My students came to me with limited knowledge of literature. It wasn’t their field of study, but they needed a class like mine to graduate. They knew what they liked, and they loved to read, but they often didn’t know a metaphor from a simile or how to spot symbolism within the narrative. I didn’t care. My goal was to get them to appreciate the art.
When I go to the museum and marvel at the paintings and sculptures, I don’t know the terms for the light use or how light should be used. I don’t know how the features of a face reveals itself in clay. But I know what I like. What I relate to. What makes me examine societal ills and what makes me want to celebrate.
Literature as art
Literature is like any other artform. You come to the piece with your lived experiences, the environment you come from, and your values and morals. Within the pages of a book or the lines of a poem, we can find ourselves or who we would like to be. We see the world as it is, and how to make it better. We find love and hate, good and evil, reality and fantasy and everything in between these extremes.
Literature provides a space to allow for the exploration of ideas, both for the author and the reader. It can open eyes and deepen conversations. And it can do all that without the knowledge of alliteration or euphemisms.
The author might intend for a certain meaning, but the reader will take away from it the meaning they perceive. The author has no control over that, just as a sculptor has no control over what a patron sees in the lines of their piece. The lack of knowledge of artistic terms and their meanings has nothing to do with their appreciation of the art before them.
Scholars, aka the “experts,” might decide that a piece of literature means something, but that doesn’t mean you have to agree. In fact, a lot of times it is more fun if you don’t agree. My one rule in discussing literature is that you must be able to back up your argument. If you disagree with the meaning, tell me why. There are no wrong answers if you can justify it. And I encouraged my students to disagree with the canonized meanings, even with the author.
These terms for literary devices and their illusive meanings can become a barrier to some people who would like to write, stilling their pen before they have even written a word. Because they have not studied literature and do not know the “tricks of the trade,” they feel they are not capable of telling a compelling story.
Many of the authors and poets that people say are among the greats never studied literature in a traditional way. They read. They experienced. They knew they had a story to tell, so they got out a pen (or quill, typewriter, computer) and wrote it. Sometimes in small snippets of time between jobs and family obligations.
Literature, and especially poetry, has a reputation of being pretentious. As a person who has studied and taught literature for most of my life, I know that reputation all too well. But I wanted my students to walk away with a greater appreciation of the works they read, without ever being forced to learn the difference between a metaphor and a simile.