The role of the reader

At the end of this Part on Creative Reading I am invited to briefly consider the role of the reader according to the reader-response theory and how this theory or critical movement links with the concepts of the arbitrariness of sign and postmodernism which were hinted at at the beginning.

My first line of thought: Author – text – reader

There would be so many areas to investigate in this respect, but the first thing that comes to my mind in examining creative forms of expression – be it a written piece like a poem or a fiction, or a work of art – is how the attention of critics has shifted through time from the author and the surrounding historical and social context to the text itself considered as a system having its own laws – the sign being arbitrary – as in the New Criticism theory and Structuralism,  and finally to the reader or the viewer that takes on an active role (reader-response theory) and without whom the text is like dead and cannot have meaning. And based on this, my first personal thought is that creative writing or creative art in general can perhaps be the result of a common work or a dynamic relationship among all these three elements, author, text and reader, and from what I have read I would say it in this way:

The author will ‘transmute the passions which are its material’ (Eliot, 1921) into a text, and since ‘no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone’ (Eliot, 1921) this text ‘consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other’ (Barthes, 1967), and ‘there is one place where this multiplicity [the text] is collected, united, and this place is not the author but the reader‘ (Barthes, 1967).

My second line of thought: Ancient story telling – Performance – Performativity

Furthermore, I find that what I said in my post on ‘Creative Writing and New Media’ by Hazel Smith speaking about the new forms of media writing, may apply also to the contemporary dynamic relationship connecting author, text and reader in the creative process. I think that this process has several elements in common with ancient oral storytelling: the reader or audience is directly involved and participating in the creation of meaning and the reading, viewing or listening experience may be more accessible to people who are offered the possibility to explore the text in personal innovative ways. As Stanley Fish says: ‘Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them’. (Shmoop Editorial Team, 2008).

I’m thinking of ancient oral storytelling also in connection with the concept of performativity which was new to me and that I heard it mentioned for the first time by my tutor (thank you Michael Belshaw!).  Storytelling may be considered as an early form of performance in the contemporary sense, a creative process that produces effects, makes a text evolve, has an influence on people, makes them think and change. ‘Our utterances can be performative: words do something in the world, something that is not just a matter of generating consequences … They are ‘performed’, like other actions, or take place, like other worldly events, and thus make a difference in the world’ (Loxley, 2007), they are according to this theory speech acts that produce real effects.

My third line of thought: the arbitrariness of sign – postmodernism

How does the reader-response theory links with the arbitrariness of sign and postmodernism?

Just some notes at this point: provided that the writer and the reader both contribute to ‘make’ the text according to their own systems of signs, this creates a very complex and open network of relationships among author, text and readers, where the author ‘is born simultaneously with his text’ (Barthes, 1967) every time the text is ‘constructed’ by a reader, and ‘every text is eternally written here and now’ (Barthes, 1967). So a text is never really fixed and settled and can be relived and remade an infinite number of times and every time it will be somehow excitingly different. And the author, in the act of writing a text, also separates her- or himself from it giving it over to the readers almost as a living, self-developing thing. This process looks very ‘postmodern’ and also a bit unsettling in its lack of rules and established criteria but I think that this is perhaps a fair price to pay for freedom and in any case it does not seem that there is any way back.

My fourth line of thought: De Saussure – C. S. Peirce

This is very sketchy for the time being and I shall deepen these complex subjects in the third part of the course. Influenced by the ideas of De Saussure about the separation of language from nature and the existence of language as a system of arbitrary signs which create as many independent systems as there are languages, structuralism focuses its attention on literary structures and forms as against their social and historical contexts. One direct consequence of the arbitrariness of sign is that language is not founded on reality anymore and so becomes so to say unreliable and uncertain, and hence can be questioned in its capacity to establish a workable system of communication and there is a danger of communication becoming self-referential

—> poststructuralim, deconstruction of language (Derrida)

From what I understand so far, C.S. Peirce introduces a third open and dynamic element of innovation in the structuralist line of thinking, which was based on a closed relationship between signifier and signified: the so called ‘interpretamen’, a rather obscure term to indicate – if I’m not misinterpreting – the effect, reaction or answer of somebody or something to the sign and so the possibility of a progressive chain of development and change —> reader response theory.

I am not sure that I have gotten all these difficult concepts right but what I am trying to do at this point is to connect these theories together and draw a first tentative mapping for my own use.

Key concepts and names to consider and investigate for further study

Structuralism and post-structuralism / Postmodernism / Performativity / Semiology and Semiotics

Ferdinand De Saussure (arbitrariness of sign, sign = signifier/signified, langue/parole, diachronic/synchronic, syntagmatic/paradigmatic)

C. S. Peirce (sign as triadic system = representamen/object/interpretamen)

Roland Barthes (death of the author/”birth” of the reader, “myths”)

Michel Foucault

Jacques Derrida (deconstruction, logocentrism)

Stanley Fish

 

Bibliography

Eliot, T.S. (1921) The Sacred Wood In: Bartleby.com, 1996 [online] At: http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw4.html (Accessed 21.12.2016)

Barthes, R. (1967) The Death of the Author. Translated by Richard Howard. In: tbook.constantvzw.org [online] At: http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf  (Accessed 21.12.2016)

Shmoop Editorial Team. (2008, November 11). Stanley Fish Quotes. In: shmoop.com [online] At: http://www.shmoop.com/reader-response-theory/stanley-fish-quotes.html (Accessed 20.12.2016)

Loxley, J. (2007) Performativity [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed 18.12.2016)

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Close reading of ‘The Road’ by C. McCarthy – Exercise 2

He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things in case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it. Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them. He shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out over the wasted country. The road was empty. Below in the little valley the still grey serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise. Along the shore a burden of dead reeds. Are you okay? He said. The boy nodded. They set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.

(McCarthy, 2006, page 4)

  • I believe that having no names – being simply a ‘he’ (the man) and a boy – the characters expose their humanity at their fullest and in the most poignant way possible. Perhaps they have ‘lost’ their names together with their world and their bearings, they have been stripped of everything and are left only with their most basic human nature. They could be everybody, every human being and also us. It is an anonymity that corresponds to the barren landscape they move in and creates a strange sense of proximity and intimacy, so much so that it’s easy to identify with them and see them as individuals. I, as a reader, could be that man or that boy. And as little as I know of them, by reading these scanty lines I am gathering details about them already: the endurance they show, the desperate care they have for each other, the accuracy of their movements, their cautious attention.
  • Danger seems to be all around them and they are on the lookout: they carry the essential things in their knapsacks in case they have to run away from something or someone, we still do not know who, humans or animals. They watch the road behind them through the rear view mirror to check if someone is approaching, very possibly with evil intentions.
  • The chrome motorcycle mirror indicates that the time is not set in a far past, but so far little else is known. The blacktop on the road implies that civilization has not been totally ravaged yet. But these are just the last fragments of a contemporary world that seems to be destroyed. All the rest speaks of desolation: the landscape is empty and barren, there is no one on the road or around, no human being, no animal, there are no plants.  A terrible catastrophe or cataclysm must have occurred not too long ago, if we are in the future it is not a too far away one. We do not know what has happened: a nuclear war perhaps, but it does not seem to matter much anymore what the event was, what matters is that the consequences are dramatic and probably irreversible.
  • ‘The road was empty’, and they are alone, but they feel in danger, they are afraid of something, so there might be dangerous people they could run into. They are not afraid of being alone: they are ‘each the other’s world entire’. What they seem to be afraid is others, evil people, enemies.
  • The only colours in the landscape are grey and black: the blacktop, the ash, also the river is grey, and the light is gunmetal,  and everything except the two human beings is still or dead: ‘the still grey serpentine of water of a river. Motionless and precise.’, ‘a burden of dead reeds’. And also the man and the boy move slowly, ‘shuffling through the ash’. Life has been totally annihilated, spent, like after a terrible nuclear war.
  • The man and the boy are like pilgrims on an aimless journey. Or perhaps their only aim is to survive and to be together. Perhaps there are travelling towards a place where conditions are still human, a place that was left untouched by the cataclysm, or they are only trying to escape from what is behind them and living day by day, hour by hour as survivors. And they follow a road like all pilgrims do.
  • In this context the road is almost like a character, or at least a very strong presence in that desolation. Perhaps the road is for them the symbol of hope when everything else is lost. The road is there to be followed, is their refuge, to keep to it means for them to not lose hope. Where does the road lead them? As readers we do not know it, the only way to know for us is to follow this road together with them. The road is at the same time dangerous and treacherous, evil people could be found along, but there is no choice, like sometimes in life. Things happen, you have to look beyond and ahead, taking risks.
  • Like this barren landscape also the text is dry and focused. No words in it are useless, redundant or unduly rich. McCarthy makes a measured, considered use of repetition: knapsack, road, cart, all physical things that well express the difficulty of living and the need to depend only on essential things. In these words consonants are harsh like facts: the hard sound ‘k’ of knapsack, cart, clamped, pack, blacktop is probably intentional. I hear a different, lyric note in some assonances, like in ‘below in the little valley the still grey serpentine or a river’ or in the ‘sh-f’ consonanceshuffling through the ash‘ which I think may reflect the nostalgia of a lost world in the eyes of the man and the love which binds the two survivors.
  • The sentences are rather short, to the point. The syntax is simple and straightforward, and the general effect is one of dryness, accuracy, measure. The only words spoken are a question by the man: are you okay? The boy simply nods in return, as if they do not wish to waste words and remain concentrate on survival. Also the punctuation is bare and limited: the text uses only points, with the exception of a comma. No quotation marks are used in speech, as to avoid any unnecessary distraction or interruption, or to underline that all conventions and amenities of the old world are forever lost. Everything in the text corresponds perfectly to the desolation and the barrenness of the landscape.
  • Even if no place is specified – the place is nameless like the man and the boy are nameless – it seems to me that they travel through what looks like an archetypal American desert landscape crossed by a long straight road punctuated only by the small figures of the two human beings. The landscape and the human beings are seen through the eyes of the omniscient narrator, its emptiness, the still grey river, the dead reeds, the ash, every detail speaks of a world at the end of times. The imagery used speaks of mortal danger, destruction and death: the ‘serpentine of a river’ makes one think of the serpent in the Garden of Eden,  of temptation and guilt, and the two human beings, deprived of almost everything, remind the reader of Adam and Eve forever banished and fleeing, while the word gun in ‘the gunmetal light’ suggest murder. The ravaged landscape seems to bear the scars of some terrible guilt and murder.
  • The prose itself is of grandiose simplicity and its short concise sentences have a sort of biblical strength. Every word counts, ‘precise’ and ‘still’, there is nothing superfluous or vague about them. The world and the life of the few survivors have been stripped of everything beautiful and pleasing and the language seems to reflect this desperate barrenness.
  • It is not possible to feel well or indifferent while reading these lines. I cannot help but think about global warming and the consequences that it is already having on the earth and mankind and a read like this causes me anguish and anxiety. As a child I remember how worried I was when I heard adults talking about the possibility of a nuclear war and what it would mean. Of course these or other terrible fears have always plagued humanity, but in the past man felt and was mostly powerless in front of nature while today we have become aware of how our actions can affect the world for the best or for the worst. I have bought myself a Kindle edition of this book and discovered that it is by the same author of No Country for Old Men of 2005, of which I had seen the movie. This is going to be my next buy.

 

McCarthy, C. (2006) The Road. London, Picador

Types of Narrator

Project 4 of Creative Arts Today aims at consolidating work done during this part of the course on plot, character, theme and expression and to tie this part with the general course themes of time, place and journey with the addition of the more specific theme of environmental devastation and my effort shall be to at least touch upon all these aspects in my close reading of an excerpt of ‘The Road’ by C. McCarthy.

It also introduces new technical terms used in creative reading/writing: first of all the concept of narrator and secondarily that of ‘hooks’. So I shall start with a little research in this areas.

On page 96 Creative Arts Today defines ‘hooks’ as questions that grip the reader who then reads on to look for answers. I have found an interesting blog article on the subject (Michelle W., 2014), which deals with the opening lines as the first chance to hook readers — or to lose them.

A very fundamental concept is that of the narrator or the point of view from which the story is told, that is the voice who tells the story, sees the events and shows what he or she sees (page 96 of the course). The writer can choose from several possibilities and I am noting them here for convenience. I am listing the technical terms I have found pn this subject (Wiebe and Fritchie):

detached narrator: someone outside the story, looking down on the scene

omniscient narrator: an all-knowing and all-seeing narrator

unreliable narrator: may be a subjective narrator  because speaks from his or her experience

objective narrator: an observer who describes the characters, may be a detached or unreliable narrator

first person narrator: uses the pronoun ‘I’ to tell the story, can be a main or secondary character

second person narrator: uses the pronoun ‘you’

third person narrator: uses the pronoun ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it’

multiple narrators: can present multiple points of view

limited narrator: has a restricted view of events

Bibliography

Michelle W. (2014)  Writing 201: Intros and Hooks [online blog] In: dailypost.wordpress.com  At: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/assignments/intros-and-hooks/

Wiebe S. and Fritchie L.L., Reading fiction: narrator and character types  [online blog] In: Study Guides and Strategies studygs.net  At:  http://www.studygs.net/fictiona.htm

‘The Road’ by C. McCarthy – The narrator – Exercise 1

Introductory notes

Project 4 of Creative Arts Today aims at consolidating work done during this part of the course on plot, character, theme and expression and to tie this part with the general course themes of time, place and journey with the addition of the more specific theme of environmental devastation and my effort shall be to at least touch upon all these aspects in my close reading of an excerpt of ‘The Road’ by C. McCarthy.

It also introduces new technical terms used in creative reading/writing: first of all the concept of narrator and secondarily that of ‘hooks’. So I shall start with a little research in this areas.

On page 96 Creative Arts Today defines ‘hooks’ as questions that grip the reader who then reads on to look for answers. I have found an interesting blog article on the subject (Michelle W., 2014), which deals with the opening lines as the first chance to hook readers — or to lose them.

A very fundamental concept is that of the narrator or the point of view from which the story is told, that is the voice who tells the story, sees the events and shows what he or she sees (page 96 of the course). The writer can choose from several possibilities and I am noting them here for convenience. I am listing the technical terms I have found on this subject (Wiebe and Fritchie):

detached narrator: someone outside the story, looking down on the scene

omniscient narrator: an all-knowing and all-seeing narrator

unreliable narrator: may be a subjective narrator  because speaks from his or her experience

objective narrator: an observer who describes the characters, may be a detached or unreliable narrator

first person narrator: uses the pronoun ‘I’ to tell the story, can be a main or secondary character

second person narrator: uses the pronoun ‘you’

third person narrator: uses the pronoun ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it’

multiple narrators: can present multiple points of view

limited narrator: has a restricted view of events

Exercise 1

‘The Road’ has an omniscient, detached narrator.

From omniscient to first person narrator:

I pushed the cart and both I and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things in case we had to abandon the cart and make a run for it. Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that I used to watch the road behind us. … Are you okay? I said. The body nodded. We set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.

From omniscient to second person narrator:

You pushed the cart and both you and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things in case the both of you had to abandon the cart and make a run for it. Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that you used to watch the road behind you. … Are you okay? you said. The body nodded. You both set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.

The use of the first person narrator produces a closer, more intimate effect, the advantage being that perhaps it becomes easier for a reader to identify with him and get directly involved with his dramatic story. It is still not possible to know if the boy is his son or not, but the question: ‘Are you okay?’ feels more compelling and affectionate. A disadvantage might be that the many telling details that the omniscient narrator observes with a certain detachment seem slightly awkward expressed in the first person, as somewhat extraniated.

I think that the choice of the second person narrator looks unnatural, very limiting and perhaps even fastidiously aggressive. Used throughout the book it might soon tire the reader. It seems also difficult to penetrate the man’s feelings using this point of view since much of the attention is shifted from him towards who (the reader?) says ‘you’.

The use of a third person narrator,  but limited to the point of view of only one character, might have also been an interesting choice as stated in Creative Arts Today and would have created ‘a sort of fusion between the omniscient and the first person narrator and [work] well in letting us get close to the character, but not too close for comfort’ (page 97). In this case, shifting the POV from the man to the boy could make the story very different, or perhaps a totally new story altogether: the boy’s feelings and reactions might be unlike those of the man and he might well notice other details, in any case the narrative angle would certainly change and consequently also our perceptions and emotions as readers.

I can imagine that McCarthy decided to use an omniscient narrator because he wished more freedom in telling his story and the possibility of a wider perspective, without the limitations of the other POVs. An omniscient detached observer can freely move from one character to another and consider them in different ways, from the outside and from within, how they act and what they think.

 

Bibliography

Michelle W. (2014)  Writing 201: Intros and Hooks [online blog] In: dailypost.wordpress.com  At: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/assignments/intros-and-hooks/

Wiebe S. and Fritchie L.L., Reading fiction: narrator and character types  [online blog] In: Study Guides and Strategies studygs.net  At:  http://www.studygs.net/fictiona.htm

Close reading of ‘Fern Hill’ by Dylan Thomas – Exercise 3

This is not an easy poem for somebody like me whose mother-tongue is not English, so the first thing I did after reading it once or twice was to check the meaning of words I did not know or wasn’t sure of. And it was well worth the effort since once got over this initial difficulty the poem really started to glow in its delightful freshness and bold language.

Its strong vivid images speak of what it means to be and feel a child and while reading the poem and listening to it I too was and did feel a child again and said: that was it, being fresh, new, uncaring, unheeding, timeless and above all green as Dylan Thomas keeps repeating throughout the stanzas, green as grass, green and carefree, green as fire, green as everything natural, birds, animals, plants, and then golden, as in golden in the heydays of his eyes / golden in the mercy of his means. While green seems to stand for what is palpably fresh and youthful, golden makes me think of a Paradise lost and of the first day or creation myth. And even if in the second part of the poem this innocence is lost, and the child is no more, the sheer joy of that child still lingers forcefully with the reader and the awareness of time passing and of growing up cannot destroy that fullness of being.

Dylan Thomas makes a rich, constant and powerful use of poetic devices which in his case more than devices are real modes of expression.

It seems to me that repetition in all its forms, of words, sounds, syntactic structures, images, rhythm, is the fundamental and most important mode of expression of this poem: Repetitions of single words like green, golden, happy, young. Repetition of syntactic structures, for example the very frequent coupling of words connected by and: couples of adjectives like young and easy, green and carefree, green and golden, couples of nouns like trees and leaves, daisies and barley, huntsman and herdsman, couples of verbs as hail and climb, and the extremely frequent use of the gerund form of verbs: lilting, singing, running, flying and so on. The repetition of sentence structure line after line is also very powerful as in this enchanting sequence:

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars

Also repetitions of sounds abound in all stanzas, under the form of assonancethe trees and leaves, trail with daisies, of consonanceThe night under the dingle starry or In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs, alliterationthe grass was green, huntsman and herdsman, clear and cold, of a combination of multiple assonance, consonance and alliteration all together – And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns / About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home, / In the sun that is young once only.

Rich similes and metaphors, personification and imagery are other recurrent elements throughout the poem. The house and sun come to the fore as persons in the lilting house and in the sun that is young once only. Similes like fire green as grass / the farm, like a wanderer white / happy, as the heart was long and metaphors: I was prince of the apple boughs / it was Adam and maiden / in the lamb white days create vivid images as we read or listen to the poem.

In lines like

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams

images densely follow one another and the effect is the transformation of Fern Hill that the poet knew as a child into a magical mythological place, in which as a child he spent heedless careless days outside of time, in intimate community with a nature that was at one and breathing with him, together with all its real and imaginary animals and plants, the streams, the stars and the sun, and in which in fact there was no clear-cut difference between real and imaginary.

The rhythmic repetitions of words, sounds, structures generate a strong musical effect, that is song like and almost hypnotic and that reflects and amplifies the palpable reality of that fabled place.

The theme of an atemporal childness, seen as a place of full being and that of the mythological time with which being a child is connected are powerfully evoked and reinforced by the combined use of all those insistent poetic repetitions – green, golden, happy, young, of recurring sounds and structures, and of strong metaphoric images and personifications. Everything in the poem is fresh, green, simple, energetic and alive together with the child. Time itself is nothing abstract and entertains a sort of personal relationship with the young poet: time let me hail and climb and then, almost tenderly if sadly, when the child grows, time held me green and dying.

Naturally interrelated with the theme of time are the themes of youth and change: becoming an adult is lived in the poem as a loss of grace – follow him out of grace, the fabled place becomes a barren childless land, and in the final line the grown poet says of himself I sang in my chains like the sea. In the last stanza the lamb white days – and the word lamb, symbol of sacrifice, foreshadows what’s going to happen – are over and with them the green of youth and the golden of myth.

All the poem is alive with sharp images and lines, and it’s difficult to choose only a few, but there are some that linger on and stay with me more than others:

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves / Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold (lines 15-16)

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay / Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air / And playing, lovely and watery / And fire green as grass. (lines 19-22)

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white / With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all / Shining, it was Adam and maiden (lines 28-30)

And finally the last two lines of the poem: Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea (lines 53-54)

These are the lines that make me think of long afternoons of free playing in the open air, not only mine but also of my children, as they used to play for hours in the tall grass around home, dreaming it was a tropical forest populated by fantastic beasts and forgetting about everything else, the cold, parents calling to dinner, homework to be done. Together they wrote a story of that time of wild adventures, La Stradina (The Pathway), that is perhaps not a masterpiece but certainly very true and fresh.

My feeling is that the rhythm of the poem contributes in an essential way to its strength and together with the rich imagery really makes Fern Hill. The word ‘lilting’ that Dylan Thomas uses for the house in line 2 is a perfect description of the movement of the poem: reading it aloud a few times makes one want to sing along! In its chanting lines the voice of the ‘speaker’ is vibrant and strong, and it seems that it coincides with that of the poet himself: his are the feelings, his are the emotions and the memories are lived in the first person – Now as I was young and easy … And as I was green and carefree … Nothing I cared … I sang in my chains. There is no screen or mediation between him and what he writes and because of this the poem is extremely forceful and intense.

As I said at the beginning this is not an easy poem for someone who like me is not an English native speaker, but with the help of a good dictionary and many readings there is only one last line that, as beautiful as it sounds, I really still find obscure: …. that time would take me / Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand. The images of the swallow and the shadow of the hand are hauntingly fascinating  but I do not understand what the poet meant.