May 2011


Many people have claimed to have figured out the proper way to analyze a text; many of whom are profound writers, critics, and figures in literary society. Many people have preached that their descriptions of the way to analyze texts are the “right” way and that those who doubt them are wrong. Only I, however, have figured out and will explain to you the true meaning of text, the learner’s guide for comprehending lyric, literary criticism for dummies.

            As a literary critic, there are four categories that a work of writing are broken down into and analyzed by. These categories include; author, critic, reader, and text. Each category is important to the actual literature, however some more than others. Also, it is imperative to understand that different works of literature have different priorities; an autobiography may have more of a focus on the author while the critic can play a big role on a contemporary novel. The four categories exist in all literature, and through the lens of New Criticism, the proper analysis can be made.

            Most important to the work of literature is text. Everything and everyone reading, writing, and understanding the literature depends on the text for information. The only thing that the reader has to even look at is the text. The author spends hours laboring over the text, editing it and perfecting it to make it sound perfect, exactly like they want it to, to readers. As other New Critics would conclude, for a critic to interpret specific meaning from the author and apply that to the text or general understanding of the work would be to commit intentional fallacy. People tend to read too far into the author’s state of mind, and this is why the author needs to be reduced on the hierarchy of what makes up a work of literature. Just like when Colson Whitehead visited our classroom, he told us about how one person had asked him if he had named a character in one of his novels after a post-racial theme because of certain characteristics and actions that character exhibits throughout the novel. He simply replied that the name of the character came from the street name on a sign that was present outside his window. This is not the only fallacy that New Critics attempt to avoid.

            Being the most innovative and brilliant thinkers about works of literature from wide ranges of canons is not easy; it requires much work and thinking. Thus, New Critics developed a concept similar to that of intentional fallacy called affective fallacy. The term was developed in order to prevent readers and critics alike from making a judgment about a text based on the emotional effects it has on the reader, claiming that affective fallacy is the mistake of judging a work in such a way (Wismatt and Beardsley). It is only appropriate when criticizing a work to keep the concepts of intentional fallacy and affective fallacy in mind.

            In his influential work for the “genre” of New Criticism, Cleanth Brooks helped to define the meanings and key concepts behind New Criticism. He stated, “Moreover, the formalist critic knows as well as anyone that literary works are merely potential until they are read- that is, that they are re-created in the minds of actual readers, who vary enormously in their capabilities, their interests, their prejudices, their ideas” (Brooks 74). This concept can be applied to Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, specifically the section when Whitehead uses the powerful watermelon reference. In this section of his novel, the narrator states, “We were all of us stuck whether we wanted to admit it or not. We were people, not performance artists, all appearances to the contrary” (Whitehead 108). This is an incredibly powerful section of this novel, one that sends strong messages of African American race and culture that are unavoidable when analyzing the racial aspects of the book. It would be easy for a reader to feel bad for the narrator because of the negative racial connotations that this passage possesses, however when analyzing them it is very important to remove the author from the racial analysis. The ideas that he presents are and had been around much longer than he had, and it is necessary to make sure that one does not confuse this idea of the racial tension they feel with Whitehead’s own ideas.

            A work of literature has various parts that must be individually analyzed and broken down, and it starts with the text itself. Although it is hotly debated, the text is the foundation of all literature. Therefore it must be placed atop this hierarchy of literary aspects. To state that the author is more important than the actual text would be intentional fallacy, a concept New Critics have created to stress the importance of text over the author. The reader has the right to interpret the literature as he/she will, but relies on the text as the basis of his/her argument. Allowing emotion to run in the way of analysis of the work would also present a case of fallacy that is unacceptable when attempting to analyze literature. Lastly, even though critics may be able to present arguments such as this one to a reader, it is ultimately the reader’s goal to formalize these ideas for themselves.

Works Cited

Brooks, Cleanth. “The Formalist Critics.” The Kenyon Review 13.1 (1951): 72-81. Print.

Whitehead, Colson. Sag Harbor. New York: Anchor Books, 2009.

Wimsatt, W.K & Monroe Beardsley, “The affective fallacy”, Sewanee Review, vol. 57, no. 1, (1949): 31-55.

Jacob Kipnis               Cultural Difference and Canon Elimination          

5/4/11

Every piece of literature published today is categorized under a canon. No work stands by itself and the prevailing class always determines the canon and its literature. Today, that prevailing class is Western culture. While the U.S. is known as a melting pot of all cultures, there exists undeniably an upper class that consists of mainly male, Christian, heterosexual Americans of western-European descent. This class of people is not only the dominant class but the dominant culture as well. Literature inherently reflects the culture that creates it. The literature written by the dominant class in a culture is the dominant literature of that culture; in other words the major literature. Any literature written that is not a reflection of the dominant culture is a minor literature. Both minor and major literature’s can be understood as canons as they are both simply categories that literature falls under. In order for literature to be understood equally, both minor and major literature must be combined into one communal art. The combination of canon’s breaks down the difference that defined each canon and allows for judgment based on the work of literature alone. The right for an individual to interpret a piece of literature however she or he likes without the limitation of a canon is the only way literature should be understood. This is why we are allowed to say whatever we want about a work of art as long as we find evidence to support it.

This is not to say that literature is apolitical or does not have cultural relevance. In literature, there exists the inherent politics of the society in which the literature stems. The way literature is understood is inherently grounded in the culture that creates it. This means the perception of a piece of literature will be in part, always determined by the perception of that culture in its society. This is why literature does not stand by itself because the literature will only be understood within the confines of that culture. This is canon formation. Formalism advocates the death of the author but the author cannot be ignored when canon formation exists. Formalism cannot be enactedwhen the categorization of literature is so heavily based uponthe identity of the author and her or his culture. This is also unrealistic when we live in an age where an author’s identity and life story is available at the click of a button.

The author and the culture from which the literature stems forces the art into a canon but the content and aesthetics of the literature remains independent of a canon. The content and style of a work of art should never be categorized into a canon because anyone has the right to say what a piece of art is about without being limited by a canon. The identity of the author exists separate from what the author creates. An author may be influenced by the style of another author or allude to other pieces of literature but the author’s work remains independent even though it combines other aspects of literature. By combining aspects of different canons, these differences that were once seen as conflicting, if integrated can dismantle this understanding of difference and create a mutual art. Colson Whitehead articulates this in Sag Harbor: “They dismantled this piece of white culture and produced this freakish and sustaining thing, reconfiguring the chilly original into a communal artifact” (Whitehead, 77). The combination of arts eliminates the idea of a canon because by disarming difference the author proves that the difference never truly existed at all.

Literature must not belong to a canon because each canon will always have definitions that accept certain works of art and deny others; this creates opposition. It is possible for authors of a minor canon to create literature of equal aesthetics to the major canon because aesthetics is a reflection of the authors individual ability not her or his racial, sexual, religious or gender identity but the work itself will always be understood within the confines of a canon. Today, a work of literature will always be understood in contexts pertaining to the culture of that literature.This limits the possible meanings of a work of art. Thus a work of art can never truly be understood by anyone’s interpretation.

During Colson Whiteheads lecture, when he acknowledged the influence of Ralph Ellison on his work he also mentioned the influence of many other authors that fell into other literary canons. This is because to let one’s work fall under a canon would be to limit the possibilities for interpretation. The refusal to be trapped by a canon is seen in the interview with Suzan-Lori Parks when she questions why the play can’t just be about two brothers in a room. It is because if someone believes that is what the play is about, then that is legitimate. The integration of different canons will break down the categories that limit the understanding of literature. The identity of the author is always going to be available but when that identity no longer mandates a canon then literature will be understood on an individual basis and allow for any and equal interpretation.

How do readers decide what the most important pieces of literature are? Is it the author for creating the work that they are now enjoying? Are they themselves the crucial part because their experiences create a connection to the text? What role do political views play in the reading or writing of the text? Does the cultural climate have a similar influence? Is the critic critical for understanding the work because they provide a framework for the piece? Or is the text that crucial part? Everything else would be senseless without the text after all.

The author is a decisive part of interpretations of literary works because her life experiences affect her writing, even if the piece is not autobiographical. The author can be removed completely from the explanation of the text, or not; however, she cannot dictate how the work must be read. According to Roland Barthes, in attempts to prevent the impact of authorial, the author has to be separate from the work so that readers and critics are not influenced by the author’s experiences. Lyn Hejinian agrees with this to a degree. She wants readers to use theory to interpret her poetry in My Life, but not her life experiences. In placing this set of directions upon the reader, however, she is asking that the novel be read according to her intentions. If the reader follows only the interpretations outlined by Hejinian’s wants, the reading of the poetry would be severely limited, as it would be highly theoretical and critically based without individualized interpretations.

For instance, Hejinian wants the syntactical sentences of the poems to seem unrelated, but the reader can find connections between the sentences—almost as if Hejinian skipped the connecting thought. “From here each day seems like a little boat and all the days are swept back and forth across an immense and distant bay of blue, gray, green. We were like plump birds along the shore, caught by mortal breaks” (35), the idea of water in both phrases links the two sentences. Moreover, the first phrase uses the motion of the waves and the second talks of “mortal breaks” (35), bringing the image of breaking waves to mind; due to imagery a link between the two seemingly unconnected sentences is forged. In these moments, the author’s theoretical intentions are important because it provides a framework for how the poem was written, but the reader still has room to interpret because she does not have to rely solely upon the objectives of the poet, allowing the reader to find connections between phrases and create an interpretation free from authorial intention.

Another important factor in the creation of interpretations is the reader. Readers use their own experiences and beliefs to read the work—no two people will understand a work in the same way because they will have experienced different events, both politically and culturally, up to this point. The connections that readers find in the text are based in their personal experiences, even though the book is highly theoretical. Because of the ambiguity of My Life and the way in which personal experiences influence an interpretation of the text, the reader’s understanding of the text is not reliant upon the author’s intentions or on how she expects the components of the text to be interpreted. I can see myself in My Life because of small details Hejinian includes that are similar to my own life. My mother has white curtains in our house that are never moved from their pre-arranged places much like “the windows narrowed by white gauze curtains which were never loosened” (7). My personal knowledge allows me to create a connection between the text, building a greater understanding of the author’s experiences, as I perceive them, and myself.

Each critic is a reader first; while he uses critical theory to find meaning in the text, his experiences also influence his reading of the work—just like any other reader. Critics largely interpret books as a reader would, although they base their understanding around a type of critical theory, using their life experiences to read the text and provide evidence for their arguments. This book of poetry is highly theoretical, which influences the way that critics read the work, but it does not limit them to only being able to interpret the work based upon the theory used within it. A critic is not bound by authorial intention anymore than a reader is, which enables a critic to use Hejinian’s method as an outline for how to read the work, or not. The text is the basis from which a critic’s interpretation is made, ultimately using several other sources of information and perspectives.

The text has been, is and always will be an extremely vital component of literature. This is the body that all interpretations are based off of. Using only the words and form on the pages, critics and readers are only able to create a very limited understanding of the work.
We “took” our time as if that were part of the baggage we carried. In other words, we “took our time.” The experience of a great passion, a great love, would remove me, elevate me, enable me at last to be both special and ignorant of the other people around me, so that I would be free at last from the necessity of appealing to them, responding to them (64).
In this passage, a reader and critic could focus solely upon the way that Hejinian plays with language, using a common idiomatic phrase in contrast to the true meaning of word “took.” A critical reader can also focus on the way that she changes topics to discuss her liberation, “I would be free at last” (64) after she uses the multiple meaning of the verb “to take.” The contrast in ideas is very clear as the act of taking implies captivity whereas this freedom is the direct opposite; using a feminist critical approach, these phrases could be linked to the captivity of women in a patriarchal society. After this contrast is made, she places herself in the center of the actions with the repetition of “me” in the phrasing “remove me, elevate me, enable me” (64). By using this repetition, she forces the idea to revolve around her, perhaps suggesting that “a great love” (64) could help her gain freedom from an oppressive society. Critics and readers’ life experiences color the way that they view situations or thoughts, causing them to arrive at different conclusions than those presented through the text alone.

Which component of literature is most important? There is no one part of literature that is superior to all other parts. The author, the readers, critics and the text itself are all intertwined as each portion influences another and the way that a work can be understood. Text, however, cannot be the only component that criticism is derived from. Readers and critics must use other methods of reading the text as well or they will continue to only develop one perspective of a work. This holds true for My Life, especially due to the myriad of ways that the poems can be interpreted. If a reader or critic limited himself to only one form of reading—as encouraged by Hejinian’s authorial intentions—he would not be doing justice to the extensive number of complex ideas present in the poetry, available only if the book is looked at through different lenses.

In history classes, one reads historical documents to learn about a person and their actions, in addition to learning about a specific time period. I think this method should also be applied to literature as a way to learn about culture, and to grasp a deeper knowledge about an author and their life. In Sylvia Plath’s last collection of poems entitled Ariel, a few poems specifically reference suicide and are telling of a specific mindset. I think the fact that these poems were the last poems before Plath took her own life is relevant to the poems themselves and to an extent alter the way in which the poems are read and interpreted. Some argue that considering her suicide limits the reading of her poetry, but I am not suggesting relating each and every stanza in the collection back to her suicide. Especially when Plath cites death as an “art form,” the reader is provided with more reason to interpret death as opposed to being boxed in by the act. I am merely suggesting that if ones consider Plath’s suicide it doesn’t limit but actually spurs interpretation.

Take Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus.” The theme of death is a main point in this poem, as with many of the others. I don’t think the fact that Sylvia Plath killed herself shortly after writing these poems is a coincidence. I think that it provides some insight as to her state of mind. The seventh stanza in Plath says “And like the cat I have nine times to die./This is number three.” (Lines 21-22) From this section the reader can gather Plath has already “died” twice making the reader question the past two deaths. When she continues later in the fifteenth stanza of “Lady Lazarus” Plath states, “Dying/ Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well.” (Lines 43-45). One can’t ignore the emphasis on the word “Death.” To begin with the word is its own line, which only happens twice in this poem with the other single line word being “beware.” Furthermore it is the only line in this stanza without punctuation at the end, providing an emphasis on this line because of what is lacking. The emphasis on death is enhanced when one recalls Plath’s suicide and in the following lines more so when she says she dies “exceptionally well.” Knowing Plath’s eventual suicide gives the poem a double meaning of sorts. Not only does death and dying relate to the speaker of “Lady Lazarus”, but it relates to Plath and her voice also.

For the majority of the semester, my class has been asked to prioritize 4 components of literature according to different theorists. These four components are text, author, critic and lastly reader. The most important in my mind is without a doubt the author.

The author is the flesh and blood of the works being read. It is hard to discount or lessen their status because without them, there would be no work in question. Furthermore, these authors are the individuals crafting the works and creating a message they deem important. An author in my view is any published person.

Following the author category I would think text is the second most important aspect to consider.  The text is full of meaning and can provide an accurate depiction of a specific time period or even serve as a criticism of society at the time. The text I would say is just that, text. I wouldn’t limit text to just published books, poems, novels, articles etc because historical documents are vital as well. And even diaries of people who aren’t necessarily famous, like ancestors are important because it is telling and informative of a past time.

As for the remaining two categories, critics and readers, I found them to be of equal importance. While the critic is in my view a small subset of the larger group of readers, I find them important for a different reason. Critics are the individuals who are scholars well versed in literary works. Critics are those who have been published specifically citing theories and relating specific works back to the theories. Critics seem to dictate which books are considered canonical and which are worthless. Because of this, readers discover which texts are important as a result of critics. The readers are the largest group yet this is not a negative thing. The people who read the texts, be it diaries, documents or novels, are those who will react and possibly bring about change based on texts. They may not all be critics, but undoubtedly critics are readers.

There are set of standards or questions associated with each theory, such as gender for feminists. The set of standards and questions applicable to my theory would pertain mostly to culture of the time period and to the life of the author. What has happened to this author to influence the work in question? Because most are told to “write about what you know,” there is a good possibility an authors past experiences has influenced their work. In addition to this question I would want readers to get a better understanding of society at the time of the novel, specifically in regards to the location of the book. For instance what political movements were happening around Plath’s time? What was the cultural climate when Plath wrote Ariel in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s? The combination of these two would provide the reader with the best possible picture of the work itself, and even more so create a picture of society at the time.

What I Value As A Literary Critic

There are numerous forms of writing that relate to different types of literary criticism. Text, Author, Reader, and Critic are four “terms” that used to describe the many intentions and forms seen by a literary method’s meaning. But most importantly, literary critics prioritize these terms through proper critical analysis of critical approaches and literary methods. For example, when reading Lyn Hejinian’s autobiography My Life, “reader,” “author,” and “text” are mutually implicated as the three equivalent characters for critically analyzing her autobiography. Being new to the intellectual practice of literary criticism, there are certain aspects of reading, writing, and thinking that I value more than others, such as content and how well the author can formulate his or her argument. I have worked with several critical approaches and literary methods organized around three pairs of concepts this semester, such as close/distant, power/resistance, and finally, description/evaluation.

According to Cleanth Brooks’ essay “The Formalist Critics” published from his book My Credo, Brooks states that the “Formalist Critic knows as well as anyone that literary works are merely potential until they are read – that is, that they are recreated in the minds of actual readers.” (Brooks, My Credo, pg. 74). His main focus of his essay about Formalist literary criticism resides in prioritizing the “critic” and “text” as the main focal points of literary methods and critical approaches. Where most literary critics would argue otherwise, Brooks goes on to further state the importance of how “such studies describe the process of composition, not the structure of the thing composed, that they may be performed quite as validly for the poor work as for the good one where any kind of expression, non-literary as well as literary, is just as validly performed.” (Brooks, My Credo, pg. 74). Brooks’ argument helps readers and other literary critics understand the fundamentals of Formalist literary criticism. Not by his in-depth analysis of his supporting statements, but through his opposition of authorial intention as a standard.

Most Formalist Critics use lyric poetry as their main form of meaning and literary method, which parallels Brooks’ main argument. In his essay, he focuses on content as a unifying theme of form and meaning when critically analyzing literary methods. For example, in William Butler Yeats’ sonnet “Leda And The Swan,” published in his book The Tower, Yeats focuses primarily on his explicit language that ultimately connects several dualities with “form is meaning” (Brooks, My Credo, pg. 72). He switches gender throughout, going from “his” to “her,” as seen in the lines “he holds her helpless breast upon his breast” (Yeats, The Tower, pg. 51 lines 7-8), and “did she put on his knowledge with his power before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” (Yeats, The Tower, pg. 52 lines 24-27). The switch between masculinity and femininity in this poem depicts the duality of how the two characters in this literary text “cannot be separated” (Brooks, My Credo, pg. 72). Furthermore, the violent imagery used by Yeats outlines a physical impossibility between the two characters and a tonal shift in Yeats’ writing, as seen in the first question of the second stanza of the poem: “How can those terrified vague fingers push the feathered glory from her loosening thighs?” (Yeats, The Tower, pg. 51 lines 9-12). This question clearly shows literary critics how the duality of the violent imagery with the chaotic grammar seen throughout the poem is thus a strong form illustrating its literary work’s meaning.

After closely connecting Cleanth Brooks’ main argument with the language used throughout this sonnet, it is clear that the dualities of gender and violent imagery and grammar are representative of how “form and content cannot be separated in a successful work” (Brooks, My Credo, pg. 72). Not all dense, lyric poems can accurately focus on the four critical priorities; yet this poem incorporates enough meaning in its form and composition for the four literary characters to be prioritized in order of “text,” “author,” “critic,” then “reader.” Perhaps, Yeats intended to incorporate a tonal difference in language throughout his poem of what he believes to be the true meaning of his poem, the violent imagery and tenderness qualities of such an aggressive scene connecting two bodies into one. As a junior English Minor, I believe that the values expressed through Brooks’ essay, in comparison with my own similar values of literary criticism, will improve my writing style tremendously.

When reading literature aspects of both the Author and Reader’s view are apparent. A work of literature is not complete without background from the author as it is incorporated one way or another. As well as with the reader, background helps shape understanding as well as allowing there to be a bond or relationship. It’s sometimes easy to assume or guess what the author’s life may or might have been like based off of the literary works they complete. As someone reading it, background creates foreground in a way that helps the reader interact with the authors work.

In literature an author incorporates his or her own background to better apply a theme. It could be a favorite color or a favorite place in the world that could hold as the center piece of a poem or a novel. Authors create images based off of experiences or personal opinions and thoughts to give the reader more room for thought. In Sag Harbor, there are instances where “double-consciousness” come into light and is questioned as well. Colson Whitehead from experience understands the concept of double-consciousness and so it’s much easier to incorporate this into his novel…he told me himself. While giving his main character a persona of unsureness based off of double-consciousness the reader is given an opportunity to understand the concept as well as adapt and relate or disagree somehow. With the author applying personal knowledge or fact, they manifest a gateway that allows the reader to directly see and feel what the author might have been thinking at the time of writing the poem or novel. It is important and necessary for an author to put personal belief and experience into their works. Without it the work is lacking a sense of realness. An authors background can be in relation to race or ethnicity, or where they come from. The characters they have could possibly be the same race as them, or maybe the opposite race, a race they potentially never understood and wanted to figure out. The places they map out could be the area they grew up in, and wanted to get out of or further explore. Having background in relation to life or belief from the author will allow any reader to look into with different perspectives. You can only argue with fact but so much, but when opinion is present it brings together a larger forum for expression/understanding and ideas. My opinion towards a literary work is solely based off of my assumption that the author has incorporated some aspect of their life in their work, because without it I’m short on how much I can allow myself to relate to the author and what they write.

“You were hard or else you were soft…word on the Street was that we were soft, with our private school uniforms, in our cozy beach communities, so we learned to walk like hard rocks.” (pg. 176) A reader can be very opinionated towards this passage from Sag Harbor. A reader needs to be opinionated because without opinion there’s no point in the author writing to begin with. The lines of this passage directly relate to behavior based off of double-consciousness and “how” society wants you to act. That’s an opinion based off of experience, and fact whether it be in my life or the life of any other reader who happened to pick up Sag Harbor. The concept of understanding literary themes is not done without views and background. This passage could have been a moment in Colson Whiteheads life, and he chose to put it in a novel that circled around the idea of double-consciousness, a theme in a category of its own.

The four elements of literary criticism are the author, reader, text and critic.  Each term provides a set of questions used to analyze literary works.  These questions consist of authorial intent, audience, thematic statements and literary theories. I as a literary critic believe that the most important part of analyzing a literary work is through the text, then the author, and lastly the reader and the critic.  For the purpose of this argument, I shall combine the two creating a new word, readic, as the reader and critic are one in the same.  The text is the most important part of the analysis as it stimulates one to ask questions to search for the deeper meanings within the text.  I believe without the text there is no author or readic, as neither of these can exist without a written work. 

The author is both a separate and active party to the text.  The author is separate to the text as it is not their intent to create a biography with each literary work. A literary work is part of the author but of which is not dictated by the author’s life nor must it be exclusively seen as an extension of the author’s life. As an author writes a text, they place themes, motifs, symbols, and other literary devices within the text both consciously and unintentionally. Every text has these devices contained within it.  The point of the readic is to find these devices and then analyze them by asking questions aimed at finding the deeper meaning of the text.  These deeper meanings capable of creating profound statements that can affect people such as racial identity. In addition, the readic must also decide how much authorial intent is necessary to analyze the text.  The author as well can be at fault with the analysis of text as authorial intent can either support or negate the text and thematic statements. 

The final element is readic.  The main purpose of combining the reader with the critic is that all readers are critics and all critics are readers. In order to be a critic one does not need training.  Critical thinking is about assessing statements. In the literary world, it is about assessing connections such as metaphors and symbols within the text bringing a more profound connotation to the text.  The opinions of the readic are unimportant unless the text is analyzed which is why I believe the readic is the least important element of literary criticism. As it is possible for a readic to read and not analyze and analyze the text to a point where the analysis becomes stretched to the point of misrepresentation. The readic is always in a chance at being at fault in the process of analysis, because the process can be complicated; generalizations can occur on multiple levels such as societal and biographical – societal by connecting the text directly to society or biographical by connecting the text directly to the author.  This is why the readic is unreliable unless the analysis is collected directly from the text and is supported by the texts.

As the text is the most important part of the analysis, all questions revert to the written work.  First the most basic questions: is there repetition, metaphors, symbols, any literary devices? Then one takes these questions and asks how do these connect with the text?  What are the thematic statements, why are they there? When I ask these questions, I think only of the literary text.

In Suzan-Lori Parks Topdog/Underdog,the first question I asked was what is the importance of the names of the brothers, Booth and Lincoln? From the first page of the play, an automatic tension is set into play because of their names.  Two African-American brothers named Booth and Lincoln, after the fortieth president of the United States and his assassin.  According to their father, their naming, “was his idea of a joke” (Parks 1.1).  A joke of which, from the beginning, preordained these two brothers to the same fate as that of President Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.  The fact that two African-American brothers named after a president and his assassin show how there is a theme of predestined fate.  Booth is destined to shoot Lincoln.  In addition to the naming, Lincoln works at an arcade where he uses whiteface to portray President Lincoln.  An African-American man, who uses whiteface, is named after President Lincoln and has a brother named Booth.  Fate is directly connected to the plot of the play as it is evident how this play will end with Booth shooting his brother Lincoln. Neither brother can prevent this, as their destinies became fated from the moment they were named.

The next step of the process is to view authorial intent.  In an interview, Suzan-Lori Parks stated that she did not place any meaning with picking the names of her two characters.  Yet, without these names the play would not have the same meaning, it would have needed to be analyzed in a different way, with different questions.  In this case, authorial intent is unsatisfactory; as it seeks to deny my thematic statement, therefore I as a critic chose to ignore authorial intent. In cases where the author is, dead one must analyze the text with information of the author such as the author’s history. While not every work is an autobiography, small trace amounts of the author’s life and opinions can be found within the work, thus allowing one to find authorial intent.

 This is why the most important part of literary criticism is the text as only the text is infallible.

Death Comes to Life

Before attending Dickinson College, I never took into consideration the importance of the author, reader, text and critic of a literary work. Whether it is a novel, poem, or short story, I generally found myself reading them all the same. Once becoming familiar with the roles of all of these literary components, it has come to my attention that the order of these literary factors is always subject to change, depending on the work. I resist accepting a holistic view of literary criticisms because I think each work varies with context and therefore all cannot be treated the same. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life can be considered a hybrid in that it incorporates narrative, poetry, criticism and autobiography. For Hejinian’s work I believe that the most important, in the order they appear, are the author, text, reader and critic. It is her crossbreed of genres that makes this work an extraordinary read. The order of these literary components is essential for understanding this work and ultimately provides the knowledge necessary for understanding Hejinian’s multi-faceted writing style.

As I’ve grown as an English major I’ve learned to ask myself pressing questions when reading literary works such as: What is the author’s relationship to the content/piece as a whole? Does the author exhibit a unique writing style? Does the text keep me engaged? It is these questions that I feel truly evaluate a literary work and have further led me to read works in several ways. For me, the author is the creator of the text. They have chosen the subject and the specific way in which they want to talk about it. Hejinian is married to the text because it stems from her original ideas. The text is next because it provides form and content. It gives the work structure. Hejinian is a key factor in creating this structure because she is responsible for the 45 sections each composed of 45 lines. Regardless if the text is interesting, it appears from the minute we open the cover. Whether it is the title or the table of contents it is the first thing we are introduced to and opens up the literary world we choose to delve into when reading a novel, a poem, a prose piece, etc. I feel the reader is next and even plays a close second to the text for My Life. The reader must be involved in this work to take on the challenge of Hejinian’s writing. I would put the critic last in regards to My Life; however, this does not go to say that it is the least important. The opinion of a critic is necessary when analyzing literary works. However, I feel it is most beneficial to read the critic last for My Life. Hejinian tries to create a writing that opposes close reading and literary criticism. It is then up to the reader to see if they can formulate literary criticisms and in fact close read this work.

Hejinian’s personal account of her experiences as a child and later as a mother, poet and ultimately critic make My Life a fascinating read. One may feel Hejinian’s thoughts are too “scattered,” and thus the fragmentation takes away from the work. However, it is through this fragmentation that we can see her voice in her writing, which is provided with authentic value. “ A dog bark, the engine of a truck, an airplane hidden by the trees and rooftops. My mother’s childhood seemed a kind of holy melodrama. She ate her pudding in a pattern,” (Hejinian, 20). It is from this short textual example we can see the influence of the author on the text and how they work with one another. The several subjects in the first line are an example of the writing style Hejinian uses throughout the book.  She incorporates several thoughts in each sentence to keep the reader engaged and on their feet. The reader is faced with the dog, the truck engine, the airplane and the rooftops and is in charge of grasping each of these. What do they all signify? The subject then switches again to her mother’s childhood. Why is her mother’s childhood being referenced? Hejinian holds influence over the syntactical order of this text. She creates this constant scattered thought process to emphasize her realistic view of the world as she sees it. The subject switches parallel Hejinian’s scattered thought processes. This ultimately makes is difficult for the reader to grasp the work because it is hard to find one subject for them to resonate with. However, this difficulty shows Hejinian is successful in making the reader become a part of her work to understand it. Her voice is continuously embedded in this work through this lack of coherence in her writing.

What makes this work interesting to criticize is that both Roland Barthes and Lyn Hejinian support the notion that there is no authorial control over the writing of a work. Hejinian frames her work like Barthes and tries to assimilate with the reader and remove herself from the writing. Barthes agrees with this when he says, “the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins” (Barthes, 253). The way I see it though, is that Hejinian’s voice is never lost. Her writing does a fascinating job of creating a language that is emotionally evoking. While she tries to set up this authorial absence and prevent a close reading of her work, she is truly in control of this text and manifests her ideas throughout.

While reading W.B Yeat’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” the language of the poem compels one to conjure up images of relaxation and solitude. The small cabin is “of clay and wattles made” consisting of “nine bean rows” and “a hive for honey-bee” where he will “live alone in the bee-loud glade.” This imagery of a small cabin is simplistic and peaceful bringing about images of summer fun and vacations. The poem continues in describing how the narrator will “have some peace there” and the tone of the poem indicates his need to take a break from society and relax. The second stanza of the poem mentions the senses when the narrator hears the crickets singing and the “lake water lapping” on the shore and sees the purple glow of midnight. Because of the tone, use of senses and description, the poem invokes images of tranquility.

However, after listening to W.B. Yeats read this poem, the tone and meaning behind the words completely changed. Yeats’ tone when reading this poem aloud was serious and had a sense of urgency as if he had to get some peace as soon as possible. The words were hard to say for the narrator and the tone of the poem was painful and angry. After hearing this rendition of the poem, I re-read and understood that the original sense of urgency I felt was not for peace and relaxation but was to get away from a serious problem within the narrator’s life. The second stanza says “for peace comes dropping slow/Dropping from the veils of the mourning” indicating that it is difficult for the narrator to get peace and that he is mourning some loss.

This experience of having two very different readings of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” leads me to question how I rate the four categories of literature. The top priority in regards to these four categories is the reader. Authors write their literature in order to affect readers and have an influence over their audience. Without the reader, the literature would not be successful and become part canons of literature. In addition, the way the literature is read depends on the individual’s personal experiences and what they bring to the piece of work. This is evident in my reading of Yeat’s poem because I first read the poem based on my background knowledge of Yeats and I used my visions of the cabin to influence how I read the poem. Without individual’s experience, literature would not be effective and would not influence readers because they would have no personal interest in the literature.

The rest of the hierarchy for literature consists of the text, the author and then the critic. I feel that the text guides the reader and helps them to relate to the work and convince them to continue reading. While I feel criticism is significant in regards to higher education and further intellectual work, the average individual does not delve into numerous literary criticisms about the text.

Based on my experiences with Yeats, the role of the author is the biggest question I will have in regards to my literary studies. In Roland Barthes’ manifesto “Death of the Author,” he states that the author should not have an influence over readers interpretations about the work. “Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance writing…language knows a subject, not a person” (255) indicating that Barthes feels that once the literature is written, the author does not have a role in how it is perceived.

As evidenced by my reading of Innisfree, I feel that the author does have some role within the poem. I agree with Barthes that the author should not be the top priority however, my reading of Yeats completely changed once I heard him read his version of the poem. What should the role of the author include? Should readers simply stick to their interpretation of the work or allow the author to influence how they read? My opinion lies in the middle because I think readers should have their own interpretation of the work, regardless of authorial intention. However, learning the author’s opinions about the literature or learning of their personal life can help elevate the reading and enhance how the literature is perceived.

In conclusion, I value the reader’s interpretation of the text, then the text itself, the author and finally the critic for enhancing how the reader analyzes the text. The main question with which I struggle is the role of the author. While I disagree with Barthes that the author is dead, I am not sure the extent to which the author should be involved. As my experience with Yeats indicates, once the author becomes involved, a reader’s analysis of a text, the tone and meaning behind the work can change for the individual. In certain instances, this may be positive and in other cases, the reader should have an honest interpretation of the literature. While these are my opinions now, as I traverse through the English major at Dickinson College my priorities are sure to change and be influenced by other criticisms and works.