When I first signed up for the English department's survey class, ENGL 200, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Having joined the class late due to scheduling issues, I quickly asked the person sitting next to me if she had the syllabus and after she emailed it to me, scanned over the topics of the course. Okay, structure and space, that sounds pretty familiar. Cool lineation, hot lineation, hot and cold syntax…wait, what?
That day, my professor described poems as mediums dependent on their context—the same poem would read differently as pixels on a computer screen than as squiggles on a page. Each poem also had a particular energy and frequency based on the amount of space it physically took up and the arrangement of words and phrases.
Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and I had learned hot/cool lineation (whether the lines are lined up vs. irregularity in line length) and hot/cold syntax (using main clauses vs. using subordinate clauses, which have lower “energy” than main clauses), among other various literary techniques (such as hot/cold rhyme). Our first paper was coming up, and my professor had defined his expectations for it: three pages, no thesis, and absolutely no analyzing of meaning.
That weekend, I sat in front of my laptop, thinking. How did he expect us to write this paper without veering into analysis? A few days later, I (reluctantly) turned in my essay. When I got it back, my professor had commented: This is a great start although you’re reading too much into what you’re seeing. See accurately first, then we can talk about interpreting.
After reading his comment, I had plenty of questions. What did his comment mean? How was I not seeing the poem accurately? How could I improve? The next class, he cautioned us against trying to force meaning out of poetry—his reasoning was that we can’t know what to write until we know what’s going on in the poem. Rather than interpret the meaning of the poem, we need to talk about the effect of the poem on the space around it (for example, does the hot lineation make you feel cramped or claustrophobic?).
Heeding his advice, I reread my first paper, realizing that most of my paper consisted of analysis (out of habit, some still snuck its way in). I didn’t spend enough time viewing the poem (as my professor termed it) as squiggles on a page, and so my discussion of the poem itself was lacking. Having identified where I had gone wrong, I felt a sense of relief.
Even now, I walk into class not quite knowing what to expect. But I finally understand that analysis is not all that English is made up of. There are plenty of nuances to a text that can be discussed without ever delving into its meaning, and to me, that's fascinating.
Written by Evelyn S. ('20)
April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.
-T. S. Eliot
R2: The Rice Review
Rice University's undergraduate literary magazine. Here you can find event updates, monthly writing contest winners, and opinions by the R2 staff on what's new, interesting, or subject to discussion in the literary and arts world.