What does constitute a great piece of fiction? In our Literature & Composition: Year 1 class, we are reading the bittersweet classic by Margaret Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name. The story is about a young Anglican pastor, Mark Brian, who is sent to a rural native community in British Columbia, and concerns his spiritual and internal growth as he learns to love this land and people, unaware that he himself will soon die. Each year when I reread it, I choke up, no matter how much I’ve prepared myself beforehand for the moving conclusion. The book has such power because it speaks truths with beauty and simplicity; the author’s restrained diction causes the reader to genuinely feel the unspoken, deep emotions which the characters express, often through what they do not say as they face their trials and joys. The straightforward yet imagistic style of the book also goes along with the setting and flavor of the native culture, since the people there, in addition to living without most of the material comforts of modern life, are without guile. I Heard the Owl Call My Name also speaks to what is best in us, pointing our souls towards the spiritual values which lie deep within through its symbolic language, borrowed from the natural world.
The novel uses foreshadowing and contrasts between two disparate cultures in organic ways which function as a tapestry, weaving together plot development, theme, and tone to connect the reader emotionally with the characters and their culture. From the first page wherein we a learn that the young pastor is unaware that he is dying, until the closing chapters in which the earthly and spiritual pilgrimages of Mark come to a fitting and moving conclusion, the reader accompanies Mark on his journey towards Love.
The perfect novel is a vessel which contains a unity of subject, thought, and spirit. The perfect novel inspires and rejuvenates our souls, calling us towards the transcendent. The perfect novel leaves us with the sense that we are more complete than we were before we read it; we are more than the sum of our parts; we more keenly know and feel our connections to humanity and to our spiritual roots.
The previous article in this series discussed how to choose evidences for an essay. You must have solid “facts” or examples from your texts in order to begin to interpret a text, and your choices must be based on what you’ve decided to write your essay about, specifically. That’s the most challenging part of finding your evidences.
Learning how to write analysis and interpretation means learning how to think independently. The most difficult thing – the key skill — in learning to interpret and understand texts is to learn how to dig into the specific diction of that work. This article addresses how to interpret literary texts.
Before analyzing a work, first find the most important theme, and it’s essential to know that a theme is more than an idea and cannot be described in just one word. Rather, a theme, as the “message” of the text, is a phrase which expresses a deep meaning of this message. For instance, in The Fellowship of the Ring, a powerful theme is that true love means being willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others, even to the point of death. For an example of how to analyze a poem, see my article on Robert Frost’s poem, “Frost Thoughts: Poetry with a Punch.”
Interpreting and writing about a short poem is the best way to learn how to analyze a work, both because a student can focus on a specific, focused amount of text, and because the diction of a poem is concentrated and powerful. Studying poetry is the most helpful technique for learning about the various types of literary terms/devices have (metaphor, alliteration, etc.), the real focus should be on recognizing this figurative language and then explicating how it informs the text. It’s a skill which is gained through careful, aware reading and practice. And unlike what many believe about the art of analyzing literature, it’s a rich experience to learn the “secrets” of understanding literature: it is the key to unlocking the mysteries of writing which enlighten us, fulfill us, and help us grow and learn.
In this article I discuss how specificity and detail are your answers to solving the “mystery” of writing. The example I use is that of an academic essay, but specificity applies to all writing genres.
The Sherlock Holmes analogy springs to life again as we talk about the heart of your writing. If you are Holmes investigating 1) You look for evidences and develop a theory about how the crime was committed; 2) You use a theory and look for evidences. Solving a mystery is both analytic and synthetic (inductive and deductive).
When you write, your topic/subject is your mystery. Your topic must be specific, just as Holmes solves particular riddles. He doesn’t think about mysteries in general; in fact, when he has no particular mystery to solve, he falls into deep depression and resorts to taking cocaine!
Instructors often say, “Don’t be too specific, and don’t be too vague,” but most people should focus on the last part of that advice, as the challenge of writing is usually to clarify your point, not broaden it. So let’s say you want to write an academic essay about Frodo, based on The Fellowship of the Ring. You’ve decided that the theme you focus on is that of his self-sacrifice, so you write a thesis which asserts that the Shire is saved because Frodo is willing to take on the sacrificial quest of destroying the ring. Great–you’ve solved one aspect of the mystery! Now what?
You need to find “clues” from the text–evidences–which support your claim. For instance, Frodo accepts the dangerous assignment when Gandolf asks him to do it. Second, he continues the quest even when the Black Riders attempt to stop him and turn him into a wraith. And you continue on, finding other times when Frodo continues the journey. You can even go into times when he almost gives in to the power of the Ring, as these are also ways in which he would have given up the quest. (If you are writing an academic essay, be sure to use brief quotes from the text as your “evidences.”)
How do you determine whether an evidence/clue is an important one or not? Sherlock often runs across “red herrings” in his investigations: evidences which seem relevant to the crime, but are not. While it’s easier to determine what textual evidences which relate to your topic than it is for Sherlock to sort his clues out, it can sometimes be challenging to decide which are important.
Choosing the best textual evidences takes judgment and effort. First, find all of the examples you think are important. Then review them and choose only the ones you think are the strongest: do they push your thesis forward? Do they cause the reader to make deeper connections between your point and the text? How do your evidences help the reader to “see” the point you are making? Always loop back to your thesis and reassess as you flip back and forth between thinking about how powerfully your evidences develop your thesis and rereading the thesis. As with detective work, your strongest evidences will lead you to the strongest results!
With point #4 I investigate the pros and cons of outlining, as determiners of personality types!
There are two kinds of people: those who outline, and those who don’t. That’s how I see the world, anyway, based on my decades of experience in teaching
students of all ages how to write. Most writing programs do require students to learn how to outline, and it’s a necessary skill. But not all students write well by starting with an outline. Here’s why–how can I know beforehand what the details of my paper will be? If you think about it, you don’t know when you begin to write what you are specifically going to write about, so how can you outline information you haven’t thought out yet?
The idea of an outline is that you will lay out a map, or blueprint, for your essay. This makes perfect sense, but writing isn’t like that. If we could neatly write an outline, in order, the minute we wanted to write a paper, we would hardly need to write the essay at all because the order and development of the concepts would be obvious! However, some people do work best with outlines because they find that having all of their “ducks in a row” before they begin to write actual sentences is most helpful.
Others of us work backwards and find that we need to write down our ideas in a somewhat random manner and then put them in order, once we consider how they relate to each other. We find it much easier to “see” their relationships before they are listed in a formal manner.
You are probably familiar with an alternative method which has been developed, called by various names: the “cluster,” “spider diagramming,” “bubble,”
“mind map,” or “brainstorming” method. This is a helpful approach for people who are intimidated by outlining or whose thought processes don’t work well for outlining, especially when first learning to write. Another method of helping students develop the frameworks for their essays is to simply have them write their ideas down using phrases, either on paper or typed on the computer, leaving a space or line between ideas. Then they can number them, circle them, etc., with arrows going from one to another – whatever works for them, in order to get the ideas ordered. From there they can make an outline fairly easily.
The Jane Schaffer method of teaching writing, which is the method I use, is a wonderful way to bring in outlining through the side door. It gives students a “place to hang their hats” without constraining them to develop complex outlines, yet they really are outlining their essays organically. The difference is that as they develop their essays they think conceptually about categories, integrating their content logically as they progress. You can find my article about the Schaffer method at https://writetothink.blog/the-writing-process/.
As I say to my students: Writing is structured, but it’s not formulaic. It’s analytical, but it’s also synthetic. It’s the development of logical thought, not just the explication of it. Write to think!
I continue the series by discussing the classical writing technique of “imitation” and how to apply this today.
In the classical education renewal there are attempts to get back to the art of imitation in writing. Traditionally this meant that scholars would imitate classical writers in a detailed manner, creating phrases and clauses which directly mimicked the grammar of the master they were modeling their work after. All of these present programs and efforts are laudable, but it is important to take into account the background of today’s students before offering up the most traditional kind of imitation curriculum. Here’s why:
In previous times a fully classical education included an exhaustive understanding of grammatical concepts, both in English and in Latin. While many “classically schooled” students today receive some solid grammar training, most don’t get the “full story.” (There are a few programs such as Rod and Staff or the Seton Home Study School which do provide the full complement of grammar.)
Students who receive only the rudiments of grammar in their early years should not try to “imitate” in the fully classical way in middle school and high school. Rather, they should be given assignments in which they model their work after others without trying to directly imitate their sentence structures. I base this suggestion on my experience attempting to get students who don’t have a full understanding of sentence structure to “imitate” in the traditional way. What happens with these students is that they end up struggling so hard to replicate structures they do not understand that they never move past that to produce good writing themselves. They often complete the assignments in stilted ways, just trying to get through them. At the crucial time when they should be learning to argue and analyze texts, they are instead caught up in the weeds for the sake of a “classical” education, which will in all likelihood not help them to be better writers in the long run.
If students have received genuinely complete training in grammar, they can benefit some from imitating the great writers in the traditional way. However, all students should be given assignments which focus on the diction of the works they study. This is the emphasis of the AP (Advanced Placement) approach to teaching and testing in English and composition. First, by analyzing the diction (literary devices, tone, etc.) of great writers, all students come to understand the “nuts and bolts” of how the best authors communicate through both synthesis and analysis. Second, by responding to short assignments requiring them to compose in such a manner themselves without “worrying” about the specifics of grammar they have not learned students begin to truly model themselves after and “imitate” the finest writing. I believe that for most students today, this approach is the most helpful.
In Point #1 of this series about how to teach writing I briefly discussed the underlying connection between logic and writing and how your job as a parent/teacher is to point this connection out to your students on a daily basis, in as many areas as possible.
Point #2: Learning Isn’t Just About the Facts
Because learning to write is such a holistic activity and experience, it’s more important than ever to take the student’s attitude into account. Many students have trepidation about writing: they don’t know what is expected, and even when given good instructions their thoughts may be so “frozen” that they cannot think clearly. Here are two suggestions for helping students get past this “writer’s block.”
First, give the student a brief initial assignment which is easy. Praise the student for specific phrases which are good. Do not focus on minor grammar issues at this point, but instead, bring out the positive content you see. You can almost always find something good to say about any genuine effort a student has made.
Second, when you do get to where you want the student to edit, do not use strictly negative words and phrases such as “No” or “That’s not right.” If you do, the recalcitrant student will return to the “frozen” mode because of fear of failure. Here are are some helpful phrases I use which work well: “That’s a good start, and also _______”; “You’re almost there, but you also need to _______”; “Not quite; let’s see how you can _________.” Students will learn that your phrases mean that aspects of the work aren’t what they should be, but they won’t shut down or feel that you are rejecting their efforts altogether; they will be want to improve and feel capable of improving.
Having academic standards for students is different from putting unrealistic emotional pressure on them. It’s our job as teachers to figure out the ways we can inspire and motivate students so that they not only learn, but love learning.
There are various approaches to understanding poetry. In the 20th century, the rise of literary criticism began the process teachers now use of analyzing specific literary (rhetorical) devices such as similes, metaphors, etc. to explain the poem. In the 19th century, though, the focus was on having students memorize the poetry and experience the language of the works as a whole. Which approach is best? My answer is both. Memorizing a poem “makes it your own,” but understanding the diction leads you to richer understanding which causes the poetry to enter deeply into your soul.
Today, honors courses require that students take the poems apart rhetorically. This approach to literature, and poetry specifically, is due to the influence of the New Critics, the group of 20th century authors who popularized the idea of literary criticism. They, and their approach, are no longer “in vogue” in universities today, due to the rise of
Marxist-feminist and other post-modern critical approaches. But in truth, literary criticism as we know it owes its existence to the New Critics such as I. A. Richards, et al, since they taught us how to break apart diction with such careful and specific techniques.
Some assert that analyzing literature rhetorically in this manner “ruins” the enjoyment of it; this is not true. Like any aspect of learning, the more you understand the specifics of the topic, the better you can appreciate its unity. Those who have had negative experiences “digging into” literature have simply had poor teachers who have not successfully passed on the truth that in the humanities, we must comprehend what we read both inductively and deductively, and when a student is challenged to do this, he begins the process of independent thinking, of unifying his thought so as to see the poem as a powerful communicator of truths, both emotional and spiritual.
Let us take Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” as an instance of a poem which yields rich results when we “unpack” it rhetorically. Here is the poem:
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” ~ Robert Frost
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Frost is deceptive. He uses nature to write “beautiful” poetry, but upon examination, we find that his diction is complex, and if we are not extremely careful in approaching the poem, we will be led astray, rather like a detective who is distracted by false evidence, and thus misses the clues which will lead him to discover the true topic at hand.
Although he lived during the time of the development of modern poetry, or “free verse,” which abandoned traditional rhyme schemes and meters, Frost despised this movement. He famously quipped that writing free verse is “like playing tennis with the net down.” In other words, without the rules, there is no poem, no way to create a work of value and structure. Thus, Frost’s poetry is traditional, but deceptively so because of his informal diction; he appears to be holding a conversation with us over the backyard fence or a cup of coffee, when in fact he is always giving us fresh assessments about life and the world, and our relation to it as humans.
After reading the poem out loud, we establish the rhyme pattern. (For those already familiar with these basics, please forgive this brief review.) The rhyme pattern is that referred to as “couplets,” as two consecutive lines rhyme before moving on to the next set of two. Always use lower case letters to show a rhyme pattern, as shown at the end of each line. Frost’s is traditional here, as always:
flower/hour b (skip the “er” in flower, and read it in the 19th century way, as “flow’r”)
leaf/grief c day/stay d
We engage next with the meter: The rhythm of the poem. Each syllable is stressed or unstressed in our natural speaking manner, creating the “patterns” we know as “meter.” The first and last lines do not line up with the meter of the rest of the poem; lines 2-7 are strictly iambic, but the first and last lines are not. Iambic meter means that the first syllable is stressed, and the second is not. There are two syllables in each “iamb”; each “iamb” is called a “foot.” A poet may have as many “feet” in a line as he chooses. Frost chooses to have three in his lines here, so this is called iambic trimeter.
But let’s get back to the intrigue of those first and last lines not being iambic. Why? The lines have more stressed (emphasized) syllables in them than the iambic lines. When a poet uses stressed syllables in this manner, he is drawing the reader’s attention to these lines. Frost wants us to notice these first and last lines because they are communicating his theme. Additionally, he uses alliteration to pound home the stress: the hard “g” sound in “green” and “gold” wakes us up. Let’s look at the first line:
The emphasized (stressed syllables) are shown in capital letters:
NAture’s first GREEN is GOLD.
Nature, green, and gold are emphasized. We get it that this poem is about nature. But—is it? Why is nature’s first green also gold? Is that true? Nature’s first green is actually in spring. How can green be gold? The leaves turn gold in the fall, right before they die and fall off. So even in the first line, Frost is presenting us with a dilemma—a quandary. Let’s go on and see if we can find some explanation in the next three lines:
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Gold is the hardest hue (color) to retain. Why? – because the leaves are dying. While the shimmering gold leaf is the height of beauty, it is also bittersweet; it is a sign of impending death. So, this poem might not be about how beautiful nature is; it might be about something else, such as, perhaps, that death is inevitable. And, not only is death unavoidable: importantly, life’s climax, this nadir of perfect glory, is fleeting, and even as the leaves enjoy their golden glory, they are moving towards death, as we are.
The next line is tricky, but is a continuation of his now clear theme, that life is temporal, and we are all on a journey towards death:
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
The question here is: What does “subsides” mean, in context? It can mean lessen, become less severe, etc. We can discover what Frost means by paraphrasing some: As it dies, one leaf gives way to another leaf which will spring fresh in spring, green and bright. A leaf dies, but it is replaced by another, new leaf: the cycle begins again, and the process repeats itself each year. That’s fine, but – didn’t we already know that? Frost was just laying the groundwork: now he goes on to zing his point home in the last three lines, explaining all in the poem’s “shift”:
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Most poems have this “shift”- a point where the author surprises the reader somehow as he changes his viewpoint; it might be a minor twist, or it might be a big one. It’s minor in this poem, if you’ve been paying close attention. Paraphrased, the first of these lines says,
“In the same manner, death came into the world through the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.” The allusion to Eden encapsulates much, but it’s key to understanding the poem; “thus death came into the world,” as the New Testament says. Notice the word “sank” in the phrase “sank to grief,” which implies that originally, the progression to death did not exist. There was a better world, but we do not live in that world. We must accept not only the mortality of nature in general, but our own mortality.
Although Frost is not religious, he relies heavily upon this Judeo-Christian understanding of the nature of humanity: death entered into the world, and it is inevitable. Think about the line
So dawn goes down to day
Here is another quandary. Shouldn’t dawn be the beginning of day; don’t we say that the sun comes “up”? Isn’t it sunset that goes “down”? Why does dawn go “down” to day? You may already see the answer: because dawn brings forthanother day, time has progressed. The dawn goes “down” not only because it disappears as day springs forth, but because it is another harbinger, a marker on the march of time towards death.
The poem concludes with a strong accent on the word “nothing,” which we now understand much more clearly than we did when we read it as the title:
NOTHing gold can stay.
The unspoken messages are now clear: life is precious, but transient, and we should value every minute, for we do not know when the golden leaves of our lives will drift into eternity. Nature’s first green is gold because the very start of life (spring, green) is also the beginning of our journey towards death—we eventually become “gold,” when we reach our maturity, and then will soon pass from this life to the next. We may or may not believe in the biblical explanation for the brief nature of our lives, but we know that its point is true. And, he implies, if we accept this reality, we will have a better chance of appreciating the life we experience here, before we “shuffle off this mortal coil.”