Revisiting Literary Theory

March has blown in like a lion…that is the official verdict.  Wind gusts have littered my yard with twigs and branches and last night, we lost power for a few hours.  Still, after watching the news about the tornado outbreak in the Midwest, I feel a bit lucky to be tucked away in western Pennsylvania right now.

Special thanks goes to the faculty and students at JCC’s Cattaraugus County Campus.  This past Thursday, I had the opportunity to spend the day visiting classes and reading my work.  Questions and discussion ranged from literary theory to the creative process.  In fact, one particular class really has me thinking about my work in a new light.

I have a colleague who is using Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt in one of his classes, and the assignment regarding my chapbook has to do with literary theory.  It’s interesting, but I have never really thought of my work in the context of literary theory, and to be honest, because I don’t teach a lot of literature classes, I am a bit rusty.  So this past week, I dove back into some textbooks to think about Feminism, Marxism, New Historicism and Archetypal lit theories.  

Feminism and Marxism are easy…I don’t mean that they are easy theories to understand.  Both have a varied history and encompass many strands and ideas.  However, in the context of my writing, I can see my poems through these particular literary theory lenses.  I also see New Historicism.  However, students also have a choice to use Archetypal literary theories, and I have to admit dear readers, it’s been a long time since I thought about Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye.

For those who don’t know these two gentlemen, Campbell was an American mythologist who explored the common ideas of heroes, journeys, and other archetypes in literature and mythology.  It’s Frye, however, that I am thinking about the most, and his theories about literary narratives.  I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but Frye believed that the literary world contains a “self contained literary universe” which has been developed over the years and that the major themes of this universe correspond with the seasons of the natural world.  In Frye’s theories, spring would represent comedy, summer would represent romance, fall would represent tragedy, and winter would represent satire or irony. 

It’s no secret that the natural world is prominent in my poetry.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if my poems that contain prominent seasons reflect the literary narratives that Frye alludes to in his theories.  And when I reviewed some of my works in Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt, I found that yes, there are some connections. Autumn is found in many of my poems.  “Blood Moon” for example, not only includes references from the Bible’s Book of Revelation, but also includes a Hunter’s Moon — a full moon in October.  The overall theme of the poem foreshadows some type of impending doom, as a young persona catalogs her perceptions of the color red, each item in the list becoming a little bit darker: “I know red.  It’s ripe tomatoes/cherry popsicles, a late summer sunburn/a split lip that refuses to heal, the eyes/of my father after another graveyard shift.”  Two other poems, “Cold Snap” and “Landscape with Cold Scarecrow” are set in Autumn landscapes, and both poems feature young heroines who are facing a loss of innocence as they face lost farms and what could be dangers of the opposite sex. It’s true, that all three of these poems have a tragic element behind the images and lines.

In this brief analysis, I admit I am oversimplifying Frye’s theories a bit.  Still, it’s interesting to think about how one’s own writing reflects literary theory.   Even more interesting, at least to me, is what readers pick up in my writing — themes and images that I never thought about before, but will now think about in my future poems and collections.

 

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