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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Beyond Reading

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/28/05 at 11:30 AM

First, a recap. On 12-12 I published a post, "From Frye to the Buffisstas, with a glance at hermeneutics along the way," in which I invoked a distinction between criticism and reading that Frye made in the "Polemical Introduction" to his Anatomy. On 12-20 I published a post, "Learning to Read & the Need for Theory" in which I made a distinction between reading1 and reading2. Subsequent to that I realized that my distinction was, in fact, pretty much the same as Frye’s distinction, though I had thought of it in those terms when I made my 12-20 post.

There are, of course, differences. And perhaps the most important difference is a consequence of the half-century of intellectual work between then and now. Back then Frye was attempting make room for interpretive analysis as a legitimate academic activity. That is no longer necessary. I’m interested in making (more) room for a (not so) new type of literary analytic activity and so I want to distinguish this mode of reflection from what Frye called "talking world of criticism" and what I called reading2. I do not think of this mode of reflection as a variety of reading at all. And that’s the point, it’s not reading, it’s not interpretation. It’s something else.

What interests me is a certain (rather widespread, I believe) attitude about literary analysis and what it should be. I want to get at that, first by recounting some reviewer’s comments on an early essay of mine, and then by offering a small pile of quotations from Geoffrey Hartman back in the 1970s and from some more recent critics in this new millennium. Those recent passages are in response to a special issue of Poetics Today devoted to cognitive criticism.

"Untimely" Writing

In my senior year at Johns Hopkins I became interested in "Kubla Khan" while studying the Romantic poets under the late Earl Wasserman. I set out to explore that poem in my Master’s Thesis, under the direction of Richard Macksey, then Director of the interdisciplinary Humanities Center. I started with a Structuralist methodology inspired by Roman Jakobson, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Jean Piaget and managed to show that each half of the poem divides into three parts, with the middle part of each half in turn divided into three parts, and the middle of those three, yet again, divided into three parts. This discovery of nested ternary structures outstripped the capabilities of a methodology based on binary oppositions, and of any other critical methodology I had encountered.  However, that nested structure did seem reminiscent of structures I’d encountered in computer programming and in the mechanistic linguistics that came in the wake of Noam Chomsky.

I wrote that MA thesis in 1972, but didn’t publish the "Kubla Khan" analysis until a 1985 article in Language and Style. Why the delay? Mostly because it was so different from anything I was aware of that I didn’t know where to submit it. But Language and Style wasn’t the first place I sent it. I first sent the manuscript - which I had entitled “Articulate Vision: A Structuralist Reading of ‘Kubla Khan’” - to a journal where I was pretty sure of getting a sympathetic reading. Much to my surprise, the article was rejected on the basis of the reviewer’s report. The rejection was unequivocal, no chance for reconsideration upon revision, while the report was, in some ways, peculiar. This is the first paragraph:

Through most of this essay I found myself teetering on the edge of Kubla’s girdling wall, uncertain whether to tip one way and fall into Benzon’s enchanted ground, or the other way and run from his tables and charts. One’s first response, I suppose, is surprise at encountering a straightforward, unembarrassed structuralist analysis. Even the casual reader of journals like Digraphe, Glyph, Diacritics, or Poetique would find the essay “untimely” - though that in itself is for me one of its strengths: publishing such a piece in the ‘80’s is a little like playing the critic’s version of Pierre Menard.

Note the playful tone of the paragraph, the assertion that the essay is rather late in critical history, and that there were tables and charts that inspired an impulse to run away. For those who are interested, you can find some of those tables and charts in my recent PsyArt article on KK. The following tables and figures are pretty much the same as they were in the older piece:

Table 1: Pronouns in "Kubla Khan"
Table 2: Constituent Structure, Movement 1
Figure 3: Constituent Structure Tree, Movement 1
Table 3: Summary Analysis of 1.1 and 1.2
Table 4. Constituent Structure, Movement 2
Figure 13: Constituent Structure Tree, Movement 2
Figure 23: Rhyme Scheme, Movement 1
Figure 24: Rhyme Scheme, Movement 2

Further on the reviewer notes that those same constituent structure diagrams “have a real value in coming to terms with the text, and I will no doubt refer to them when I teach the poem.” But he complains that the essay “ought to argue with itself, to put into question some of the patterns it establishes-or better, perhaps to let the poem talk back.” And after this that and the other, he recommends against publication. Thus this essay contains something that is valuable enough that he will use it in teaching, but that is not so valuable as to be worthy of notice by his professional colleagues.

But what does he mean by suggesting that I "let the poem talk back"? I rather doubt that the statement is meant literally. It is surely a metaphor, but a metaphor for what? That’s not at all clear to me.

What is clear to me is that the reviewer is ambivalent about the tables and diagrams, which are at the intellectual center of the article. What I suspect is that they offend the reviewer’s sense of how one ought to deal with literature in general. And that is a problem, for me certainly - though the essay did find a home - but I think for literary studies in general. I think there is quite a lot of work to be done of the sort that is embodied in those charts and diagrams. But that work will not be seen if the gate-keepers declare it unfit for professional consumption.

What I want to do in the rest of this post is mostly quote others. The quotes illustrate the attitudes I find worrisome. First comes Hartman.

Geoffrey Hartman: The Fate of Reading (1975)

Hartman is one of the Yale critics who made a home for deconstruction in the 1970s. As such, he is in the lineage that led to T/theory. These passages are from The Fate of Reading and Other Essays, U of Chicago Press, 1975.

Here is the opening paragraph of the first essay in the volume, "The Interpreter: A Self-Analysis" (p. 3):

Confession. I have a superiority complex vis-à-vis other critics, and an inferiority complex vis-à-vis art. The interpreter, molded on me, is an overgoer with pen-envy strong enough to compel him into the foolishness of print. His self-disgust is merely that of the artist, intensified. "Joe, throw my book away." Sometimes his discontent with the "secondary" act of writing-with living in the reflective or imitative sphere-makes him privilege some primary act at the expense of art or commentary on art. He turns into Mystic or Vitalist. But, more often, he compromises be establishing a special relationship to what transcends him. Having discounted other critics, and reduced art to its greatest exemplars, he feels naked enough to say: "Myself and Art." Like Emerson, who said that ultimately there was "I and the Abyss."

Note the verbal play that peppers this paragraph (in particular, the second sentence). Hartman seems to be playing off the common notion that critics are would-be poets, novelists, and playwrights who just didn’t have the stuff. Perhaps Hartman himself would have preferred to be a poet; I don’t know. But one can be genuinely interested in studying literature for any number of reasons, none of which involves such study being a substitute for a failed literary career.

The following passages are all from the title essay, "The Fate of Reading" (p. 255):

That darkling appropriation of works of art we call interpretation is surely as much a blind drive as an objective interest. We are forced to predicate a narrative or interpretive will, the will to be an author oneself, or even the author of oneself (and others).

Why "appropriation, much less "darkling appropriation"? What is the scope of that "We"?

Some more passages, which I will present without individual comment:

Literature is today so easily assimilated or coopted that the function of criticism must often be to defamiliarize it. [p. 260]

A great interpreter like Erich Auerbach, a great critic-scholar like E.R. Curtius, a prodigal son like Kenneth Burke, or men of letters like Paul Valéry and Edmund Wilson, who practiced the minor mode of prophecy we call criticism, are not annulled by the fact that they may be explicitly writing about the writing of others. It may be a weakness in them to prefer, at times, the indirectness of commentary to the creation of their own news, but it may also be a conviction that their identity is bound up with the writings of others-that the mind is laid waste by the false Unas of literature even as it is renewed by faith in the classic or neglected text. [p. 267]

Reading, then, includes reading criticism. [p. 268]

The question persists, however, whether there is a specific function that differentiates literary criticism from literature. . . . Literary understanding, then, has two components: literary tradition proper, or an expansible canon of texts; and criticism, which helps to form this canon and guide its interpretation-which prepares us, at least, for the complexities of literary expression. [p. 270]

All we can be certain of is that literary understanding is bipartite, requiring both literary discourse (texts), and that too strong a privileging of fictional over nonfictional texts (of "primary" over "secondary" literature) reifies literature still further and disorders our ability to read. [p. 271]

I find some of this overwrought and overly anxious, just a bit professionally self-serving, and I’m skeptical about the ability of reading2 to bring us closer to the text. Perhaps it does that in the way "wood-shedding" a difficult piece of music helps a musician work it up for performance. But I would distinguish between the "shedding" and the performance itself. Still and all, I don’t have any deep objection to the case Hartman is making for reading2. It has its place.

That is to say, I am not arguing that we should stop doing reading2. I am arguing, rather, that we should also being doing something else. It is in this context that I find remarks like this bothersome (p. 271):

I wonder, finally, whether the very concept of reading is not in jeopardy. Pedagogically, of course, we still respond to those who call for improved reading skills; but to describe most semiological or structural analyses of poetry as a "reading" extends the term almost beyond recognition.

As I indicated both in that earlier post, I think Hartman is correct about this. The semiological and structural analysis of poetry (and novels and stories and movies and TV shows) are not reading in Hartman’s sense, that is, they are not reading2 (in my sense). But that is not, as Hartman implies, a reason not to engage in such analysis. On the contrary, that’s a reason for so doing land for extending such work into the newer psychologies. They are something else, and they will - if pursued diligently - tell us things about literature that we do not currently understand.

Responses to "Cognitivism"

In 2002 Poetics Today published a special issue on cognitive poetics. I want to quote passages from two articles written in response to those pieces. 

First, from Hans Adler and Sabine Gross “Adjusting the Frame: Comments on Cognitivism and Literature,” Poetics Today 23:2 (Summer 2002, pp. 195-220) p. 214:

Literary analysis is much less predicated upon correctness or provability of findings or the incontrovertibility of evidence. Instead, its “success” relies on such parameters as originality, appropriateness, inventiveness, or “insight value”: it may be measured by our degree of satisfaction with what is revealed or illuminated about a text.  Most of all, literary interpretation generally does not aspire to the once-and-for-all-ness implied by the term solution. On the contrary, it is often unabashedly nonfinal, inviting supplementation or revision, in other words: conscious of its own historicity.

Note that "literary analysis" is unqualified. They do not purport to be talking about some kind or kinds of literary analysis, but about literary analysis in general.

Now let’s hear from Tony Jackson, “Literary Interpretation and Cognitive Literary Studies,” Poetics Today 24 (2) 191-205. First an assertion about the participation of criticism in literature (p. 202)

That is, a literary interpretation, if we are allowed to distinguish it as a distinct kind of interpretation, joins in with the literariness of the text. Literary interpretation is a peculiar and, I would say, unique conjunction of argument and literature, analytic approach and art form being analyzed.

I suppose that Hartman’s playful prose is an example of that "joining in." But why must one engage in such joining in? Here’s his central issue (p. 204):

Given all this, apart from the questions I have asked along the way, here is my central question for those who would bring together the cognitive sciences and literary study. Can you make a legitimate use of the science without requiring literary interpretations to be judged by the criteria of scientific method? Said differently, how can cognitive science be blended with the study of literature in such a way as to preserve the dialectical meaning of literary interpretation? For if this blend cannot be achieved with that basic dialectic intact, then work may get done, some publication may happen, and a new kind of criticism may occur; but it will not appeal to most literary scholars. I do not see how it could begin to revolutionize the critical scene. On the other hand, if this blending can be done and the dialectic preserved, then it may well be the turning of a new tide in the study of literature and the humanities.

Well, of course the "blending" can be done. And when it is done, cognitive science is being used in the same way that psychoanalysis has been used already. The result is the general sort of criticism that we’ve had in various forms for the last half-century or more; that is to say, the result is reading2. This is not going to “the turning of a new tide in the study of literature and the humanities.” It will simply be more of the same, in new flavors.

But something else is possible. Those charts and tables that the anonymous reviewer of my "Kubla Khan" essay found so problematic are something else. If I am correct in my analysis, then those charts and tables indicate aspects of "Kubla Khan" that are real and not simply the result of my interpretive ingenuity. That is to say, whether or not they are picked up in this or that interpretation of the text (reading2), there are there in reading1. Whatever reading2 is, it is not in any simple sense an account of what transpires in reading1.

I’ll end by returning to Frye. He distinguished between reading1 and reading2 so as to open up a space for reading2. I want to make a space for literary analysis that is not a species of reading2. I am arguing that we enlarge our conceptual and theoretical imagination. There can be intellectual life beyond reading2.


Your final paragraph reminds me of Eliot’s theories about “relational consciousness”, which I think is close to what you mean by reading2. The traditional maneuver of course was to re-approach reading1 via the transcendent, or the sublime or whatever. If I understand correctly, you want to update this and say that contemporary cognitive science offers a new, non-mythical approach to understanding the transcendent or the sublime effect in literature.

Wouldn’t some surrealist works like Ubu Roi, or something like the parodic poems of Lewis Carroll, make a better proving ground for your analytical approach than “Kublai Khan”? “You are old, Father William” and the rest are incredibly satisfying, though I am quite sure when I read “Alice” that I have never encountered any of the original poems which are being parodied, so there is no question of the interplay of text and text participating in my enjoyment.

By scriblerus on 12/28/05 at 03:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A highly interesting post. I had a few remarks, though.

“But something else is possible. [...] If I am correct in my analysis, then those charts and tables indicate aspects of “Kubla Khan” that are real and not simply the result of my interpretive ingenuity. That is to say, whether or not they are picked up in this or that interpretation of the text (reading2), there are there in reading1. Whatever reading2 is, it is not in any simple sense an account of what transpires in reading1.”

This sounds vaguely reminiscent of the Jakobson/Levi-Strauss-reading of ´Les Chats´. ´Certain structures are in the poem whether you like it or not, stupid´. I´m not entirely sure that they are (well, of course, they are, in a certain framework. but are they always in the head of the reader when he/she is reading?). And it is still not entirely clear to me what you mean by reading1.

Is it the mental processes all readers experience when reading, a bottom-level processing of the text that is less articulate than the more refined and culturally imposed interpretation-in-the-journals? If so, is it something all readers do and are aware of when reading? It doesn´t seem -to me at least- the most parsimonious hypothesis to assume that readers experience these type of ternary structures, simply because there doesn´t seem to be that much pay-off for the average reader.

In any case, I´m guessing that you are advocating an analysis/description/whatever of the mental processes operative in reading. Studying how the mind reads rather than how the professors say we should read. If so, I don´t think it´s very new, even though it hasn´t really been thought through properly before.

Another idea I had is that many critical schools tend to advocate their type of reading by saying that what they are studying is not reading2 -´those pesky professorial readings!´- but reading1. In that sense, the return to a precritical type of reading seems to me a staple of critical readings.

As ever, though, I might be completely wrong. Tx for an interesting post,


By on 12/29/05 at 07:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

scriblerus, I don’t recall Eliot on relational consciousness, so I can’t help you there. As for “a new, non-mythical approach to understanding the transcendent or the sublime effect in literature.” That’s certainly one of the things that interests me, depending, of course, on just what you mean by the transcendent or the sublime. I devoted a great deal of attention to that in my book on music, where I also provided various anecdotes to illustrate what I’m talking about.

As for surrealism, Kenneth Burke, in one of the few really good essays on “Kubla Khan,” suggested that it was a proto-surrealist poem and that was why Coleridge found it so disturbing; it was a kind of poetry he couldn’t account for with his theories. As a practical matter, it was my original analytic work on KK that convinced me that lit crit as I knew it (in the late 60s and early 70s at Johns Hopkins) was severely limited. It had nothing to say about KK’s structure. So I started looking elsewhere for possible explanations.

Trickster, If “reading” hadn’t been refitted for use as a synonym for “interpretation” then reading1 would just be the various forms of reading. But the word has been so appropriated and, as you can see in the quotations in my post, the distinction between reading1 and reading2 has been (systematically) abraded and dissolved so that mere reading has become something in need of reading2 if it is to be . . . successful? real? authentic?

Yes, Jakobson and Levi-Strauss are very much in my background. That’s where I was coming from in my original work on KK.

The question of whether or how readers experience, for example, the ternary structures I describe in KK, is a tricky one. A parallel question has been raised in the philosophy and analysis of music (see Jerrold Levinson, Music in the Moment). Fairly standard analysis reveals large-scale structural patterns (spanning the full length of a 5 or 10 minute piece, or longer). The problem is that the conscious present is about 3 or 4 seconds long. So, how do we experience those long structures in music? Do we need to conduct a formal analysis to apprehend them? If so, then how does anyone other than musicologists apprehend the music? If not, then just how do we do it?  We don’t really know.

In my own musical history, I was able to recognize a blues and even to improvise on a blues before I knew that the blues consisted of a 12-bar form in three 4-bar sections with a harmonic structure indicated something like this: I IV I V I. Once I learned that, by reading a bit of music theory, I was able to write exercises for myself and otherwise enhance my improvisational skill. But I didn’t need to know those terms and concepts in order to hear or even play the blues.

It is clear that, in general, the mind-brain does a lot of work of which we are not conscious. Some of that is probably not, even in principle, accessible to conscious awareness. We are not conscious of the inner mechanisms of language when we talk or listen. We just do it. But tricky experimenters have found evidence that things are going on that are us but of which we are not conscious. That’s where those ternary structures come into play.

And, you are right, there’s nothing new about wanting to study how the mind reads. It’s been going on for awhile – much of it being done by people interested in school children, very little of it being done by people interested in (high culture, canonical) literature. I think it’s time we get to it.

By Bill Benzon on 12/29/05 at 02:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Everything is way too long on this website. Words, sentences, paragraphs, posts. The valve this website is named for is obviously not of the shut-off variety.

By on 12/30/05 at 12:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If I understand correctly, you are thus suggesting that we perform structuralist (or similar) analyses of texts in order to unearth the mental strategies operative while reading?

Although I don´t want to keep coming back to your distinction, it thus seems to me that you are suggesting a form of reading2 (structuralist analysis) in order to get at the form of reading1 (reading as such). I seem to remember you saying that you are actually aiming at neither, at ´something else´, but I am still not sure I understand what that ´something else´ should look like.

By on 12/30/05 at 05:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I think literary critics passed over from structuralism to post-structuralism without learning how to do robust structuralist analysis of texts. They dipped their toes in the water and decided they didn’t like it.

On the second issue you raise, that’s the point: this something else is NOT reading2. I quoted a passage from Hartman where he asserted that “to describe most semiological or structural analyses of poetry as a ‘reading’ extends the term almost beyond recognition.” Reading2 intends to recover or elucidate the meaning of the text, meaning that isn’t fully explicit or “registered” in reading1. Reading2 is thus somehow supposed to be continuous with reading1.

But the kind of analysis I am advocating is NOT intended to recover hidden meanings; it is NOT intended to be (mysteriously) continuous with reading1. It may well describe and analyze semantic structures in the text, but you can do that without intended to “reveal” or “capture” or merely paraphrase their meaning. The most extreme example of this I know of would be my early essay on Shakespeare’s sonnet 129. In that essay I first constructed a semantic network model; think of it as a bunch of roadmaps where the junctions between roads are concepts and the roads themselves are relationships between concepts.* Then I showed how the poem unfolded along a set of paths through the network. That network model is an explicit model of (an idealized) reader’s mind. The path of the poem thus involves a relationship between the text and the reader’s mind.

Describing such things is quite different from revealing hidden meanings. It’s the difference between explaining how a car works and getting in and driving it. Reading2 is an attempt to “drive” the text in a way that is more skillful (and self-conscious) than what you do in reading1.

*You can find examples of such networks in these two papers:

Appendix 4

Sections 6 & 7.

By Bill Benzon on 12/30/05 at 08:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

scriblerus, I don’t recall Eliot on relational consciousness, so I can’t help you there. As for “a new, non-mythical approach to understanding the transcendent or the sublime effect in literature.” That’s certainly one of the things that interests me, depending, of course, on just what you mean by the transcendent or the sublime.

Bill, I don’t think you particularly have anything to learn from Eliot, however, if you were to take a more limited and conventionally familiar problem as the jumping-off point for presentation of your work, I bet editors would treat you much better. :-)

By scriblerus on 12/30/05 at 03:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At this point I’m not terribly worried about editors. I seem to be able to publish what I write. Things have changed a bit in the 20+ years since that essay was turned down. But I still got it published, though in a different (but excellent) journal, and I’m still on good terms with the editor who had to turn me down.

By Bill Benzon on 12/30/05 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m curious, Bill—have you ever bumped into Stephen Ratcliffe’s _Campion: On Song_, from 1981? It’s an exhausting structural analysis of one song by Thomas Campion: syntax, semantics, phonetics, and musical setting. I’ve never hit anything quite like it, but aspects of your Coleridge work remind me of it.

(For years now I’ve contemplated writing an essay on Ratcliffe, a lesser-known Languge Poet who wrote perhaps the single most ravishingly beautiful long poem I’ve ever read....)

By Ray Davis on 12/30/05 at 07:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No, I haven’t, Ray.

By Bill Benzon on 12/30/05 at 11:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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