There’s a certain staleness that literary analysis/criticism acquires in the early years of education—I remember, in high school, thinking that writing essays was such a dull task. If “creative writing” (poetry, fiction) was freedom, then literary analysis essays were the handcuffs. I don’t think the five-paragraph drill helped in lessening the apathy.
But, no longer! The change came as a wholly unexpected thing—perhaps as a result of the classes I’ve taken, the books I’ve read, the professors I’ve met—but there has been a shift in the air. This past semester, I’ve realized that the structure of essays does not need to be strictly formulaic in order to work well. Rather, there can be a certain flexibility and elegance to the process, an elegance only achieved after embarrassing drafts and relentless practice. In each essay, there is a soft spot, a hidden area of the unknown. I think that spot is where the writer’s voice shines brightest. Within that little area, imagination can run wild among the harvested fields (the close readings) and drift along the river (the thesis)—nothing is left out of reach of the possible.
I’ve also finished reading Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, which is itself a shining example of literary criticism. Carson references Plato’s Phaedrus: “Socrates conceives of wisdom as something alive, a ‘living breathing word.'” This is a tricky thing to embed in written text, especially literary analysis, which is essentially dead written words about a dead written work. But I like to think that literary analysis is also gifted with the ability to breathe life back into text: it is a conversation between minds, an exploration of microcosms and brave new worlds, a reach back into history to assemble a space for voices to sound, a space for those voices to continue echoing gently into the distance.
Nowadays, when I write fiction and poetry, it’s less so with the ambition of creating a polished, finished product and more so with a desire to feel the thrill of creation. Literary analysis and criticism, though? I’ve been doing it for years (granted, poorly at first), yet I have only begun to probe the surface. There’s so much space to learn and grow. There are so many intricate complexities to explore, each offering a taste of more life, more answers, and enough questions to last beyond lifetimes.