Sunday, February 22, 2009

`A Discipline of Knowledge'

Like David Myers I am a graduate of high-school Advanced Placement English classes, though my experience seems to have been more pleasurable and lastingly worthwhile than his. Junior year we read The Return of the Native, which induced an abiding dislike of Hardy’s fiction but also moved me to investigate the gloomy grandeur of his poetry. We read Dante’s Inferno in the Ciardi translation, Death of a Salesman, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and The Merry Wives of Windsor (minor Shakespeare but as a class we attended a professional production of the play). Only Miller’s play in this curriculum is negligible as literature.

Senior year we read Great Expectations, Kim, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Billy Budd. We read Hamlet and wrote lengthy papers on topics of our choice. I can’t remember my subject but a friend gifted with what A.J. Liebling called the “blarneying capacity” defended a novel thesis: The prince is fat. He cited “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt” and other passages to bolster his case. Our teacher, Jan Viscomi, loved it and gave my friend an A.

What I remember most fondly is Viscomi’s insistence on close readings of poems, with focused attention paid to metrics, rhyme, musicality, image patterns -- a sort of explication de texte lite. She also expected us to memorize, if not complete poems, then sizeable passages from Donne, Robinson, Frost and Yeats. For an in-class exam we were assigned to conduct a close reading of Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole,” and for a lengthier take-home project I looked at Richard Eberhart’s “The Groundhog” (an experience I wrote about here). In order to give the poem an adequate reading I researched the lives of Alexander the Great, Montaigne and Saint Theresa of Avila, and looked into the biology of animal decomposition. My 40-year-old diligence, encouraged by the example of a high-school English teacher in suburban Cleveland, lends urgency to Myers’ concluding questions:

“Can it be admitted at long last, though, that English literature is a discipline of knowledge rather than a fine sensibility; that some works of English literature must be known before others; that there are even some works every civilized American should be familiar with, although there will be much disagreement over what they are; and that an AP English teacher who assigns `entertainment fiction’ instead is not doing her job?”

Even before I went to college and began to study English literature in a more systematic way, I had learned the rudiments of close reading. I also learned, though it was never formulated as such, that a body of literature exists which is worthy of such disciplined reading, despite Arthur Miller’s presence. I was a kid from an almost bookless family, soon to be the first among us to attend a university, and certainly unequipped with a “fine sensibility.” For the first time in my life, in those A.P. English classes, I was in the company of someone who took literature seriously enough to demand that I treat it with the same concentration and respect I gave to Latin verbs and calculus – more, in fact.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have a great blog here. Don't know why you don't get more comments. I always thought Death of a Salesman was pretty entertaining. Duke Ellington said something to the effect that "if it sounds good it is good." That works for me as far as literature goes.

I have never taken a literary criticism class so I don't know how to judge good from bad literture. Maybe you could write an entry that differentiates between the two.