Literary theory and difficult poetry.
The following is a brief description of literary theories and how they impact on difficult poetry. We give examples of how theories can help readers develop their own understanding of difficult verse. It is worthwhile to remember that no one theory is better or worse than any other but each does provide a framework for thinking about the way that we read and our response to what we read.
Formalism and New Criticism.
Formalism and New Criticism are essentially concerned with a 'close' reading of the text and are not concerned with historical or cultural contexts and minimise the writer's intention and the reader's response.Instead attention is given to the formal sturcture of the work (in poetry this would be meter, rhyme, line length, the use of tropes etc) together with ambiguity, parodox, irony and tension.
New Criticism was incredibly popular on both sides of the Atlantic until the late seventies and can be said to have several advantages. By emphasising the value of close reading it reduces the complexity of the text to just the text itself. Critics would point out that this is also a major fault and that texts cannot be thought about/read in isolation from the context in which they were produced. Others have pointed out that the concept of any kind of reading is in itself remarkably complex and New Criticism overlooks this fact.
Reader response theory
In contrast to the New Critics who felt that the text had one objective meaning and that the task was to work exclusively with the text, reader response theorists place emphasis on the ways in which individual readers engage with the work. This line of thought indicates that there are as many readings as there are readers and that each individual reading is as 'valid' as any other.
It is important to stress that this does not imply that all texts are 'open texts' where any poem or novel can mean anything. Reader response theorists do recognise that writers do have specific intentions, it's just that they are more interested in how individual readers respond to those intentions.
This model has obvious advantages for the readers of difficult poetry which has, by its nature, been open to different interpretations. The process of reading difficult work is often littered with misreadings, false hypotheses and a sense of bafflement. Reader response theorists would argue that all of these are just as relevant and valid as any other. This does however seem to excuse us from paying the close attention that the New Critics would demand and entering into a relativist position where "anything goes". Stanley Fish has developed the notion of "interpretive communities" which are formed by our cultural and educational backgrounds.
Fish is the best known proponent of this theory, he has used several examples from Milton's poetry to demonstrate that some issues of meaning and intent are simply unresolvable and that readers do not read in accordance with principles or theories but are much more informed by our experiences and practice as readers and as individuals. He has written- "This, then, is my thesis: that the form of the reader's experience, formal units. and the structure of intention are one, that they come into view simultaneously, and that therefore the questions of priority and independence do not arise" and "The notion of interpretive communities thus stands between an impossible ideal and the fear which leads so many to maintain it. The ideal is of perfect agreement and it would require texts to have a status independent of interpretation. The fear is of interpretive anarchy, but it would only be realized if interpretation (text making) were completely random. It is the fragile but real consolidation of interpretive communities that,allows us to talk to one another, but with no hope or fear of ever being able to stop. In other words, interpretive communities are no more stable than texts because interpretive strategies are not natural or universal but learned. This does not mean that there is a point at which an individual has not yet learned any. The ability to interpret is not acquired; it is constitutive of being human".
The notion of interpretive communities to some extent accounts for the fluctuating fortunes of some poets down the years, David Jones and Michael Drayton spring to mind as being once very popular but are now virtually unread.
Marxism and Critical Theory
For those of us with an interest in ideology, much of Marxist literary theory is admirable because it is based on the historical conditions in which a work was created. Unfortunately some of the most perceptive Marxist critics (Jameson, Adorno, Benjamin etc) write in the most abstract and boring terms. Marxism is concerned to show that economic relations determine all other aspects of society yet this straightforward view has been modified by critics throughout the 20th century.
This particular strand is also deeply suspicious of what it sees as the relativism of much theory and insists on a positivist and materialist reading of a text which is created by a real person living in and responding to a specific set of circumstances. Writers are also judged as to whether or not they are 'progressive' or 'reactionary'. For example, Prynne would be lauded for his stance on capitalism and Western imperialism but decried for his difficulty (which would be seen as undemocratic) whilst Geoffrey Hill's high Toryism would be denounced as reactionary.
Marxist theorists are often very perceptive and can tell us uncomfortable truths. Pierre Bourdieu's work on cultural tastes is a rigorous reminder of just how significant the economic is in determining our preferences.
This is still the most controversial and denigrated theory, especially in the Anglo Saxon world. Deconstruction is based on the work of Jacques Derrida who developed a system of seeking out and exposing the internal contradictions in a text and that the meaning of a text is never stable and is never singular. This has led Derrida's many critics to denounce deconstruction as nihilist and relativist, charges Derrida consistently denied.
Regardless of this controversy, the fact remains that Derrida and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe (his student) have produced the most insightful readings of the poetry of Paul Celan and for this we must be grateful.
Reading deconstrucive texts is not an easy task because of the principles underlying the method but both writers manage to stay faithful to the texts of the poems and dont jump to 'easy conclusions. "Sovereignties in Question" by Derrida and "Poetry as Experience" are both available to download from the indispensible aaaaarg site but you will need to register first. The Wikipedia article on deconstruction provides a good overview of deconstruction.
In the UK cultural studies grew out of the pioneering work done by Raymond Williams who showed that our notions of culture were closely related to economic relationships but went further by demonstrating how popular culture played an important role in the regulation of capitalist society. This tied in with Gramsci's notion of hegemony whereby popular culture reinforced the notion that there was no realistic alternative to capitalism.
The European left continues to argue amongst itself about the reative weight that should be given to cultural forces at work in society but increasing focus has been given to mass culture and how cultural 'products' are produced and assimilated into the wider world. Difficult poetry has largely avoided the gaze of cultural studies but when it is noticed it is often viewed as elitist and underpinning the status and power of the bourgeoisie.