Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday, 9 July 2012

"Practical Stylistics" by H.G. Widdowson (OUP, 1992)

He appreciates that readers may find poems difficult. He writes that "The purpose of this book is to suggest ways in which frustration might be converted to stimulation, and the first move is to make clear what procedures of interpretation are implied by the very nature of poetic discourse" (p.17)

By comparing poems with jokes and gravestone inscriptions the book investigates why the way things are said matters. He analyses some poems. He writes

  • "it is just this kind of resolution of disparity by invoking congruences of a different order which gives verbal art, and indeed all art, its essential significance", p.23
  • "It seems to me that the aesthetic effects of a poem (as with other forms of art) depend on the satisfaction of two conditions. The first is that it disperses meanings and disrupts established ideas ... But this condition alone would lead us to equate artistic quality with obscurity ... We need the second condition. This is that the incongruity of the poem and the disruption it causes have to be made congruous, the disorder reassembled into a different order", p.62
  • "poetry is a representation of socially unsanctioned reality through the exploitation of unrealized possibilities in language", p.71

In part 2 of the book he asks "What is the point of poetry. What reasons can there be for retaining it as something to be taught in schools?" (p.75). His answer is that "[poetry] has the potentiality ... to promote diversity which can work to the advantage of both the individual and the social self" (p.78) and that "poetry, representing as it does the reconciliation of the principles of freedom and constraint, can serve to develop a more general awareness of these principles and their relationship in individual and social life", p.82. Poetry is important because language is important - "We manage our affairs by use of language. We use it to construct a social reality to suit our needs. The reality is only a convenience and we are constantly realigning its categories to accommodate changing circumstances, to make it more serviceable for our security and control", p.75

He writes that "In a sense, learning to read poetry is the discovery of significance without certainty" (p.115). He sees the attempt at finding a poem's agreed meanings (and deciding what can't be paraphrased) as a transferable skill. His suggestions for teaching poetry follow on from these beliefs. Students should be encouraged to read creatively, to paraphrase/re-write in order to discover the limitations of their attempts. He suggests that students are given the individual lines of a poem and asked to assemble them in the order they think best. Or that students should fill in the blanks of a provided poem, or create then compare alternative versions (including prose versions).

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