Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John PochMay 03, 2019

In most university English departments, literature professors are greatly attracted to theory that is uninteresting, if not boring, to most undergraduates. They approach their specialized areas (18th century fiction, Modern British, Asian-American literature, etc.) through a theoretical way of reading texts rather than through appreciating them as art works.

But most students who read literature have done so most of their lives because of beauty, because they love being lost (and found) in the story of a novel or the song of a poem. They have not read books because of their attraction to literary theory. Clearly there is a divide between the approaches of contemporary academics and most of their students. Theory is divided against beauty.

Students love being lost (and found) in the story of a novel or the song of a poem

I often feel myself longing for those good old days when people loved literature. Granted, many literature professors claim a love of story and lyric, but much of the excitement of the craft of writing that used to be at the heart of English departments has been pushed away from the literature courses (reading) over to the creative writing programs (writing). And even many of these writing programs have become intoxicated by theory.

When I talk about a love of literature, I do not mean standing on top of a desk with my hand on my chest spouting passages from Keats. I only mean that I find, say, this combination of metaphors, or those rhymes, or that allusion to be so pregnant with meaning that, as Elizabeth Bishop once suggested, for the next 24 hours I see the world through the lens of a poem. I see a poem as Donald Hall saw it, as a “language machine,” and I like to get under the hood as well as drive the car.

One of my problems with contemporary literary theory is that it can give us too narrow a lens. While I find theories valuable and interesting, in and of themselves they seem less powerful to me than looking at an aesthetic and formal framework of the poem at hand. Feminist theory recognizes how the text bears witness to the patriarchal oppression and inequality of women in society. A reader can apply a feminist critique to Homer’s Odyssey to show how Odysseus is not held to the same standard of marital fidelity as Penelope. One could argue that the entire story revolves around a wife’s central role in the home. Clytemnestra, Helen, Arete and Penelope are all on display as either positive or negative examples. Men are held to no such standard.

I see a poem as Donald Hall saw it, as a “language machine,” and I like to get under the hood as well as drive the car.

Another popular theoretical framework, deconstruction, takes a typical reading of a work of art and turns it on its head; it tries to undermine received knowledge about a given literary work and see the work anew, often by making an opposite claim. We might take Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and show how he is not actually a character of great independence and individuality, but one who is bound by society and culture as much as anyone else.

Another, psychoanalytic theory, views a text in the way that Freud might have: looking for its psychosexual connotations and exploring the difficult familial conflicts tied up in a poem or story. A reader might explore Robert Lowell’s poems in Life Studies to understand how the poet’s Freudian obsessions with his father and mother color the poems, even the ones that don’t seem to be concerned with family. For instance, the poems “For George Santayana” or “Skunk Hour” can examine the various characters and speakers, or even the poet himself, psychoanalyzing them concerning trauma, sexuality, family and so on.

At its best, theory can aid us in understanding how to become better people who understand more deeply social justice and the environment.

Most literary theories revolve around the idea that there are certain power dynamics in play within the work, associated with the cultures, characters, authors and readers involved. With this view of a novel or poem, theorists make a critique of the social order, then and now. That critique always involves someone or some group being treated unfairly. At its best, theory can help us come to terms with our social order through literature. It can aid us in understanding how to become better people who understand more deeply social justice and the environment. While this is no doubt valuable for understanding our world, often the beautiful way the story is told or how the poem is sung can become altogether lost. And I have recently heard theoretical arguments that suggest aesthetics (the theory of beauty) actually gets in the way of social critique, that studying beauty can be harmful in and of itself.

This semester in my “Introduction to Poetry” course, among many other things we have discussed the poems of Sylvia Plath and Homer in relation to the daily news of sexual misconduct in so many public institutions. There is no doubt that literature from antiquity to present addresses head-on the violence perpetrated on our most vulnerable. But my primary aim in any poetry course is to appreciate beauty. How poems address sexual issues is only one part of what a poem might do.

At its worst, theory exposes dirty secrets, aiming to show the failings of the author, the text or the world around us. It tattles on bad behavior according to the current worldview. Theory can lead to a kind of false superiority (look how racist those other people were) or even schadenfreude, the morose delight in seeing others suffer. Sometimes, the critic or scholar may end up merely subverting the text for the sake of subverting the social order. This technique is valuable to some, a kind of religion made of tearing down institutions and canons. In some perverse way, the reader/critic becomes intellectually superior to the writer (which is hardly ever true of any young student of literature, that he or she is more astute than the authors they study.)

Not even the best works of literature can stand up to someone bent on “subverting” or undermining them.

But not even the best works of literature can stand up to someone bent on “subverting” or undermining them—at least not when that is the only measure of the text. Marxism, which offers another theoretical way of reading, suggests that the natural order of our lives involves social antagonisms between economic classes. Ultimately these conflicts result in the upper classes oppressing the lower and finally the lower tearing down the upper. So if we can see that a literary work is elitist in any way, we can and should tear it or aspects of it down. Some build sand castles, and some come along and knock them down. Both actions bring pleasure. But which is the more creative?

In the 21st century, human rights are more codified and recognized than ever. With these human rights come power to the individual and limits on authority. Civil disobedience is permitted, even championed. Ultimate authorities are checked and balanced, hopefully, to allow individuals freedom and mobility. Yet mere anarchy is a threat to the individual as well. Everyone needs protection. We must negotiate how authorities both defend and exploit us.

Some readers want scripture to be more of a Photoshopped selfie rather than a lamp that might show our defects as well as good traits.

When it comes to reading poetry, it might be valuable to think about how religious believers approach scripture. When we open up the Bible, those of us who have embraced the gospel hope that the Holy Spirit will try to unite our minds with the writer (and with the God who inspired the writer) rather than coming to the verses with itching ears. Some readers want scripture to be more of a Photoshopped selfie—only our best aspects reflected in its pages—rather than a lamp that might show our defects as well as good traits. To what degree, then, should a student or scholar of literature cultivate humility before a text, rather than looking to satisfy one’s own ends?

While no one thinks that an author’s poem or novel is inerrant—as some think of scripture—a little respect for the author as a creator of beauty might go a long way. If one is a believer in God, one recognizes the absolute majesty and almighty power of a creator who can make a world from nothing. Every time I am faced with the grandeur of a view from a mountaintop or the onslaught of a coming West Texas storm, I recognize authority as something not to be trifled with. Nature is not something to be subverted. As for poets and novelists, I would argue that a grand respect for their authority goes a long way in appreciating what good is happening on the page.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

U.S. Catholics are more polarized than ever in how they view Pope Francis, even though majorities on both ends of the political spectrum have a positive view of the pope, according to a new survey.
In this special round table episode of “Inside the Vatican,” America Editor-in-Chief Father Sam Sawyer and the Executive Director of Outreach, America’s LGBT Catholic resource, Michael O’Loughlin, join host Colleen Dulle for a discussion on the document “Dignitas Infinita” and the pastoral
Inside the VaticanApril 12, 2024
Miles Teller stars in a scene from the movie "Whiplash." (CNS photo/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Played by Miles Teller, Andrew falls prey to an obsession so powerful that it robs us of the clarity or freedom to make good choices.
John DoughertyApril 12, 2024
In one way or another, these collections bear the traces of the divine, of the needful Christ.
Delaney CoyneApril 12, 2024