You Don’t Have to Read between the Lines

Edouard Manet, "The Reader"

Edouard Manet, “The Reader”

To my unpleasant surprise, I recently discovered that some of my past Better Living through Beowulf posts have simply disappeared from the web. Not many, but even a few missing essays are enough to shake the confidence of one who thinks that what he writes has the permanence of paper. It is as though, to borrow from Keats’ gravestone epitaph, they have been “writ in water.”

I’m in the process of trying to retrieve them and have had partial success. I plan to devote the next few Fridays to my reclamation project and will repost these lost essays if I think they are worth saving.

Here’s an August 27, 2009 post, slightly amended, on Robert Scholes’ very useful book, The Crafty Reader (2001). Enjoy.


Since, in a previous post, I seconded Robert Scholes’ lament (in The Crafty Reader) that literature is often taught very poorly, I owe it to readers to talk explicitly how literature should be taught instead. Scholes has many useful suggestions as he pushes against the notion that literary interpretation calls for “reading between the lines.” Scholes says that we should rather look at how literature intersects with life.

Scholes describes reading as a craft, not an art, and to develop into a good or “crafty” reader he recommends “beginning by devoting a lot of time to a single poet whose poems clearly emerge from and connect to the ordinary events of human life.” He suggests choosing a poet that you already like, that writes on issues that interest you, and that seems to have a good range (so that you get a sense of the different directions that poetry can go).

Scholes chooses for an example the 17th century carpe diem poet Robert Herrick. There are a wide variety of things that Herrick does with his poetry, including sometimes just insulting people. The more we get to know Herrick, Scholes says, the more we start to understand why he chose the topics that he did, why he set up his poetic arguments as he did, why he chose certain verse forms. In other words, by situating Herrick’s poem in the real world and seeing it as a conversation with actual readers, one takes poetry out of any mystical realm—a realm in which there are secret meanings—and sees it instead as understandable human interaction. The human interaction may be complex, but it’s not mysterious.

Scholes offers up eight suggestions for becoming a good reader of poetry. Since I have evolved to teaching poetry this way myself, I find it gratifying that someone else would have laid it all out in a series of steps:

1. First, read poetry as if it were prose. Figure out what it’s saying. Scholes says that this includes paying attention to punctuation marks, spacing, and layout and making sure you understand every word. Also, he tells us to take note of strange words and words that seem to be used strangely.

2. Scholes repeatedly says to “situate” the poem. Ask yourself “what kind of poem this is, where it comes from, who is speaking, who is being addressed, what the situation is in which these words are uttered or about which they have been spoken.”

3. If the situation is unfamiliar, Scholes says to find out about it, along with the author’s life and time period. This is easier now than ever, what with Wikipedia only a mouse click away. Sometimes you can get information by discussing the poem with others.

4. Because some poetry is aimed at persuading readers, Scholes says to “consider whether you are persuaded or not.” When I teach Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” we discuss whether Marvell’s poem would in fact persuade a woman to go to bed with him. (Some say that, while Marvell’s argument itself is not persuasive, his tongue-in-cheek sense of humor makes him attractive.)

5. For those poems that aim to generate an emotion, Scholes says to identify that emotion and to consider whether you share that emotion. Are you inspired to become adventurous after reading Tennyson’s “Ulysses”? Or do you feel that Ulysses is being melodramatic and self absorbed and should just settle down and act his age?

6. Along the same lines, Scholes says that, if the poem “addresses a condition of being or represents a human event, consider whether it speaks for you, applies to your condition, or not.” Often the poems that hit us the hardest will be those that speak to experiences we have had. It helps to acknowledge this in reading a poem.

7. Now we’re ready to look at how we and others feel about the poem. “Do you—or they—like it, admire it, despise it, remain indifferent to it?” he asks and then advises discussing our responses with others.

8. Only after we have gone through these other steps, Scholes says, should we look at the form of the poem (“the specific words, the figures of speech, the use of rhyme or rhythm, the relation of the sounds to the sense of the poem”). Formal matters are more likely to be of interest once we know what the poem is saying and how we feel about it.

Scholes is essentially saying that teachers are not priests initiating students into holy mysteries but artisans teaching a particular craft. To the degree that poetry has a mystical or spiritual dimension, perhaps his approach doesn’t do poetry complete justice. But since too often poetry appears to students as a realm accessible only to special initiates, Scholes provides a useful corrective.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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