Magic Tricks

This semester, I find myself being a TA. Overall, I would describe it as a partially mysterious, though overall throughly enjoyable way to occupy my time. The class is an American Studies undergrad senior seminar, in which they write theses, all year. I have very little exposure to American Studies (though, I feel ever more comfortable with it) and have, or so I hope, thesis writing skills – but needless to say, it is amazingly working out.

Today the topic of method was being addressed (much of the time I spend thinking about this topic results in feeling mildly nauseated by own trepidation regarding methodology.) and in amongst the material of the class, New Criticism came up. I don’t really think about New Criticism very much, because I don’t really do it now. However, when I learnt to read closely it was through New Criticism and I loved it. I loved it deeply.

I remember the sheet of paper my class was given in the 9th grade that described the elements of New Critical formal readings. It was as if I had been taught a magic trick. A trick I had watched my English teachers perform and never knew where the meaning came from, where in poem did they see these things, all this meaning? All of sudden, I had the trick. I remember practicing it, and getting really good. I remember the first poems I read that way, Sylvia Plath, Lady Lazarus and Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, which is probably still my favorite poem.

The charm of being able to look at any piece of writing, with no context, and just make something from it was not lost on my teenage self. It was, and still is a marriage of my favorite possible things – neat, well-ordered thinking, systematic ways of understanding complex things, a way of organizing my thoughts just like everything else. It was like organizing, tidying and literature rolled up together. Delightful.

Thinking about how much New Critical reading had meant to me today, I realized how I attached I’ve been to English and to literature. I spent all my time thinking about literature when I was in high school, and all of college (up until the very end). It was all I wanted to do, was read, and analyse. The first theory class I ever took, which was my junior year of college, was horrifying. It was all this other stuff which was not the text, it was beyond the text and it made me very uncomfortable. It took me a long time to start to feel right about other ways of thinking about texts, and to be honest, when I find myself confused I revert back to my old standard (when in doubt, talk form). The habit and the knowledge of the magic trick, I suspect, ruined me as a creative writer. It’s hard to write creatively when you’re very aware of how the form, tone, style, structure, word choice must work. It stops being organic.

Even now, over two years since I finished my undergrad degree I can’t separate myself from my comforting ways of thinking about poetry. I still read a lot of poetry, it seems very natural to do so with a pen, and I love it when I encounter a poem, formatted all alone on a sheet of white paper, with lots of space around it for me to write notes.

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