On the Writing of Writing about Literature 2/e

“I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is prose, words in their best order; poetry, the best words in the best order.”
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Writing about Literature 2/e was written because literature and writing instructors were asking for a chapter on poetry to complement the textbook’s original focus on prose fiction. The first edition employed Stephan Crane’s remarkable “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” as its focal point, providing a casebook treatment of the story; and it took some time to find a suitable companion piece, a poem that could offer students a rich text to study and explore. I also wanted—in contrast to Crane’s much-discussed short story—a poem that had been given relatively little critical attention, thus providing both students and their instructors an opportunity for critical first discovery.

Robert Kroetsch’s “This Part of the Country” strikes me as just such a poem. Composed as part of a community mapping initiative when Kroetsch was writer in residence at a Western Canadian university (and later published in his Snowbird collection), the poem echoes some of the themes that inform Crane’s work while, at the same time, providing a meditation on the irony of being a “writer in residence” yet also someone very far from home. How does a poet write himself into the landscape, make a home for himself (however temporary) in a new place? What does it mean to be “out of place”? How does space become place for the writer?

As a teacher I was especially interested in providing relevant background material for the students—and I was delighted when Kroetsch agreed to an interview (which we’ve included in the second edition). Kroetsch talks about the composition of “This Part of the Country,” and he offers wonderful advice to students on how they might read and write about his work. In addition, we’ve provided a web link to a truly remarkable video presentation, with Kroetsch both reading his poem and discussing it line-by-line.

Like the first edition, Writing about Literature 2/e is based on the premise that good literature instruction should involve a focus on both critical reading and critical writing. It is generally recognized that literary texts are best read in their social, historical, and critical contexts. Yet, ironically, writing about literature is often learned in something of a social, historical, and critical vacuum. If your students are like mine, they often report feeling confused or frustrated by the way academics talk and write. Most undergraduate students tend to approach the writing of critical essays as outsiders uninitiated in the disciplinary assumptions, approaches, and models that shape successful writing in the field. In fact, literature is often taught with only passing reference to the history, organization, and assumptions informing the critical essay.

Students are taught how to read about literature, but the secrets of how to write about literature are often imparted indirectly, or are left to be picked up in their senior years (when, if they decide to take further English courses, they begin to study the body of critical literature surrounding the primary texts). Unlike creative writing courses, where students read examples of fine poetry or prose fiction as models to be emulated, literature courses ask students to spend most of their time studying forms they will never be asked to write.

This second edition offers proven strategies for making the critical context (the discourse of literary criticism, including advice from authors and critics) both visible and relevant. Literature students may not all want to become professional critics, but they do have a need (and a right) to understand why we in English studies do what we do—and what can be gained from practising the arts of critical reading and writing. Writing about Literature provides students with an insider’s guide to literary criticism, offering step-by-step instruction on how to write first-class critical essays.

– W.F. (Will) Garrett-Petts is Professor of English at Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, British Columbia. 

Posted on June 13, 2013