An Introduction of Sorts to How We Should Enter into the Material for
What should we look for in a piece of art?
Anything and everything in the body of the text itself.
I was discussing the epic poem
with an English 221 class a couple semesters
ago, and I asked the group, “What do you have to say about the
in this poem?”
Most responded with something along the lines of, “We don’t remember any.” (They
ARE there, of course, but they’re nearly invisible, reduced to playing barmaids, servants,
and sexual partners to the various important
So the class began to
discuss these roles and their implication. One frustrated student spoke up: “The women
what this poem is about. We shouldn’t be talking about them. We’re doing
damage to this poem (his exact words) by talking about the women.” He continued:
“This is a poem about men, about warriors, about warfare, about camaraderie, about
fighting monsters and dragons, about treasure, and weapons. We have no business
discussing the women.”
I first reassured the class that we can’t “damage” any work of literature by discussing it
or writing about it. The works we discuss are flexible, pliable, bendable, and most of all
sturdy and time-tested. Most have been subjected to years and years of critical hacks with
all kinds of axes to grind, so we mustn’t worry about hurting them.
Then someone asked the critical question:
“Is it ever fair to say that a poem (any work of
art for that matter) is about ONE thing and nothing else?”
Of course not. We went on to discuss how anything that’s in the text is fair game for
discussion, for exploration, for argument.
Someone then asked a wonderful question: “All well and good, but isn’t a duck ever just
a duck?” The student who asked this was of course skeptical of wild literary criticism that
makes outlandish arguments about art (and unfortunately there is a lot of this).
My response was that “sure, a duck is a duck, but we can look at the duck from the side,
from above, from below; we can pick the duck up and feel its webbed feet, its feathers.”
You probably get the point by now: Don’t be shy about your opinions of something you
Now this doesn’t mean that anything goes in a discussion of literature. Any claim you
make about a work must be supportable by direct evidence from the text itself. You may
see me write, “don’t go ‘extra-textual’” if you try to speculate about a world outside the