What are we teaching when we teach literature?

This week my seminar has been reading Louise Rosenblatt’s The Reader, The Text, The Poem.  After several weeks of analyzing everyday texts, the literature students in the course were happy to finally get to what they saw at the beginning of the course as the important stuff–analyzing literary texts.  However, Rosenblatt’s argument that the poem is a product of a transaction between a reader and a text, and that a new unique poem is created by each reader and each reading, took some of them aback.  While it is easy to see that a literary text might have multiple meanings, most of us instinctively feel that there must at least be a stable set of “correct” meanings that can be derived from expert, well-informed analysis.  From this point of view the student of literature is being trained to provide reliable interpretations within a consensus of opinion.

Rosenblatt sees the text of the poem as being like a musical score to be performed by the reader.  Different readers bring different experiences to the performance of the text, so each performance is unique.  One could see a literature degree as a way of filling in the background experience so that most literature majors bring a similar body of reading experience to the canonical texts, constraining the types of readings that will occur.

Rosenblatt makes a distinction between aesthetic and efferent reading, the latter being reading for information.  In her view, one reads a poem for an aesthetic experience, but reads a medicine bottle purely for facts.  She cites an example of a third grade teacher having her students read a poem about cows, and then asking, “What did you  learn about cows from this poem?”  The question is wrong because it triggers an efferent reading instead of an aesthetic one.

Reading the Cliff’s Notes version of a novel does not produce an aesthetic reading.  The reader is looking for facts about the novel, the characters, the plot, the themes, etc., and is looking to avoid the aesthetic experience, the imaginative work of creating a literary work from the text.

Rosenblatt is rigorously trained in philosophy, and her arguments and methods are steeped in phenomenological approaches.  I designed an in-class experiment to explore her theory.  I divided my class into four groups and gave each group a poem, face down.  The poems were “Introduction to Poetry” and “Consolation” by Billy Collins, “To a French Structuralist” by David Kirby, and “Introduction” by Ann Carson, from her book Plainwater.  First I allowed the students to read their assigned poem for only 30 seconds.  When they stopped, the had to answer three questions:

  • What does this poem seem to be about?
  • What connection do you feel between this poem and  your own experience?
  • What questions does this poem make you ask?

The students wrote quite a bit in response to these questions, even after a 30-second reading.  In this part of the activity, I was trying to model the kind of reading one might do flipping through a book of poetry looking for something that might be interesting.

Then I asked them to read the poem for 10 minutes and revisit the questions. Again, they wrote a lot.

Finally, they shared their experiences with the members of their groups.  The discussions were lively, and the readings various.  There were looks of astonishment when certain interpretations were offered.  In general, it seemed to me that literary training may have interfered with more natural readings of the poems.  For example, the Kirby poem is about the poet sitting in a park in Paris trying to read Todorov’s Poetics, but distracted by the women in the vicinity who hike their skirts and open their blouses to better enjoy the sun.  A number of the readings were based on strained metaphors and almost allegorical interpretations, discounting the possibility that the poet might actually be in a park trying to read a book.  But that’s just my reading.

So what are we teaching when we teach literature?  Are we trying to open up the possibility of unique aesthetic  experiences, an ability to use and enjoy literary texts?  Or are we trying to constrain the scope of readings within acceptable  limits?  I am afraid that far too often, it is the latter case.

The last question in the exercise was: “Is Rosenblatt right?  Does each reader create his or her own poem?”  I think that the consensus was that Rosenblatt is certainly right.  However, the question of how much the reading should be constrained, and by what, remains open.

About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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