Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry” offers a funny metaphor that illustrates what many people mistake for literary analysis. “I ask them to take a poem/and hold it up to the light/like a color slide,” he begins, “or press an ear against its hive.” But instead of “[dropping] a mouse into a poem” to “watch him probe his way out” or “walk inside the poem’s room/and feel the walls for a light switch,” “all they want to do/is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it.//They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”
I remember teaching poetry as a unit in one of my composition courses (it was when we were required to treat Comp II as a research/intro to lit course) and being surprised at what my students did with the usually straightforward poems of the British World War I poets. In particular, I remember a group of students tasked with summarizing Isaac Rosenberg’s poem “Louse Hunting,” and then reporting what they felt Rosenberg may have wanted readers to understand or experience, describing and discussing how the poet achieved his goals. It’s a somewhat lurid poem about soldiers, late one night when they should be sleeping, joyfully killing the lice infesting them, happy to be alive. That’s it. It became instead … Sadly, I don’t recall, but it was either an allegory about who was winning the war or about God and the meaning of existence.
I understand that the students’ difficulty lie, in part, with the fact that almost none of them read poetry regularly, if at all. Because it takes a while to get used to the rigors that much good poetry requires of its reader, many feel that poetry is intentionally obscure or incomprehensible. If a poem actually seems accessible, they feel they must be reading it incorrectly. However, part of the problem also lies with the fact that vast majority of students I’ve taught believe two things: a work of literature means whatever a reader wants it to mean and literary analysis is about finding things in a work of literature that aren’t there. It seems to me that both of these beliefs are rooted in the misunderstanding that literary analysis is about making a work of literature mean something it doesn’t really mean.
While I get frustrated that this is the most common impression people have about literary analysis, one that invites all kinds of resistance from students when they’re asked to analyze literature and that leads the general populace to marginalize—even outright condemn and mock—such intellectual work, I at least have some sympathy with the first belief. After all, any work of literature (and by that I mean, quite broadly, any piece of artistic or entertaining writing) exists only in the act of reading; the reader is essential in creating the meaning of a work. But that doesn’t mean that whatever a reader thinks a work of literature is about is correct. One can misread. Beginning readers, in fact, tend to reduce the complexity of a work to what English professor Gerald Graff calls “the closest cliché,” which is only a slightly less egregious form of misreading than wholesale invention. But a good reader realizes that the work of literature—and by extension its “meaning”—belongs neither to reader nor writer but “to their reading and having been read.”
That said, I see great usefulness in analysis that offers new ways of approaching or understanding a work that isn’t immediately obvious. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the more far-fetched or tangential it is, the more exciting such analysis can be—as long as it’s rooted in the work of literature being discussed and not just a daydream inspired by it (though I think daydreaming can be fruitful, as well; it’s just not analysis). I think this is where students get not only the idea that a work of literature means whatever the reader thinks it means but also how they reach the conclusion that literary analysis is making a work say something it’s not. What, after all, has Shakespeare to do with Queer Theory or the Autobiography of John Smith and the myth of Pocahontas to do with mapmaking? It’s not, the argument goes, what the author intended, so isn’t that imposing meaning on the work? Worse is the suspicion that the critic is suggesting these alternative readings are what a work of literature is “really” about, and if it’s not, what’s the point of saying it?
While I’m generalizing here, I believe I’m accurately summing up the misunderstandings
and antagonisms that many have about literary analysis. It’s an unfortunate devaluation of the act of “[dropping] a mouse into a poem” to “watch him probe his way out,” a dismissal of the fluid kinds of thinking and knowing—mutable, creative, oblique—that are the domain of the liberal arts, the kinds of knowing that encourage critical thinking and rigorous invention, making life richer than the job training that so many—students and society—clamor for in a college education. These misunderstandings are especially pressing because they are having a tremendous impact on higher education and will continue to do so until college is something other than it was, something less valuable to the individual and more to an economic system that chews up and spits out what cannot sustain its dominance. They represent the kind of logic that, for the liberal arts, represents a death sentence that has been in deliberation for several decades now and is sure to be pronounced in the not-too-distant future.