English 302—Formalism and Contextualism
Instructor: Henry Staten
Are literary texts a sort of “aesthetic objects” that we can understand and appreciate just by reading them and understanding the “words on the page,” in what is called a “formalist” way? Or are they products of their social and political context? Are the “great” literary works of the past truly great, or have we been taught to see them as great because they serve the interests of the dominant powers of society, while these same dominant powers have kept us from recognizing the merits of work by women, people of color, working class people, or sexually diverse people? Is there any such thing as “intrinsic” literary or artistic quality, or is “quality” just a matter of how different people with different class, race, nationality, or gender perceive them?
These are the questions that have been hotly debated in literary studies for the past fifty years. This course will introduce you to the arguments on both sides of this extremely complex debate. I will argue that both sides have valid arguments, but that the reality of any art, including literature, is more complex than either side has understood. We will focus mostly on lyric poetry, because lyric poems are often hard to understand (so that critics look to context for clues to their interpretation) and short (so that we can consider every word of the poem in our discussions).
I haven’t taught this course in a while and am in the process of re-designing it, but the syllabus will look something like this:
First three weeks: basic issues in the debate over “intrinsic/formalist” and “extrinsic/contextualist” criticism.
Texts:” Blake “London,” Baudelaire, “The Red-Haired Beggar Girl.” Criticism by Peter Nicholls, from his book Modernisms.
Weeks 3-6: Theoretical issues concerning colonialism and racism raised by the critical debates over Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.
Weeks 7-8: Some poems by Adrienne Rich, and discussion of the tortuous ideological issues that have arisen in discussion of these poems by feminist and lesbian-feminist critics.
Poems: “The Fact of a Door-frame,” “Origins and History of Consciousness,” “Cartographies of Silence.” Critical discussion: Linda Garber, Identity Poetics, pp. 127-37.
Weeks 9-10: What is poetry anyhow, and what is it for? Or, on what bases can we legitimately judge poetic value? Texts: Poems by Langston Hughes, as presented and discussed by Michael Meyer in his book Poetry: An Introduction. Meyer’s chapter contains a selection of Hughes’s poetry, as well as a selection of critical discussions of Hughes’s poetry.