in my literary travails, I would like to keep in mind the idea of perspective. For any piece of work, there are probably hundreds (okay, maybe not quite hundreds) of different contexts in which I could view it. I feel that my job is to keep looking, because culture, like meaning, is everywhere. It is the sub-context of the words all around us, even the words we’ve learned to ignore, like those constituting YouTube ads. Potential meaning, however, is locked up in isolation; the job of the critic is to contextualize it, and thus to liberate it.

Textual Criticism and Frost’s Poetry

In order to relate textual criticism to Frost’s poetry, I focused on the famous poem of “Design.” Frost worked on “Design” for more than ten years before publishing a copy. His first recorded manuscript dates back to 1912, when he sent a copy of “In White” to his friend, which appeared as follows:

A dented spider like a snow drop white
On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth–
Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?–
Portent in little, assorted death and blight
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth?—
The beady spider, the flower like a froth,
And the moth carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The blue prunella every child’s delight.
What brought the kindred spider to that height?
(Make we no thesis of the miller’s plight.)
What but design of darkness and of night?
Design, design! Do I use the word aright?

Some people have speculated that Frost sent this letter because he wanted to put down a legitimate copy of the poem. Regardless, Frost made the deliberate choice not to publish this version. The final version—the version most commonly accepted today— appears for the first time in 1922. This is the version I recognize from our class book The Poetry of Robert Frost, which was edited by Edward Connery Lathem in 1969:


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,

On a white heal-all, holding up a moth

Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–

Assorted characters of death and blight

Mixed ready to begin the morning right,

Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–

A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,

And dead wings carried like a paper kite.


What had that flower to do with being white,

The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?

What brought the kindred spider to that height,

Then steered the white moth thither in the night?

What but design of darkness to appall?–

If design govern in a thing so small.


The editor of our book didn’t change the poem from its format in A Further Range, which was published in 1936, and after searching the web extensively, I couldn’t find another version of “Design” other than these two.

               Unlike the work in textual criticism that we did with Emily Dickinson’s poems, if I were to attempt to analyze “Design,” I would not be dealing with the same flood of variations. Nevertheless, even in considering the simplified timeline of Frost’s two versions, I was confronted almost immediately with the essential question of textual criticism: which version of “Design” should serve as the copy-text? The majority of editors use the 1936 variation as the “true” form of the poem, the one that Frost intended. However, I wonder if there is a different way of thinking about Frost’s progression of ideas. What if “In White” served as the basic text, and “Design” was analyzed through the lens of “In White”? For example, Frost introduces in both poems the idea of a darker, evil-prone force, and he questions the reason behind such small details as the coincidence that “brought the kindred spider to that height” (a phrase used in both poems). The final disclaimer in the later poem— “If design govern in a thing so small”—seems even more significant when it is laid against the backdrop of “In White.” The early version does not rebuke the idea of a higher power meddling in trivial affairs as firmly as the later does. Instead, “In White” ends with a question—“Do I use the word aright?”—expressing only a sense hesitance and confusion. A devil’s advocate to analyzing various forms of poems in this manner would probably argue that Frost chose to publish one version and not the other; critics would argue that more emphasis should be placed on the published version. I can accept this point of view, but I do think considering the context of past versions is important to a complete understanding of a work.

               While researching online, I found that when critics did compare the two versions of “Design”, the manner of their critique was alarming. The critics did not even pretend to assume a neutral standpoint, arguing that certain lines within “In White” were “weaker” than others in “Design”, or that certain images in the later version were simply “better” than those in the earlier version. I find this type of attitude incredibly disrespectful to the author. If the aim of textual criticism, as opposed to new criticism, is (most would argue) to emphasize authorial intent, then I think that taking any aspect of a poem—be it an image, word, or punctuation mark—as anything less than the intent of the author is a slippery slope. And though I suggested a reading of “Design” through the lens of “In White”, I think it is important to consider “In White” as an entity of its own. Yes, Frost decided not to publish this version, and yes, he revised it later on, but “In White” is still a poem, a solo work of art that should not be degraded by speculation on how it was improved or how it could have improved.

               Bottom line: yikes, an editor has a really tough job.

Links used: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/frost/design.htm

“Petrichor” — stanza excercise


And if I were to lose my only name—
Here there is the scent of cigarette smoke infused into the core
of wooden benches.
It is as sweet and subtle as the Earth after rain. Call me nothing now
except after-rain: I exist beneath your wrinkled nose for just a moment; there
and then forgotten.
From here, your letters set your shoulder bones down deep into the center of your back.
They are the vessel for your arrogant laughter, traversing vast
distances. This is the one thing I expect of you:
avert your eyes from these benches (against this wall) as you pass them.
I see you walk the perimeter of your name,
a beetle around the inside edge of a glass—but this is not
my place. It’s time again to walk in line.

There are two hyphens in this poem, each revealing a significant shift in perspective and place. Each hyphen incites a strong break in the reading: the shifts are especially emphasized this way, because each break makes the last few words into an iamb and an anapest, respectively (“-ly name” and “of a glass”). If the syllabic emphasis were to fall instead of rise, the resultant sound would create more of a “finish” at the end of the line, and the transitions would be less jarring.
The first and last lines of this poem (the lines immediately before and after the hyphens), are written in iambic pentameter. The juxtaposition of the metered rhythm outside of the hyphens, and the lack thereof inside the hyphens, ties in directly with the poem’s theme of barriers. The strict form of iambic pentameter represents the strictness of the social limits imposed upon those who exist, per se, outside of the location to which the speaker makes his/her sudden transition. Only when the speaker leaves her familiar world is she able to express herself freely—in free-form verse. Suddenly, the lines are unmetered and often enjambed. In fact, as the character in the poem capitalizes on his newfound freedom of expression, the form of the poem does the same: enjambment effectively emphasizes certain words. Such terms include “the core”, “distances”, “except”, and “my place”. Each of these terms deepens the theme of social barriers, which are known to establish surface interactions, “distances” between people, and the confinement individuals to their specified “place.” Clearly, diction plays a significant role in relaying the poem’s message. In addition to the aforementioned terms, the repetition of “name” serves to highlight the restrictive nature of social barriers. (Use of a “name” is the most basic societal method of defining, and therefore limiting, other individuals.) The plural noun “Letters” is used as a double entendre, referring to the letters of someone’s name, but also a person’s Greek letters. The speaker is therefore using campus sororities and fraternities as examples of self-limiting social institutions.
The poem’s imagery further deepens this message about the restrictive nature of socialized labels. For example, the image of the beetle skirting “the inside edge of a glass” shows how the speaker, as a result of his/her heightened perspective, sees the others as trapped—less literally than metaphorically, as they are trapped within “the perimeter of [their] name.” The olfactory imagery of the “after-rain,” in conjunction with the title “petrichor” which can be taken literally to mean “the smell of the Earth after a rainfall“, relates the nature of petrichor to the nature of social constructs. Both are ever-present forces that become, over time, less noticed by the individual. Just as one gets used to the smell of after-rain, one loses awareness of his/her socialized existence—that is, until he/she can momentarily escape from it.