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:
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.