Critical Voice by Terry Locke

Chapter 2: Literature, Genre and the Elements of Form

In this chapter, we will be looking at two problematical terms, the idea of literature and the idea of genre. I use the word ‘problematical’ because there is a lot of disagreement about how these terms should be defined. This chapter will give you the opportunity to explore these terms. It will also introduce you to a number of useful concepts for talking about texts in general.

What is literature?
The elements of form
Diction: Passages for analysis

2.1. What is literature?

a) Where are you at? Some initial questions

Learning log (individual)

  1. List the titles of texts you have read or viewed that you would include under the category of ‘literature’. (Don’t define ‘text’ too narrowly. See definition below.)
  2. Study the list you have come up with. Attempt to group the titles on your list into categories.
  3. How have your categorised your groups? Have you grouped your texts by text-type (e.g. novel, lyric poem), subject matter or by some aspect of style?
  4. Try writing a denotative meaning of the word ‘literature’. (See below) Begin with the words: ‘When I use the word literature, I am referring to….’
  5. Now try writing a connotative meaning of the word ‘literature’. Begin with the words: ‘I associate the word ‘+
  6. “literature” with…’

Group task
In a small group, compare the findings you came up with while doing the above task.

  1. To what extent do you agree that the titles present in group members’ lists ought to be there?
  2. As a group, try to come up with an agreed denotative meaning for the term ‘literature’.
  3. As a group, try to come up with an agreed connotative meaning for the term ‘literature’.

b) Reading: Is it literature? (group)
Read carefully the following extracts. Then prepare to defend your reasons for classifying each of them as literature or not literature?

Extract A:
The door of Henry’s lunch-room opened and two men came in.
They sat down at the counter.
     ‘What’s yours?” George asked them.
     ‘I don’t know,’ one of the men said. ‘What do you want to eat, Al?’
     ‘I don’t know,’ said Al. ‘I don’t know what I want to eat.’

Extract B:
    Kids. During periods of severe sleep deprivation, toy retrieval, clothes washing, room fumigation and fridge filling, parents regard children as human vacuum cleaners. For much of the time after conception, they suck up parental sleep, floor space, use of the washing machine and the contents of the fridge, not to mention use of the toilet, shower, phone and, God forbid, the car.
    But wait till they go to varsity or polytech and want to suck cash straight out of your bank account. Financial black-outs await the unprepared. You can, of course, tell your kids to borrow or get a job, but thousands of years of evolution have ingrained in many parents an instinctive desire to protect their children from bank managers and working at McDonald’s.

Extract C:
The birth of any tree is a tenuous event, not timed to one day or even to a certain hour. As the colours of early autumn enveloped the canopy of oak trees, an acorn buried near its pointed tip allowed moisture from the last rain to penetrate. Embryonic root cells began to absorb life-sustaining moisture, enlarging the crack. Other cracks appeared, and a tiny root tip soon pushed outward and downward in direct response to gravitational pull. Cells multiplied rapidly just behind the tip and pushed it along until it wedged its way into the mass of gravelly soil below.

Extract D
3 February 1798.  A mild morning, the windows open at breakfast, the redbreasts singing in the garden. Walked with Coleridge over the hills. The sea at first obscured by vapour; that vapour afterwards slid in one mighty mass along the sea-shore; the islands and one point of land clear beyond it. The distant country (which was purple in the clear dull air), overhung by straggling clouds that sailed over it, appeared like the darker clouds, which are often seen at a great distance apparently motionless, while the nearer ones pass quickly over them, driven by the lower winds. I never saw such a union of earth, sky, and sea. The clouds beneath our feet spread themselves to the water, and the clouds of the sky almost joined them. Gathered sticks in the wood; a perfect stillness.

Extract E
     Harmless fantasy is one of life’s pleasures. The shower-stall tenor dreams he is Pavarotti, captivating thousands at La Scala; the Sunday tennis player fancies that spectacular return might have left Pete Sampras sprawled across the Wimbledon grass; a few days as Prime Minister and we’d sort out the nation’s woes.
     The fortunes of Hollywood depend on the human capacity for imagination and identification. For an hour or two we persuade ourselves we are as gallant as Henry Fonda defending justice in Twelve Angry Men, as alluring as Uma Thurman, as effortlessly charming as Mel Gibson. Or, increasingly, as coolly deadly as Clint Eastwood or Steven Seagal.
     Recent years have seen the apotheosis of the morally dubious screen hero whose solution to every problem is a well-aimed round from a powerful hand-gun. The idea of striding fearlessly through the wasteland of urban violence has its appeal, but most of us leave the fantasy with the popcorn bucket on the cinema floor. Some, sadly, carry the myths into everyday life.

c) The problematical nature of the term ‘literature’
If you have had difficulty in settling on an agreed definition of literature, don’t be surprised. Literary theorists — people who study ‘literary’ texts — aren’t in agreement either. Here is a brief summary of the difficulties.

  • A traditional definition of literature associates it with that body of texts which deal with an invented reality — prose fiction, plays, and poems which are not literally true.

The problem with this definition is that it excludes genres which many people would want to be able to include, e.g. essays, sermons, letters, diaries.) It also begs the question as to what  is fact and what is fiction, a question we will have to address ourselves to later in this book.

  • Another approach attempts to define literature in terms of the way it uses language. A group of critics called formalists maintained that literature could be defined as a way of using language that is markedly different from normal everyday speech.

The problem here is that some novels attempt to duplicate normal speech. And what of everyday utterances that just happen to be wonderfully and figuratively outrageous?

  • Yet another approach attempts to define literature in terms of its aesthetic function. Texts are literary if they are read and enjoyed primarily for the way they please the reader by their use of language.

The trouble with this approach is that it privileges the way something is said over what is said.

  • Finally, there is the cultural heritage definition of literature as that body of texts (sometimes termed the literary canon) which are valued by a particular culture.

The trouble with this definition is that it raises the question: Whose values define the text which is to be valued? Some critics would argue that the literary canon is something made up by the powerful in society to keep the powerless in their place.

As reader of this book, you would be entitled at this point to put me on the spot and ask me where I, as the writer, stand on this question. I must begin by conceding to you that I am influenced by what is really a rather superficial definition of literature, namely that set of books which tend to get taught in literature classes in schools and universities. These books tend to be imaginative fiction (including poetry) with an established reputation.

More directly, I would say to you that I think of a literary text as one whose craftedness manifests a love and mastery of language, which enlarges a reader’s sense of what it means to be a human being, and which stimulates in its reader an enjoyment of and a sense of wonder at the power and resourcefulness of language.

Language Tool Kit
A literary text is one whose craftedness manifests a love and mastery of language, which enlarges a reader’s sense of what it means to be a human being, and which stimulates in its reader an enjoyment of and a sense of wonder at the power and resourcefulness of language.

2.2. Genre

The term ‘genre’ also stirs a lot of debate. Before coming up with a working definition of genre, it is important to spell out in more detail the essential features of the context of situation which was referred to in Chapter 1. The context of situation puts a number of constraints on you as a speaker or writer.

  • It demands audience recognition. Successful writers and speakers have learnt to pitch themselves effectively at their audience.
  • It limits subject matter. When you are applying for a job, you wouldn’t tend to discuss intimate details of your personal life.
  • It requires a recognition of what it is you want to achieve (your purpose or purposes).

If you consider the millions of business letters which are sent every day, you will be struck by their similarity in layout, structure, language and the sort of subject matter they deal with. This similarity arises from the similarity in the social actions being undertaken: here are language users who are wanting to maintain a certain distance from the person they are addressing (distant but not too distant), and to convey relevant information economically, precisely and predictably.

The word ‘genre’ refers to the typical product of a recurring social action. A genre is a recognisable text-type which can be described in terms of a specific set of purposes, functions, context, audience and such language features as structure, layout and style. Because of their social origin, genres are always changing. They are also culturally determined. While individual language users might modify genres in particular ways, they are nonetheless affected (even determined) by the context of culture.

Language Tool Kit
A Genre is a recognisable text-type which can be described in terms of a specific set of purposes, functions, context, audience and such language features as structure, layout and style.
Language purpose: When you talk about language purpose, you focus on the speaker or writer. Purpose answers the question, ‘What is the speaker or writer aiming to do?’
Language function: When you talk about language function, you focus on the language itself. Function answers the question. ‘What work or task is the language being asked to do. Is it being asked to inform, persuade, describe, entertain, amuse, mislead, relate, recount and so on, or is it serving a number of functions. (Most texts, in fact, are multifunctional.)

Finally, genre should not be confused with form. Form refers to superficial features of layout and style. Prose, poetry and letters are forms of language but are not genres. Below is a letter to the editor (genre) written in the form of poetry.  It happens to be a response by one reader of the New Zealand Herald to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

The Mighty Atom

The mighty atom, split to shatter strife.
Bring Peace her victories, quicken faint hope to life.

Your far flung message to the world of fear:
‘Courage, the age of miracles is here’.

                                                                                                  Percy Lindley

Reading: Test your power to recognise a genre (group)
Read the following extracts. For each one:

  1. Identify what features you can about the context of situation:
    • Who is the speaker or writer?
    • Who is the audience?
    • What is purpose of the writer or speaker?
    • What function or functions is the language serving?
    • What is the subject matter of the extract?
  2. Name the genre.
  3. Identify the features which enabled you to recognise the genre. You can refer to features of content (what is being said), features of layout or features of style (type of vocabulary used, punctuation, sentence structure).

Extract F
Ugandan atrocities

     It is difficult to express adequately the feelings of revulsion and horror at the recent atrocities committed in Uganda.
     There have been so many murders and senseless killings in that country in recent years that the world has almost become immune to their particular form of African barbarity.
     Although there is little a private citizen can do, there is much that Commonwealth and world leaders can do. On their initiative, Uganda should be immediately expelled from the Commonwealth and suspended from every agency of the United Nations.
     The time has lone passed, when by guilty silence and inactivity we all condone such revolting behaviour.

S.A. Watson, St Martins

Extract G

What eye can fixe it self upon East and West at once? And he must see more than East and West, that sees God for God spreads infinitely beyond both: God alone is all, not onely all that is, but all that is not, all that might be, if he would have it be. God is too large, too immense, and then man is too narrow, too little to be considered: for, who can fixe his eye upon an Atome? and he must see a lesse thing than an Atome, that sees man, for man is nothing.

Extract H
Mount Holyoke Seminary
Nov. 6, 1847
My dear Abiah,–I am really at Mount Holyoke Seminary and this is to be my home for a long year. Your affectionate letter was joyfully received, and I wish that this might make you as happy as yours did me. It has been nearly six weeks since I left home, and that is a longer time than I was every away from home before now. I was very homesick for a few days, and it seemed to me I could not live here. But I am now contented and quite happy, if I can be happy when absent from my dear home and friends.

Extract L
Bad Comedy from the album, Burnin’ Sky, new one, recorded in the U.S.A. In fact, they’re living there now, more or less, they’ve been there for, uh, over a year or so and I see they’re just going back to the U.K….first appearance in quite some time…concert stakes. Then they’re goin’ back again. All right. Got the news comin’ up in seventeen and a half minutes at ten o’clock. It’s kinduv a cool night tonight, ten point five degrees. Mainly mild, though, because of the rain… and not too windy. Heavy Associations…

2.3. The elements of form

The word ‘form’ is also one about which there is much debate. In this book, we will be using the word form as a collective term to denote the following characteristics of a text: layout, diction, syntax, punctuation and structure. The term style, when we use it, will refer to the formal features of diction, syntax and punctuation.

Language Tool Kit
Form: A collective term denoting the layout, diction, syntax, punctuation and structure of a text.
Style: A collective term denoting the typical diction, syntax and punctuation of a genre or writer.

The questions which follow allow you to explore each of the elements of form with particular reference to the poem below. They can be done individually or in groups.

            A Negro Woman

carrying a bunch of marigolds
                                                            in an old newspaper:
                        She carries them upright,
                                                            the bulk
                        of her thighs
                                                causing her to waddle
                                                            as she walks
                        looking into
                                                the store window which she passes
                                                            on her way.
                        What is she
                                                but an ambassador
                                                            from another world
                        a world of pretty marigolds
                                                of two shades
                                                            which she announces
                        not knowing what she does
                                                            than walk the streets
                        holding the flowers upright
                                                as a torch
                                                            so early in the morning.

                                                            William Carlos Williams

a) Layout
This poem has been reproduced from a volume entitled, Pictures from Brueghel and other poemsfirst published in paperback in 1962. It is the first poem of the collection, Journey to Love (1955) which occupies the last 60 pages of this book.
Answer these questions:

  1. How many different typefaces have been used?
  2. Who do you think decided on the typefaces?
  3. Why do you think they made that decision?
  4. Describe the way the lines of the poem have been set out.
  5. How does the layout of the lines affect the way you read this poem?
Language Tool Kit
Typeface: A typeface refers to a type design with its own name, for example, Palatino, Times, Helvetica.
Tabulation: When you tabulate you separate text into a number of items, list the items, and indent them from the left-hand margin.

b) Diction
The term diction refers to the nature of the vocabulary a text uses. There are terms for distinguishing different types of diction. Here is one distinction.

  • Abstract diction denotes the language of ideas or concepts, for example, fear, anxiety or ambition. We tend to use abstract diction when we generalise about things. In the sentence, It is important to believe in yourself, the words important and believe are abstract.
  • Concrete diction is the language of sensuous experience. When we describe or evoke our experience in particular, vivid detail, we tend to use concrete language. For example, The warm shingly sand oozed up between my bare toes.
Language Tool Kit
Abstract diction: the language of ideas, concepts and generalisations.
Concrete diction:  the language of striking particulars and sensuous detail.

Look at the words Williams has selected for his poem.

  1. How many examples of abstract diction can you find?
  2. Why are there so few examples of abstract diction?
  3. List examples of concrete diction that, in your view, enable you to re-imagine, in a vivid way, the experience Williams is responding to.
  4. Concrete diction depends for its power on imagery. An image is a word or phrase that powerfully evokes the sort of experience that we receive through our senses of sight (visual images), sound (aural images), feel (tactile images), taste (gustatory images) and smell (olfactory images). In Williams’ poem: Which of your senses does the word ‘waddle’ appeal to? Come up with other images that evoke clearly the way a person might walk.
  5. Can an image appeal to more than one of your senses at the same time?  Give an example.
  6. Most images in this poem appeal to the sense of sight, i.e. they are visual images. Come up with an explanation for this.

And before we leave this exploration of diction, here is another key distinction:

  • Literal images: refer to objects actually present in the situation being written about. This situation is termed the literal situation.
  • Figurative images: refer to objects that are not present in the literal situation but which have been connected by a writer to objects that are.
Language Tool Kit
Image: A word or phrase that powerfully evokes sensuous experience.
Literal image: An image which denotes an object actually present in the situation written about.
Figurative image: An image denoting an object not present in the literal situation but which has been connected by a writer with an object that is present.
Metaphor: The general term for figurative images. A metaphor occurs when a literal object is simply identified with a figurative object. He was a bull of a man.
Simile: A figurative expression where the literal object is compared to the figurative object by like or asShe ran like a cheetah.
Personification: A figurative expression where a non-human literal object is given human characteristics. Defeat stared him in the face.

The literal situation of this poem involves a Afro-American woman, bareheaded,  carrying a bunch of marigolds, walking, looking into a store window. We might suggest that this literal situation or occasion also includes the poet whom we might imagine looking at her. All these details are literal images. However, when we get to the word ambassador we reach a figurative image. An ambassador, literally, is a rather high-ranking dignitary, usually the representative of a country. This woman is not literally an ambassador. On the contrary, her appearance suggests a person of rather lowly rank. After all, her marigolds are wrapped in an old newspaper.

The word ambassador is a figurative image, Specifically, it is a metaphor, the literal object (negro woman) is being simply identified with the figurative object (ambassador).

  1. There are other two other figurative images in this poem. What are they? (Hint: one of them is a verb.)
  2. Are they similes or metaphors?
  3. Why should the poet refer to the woman as an ambassador?
  4. Tough question: On the basis of your answer to the last question, explain why Williams might have used this poem to open his last collection of poems.
  5. How does this use of metaphor affect the status of this Afro-American woman?
  6. Come up with explanations for the other figurative images Williams uses in this poem.

Note: Since this poem’s publication, the word ‘negro’ has become superseded by the word ‘Afro-American’ or ‘Black American’ in general usage because of the relationship of ‘negro’ to ‘nigger’.

c) Syntax
Syntax is concerned with the way words are organised into groupings such as phrases, clauses and sentences. Just as language users can be described as having large or small vocabularies (i.e. the range of diction they can command), so they can also be described as more or less fluent depending on the range of syntactical constructions they have mastered.

Language Tool Kit
Syntax: the branch of grammar concerned with way words become ordered into larger groupings such as phrases, clauses and sentences.
  1. What is the connection between the title of the poem and its first line?
  2. There are three major syntactical units in this poem:
    • ‘A Negro Woman….old newspaper:’
    • ‘She carries…on her way.’
    • ‘What is she…in the morning.’
      Which of these are finite sentences (i.e. sentences which contain a finite verb)?
  3. What function is each of these sentences performing?
  4. Identify the participial phrases, i.e. phrases which begin with the ing form of the verb. Carrying a bunch of marigolds is one example.
  5. Identify the adverbial clause which tells us when she waddles.
  6. Identify an example of an adjectival clause. [Look for the relative pronoun which. ]
  7. Would you say, in general, that the beginnings and ends of the phrases and clauses in this poem coincide with the beginnings and ends of lines? What is the effect of this?
Language Tool Kit:
Finite verb: A verb becomes finite when it becomes linked to a subject (someone or something that initiates an action) in a sentence.
Participle: A general term referring to the -ing and -ed forms of a verb. These are often linked with auxiliariesto form finite verbs, e.g. was singing, has been conquered.
Phrase: phrase is a group of related words that lack a finite verb.
Clause: complex sentence contains a main clause (that part of the sentence which makes sense on its own and which contains a finite verb) and one or more subordinate clauses (the part which also contains a finite verb but which needs the main clause to make sense of it). The student completed the assignment (main clause) because it was worth twenty percent of all coursework. (subordinate clause)
Adverbial clause: A subordinate clause which functions as an adverb. In the above sentence, because it was worth twenty percent of all coursework, is an adverb clause because it functions as an adverb by modifying the verb completed.
Adjectival clause: A subordinate clause which functions as an adjective. In the following complex sentence, The student, who had just arrived from Australia, completed the assignment, the part enclosed by commas is an adjectival clause because it functions as an adjective in describing The student.

d) Punctuation
Punctuation, of course, relates to syntax. In fact, it is a good idea to think of punctuation as syntactical markers which indicate relationships between parts of a sentence. For example, full stops, commas, colons, semi-colons, question-marks and exclamation marks indicate certain kinds of pause. Inverted commas may indicate the presence of direct speech.

  1. For what purpose are colons used? Why do you think Williams has used a colon after the word newspaper.
  2. The words ‘What is she…’ sound like the beginning of a question. Yet there is no question-mark at the end of the poem? Why is this?
  3. Locate the place in this poem where you might want to put a comma were it not written out in verse form? Why do you think the commas have been omitted?
  4. Can line-breaks take the place of punctuation? Explain.

e) Structure
When you refer to the structure of something you are talking about the relationship of the parts to the whole. Syntax might be described as a science of the structure of sentences since it is concerned with the relationship of words, phrases and clauses to the sentences itself.

  1. Whose voice do you hear speaking in this poem?
  2. At what point in the poem do you become aware that this voice is expressing an attitude towards the Afro-American woman?
  3. This point rather neatly divides the poem into two parts. What distinguishes the second part of the poem from the first part?
  4. Why do you think Williams has divided his poem into two parts?
Language Tool Kit
Structure: The relationship of parts to a whole. That which gives something coherence or unity.

NB. The formal discussion which has just occurred is not the same as a reading of a poem. We’ve simply used this Williams poem as the occasion for an investigation into the formal elements of a text. Really, we touched very little on the sorts of  meaning you might construct on the basis of your reading of this poem. What we have done has been to suggest the rather large range of formal elements that a text can be described in terms of. It also, of course, reminds us of the huge number of choices, both conscious and unconscious. that take place in the writing of a literary text.

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2.4. Diction: Passages for analysis

Close reading (groups)
For each passage below:

  1. Read through the passage and decide: Is the diction largely abstract or concrete. If the diction is mainly concrete, would you say that it is highly figurative, moderately figurative or mostly literal?
  2. List examples of abstract diction from the passage.
  3. Come up with an explanation for the presence of abstract diction in the passage.
  4. List examples of literal images from the passage. What sense or senses are these images appealing to?
  5. List examples of metaphor or simile. For each one, explain why you have decided that you example is a figurative image.
  6. For each example of a metaphor or simile, discuss the way its use ‘transforms’ the literal object it is being applied to.

Passage A
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stock-yards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
from Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms 

Passage B
Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began. The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was beach and where was the sea. A heavy dew had fallen. The grass was blue. Big drops hung on the bushes and just did not fall; the silvery, fluffy toi-toi was limp on its long stalks, and all the marigolds and the pinks in the bungalow gardens were bowed to the earth with wetness. Drenched were the cold fuchsias, round pearls of dew lay on the flat nasturtium leaves.
from Katherine Mansfield, ‘At the Bay’

Chapter Summary

This chapter has made the following key points:

  • Literature is not a straightforward term.
  • Different cultures define literature in different ways at different times.
  • Genres can be recognised through such features as style, structure and layout.
  • The similarity between such features of a genre as structure, layout and style can be attributed to the similarity of the underlying social situation.
  • Form is a collective term denoting layout, diction, syntax, punctuation and structure.
  • Style is a collective term denoting qualities of diction, syntax and punctuation.
  • Diction refers to the nature of the vocabulary a text uses.
  • There are different categories of diction.
  • Important categories of diction include: abstract, concrete, literal and figurative.
  • Syntax is concerned with the way words are organised into groupings such as phrases, clauses and sentences.
  • The structure of something refers to the way it is put together: how the parts relate to the whole.

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