Employing the Lenses of Literary Theory

20130315-220227.jpg
Throughout the term, our class has discussed the idea of being aware of the lenses we see literature through. I have employed a few basic techniques for looking at each work, but mostly I have been allowed to use my own lens (life experiences, etc.) to interpret meaning. This week I have delved a little deeper into literary theory and the distinct transformations it has gone through over time. I am going to take a minute to employ a few of these literary theories in order to decipher the poem “Woodchucks” by Maxine Kumin. I will be adopting the lenses provided by New Criticism and Feminist Literary Theory in order to gain new perspective.

New Criticism gave very little consideration to anything other than the text itself. Kumin’s poem is written with six lines in a stanza, in the feminine end-rhyming pattern ABCACB:

…out right.
…Exchange
…the bone
…airtight,
puddingstone,
of range.

This particular stanza also employs enjambment in order to force you to read everything but the first line in-explicably fast, almost rushing. There is no sing-song softness to this approach, which informs the harshness of the poem.

Seen through the lens of Feminist Literary Theory, Kumin is presenting herself in a masculine light. She is the farmer, taking on the role of exterminator. She takes on the stereotypically masculine ideal of cruel behavior rationalized by the protective instinct: “The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling…”(195). Her protector role is exchanged for that of a heartless annihilator – hunting down the vermin one by one and getting excited about the kill: “All night I hunt his humped up form. I dream I sight along the barrel in my sleep.” (196). Kumin seems to be using this poem to say that mass atrocities wouldn’t be rationalized away by women: “If only they’d all consented to die unseen gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.” (196). If a woman had been in charge instead of Hitler and his Nazi party, perhaps the Jews would have had a fighting chance.

Literary theory is interesting historically; but awful to have to read about, and awkward to try to use to explicate a poem. Each presents such a narrow viewpoint that much is lost by using these adopted lenses. I had to really force myself to shut out all other possibilities in order to properly employ these theories (and I feel like I failed miserably). This exercise was helpful in offering up a new way of thinking about literature, but I would much rather look at the whole poem using every lens possible in order to fully understand its meaning to the best of my ability. Narrow focus leads to a narrow understanding of the complexities of good literature, and should be avoided whenever possible.

This poem deserved a full explication, and I was a little sad that I wasn’t able to offer one. The full text of Woodchucks (as well as a reading) can be found here.

11 thoughts on “Employing the Lenses of Literary Theory

  1. I think you make a really great point when you say ” I would much rather look at the whole poem using every lens possible in order to fully understand its meaning to the best of my ability. Narrow focus leads to a narrow understanding of the complexities of good literature.” It was interesting looking at literature through different lenses, but it was difficult. Learning new techniques and utilizing them just adds tools to our toolbox of understanding.

    • Definitely. Now we have all of the lenses, and a better understanding of how to use them. I almost feel like this exercise might have been helpful earlier in the term (though probably much more intimidating).

      • This is a good point, and was something I considered. I hesitated because 1) theory just tends to be a frustrating and puzzling thing to encounter for the first time and I wanted to delay that feeling while introducing the tools of literary analysis and 2) the process of ideating your own lens is an important purpose of an intro to lit studies class and I wanted to keep that central through the major writing processes we’ve done. I will reconsider next time I teach the class, though. In a way an intro to the discipline class is such an overwhelming amount of material that it feels nearly impossible to address it flawlessly in ten weeks, but I do want to try.

      • I think that if you had introduced it the first week I might have had a minor heart-attack. In all fairness, the introductions in each of the books gives a small taste of theory and ideas to base analysis off of. This theory assignment just digs in a little deeper and explains some of the ideas more in depth. I won’t pretend that I liked it, but I definitely think it was worthwhile and I appreciate the ideas it presented.

      • You applied the theories you chose very effectively, Megan, so I was almost surprised to learn of your discomfort toward the end of your post. (I say almost because I am never surprised to hear screams of horror resulting from a theory assignment. I *can* assure you that the next encounter will feel less awful.) 🙂

  2. “Literary theory is interesting historically; but awful to have to read about, and awkward to try to use to explicate a poem.”
    I have to agree here. Analysis, I think, should come somewhat from the gut, from the ether, so that our first reactions are perhaps our least polluted. Going into a piece of literature with a particular analytic view ahead of time can often damper the material and its affect on you.

    • It’s also important to recognize that the process you were forced to employ here is a bit artificial. When you’re working with theory in future classes, you’ll have an actual theoretical piece to engage with and respond to as opposed to a “primer” on that particular theory, like Klarer gives you. But I think/hope that practicing peering through the lenses Klarer describes in this activity will make the whole thing a bit less mystifying when you encounter it later. The idea is that you’ve surveyed the theoretical landscape so that when you’re plunked into a part of it you might have some sense of how it relates to everything else.

    • I think it is good to both know how to interpret on your own and then through criticism. It gives you tools and broadens your view. I also think I have learned more history from determining the context in literature than I ever learned in history.

  3. I agree with the above comments that you made a good point about analysis being something more broad so that you are seeing the full scope. It seems unrealistic to think that one method of interpretation could do justice to all pieces.

  4. “Narrow focus leads to a narrow understanding of the complexities of good literature, and should be avoided whenever possible.” – Although I mostly agree with this comment, I couldn’t help but notice how greatly you used the Feminist Theory in explicating Kumin’s poem. Do you think narrowing down the interpretation just to those lens gave you that insight?

    • Thank you Vone, and as usual you are right. I appreciate you so much for your ability to give me a different viewpoint to think about. I spent more time being frustrated with the amount of time and energy required to read about theory, and should have focused more on the opportunities it provided. I wasn’t particularly comfortable writing from a “feminist” perspective, but I do appreciate the insights I gained from the exercise.

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Employing the Lenses of Literary Theory

20130315-220227.jpg
Throughout the term, our class has discussed the idea of being aware of the lenses we see literature through. I have employed a few basic techniques for looking at each work, but mostly I have been allowed to use my own lens (life experiences, etc.) to interpret meaning. This week I have delved a little deeper into literary theory and the distinct transformations it has gone through over time. I am going to take a minute to employ a few of these literary theories in order to decipher the poem “Woodchucks” by Maxine Kumin. I will be adopting the lenses provided by New Criticism and Feminist Literary Theory in order to gain new perspective.

New Criticism gave very little consideration to anything other than the text itself. Kumin’s poem is written with six lines in a stanza, in the feminine end-rhyming pattern ABCACB:

…out right.
…Exchange
…the bone
…airtight,
puddingstone,
of range.

This particular stanza also employs enjambment in order to force you to read everything but the first line in-explicably fast, almost rushing. There is no sing-song softness to this approach, which informs the harshness of the poem.

Seen through the lens of Feminist Literary Theory, Kumin is presenting herself in a masculine light. She is the farmer, taking on the role of exterminator. She takes on the stereotypically masculine ideal of cruel behavior rationalized by the protective instinct: “The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling…”(195). Her protector role is exchanged for that of a heartless annihilator – hunting down the vermin one by one and getting excited about the kill: “All night I hunt his humped up form. I dream I sight along the barrel in my sleep.” (196). Kumin seems to be using this poem to say that mass atrocities wouldn’t be rationalized away by women: “If only they’d all consented to die unseen gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.” (196). If a woman had been in charge instead of Hitler and his Nazi party, perhaps the Jews would have had a fighting chance.

Literary theory is interesting historically; but awful to have to read about, and awkward to try to use to explicate a poem. Each presents such a narrow viewpoint that much is lost by using these adopted lenses. I had to really force myself to shut out all other possibilities in order to properly employ these theories (and I feel like I failed miserably). This exercise was helpful in offering up a new way of thinking about literature, but I would much rather look at the whole poem using every lens possible in order to fully understand its meaning to the best of my ability. Narrow focus leads to a narrow understanding of the complexities of good literature, and should be avoided whenever possible.

This poem deserved a full explication, and I was a little sad that I wasn’t able to offer one. The full text of Woodchucks (as well as a reading) can be found here.

11 thoughts on “Employing the Lenses of Literary Theory

  1. I think you make a really great point when you say ” I would much rather look at the whole poem using every lens possible in order to fully understand its meaning to the best of my ability. Narrow focus leads to a narrow understanding of the complexities of good literature.” It was interesting looking at literature through different lenses, but it was difficult. Learning new techniques and utilizing them just adds tools to our toolbox of understanding.

    • Definitely. Now we have all of the lenses, and a better understanding of how to use them. I almost feel like this exercise might have been helpful earlier in the term (though probably much more intimidating).

      • This is a good point, and was something I considered. I hesitated because 1) theory just tends to be a frustrating and puzzling thing to encounter for the first time and I wanted to delay that feeling while introducing the tools of literary analysis and 2) the process of ideating your own lens is an important purpose of an intro to lit studies class and I wanted to keep that central through the major writing processes we’ve done. I will reconsider next time I teach the class, though. In a way an intro to the discipline class is such an overwhelming amount of material that it feels nearly impossible to address it flawlessly in ten weeks, but I do want to try.

      • I think that if you had introduced it the first week I might have had a minor heart-attack. In all fairness, the introductions in each of the books gives a small taste of theory and ideas to base analysis off of. This theory assignment just digs in a little deeper and explains some of the ideas more in depth. I won’t pretend that I liked it, but I definitely think it was worthwhile and I appreciate the ideas it presented.

      • You applied the theories you chose very effectively, Megan, so I was almost surprised to learn of your discomfort toward the end of your post. (I say almost because I am never surprised to hear screams of horror resulting from a theory assignment. I *can* assure you that the next encounter will feel less awful.) 🙂

  2. “Literary theory is interesting historically; but awful to have to read about, and awkward to try to use to explicate a poem.”
    I have to agree here. Analysis, I think, should come somewhat from the gut, from the ether, so that our first reactions are perhaps our least polluted. Going into a piece of literature with a particular analytic view ahead of time can often damper the material and its affect on you.

    • It’s also important to recognize that the process you were forced to employ here is a bit artificial. When you’re working with theory in future classes, you’ll have an actual theoretical piece to engage with and respond to as opposed to a “primer” on that particular theory, like Klarer gives you. But I think/hope that practicing peering through the lenses Klarer describes in this activity will make the whole thing a bit less mystifying when you encounter it later. The idea is that you’ve surveyed the theoretical landscape so that when you’re plunked into a part of it you might have some sense of how it relates to everything else.

    • I think it is good to both know how to interpret on your own and then through criticism. It gives you tools and broadens your view. I also think I have learned more history from determining the context in literature than I ever learned in history.

  3. I agree with the above comments that you made a good point about analysis being something more broad so that you are seeing the full scope. It seems unrealistic to think that one method of interpretation could do justice to all pieces.

  4. “Narrow focus leads to a narrow understanding of the complexities of good literature, and should be avoided whenever possible.” – Although I mostly agree with this comment, I couldn’t help but notice how greatly you used the Feminist Theory in explicating Kumin’s poem. Do you think narrowing down the interpretation just to those lens gave you that insight?

    • Thank you Vone, and as usual you are right. I appreciate you so much for your ability to give me a different viewpoint to think about. I spent more time being frustrated with the amount of time and energy required to read about theory, and should have focused more on the opportunities it provided. I wasn’t particularly comfortable writing from a “feminist” perspective, but I do appreciate the insights I gained from the exercise.

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