Going with Literature’s Grain: Recovering a Literary Aesthetic

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“Go with the grain of the wood”: My distinguished colleague recently invoked that adage to our visiting prospective graduate students in English to describe his approach to literary criticism. I was struck all over again by the wisdom of this metaphor and his desire to be an “eclectic critic,” responsive to the “grain” of the literary work he was analyzing in each case, never settling for one way of reading, but instead being responsive to each individual work’s distinctive pull and tug.1

What would it mean for literary studies to go with the grain of the wood? It would mean attending to each literary work’s particularities, its bumpy contours and irregularities. It would mean focusing on the work as an artistic creation sufficient unto itself. It would mean practicing a literary criticism that would bring out the luster of literature, honing it, burnishing it, polishing it, so that its manifold meanings emerge.

On the other hand, what would it mean for literary studies to go against the grain of the wood, as a significant strand of it still persists in doing? It would mean doing violence to literature, importing values and terms not resident in the work under consideration. It would mean trying to make literature speak to every contemporary social and political concern. While literature can often speak truth to politics and culture, it does so not as a primary function, but as a secondary one. Literature’s beauty is deformed by such blandishments.2 Literature’s power, often fragile and ephemeral, splinters in such situations.

The great Belfast-born poet Louis MacNeice’s early poem “Snow” suggests something of the teeming, protean quality of poetry that outstrips heavy-handed attempts to pin literature down, to spread-eagle it, and make it submit to one’s pressing theoretical concerns:

World is crazier and more of it than we think, Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion A tangerine and spit the pips and feel The drunkenness of things being various.3

“Incorrigibly plural.” In a world filled with the rhetoric of pluralism, why do some literary critics reduce literature to the singular, to the easily-said, to a megaphone for their purposes?

How might we begin practicing an art of literary criticism that is attentive to the “incorrigibly plural,” to “things being various” in the early twenty-first century? In an important essay from 2002, Paisley Livingston argues that we can appreciate literature both intrinsically and instrumentally, although he focuses on and tries to retrieve a deep aesthetic experience. He argues for a compelling definition of aesthetic experience as that “which embraces thought and imagination as well as perception and sensation, [and which] must be a direct, active contemplative attention to the qualities of some item, where this contemplation is an intrinsically valued experience.”4 Such contemplation is sorely lacking in our contemporary world of social media, which allures us with links, updates, and outrages of the day. It prompts the cursory glance, whereas literature, properly apprehended, promotes the art of the gaze, of long looking, and refuses easy answers.

Teachers of literature should attempt to inculcate this sort of gazing in our students and ourselves; thus, we might profitably consider the way glancing turns into gazing in Philip Larkin’s marvelously turned poem, “The Whitsun Weddings.” Set on a train one hot English August afternoon (not at Whit Sunday, as ALSCW member Archie Burnett has shown)5, this poem gradually draws us into the observing narrator’s glances out the window at the countryside and cities running by his window until he lights upon a series of wedding parties on the platforms and then gazes at them, perceiving their joy and more quotidian emotions. I argued to my students when teaching the poem this semester that we might think of each stanza as a railcar affording us a particular gaze matching that of the speaker; inhabiting each stanza deeply, I suggested, gives us the privileged access that Larkin wanted us to have and something of his speaker’s growing attention. As the railcars go by in front of our eyes, as Larkin’s train did so many years ago, so go the stanzas, traveling past us with their attention to diction, rhyme (slant and full), and punctuation.

At the poem’s conclusion, with the images of wounding mooted in earlier stanzas coalescing into the train’s deceleration, likened to a shower of falling arrows, the poem still somehow lifts off, achieves a buoyancy, just as Larkin wanted it to. Why? How can the poem’s slowing, its decline as the train near London, as the poem itself ends, enter a new trajectory? In part, its success lies with us, the reader, Larkin suggests. Before he read the poem on the BBC in 1959, Larkin pointed out that “the reader’s task is to graduate from just talking—the first verse or two—to interested close description (at least, one hopes the listener will be interested).” But the task for Larkin’s ideal reader of this poem increases appreciably: “Success or failure of the poem depends on whether it gets off the ground on the last two lines. It is asking a lot of a reader, I know, to achieve a climax in so small a compass, but unless this image succeeds with the listener, I am afraid the poem will seem no more than pedestrian.”6

Even if readers help the poem rise “off the ground,” how can such a poem, caught up in its seamy subjects, enter into transcendence by its surprising conclusion? There’s a mystery, I posit, at the heart of all great poems where the poem’s alchemy transmutes the dull lead of words, of ink on page, into gold. Larkin’s last stanza shimmers with this alchemical gold, as the lower-class world of “An uncle shouting smut” and “mothers loud and fat”7 that his speaker condescendingly conjures fades before our eyes and is replaced with this vision that is both fleetingly human and spiritual:

….. and it was nearly done, this frail Travelling coincidence; and what it held Stood ready to be loosed with all the power That being changed can give. We slowed again, And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.8

How does a poem that travels through a very un-English “tall heat,” rolling on a train with “all cushions hot,”9 a languid, leisurely poem set on a similarly languorous day, suddenly become transformed into something urgent, swelling, suffused with water and even latent attendant spiritual connotations? Notice how the early parade in the first stanza of “All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense / Of being in a hurry gone”10 (my emphases) now pile up and re-emerge sonically in this final “falling,” which is itself loosed like an arrow “with all the power / That being changed can give” (again, my emphasis). Heat, even drought, is replaced with cool rain, while the martial images of the “religious wounding”11 and the “arrow-shower” is replaced with the softness of rain, presumably connoting the marriage bed where sexual intercourse, a marital “wounding,” will occur on these couples’ wedding nights.

If we let the poem have its way with us, we finally surprise ourselves with this final, alchemical revelation of the pain and ecstasy of young lovers, on the brink of the rest of their lives together.

As Larkin said elsewhere, in “Church Going,” “Power of some sort or other will go on. . .,”12 and the power that is loosed in “The Whitsun Weddings”—“all the power / That being changed can give” surely finally refers as well not just to the lovers who are on the brink of transformation by marriage but to us readers as well, changed from our obsession with the somewhat tawdry details of the wedding parties, changed, even, perhaps from our obsession with Larkin’s sometimes indefensible attitudes, which we know all too well from the biography.

Poetry’s power, that is, changes the way we perceive a poem as we read it, but it also makes stealth raids across our hearts, minds, and bodies. It (and all great literature) radically maintains the ability to surprise us, to catch us out, even as it invites us in yet remains finally beyond us in sometimes uncomfortable ways. Paul Muldoon catches a great deal of poetry’s power in this regard: “For, at its best, poetry does not comfort us. . . . The point of poetry is to be acutely discomforting, to prod and provoke, to poke us in the eye, to punch us in the nose, to knock us off our feet, to take our breath away.”13

For who could ever simply summarize a great poem, drama, short story, or novel? The late great Seamus Heaney may have put it best when he cannily wrote in “Postscript,” a poem ostensibly about the play of wind, light, and water off the coast of Ireland’s County Clare that concludes:

Useless to think you’ll park and capture it More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there, A hurry through which known and strange things pass As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.14

In all literary works of lasting value, we are “neither here nor there,” suspended between poem on the page and our whole imaginative apprehension of it, poised liminally to receive its messages and have our hearts caught “off guard” and even blown “open.”

The Association for Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers exists as another in-between place, as it were, a halfway house between the over-professionalization of literature endemic in many literary organizations and the sheer appreciation of it on the part of disconnected readers everywhere. We offer a space in which to follow the grain of great literature together, being exposed to its variousness, its buffetings. We hold no ideological or political identity. We promote literature and its power. Please consider joining us in 2018 as a member, or, if you are already one, invite a friend to join us.


1 Grateful thanks to my colleague Maurice Hunt, who supplied this metaphor in his “Remarks to Prospective Graduate Students,” Baylor University, Waco, Texas, February 23, 2018.
2 And literature’s beauty can certainly positively affect our ethical compass, as Elaine Scarry has brilliantly shown in her moving study, On Beauty and Being Just, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
3 Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, ed. Peter McDonald (Wake Forest, NC: Wake Forest University Press, 2013), 24.
4 Paisley Livingston, “Literary Aesthetics and the Aims of Criticism,” Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent, eds. Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral, New York: Columbia University Press (2005), 660 [651-667].
5 See Philip Larkin, The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, ed. Archie Burnett, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux (2012), 411.
6 See ibid., 410.
7 Ibid., 57.
8 Ibid., 58.
9 Ibid., 56.
10 Ibid., 56.
11 Ibid., 57.
12 Ibid., 36.
13 Paul Muldoon, “The Point of Poetry,” Princeton University Library Chronicle LIX.3 (Spring 1998): 516 [503-516].
14 Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 70.