Tuesday, March 1, 2011

New Criticism

I seem to remember studying the individual, social, historical background of writers and their writings to better understand their work. This approach at analysis offered a wide range of perspective on texts. But my students tell me that they are discouraged from doing so and are asked by their teachers to focus on the texts. This is the ‘New Criticism’ approach. ( It is called ‘new’ but it has been around for some 50 years now.)

This approach or technique of analysis is meant to deal with the poem in its own terms and as complete in itself. This requires a rigorous study of the text itself, a close reading and focussing on the structure of the work and aspects such as rhythm, meter, theme, imagery, metaphor, etc. Literary techniques are de rigueur. The meaning is to be found in the text itself. The text, the adherents to New Criticism claim, is autonomous.

It ignores the fact that the reading is subjective and the reader is not  rational in her approach to the reading but brings into the reading her own perceptions and experiences. Critics of New Criticism also attack the technique as isolating “the work of art from its past and its context” and “uninterested in the human meaning, the social function and effect of literature”.

In Singapore schools, focus on “New Criticism” poses difficult challenges to students whose first language is not English. I am often surprised to hear that students are expected to understand texts such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Alice Walker’s Colour Purple without the background knowledge of the history of slavery.
I wonder too what people will make of Pablo Picasso's Mural "Guernica" (1937) about the bombing of Basque city of Guernica by German air force during Spanish Civil War.

Surely an understanding of the historical, social and even psychological background of the writer and his/her times, the artist and his subject will serve to enrich the experience of learning and teaching literature.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Poems, essays, novels have been my most reliable and happy companion. Beside my bed is one of my favourite books- "English Romantic Writers".  The lines from Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" poem were read and re-read many times and each time I read it I feel the same sense of pleasure and comfort.
A reader, if he or she is a lover of nature can relate to the poem; it is timeless in its beauty and resonance.

Here is an excerpt:

…Once again

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

That on a wild secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky…
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: -- feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened: -- that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on, --
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

If this
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft --
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart --
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! ...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Literature and You

Why Literature?

Let us consider the two texts listed below

1. An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen (1882)
2. The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan (1945)
These two books, one a play and the other a novel although written at different times and come from different cultures, have common themes:-

1. Individuals against authority / against more powerful forces
2. Individuals who stand up for the good of the community
3. Questions of moral responsibility
4. Family values, ordinary lives upset by crisis, and wrestle with decisions of conscience and moral responsibility.

These themes are universal, which means that a reader, whatever his or her background, can relate to the issues, to the themes, to the stories, to the characters and their struggles.

 Why Literature?  Why do we read them?

   Story-telling was always a way of teaching. For instance all major religions have used stories/myths to teach about their religions and values. A good example of this is the Bible
Historically oral story-telling was a way of passing down family myths, religious myths, cultural myths from generation to generation

    Stories offer us a world beyond our own experiences – a world without borders – different place, different times, different cultures –

  It gives us insight into other peoples and lives – their emotions, their hopes, their anxieties – they feel much like we do – learn that values are universal—we can relate to their fears, anxieties, hopes etc.

   These experiences educate us and makes us more human. For instance the reader of the The English Teacher cannot but identify and sympathise with the husband when he is almost destroyed by his wife Susila’s death .

Other themes that we in Singapore can relate to and are dealt in these stories are the marriage debate ( Susila’s views ) the Casino debate ( Tom and Peter Stockman) the Language debate ( Krishnan’s views on the English language and western culture) Father’s obligation and responsibilities etc. how to keep a budget.

Literature teaches us that the everyday lives of  people everywhere are the same – they are quiet and simple, organized around the experience of love, families, making choices, coming to terms with disappointments, loss, death. But within those limitations people live full and balanced lives.

Good Literature brings these to life like no other forms of writing can.

Try writing an objective piece of writing – a report, an argumentative essay and then try a story. See which comes alive.

In summary


4.Develops CRITICAL thinking skills


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why Literature

Reading Literature.

Reading and then Literature came to my rescue at a time when I knew very little of the language and eons before the “Speak Good English” campaign began exhorting Singaporeans to speak good English. I was lucky in one other way – I had good teachers – self-confident, dedicated and free from central controls -  and a school environment which insisted that everybody, teachers and students, spoke good English.

No other distractions, no other politics with regard to language teaching and learning, and no other strains of English distracted us from the acquisition of standard English. I was thirteen when I switched from my mother-tongue, Malayalam to English. It was not an easy adjustment to make but then I had no - where to go except to English if I wanted to be part of the mainstream of society.

During my struggles with the language I discovered the pleasures of reading and literature. Reading newspapers, magazines and all the self-help books and self-improvements books that form the bulk of reading in Singapore don’t count, certainly not in developing one’s language skills and an appreciation of its beauty. 

But literature offers more than that and nobody extols the role of reading and literature  better than Harold Bloom, that great authority on the subject:

“There is a prime reason why we should read: Information is endlessly available to us but where shall wisdom be found?... Reading is one of the most healing of pleasures… Ultimately we read to strengthen ourselves.”

“Searching for truth, I turn to fiction” wrote Joseph Nye, the author of “The Power Game: A Washington Novel.” He is the former dean of the Kennedy School of government at Harvard University and was responsible for the Carter administration’s efforts to slow the proliferation of nuclear weapons. As a longtime professor of international politics he used to suggest that his students supplement their academic readings with films and novels. In a recent article in The International herald Tribune” ( 11 March 2005) he explained why.

In fiction, he said, he could elaborate the dreams and nightmares involved, ‘describe the struggles for power, the effects they have on friendships, and the problems of sorting out moral obligations…He wanted ‘to portray the way policy is influenced by the seductiveness of power, the temptations to prevail and the struggles to maintain one’s moral compass.’ Academic abstractions could not convey what it is like to wrestle with issues, as powerfully and as imaginatively as fiction could.

Another book “The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature”, edited by Peter (a leading moral philosopher) and Renata Singer, draws on some of the best works of fiction, plays and poetry to demonstrate how literary sources can add richness to discussions of real-life moral questions and dilemmas.

There are many more reasons for studying Literature for it offers immense opportunities in the classroom for developing the power of the imagination, creative thinking, critical and analytical skills, and writing skills, all of which are current major concerns for educationist in Singapore today.

Unfortunately, literature was dropped from core curriculum in Singapore schools when it became focused on exams- for the achievement short-term gains rather than long-term goals of preparing young people for life and citizenship responsibilities. A 2002 survey in the United States (IHT 13 April 2005) suggests a correlation between a decline in reading with a decline in arts participation, declining levels of historical and political awareness and writing skills.

And a decline in the standard of English in Singapore. The best way to teach or learn a language is through Literature. In some countries, (for instance in Australia where English is the first language) literature and language are combined. So should our schools in Singapore.