[Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977)]
The Hollow of the Palm
Anthology texts to read:
- 139.133 Study Guide. Creative Writing
- Rhian Gallagher: "Blood Work"
- Yusef Komunyakaa: "My Father's Love Letters"
Let me submit the following practical suggestion. Literature, real literature, must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain ... Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed - then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flavour will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.
- Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature
People often say that discussing a story or a film kills it for them. They'd rather appreciate it for what it is than dissect it in order to find out how it works. It's hard not to sympathise with this view. A powerful or atmospheric work of art can leave a strong emotional impression behind, and too much talk about it too soon afterwards can leave that in tatters.
As the great Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov comments above, though, only after you've broken a work apart for yourself, "munched and rolled" it on your tongue, can "its rare flavour ... be appreciated at its true worth." It may seem painful initially, but (he assures us) the final gain is greater than the initial loss. The work, when its constituent parts come back together again in your mind, will "disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood." All true readers are thus, in a sense, co-creators of the works of art they enjoy.
Now let's look at the wording of your first assignment, the Short Critical Exercise (worth 15% of your overall grade):
This assignment task requires you to research, describe and critically analyse a text from either the creative writing module, or the media practice module, or the theatre module. This is a critical writing task which is submitted in the form of a short essay. It is designed to get you thinking analytically about the creative works we are exploring. It is also designed to allow you to demonstrate your close reading of a text and your understanding of key concepts and terms.
There are a lot of important words and phrases there: "research, describe and critically analyse" - "a critical writing task" - "thinking analytically" and "close reading of a text."
I'd look to discuss each of these terms in a bit more detail, beginning with the last. What is a "close reading" of a text? Essentially, it’s just a way of looking very carefully at a single, circumscribed piece of writing in order to tease out the ideas and assumptions that lie behind it.
Clearly, this is a very culturally conditioned exercise. Without a basic knowledge of the social and cultural referents a particular author is employing, the precise implications of any particular piece are likely to remain inscrutable. Knowledge of the author's use of language and idiom is therefore important - hence the emphasis on "research" further up the page. If you don't know, perhaps you can find out. That, after all, is the basic meaning of the word research.
As well as researching and trying to understand as many as possible of the implications of the particular piece of writing you're looking at, you also have to be able to convey this information to a reader. Hence the word "describe," which comes right after "research" above. And, as with a Maths problem, unless you share your process of reasoning with us, we're unlikely to find your conclusions persuasive. You have to tell us why and how you reached the ideas you now have about the passage you're "analysing critically."
Criticism, then, is not the same thing as "being critical" in the popular sense. That usually just means being negative about something. What we mean by "thinking critically" in the Humanities is trying to conduct a process of reasoning with clear reference to the evidence for each of the statements you want us to accept.
Let's give it a go.
[Rhian Gallagher (1961)
I'd like to start off by looking at South Island poet Rhian Gallagher's poem "Blood Work" [available in the 139.133 Creative Communication Study Guide]
I think we can see at once that this poem can be treated as a story, and charted in narrative terms.
We can also look at its imagery, though. Does this give us a different sense of the poem?
What, finally, is the poem about? The title provides a clue, as does the last line: "going away and away from him." The strange, almost halting nature of the phrasing of that line perhaps gives us some clue as to just how difficult this "going away" is going to be for the speaker - the "Blood Work" of accomplishing separation from his life and starting her own, independent one.
Yusef Komunyakaa (1947- )
By contrast, Yusef Komunyakaa's "My Father's Love Letters", the poem set for your assignment, while also telling a story about a father through the eyes of a child, is far more attentive to echoing the registers of language appropriate to children. This gives the poem more immediacy than the rather more reflective, adult tone of "Blood Work."
Gallagher's poem relates a childhood experience looked back on as an adult. Komunyakaa tries to revive that child's level of perception. Do both poems conclude in much the same way, though? That's for you to decide.