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Evaluating literature
Thread poster: Kim Metzger

Kim Metzger  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 20:51
German to English
Aug 28, 2004

Harold Bloom, in How to Read and Why, wrote: "You can read merely to pass the time, or you can read with an overt urgency, but eventually you will read against the clock." In other words, there is so much to read that no one will ever be able to read everything worth reading.

Millions of poems have been written, but only relatively few are really good. Since we can't read everything, we have to be selective. What are the distinguishing features of good literature? What does the second poem have that the first one doesn't? What is wrong with the first poem?

A Little Dog Angel
High up in the courts of heaven today
a little dog angel waits;
with the other angels he will not play,
but he sits alone at the gates.
"For I know my master will come" says he,
"and when he comes he will call for me."

The other angels pass him by
As they hurry toward the throne,
And he watches them with a wistful eye
as he sits at the gates alone.
"But I know if I just wait patiently
that someday my master will call for me."

And his master, down on earth below,
as he sits in his easy chair,
forgets sometimes, and whispers low
to the dog who is not there.
And the little dog angel cocks his ears
and dreams that his master's voice he hears.

And when at last his master waits
outside in the dark and cold,
for the hand of death to open the door,
that leads to those courts of gold,
he will hear a sound through the gathering dark,
a little dog angel's bark.
Noah M. Holland


Christopher Smart, "on his cat Jeoffrey" from Jubilate Agno (1762), lns. 695-742

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant
quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his
prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees . . .
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying . . .
For the English cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his fore-paws of any quadrupede.
For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is the Lord's poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually -- Poor Jeoffrey! poor Jeoffrey! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffrey is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in compleat cat.

http://www.engl.virginia.edu/enec981/dictionary/24smartM1.html

And here's the entire Jeoffrey poem.

http://people.zeelandnet.nl/henklensen/smart.htm

[Edited at 2004-08-28 20:24]

[Edited at 2004-08-29 15:47]


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Sean Linney  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 03:51
French to English
+ ...
Literary merit cannot be demonstratively proven Aug 29, 2004

Hello Kim

I have a few thoughts on this question, which I hope will prove helpful.

Despite over 100 years of academic study of literature, no means has been devised to provide some kind of objective measure of the quality of a piece of literature. In other words, 100 critics may agree than one poem is better than another, but there is no way of proving or demonstrating why this should be so. Analysis and close reading can be carried out, detailed arguments can be put forward, but these arguments, ultimately, remain opinions, however well-informed they might be.

Given the above situation, it might seem that no criteria exist to help the reader choose the books which he or she reads in the limited time available. Bloom deals with this problem by urging readers to turn towards canonical writers, those whose works have, over a period of time, attracted critical consensus. One such writer is Shakespeare, who is held by virtually all serious critics to be a great writer. Even so, it is impossible to prove Shakespeare's greatness - the fact that his plays have withstood the test of time, and been acclaimed by generations of critics, is all the reader has to go on.

Sean

[Edited at 2004-08-29 21:21]


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lien
Netherlands
Local time: 04:51
English to French
+ ...
You miss the point Aug 30, 2004

I am a great reader under the sky, but I do not read because I want to read the 100 best... whatever.

I let myself go with the flow. It's all started so long ago. I just read a book, and something in this book give me the desire to read another book, be it a reference to a book, a topic which the writer talk about, a quote from another book, another book written by the same author, and so I read further. Mostly is a topic and often a note or comment.

I found many things who opened my mind in quite unknown books. I never read shakespeare and don't intend to. I don't care. But I read chauncer, by exemple.


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Emérentienne
France
Local time: 04:51
English to French
subjectivity Aug 30, 2004

Sean Linney wrote:
Despite over 100 years of academic study of literature, no means has been devised to provide some kind of objective measure of the quality of a piece of literature. In other words, 100 critics may agree than one poem is better than another, but there is no way of proving or demonstrating why this should be so. Analysis and close reading can be carried out, detailed arguments can be put forward, but these arguments, ultimately, remain opinions, however well-informed they might be.
[Edited at 2004-08-29 21:21]


I mostly agree with you, Sean. Literature is first of all an encounter between a person and a text, and as any encounter, it is subjective, meaning it has a lot to do with the reader's personal history, education and expectations.

The reputation gained by some authors sometimes simply rides the wave of literary fashion and do not last. Except for classical authors whose works have travelled through generations without losing their power of attraction, evaluating literature of our own time is no easy task. This is not to say it is impossible and I greatly value the analysis of a good critic.

I believe it takes great qualities of erudition and a good measure of humbleness to be able to evaluate someone else's work. I guess the job of the critic is precisely to try and give an analysis of a text using learned academic criteria that will attenuate the subjectivity part in the reading. But even those criteria will change over time.

It probably takes as much to be a good critic as to be a "good" author.


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Sean Linney  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 03:51
French to English
+ ...
By all means go with the flow Aug 30, 2004

Actually, Lien, I was just trying to shed some light on how certain literary critics might approach Kim's question. I do not necessarily endorse such views myself, nor would I recommend that anyone base their reading around the so-called canon. Your 'go with the flow' approach is as good a way to read as any, I think, and makes more sense than self-consciously attempting to plough through a list of 'classics'. On the other hand, just because a writer belongs to the canon does not mean he or she won't be enjoyable to read; it's best to approach literature with an open mind, and to try things for oneself before dismissing them.

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Kim Metzger  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 20:51
German to English
TOPIC STARTER
Evaluating literature Aug 30, 2004

Yes, point well taken, Sean. It's a complex issue and my little "exam" is far too simplistic. Judging the value of literature and art in general is certainly a subjective matter. My personal guru in these matters is John M. Ellis, a former professor of mine who's written a number of excellent books on the subject, including The Theory of Literary Criticism: A Logical Analysis. His concern is with writing about literature, literary criticism, and he sees little value in evaluation as a tool for critics.

Still, people who teach poetry make value judgments when they select the books for the students to read. And their selection is based on their desire to give the students a good experience of poetry. When discussing the individual poems, they might well tell them what they like about them. One approach to teaching poetry (in the early stages) is to examine some that aren't so good and figuring out what their shortcomings are.

When I hear beautiful music, see a beautiful painting or read a beautiful poem, I instinctively know that the artist is genuine, sincere, has dug deep down into his or her soul to produce this work. After I've read a book by some of the popular writers like Tom Clancy or Stephen King (just to see what everybody's so enthusiastic about) I feel empty, cheated. I have wasted my time.

So, my intention with this thread was to raise the question of how we can help each other "read against the clock." If someone's response to these two poems was to say to himself, "Smart's poem moved me, the other one didn't. I wonder why?", I've done that person a service.


[Edited at 2004-08-30 13:04]


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Emérentienne
France
Local time: 04:51
English to French
digging the soul Aug 30, 2004

Kim Metzger wrote:

When I hear beautiful music, see a beautiful painting or read a beautiful poem, I instinctively know that the artist is genuine, sincere, has dug deep down into his or her soul to produce this work. [Edited at 2004-08-30 13:04]


Yes, you either feel touched or you don't. Yet I wouldn't just call it instinctively as it also has a lot do with how we have been educated and trained to react to literature/poetry/music etc.


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