My Manifesto

I believe that literature should be read selfishly, contextualized through personal and applied connections to modern and historical culture, and analyzed in a group.  Throughout this course, the unsurpassable divisions and blatant differences between some of the critical methods have been interesting to look at.  However, through our efforts as a class to work through the two major texts, Mrs. Dalloway and Othello, I have found it fascinating how our new awareness and personal preference when it comes to this new group of unique critical approaches has been able to work together to dig out so much more meaning than just one approach would be able to.  We are able to hand-pick a method that we believe to be the most worthwhile and all write different papers about a single text from an infinite amount of perspectives.  I believe that literature is about becoming conscious, not just of details in the text and the author’s intent, but of the way these details isolate and clarify, or even create, something in the modern and historical culture.  This ability a text has, as a collection of language and plot tools, to both exemplify and create in the context of modern culture and historical culture leads me to believe that the critical approach of New Historicism is the one that we have studied that I agree with the most.

New Historicism seems worthy of a following to me because Greenblatt, the founder, and the approach as a movement acknowledges other critical approaches in its definition (by defining New Historicism as a break away from its predecessors’ gradual move to looking simply at the text for meaning.)  New Historicism allowed the idea of text to move from a verbal icon to a cultural artifact.  I find that if one is reading a text, the relationship between form and function and the internal meaning will pop up inevitably, and New Historicism is much more worthwhile as an approach because it moves a step further. The concept embedded in New Historicism that makes it stand out the most to me is the relationship between the historicity of texts and the textuality of history.  History creates texts and texts create history; we study literature to learn about our history, but with texts like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, would history even turn out the way it did if the text didn’t exist?  New Historicism acknowledges other critical approaches along with this unbreakable connection between history, culture, and text, which I find most conducive with the way I believe literature should be read, contextualized, and analyzed.  New Historicism has taught me that critical approaches can stem from a reverence or a disdain from a previous approach, which I will definitely use in my future pursuit of literary methods.  This class has taught me the logicality and usefulness of the range of critical approaches around for utilization today, and I plan on increasing my own personal connection to text through utilizing a multiplicity of approaches.

Race Theory and the Poetry of Robert Frost

While Frost’s poetry is not brimming with explicit representation of race or commentary on race, racial implications are present in several of his poems.  Frost wrote most of his poetry in the early 20th century, a time when identity politics was a major topic of discussion and study.  The Dictionary of Critical Theory defines identity politics as “a demand for the right to be different, and for that difference to be recognized as legitimate” and says it is based on “the contentions that collectivities and individuals defined by criteria of ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual have interests that are not or cannot be promoted or defended by broader agencies such as class or a constitutional state.”  Frost’s “Mending Wall,” which we read in class, deals directly with these ideas and can be found at this link:

http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/frost-mending.html

It is a poem centered around the ideas of borders between people, and the inherent differences between the narrator and his neighbor.  The symbolism of the fence, and the two distinct plots of land it creates, is that of the separation of identity groups.  When put in to the context of the early 20th century, this separation of identity groups most likely revolves around race.  The early 20th century was a time of racial turmoil for the United States – heinous acts such as lynchings and the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan were juxtaposed with one positive racial milestone: the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance.  Society was on its way to tolerance, but was very far from the finish line.  Relating to this, describing a section of the border between the narrator and his neighbor that does not need the fence, Frost writes, “There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across.  And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him” (23-26.)  In these lines, Frost is exemplifying the 1920’s idea that racial difference is a legitimate difference, but that different identity groups may be able to live in “peace” (“peace” here would be a sort of separate but equal ideal that we have been working to get away from today) without harsh borders because of their inherent differences.

One of Frost’s most famous poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which we read in class, is a poem one would never initially expect to have much to do with race. It can be found at this link:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171621

However, when juxtaposed with a poem by Thylias Moss entitled “Interpretation of a Poem by Frost,” both poems can be analyzed with an approach focused on racial theory.  The text of Moss’ poem can be found under this link:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177061

In terms of my own reading of Moss’s poem, my mind immediately went to the W.E.B. Du Bois chapter we read in class, and double-consciousness.  When Moss discusses the promises the child has to keep, such as “the promise that she bear Jim no bastards,” she is outlining this idea of double consciousness – the idea that this child must be aware of how other people are viewing her, along with the tasks at hand in her life and her own self-image.  The snow is the oppression that whites impose on blacks, and when the child shakes off the snow she is attempting to shake off that oppression.  But despite this effort, the poem ends with the sentiment that the child has miles to go before racial lines are successfully crossed.  In Frost’s poem, the snow is a potential threat to the man but is falling in a forest that belongs to a member of his own village, which is very different than the meaning of the snow in Moss’s poem.  Both poems follow a similar pattern, a weary traveler encounters a metaphoric snow in a metaphoric woods that does not belong to them and realizes he or she has miles and promises to go and keep before they can sleep or die.  However, Moss (an African-American)’s poem is racially charged, while Frosts (a white American)’s poem presents a universal journey-of-life struggle.  This brings up the question of whether or not the race of an author should matter – and if Moss’s poem is what Frost’s would look like if Frost were an African-American.  Could Frost’s poem and its universality work for both a majority and a minority audience, or does Moss’s poem bring something to the table that Frost’s cant?  I believe it does bring something more to the table…as it presents a struggle much more personal to a certain audience, and therefore much more meaningful.

Even though the Warren reading we discussed in class disagrees with this idea, black literature does still exist.  Moss, in the modern age, can write a meaningful poem about African-American struggle….made even more meaningful today than it could’ve back in the early 20th century by today’s modern critical racial theory and comparison to Frost.

Stanza Exercise

Greta Musacchio, Engl 220, 9/12/11

 

A Dark Thing Brightens Us

I like to call it the cave.

It’s a place most people would never stutter a glance on.

It’s dark and damp and sometimes spits water on your head.

Well, sometimes it would get too cold on 2 am walks back from the library

And we would complain like the children we knew we no longer were

And hold our helpless hands in our shallow pockets.

But we would finally get to the cave

And we were brightened.

Warm and thick air from the washer and dryer vents

Was our nighttime sun,

Giving us back what the weather and stress had taken from us.

 

Critical Analysis

My stanza, A Dark Thing Brightens Us, is a free verse stanza.  Free verse entails very little in terms of form.  There is no set rhyme scheme and no set meter.  However, that does not mean a free verse stanza like this one cannot contain several important literary devices.  A stanza is simply a “paragraph” of a poem, so this could only be one small component of a larger poem.  In this stanza, I thought very carefully about my diction.  I chose words like stutter, helpless, and shallow to describe a certain feeling – a feeling that the cave helped us escape from.  I also chose words like dark and damp and bright and sun to set up the big contrast that I first introduce in the title – that this dark and damp cave brought warmth back to my friends and me after long winter days and nights.  In this stanza, I also use a few similes and metaphors to bring the descriptions to that next level.  “And we would complain like the children we knew we no longer were…” is an example of a simile and “Warm and thick air from the washer and dryer vents was our nighttime sun…” is an example of a metaphor.  Similes and metaphors in this stanza allow the feelings that my friends and I had before we got to the cave and the warming qualities of the air to be more vivid for the reader.  I also utilized alliteration in this stanza.  “Helpless hands” is my favorite example of alliteration in the stanza.  I used alliteration to give the poem a little bit of a steady beat despite its free verse nature.  The lineation in this stanza contains enjambment and end-stop patterns.  When I used end-stop lines and the clauses ran over from line to line, I did it to add emphasis to certain lines of the stanza because it adds a small pause before the second half of the clause.  For example, in the clause “But we would finally get to the cave,/ And we were brightened.”, “And we were brightened” has emphasis due to the enjambment, which works with this stanza very well because the brightening aspects of the cave is an important part of the larger idea.  The use of both enjambment and end-stop lineation to me shows the sort of jumping around aspect of the stanza.  The stanza also contains symbolism, as the cave is a larger symbol for refuge in disguise, which is never explicitly said but should be assumed by the reader at a certain point.  Even for a small stanza like this, critical analysis and close reading can happen because every bit of writing has literary devices that are put there for a purpose.