The Classroom Reader (on Poetry)

Topic/Subject area: Text types

Author: Signe Mari Wiland, Associate Professor, Dr.Art. University of Agder


This article is based on my doctoral thesis, Poetry: Prima Vista. Reader-Response Research on Poetry in a Foreign Language Context, which investigates the experience of poetry reading in English. The respondents in this research project are foreign language students at different levels of our school system who are invited to read a poem prima vista, i.e. at first sight, slowly line by line.1  Chopping up the poem in separate lines and giving the readers only one line at a time are done to enable them to document their cognitive and affective experience of the poem as honestly and sincerely as possible. The readers write down their first responses or reactions in protocols that follow the line by line reading process, and this is done simultaneously with the reading. The findings of my research prove that student readers experience more than they get credit for in class if the method of reading facilitates their reading experience in a better way than what is usually done in classes of English. What my research reveals may also be achieved in the classroom if, in addition to a productive method, an open and unprejudiced view of the reader is developed among teachers. To enable young readers to express their honest and sincere responses to poetry particularly, teachers need to help them through a functional concept of the classroom reader, the issue of this article. Despite the fact that teachers sometimes find theories of little help, it is my contention that the classroom reader needs theoretical support to become visible to teachers, as the teachers' approaches to poetry and literature in the classroom are based on their more or less conscious view of the reader, of language, of language learning and of literature as art. These aspects of the reader will be addressed in this article.

Even though the readers in my research are older than primary school and lower secondary school pupils, the value of the slow line by line method and the reader concept apply universally to all age groups and have clear didactic implications. Therefore this discussion is highly relevant to all teachers, regardless of level. My study includes ninety-five respondents divided between five poems, and each respondent has read and responded to one of the poems. The poems referred to in the text are included at the end of the article, including abbreviations used. References to reader groups are made in the text as follows: S = upper secondary school student, TT = teacher student of the Norwegian general educational programme, and T = teacher student with two or three year courses in different subjects, one of them English.

Theoretical Constructs of the Reader

We all tend to think we know the learners who people our classrooms. Perhaps we do. Otherwise we would simply not be able to face them and function as teachers at all. But what kind of knowledge is this? On what premises is it founded? Can it be improved? In a subject like literature, and particularly in a foreign language like English, our view of the learner is sifted through exam expectations, measured against accepted interpretations of the texts we read, and against our own more or less conscious attitudes to literature itself and to literary theory. We know so well the requirements examining boards set and the literary texts we teach the learners that we risk confusing this knowledge with the knowledge of the individual reader, even though in principle we would like to be learner centered and take learner reactions seriously. The fact that primary school pupils do not sit for any exam in literature implies that literature and poetry may not be taken seriously and therefore the reader concept tends to remain unclear. Therefore I want to question the role of some theoretical constructs, assumptions or theories about the reader of English literature on the basis of my research project Poetry: Prima Vista, discuss their applicability to a Norwegian school context, and attempt a more open and unprejudiced, but serious approach to the real classroom reader.

Reader oriented critical approaches to literature have in principle done a lot to liberate the reader from oppressive and dogmatic literary theories. Theoretically speaking this is a move in the right direction as regards the classroom reader. How well this liberation has affected the readers of English literature in Norwegian classrooms is a different matter. To make reader oriented approaches work in the classroom, it is important to focus on the problem of control, which according to Jonathan Culler is the "most prominent variable in stories of response" (On Deconstruction 69-70). Particularly in the case of classroom readers, a discussion about the reader is unavoidably attached to the question of authority, as the teaching of literature is part of an institution where teachers are judges and assessors of readings done at school, at home and at exams.

Reader-response theorists, among others both Stanley Fish and David Bleich, attribute the control to the reader, at least in principle. Fish limits the power of the reader considerably by introducing the notion of interpretative communities (Is There a Text 48-49), where the reader must be a member to be considered informed and taken seriously by other informed readers. For most theorists the reader becomes a construct attributed with epithets like Fish's "informed" (48-49) reader, Michael Riffaterre's "average reader" ("archilecteur") or "super-reader" ("surlecteur") (Essais 45-49), Umberto Eco's "model reader" (The Role 9), Ronald Wardhaugh's "mature reader" (Reading 138) and Wolfgang Iser's "implied reader", filling the gaps in the text (The Act of Reading 27). Some of these epithets may also describe the real classroom reader, but none of them can function as a general description of all classroom readers, neither in my research, nor in the foreign language classrooms generally. However, the implications of the models mentioned above are a useful step to approach classroom readers wisely and responsibly in order to understand their readings better and to encourage them to read more literature in English.

Since Fish has offered a definition of the reader which illustrates the issue of control (Culler, On Deconstruction 69-70), this definition may illustrate the problems connected to the use of specific reader models or reader constructs, particularly in relation to learners of a foreign language who are at the same time also part of a national educational programme where the overall aim is to develop "the spiritual, the creative, the working, the liberally-educated, the social, the environmentally aware, and the integrated human being" (L 97 21-57). According to Fish the informed reader belongs to an interpretive community and is characterized as

(1) a competent speaker of the language out of which the text is built up; (2) being in full possession of "the semantic knowledge that a mature... listener brings to his task of comprehension," including the knowledge (that is, the experience, both as a producer and comprehender) of lexical sets, collocation probabilities, idioms, professional and other dialects, and so on; and (3) having literary competence. That is, he is sufficiently experienced as a reader to have internalized the properties of literary discourses, including everything from the most local of devices (figures of speech, and so on) to whole genres...... - a real reader (me) who does everything within his power to make himself informed. (Fish 48-49)

Competence is not easy to define, even though the description of communicative competence in foreign language learning comes very close to the definition Fish gives of a competent speaker of the language. In foreign language learning, communicative competence covers the cognitive and affective aspects of foreign language use and implies full mastery of the foreign language (Van Ek, Objectives 36). Since communicative competence is a description of the aim of foreign language learning, it must be understood as a dynamic process, perhaps in principle not unlike native language use. In a foreign language learning context, communicative competence becomes an ideal goal for the learners and teachers to work for together, well knowing that bilingualism is not realistic in most cases. In some classes, there are learners who approach native speakers' language mastery but also learners who have a very long way to go before they have communicative competence as it is outlined in curriculum plans for our entire school system. Within groups of foreign language learners the ability range is so varied that it would be difficult to follow some educationalists' advice "that a literary response only really starts when fluent reading has already been established" (Brumfit and Carter, Literature and Language Teaching 29) and to accept Fish's requirements for reading literature (48-49). If teachers were to wait until classroom readers were in total command of the language, as Fish suggests, before they introduced literary texts to them, great harm would be done.

Competence, according to Fish, becomes a stable and indisputable notion with little room for the dynamic and organic implications that L06 and the Knowledge Promotion presuppose to make it an efficient tool for foreign language learning in a learner-centered and process-oriented educational context. If reading competence, as part of language competence in a school context, were not considered a dynamic and process-oriented concept, the motivation for language learning would be seriously impaired (Brown, Principles 287-297). Learners are competent readers in the classrooms at the levels they belong, but their competence can be developed further and approach perfection. Such a positive understanding of the learner generally contributes to realizing the potential to make progress and to enhance reading competence, even when teachers feel the learners do not cope sufficiently with the requirements in English.

For classroom readers the reading experience has a different function from that of Fish because they generally lack "the knowledge...of lexical sets, collocation probabilities, idioms, professional and other dialects" (48) and do not yet qualify for membership in the interpretative community. Fish's reader construct presupposes readers with well developed reading strategies and experience in literary criticism and not the group of classroom readers we discuss here or the respondents of my research. It is not the reading process that prevents inexperienced readers from developing useful reading strategies, but it is the hidden notion that they do not fulfill the requirements of the informed and mature reader as she is defined by, among others, Fish, with sufficient linguistic and literary competence to do justice to the texts. This is the way one of my respondents reacts to this dilemma.

It seems as if we can always find ourselves in the end after something has gone wrong. Like loosing some-one or had problems psycichally. What I don't understand is that we find it at sea. Is that justback to the story about the 4 girls who went to the beach? (And why didn't we hear the end about may)? Or is it that when sitting at the sea, looking at it, we often find to solve our problems better than usual. It could mean different things, I'm not sure. I prefer to like poems I understand. I didn't quite catch the meaning with this one so, no, I did not like it that much. I believe the meaning is hidden way back for my head - because I am not good at reading between the lines. At first I thought it was a child poem, but it changed a lot. I believe the meaning is something that can follow a human through a whole life. And help one during problems. (MM: S4: line 12)

Theorists who apply epithets like mature, ideal (Slatoff 21), informed, model, implied or super reader implicitly grade language users according to a norm that excludes many readers, not only foreign language learners, but also native speakers of "the language out of which the text is built up" (Fish 48). Implicitly this attitude also signals a view of language users and readers of literature in a school context that works counter to the development of "the creative, the liberally educated and the integrated human being" (L 97 21-57), some of the fundamental principles in current curriculum plans for the entire primary and secondary school system in Norway.

Reader-response theorists and reception theorists address vital questions to liberate the reader of literature, but risk taking away that freedom by introducing a system of evaluation that leaves the classroom reader in a trial situation, where she must prove herself worthy before being accepted as a serious reader. The informed reader is Fish, the academic reader and literary critic (49). The "super reader" is Riffaterre and those who are never surprised by what they read, because they are so well versed in poetic language that they anticipate the poet's rhetorical devices (78-80). The Norman Holland reader seeks the "identity theme" (44), elicited by Holland's leading questions based on Freudian psychoanalytical theory. Eco's model reader changes according to the open or closed nature of the text (7-10), but it is the text that creates "the competence of its Model reader" (7-10). The Wolfgang Iser reader searches for the gaps, but the gaps can best be identified by the "implied reader" (The Act 27, 34-38) "a transcendental model which makes it possible for the structured effects of literary texts to be described" (34-38).2

This list is not meant to reduce the achievement of major theorists in the field of response studies, but to illustrate the education gap or attitude gap between classroom readers or my respondents and the very competent academic reader, whose language proficiency and knowledge of literature generally cannot compare to that of learners of a foreign language. The vital question is how to prevent these descriptive models of reading from becoming models of oppression when literature, and particularly poetry, is taught, or when real classroom readers' responses are asked for, collected or assessed. Literature requires receptive, open, but critical minds to be enjoyed the most. For too long the authority of the text and canonical interpretations of it voiced by teachers have been the accepted norms for presenting literature in the foreign language classroom.3

Is There a Difference Between Poetic Language and Ordinary Language?

Regardless of the problems of including the foreign language learner in definitions of the reader, the major contribution of reader-response theorists is trying to break up the text-oriented belief and practice that meaning can be found in the text, and moving the hermeneutics of literature away from the stability of the printed text on paper to the instability of the reader. Whether the illusion of stability in the text or the disillusion of instability in the reader will be most harmful for approaches taken to literature in school remains to be seen.4  In any case it is impossible to "escape the fact that literary works are experienced by individual living readers" (Slatoff 21), and this experience makes literature valuable in a school context. In a school system, where the teaching has been replaced by learning, and where the focus is shifted from the teacher to the learner, it is necessary to discuss the view of language and language use in literature and poetry to explore this tension between the text and the classroom reader.

No matter how radically the focus is shifted in theory from the text, the text or the poem is always there as a linguistic entity to be dealt with, either as an excuse or a stimulus for reader response, or as the printed page in need of some sort of decoding process by the more or less competent or mature, but real classroom reader. For Norwegian teachers linguistic competence, the basic aspect of communicative competence in Norwegian curriculum plans, is the basic condition for readers to comprehend the text, but the task of reading is also a "perceptual and cognitive one, involving many competences" (Wardhaugh 139), like the aesthetic experience. This is why the notion of "errors" or "mistakes" in reading need not be considered negative for classroom readers, as mistakes are usually rule based and show signs of growth. This attitude to errors in reading may be compared to Larry Selinker's interlanguage concept, describing a necessary and useful stage of trial and error in foreign language learning, where errors are simply looked upon as signs of language development (Selinker 1972).

The crucial point about this view, however, is that the more mature a reader becomes, the fewer mistakes she will make (Wardhaugh 138-139). At secondary school level, the learners are expected to be mature, and their performance is measured against a notion of perfection that the community of speakers will accept as correct, and where appropriate and inappropriate readings are a valid dichotomy. This understanding of language is easier to apply to ordinary language than to poetic language, but it is often used about poetic language as well, as when Riffaterre claims that even poetry can be fully understood by means of very advanced language mastery (325-326). On the basis of such an allegation, the chances of failure are imminent, particularly for the classroom poetry readers we are concerned with. They generally have a feeling of failure when they read poetry.

Reader oriented theorists are also preoccupied with language competence and the distinction between what is usually referred to as ordinary language and poetic language. Whether or not such a sharp distinction is productive of reading strategies in a school context is a different matter. Underlining the difference between the two may contribute to an unnecessary division between readers who master ordinary language, a kind of lower order language, and those who master a more advanced use of the language, the higher order language or the poetic use of language. For learners of a foreign language, a sharp distinction here may add to the feeling that poetic language is for the advanced language user, with a special interest in literature, and for those who only read literature at school ordinary language may be a better basis for foreign language instruction. In other words, literature or poetry ought to be read by the expert reader with "knowledge of lexical sets, collocation probabilities, idioms, professional and other dialects" (Fish 48), more or less in line with some of the epithets presented above.

In addition to separating groups of classroom readers into advanced and less advanced readers, such a distinction may contribute to a simplification of the view of language and language use. We all know that, on the one hand, so-called ordinary language contains rhetorical devices often used to characterize poetry, such as metaphors, metonymy, alliteration, assonance and repetition. On the other hand, some poems do not necessarily contain more than what can be read for their referential meaning or "the so-called literal meaning" (Rosenblatt 37), like some prose texts. For this reason Fish does not distinguish between ordinary and poetic language, or between what Riffaterre calls "les faits linguistiques et les faits stylistiques" (Riffaterre 27-28),5  and for the same reason Louise Rosenblatt defines poetry by invoking the reader's attitude to the text, rather than trying to find the differences in the style, the form or the language of the text (Rosenblatt 37). Further, according to Jacques Derrida

no internal criterion can guarantee the essential "literariness" of a text. If you proceed to analyze all the elements of a literary work, you will never come across literature itself, only some traits which it shares or borrows, which you can find elsewhere too, in other texts, be it a matter of the language, the meanings or the referents. (Derrida 73)

No matter how learners and teachers define the language of poetry, it still makes sense to develop the sensitivity to texts generally speaking from an early age and to expand the consciousness about the reading self. For this purpose the reading of poetry is essential, precisely because poetry questions fundamental assumptions about the nature of language and what language can communicate. Therefore, to motivate for more reading of poetry in the classroom, I would like to challenge the notion that by perfecting linguistic competence, the reader can actually arrive at a complete understanding of a poem or any work of literature. They never can, even though some theorists claim they can. Riffaterre subscribes to the view that by hard work and painstaking scrutiny of language forms and stylistic facts, the texts can be deciphered completely by the super reader and interpreted accordingly. Do poetry teachers in the English foreign language classroom convey the same view implicitly and expect uniformity in understanding poetry? Stylistic analyses in the 70s certainly did and were criticized strongly by, among others, Fish in "What Is Stylistics?" (257). However, this view is implicitly embedded in Fish's own definition of the reader as being "in full possession" of literary and linguistic competence (48). The difference is that Fish allows for individual and personal readings, which is necessary to be able to include the classroom reader in the interpretive community. Many stylisticians support a closed reading as they believe in a separation of form and content, where the formal decoding is a prerequisite for interpretation and can be agreed upon by most readers.6  In my respondents' protocols the readers occasionally comment on personal language deficiencies as an important reason for not understanding the poem, even though their emotional and aesthetic experience has been considerable.

Counting - close runs through my mind. I don't know the word knelling so there is a blank spot. Alliteration has something to do with the rhyme Why are classes closing? How can the bells count? A bit of confusing information. (MB: T3: line 2)

Funeral. Who is going to be burried? If it is the mother then "I" wouldn't have been to school that day? Thinking of grandma's funeral. Taken - in his stride - not sure if I understand it. (MB: T5: line 5)

Don't understand "poppy bruise" and "temple". What is meant by this? Think I know too few words in English. It's many years since I studied it, and I did so only for a year. But I guess Signe Mari expects me to know these words. Wonder if the others understand everything. Maybe they just pretend to. (MB: T5: line 19)

Agreement in decoding the language of a poem can never be arrived at by readers in a class of foreign language learners, or by native speakers of the language. Agreement conceals both the complexity of language and poetry, and if agreement is conveyed as an ideal in the poetry classroom, great harm is done both to the classroom readers' potential to approach language studies with curiosity and a critical mind, and to appreciate poetry with its ambiguities and uncertainties.

Derrida's idea of the reader as a "countersignatory" (Derrida 74) opens up for several important aspects of the reading and includes a reader model, less imbued with reader assessment according to criteria of competence, and more with attitudinal criteria along the lines of Rosenblatt's ideas (32-37). By questioning the existence of the reader, Derrida offers a reader model, or rather a reading model, that includes active growth on the part of the reader, as she is constantly "'formed', ‘trained', instructed, constructed...invented by the work" (Derrida 74).7  Avoiding the epithets mentioned earlier, which solely focus on the agent of reading, Derrida underlines the idea of the activity of reading, which is so essential to reader-oriented theorists like Rosenblatt, Fish, Iser and Bleich, and which includes the individual classroom reader. This emphasis on the activity of reading implies a less static understanding of the literary text and a more dynamic understanding of the reader, because the essential function of the text is to give its readers "a competence which they did not possess before" and therefore reading naturally increases their self confidence (Derrida 74). In an educational context, it is essential to facilitate an encounter between the text, regardless of genre, and the classroom reader, as it is in this way true literary competence is created. In Derrida's words the "performance of the text produces readers whose only obligation it is to countersign and say 'yes' in a committed and lucid way" (74), to poetry and any other text. The text and the reader are both performers during the act of reading, and the only valid competence of the classroom reader is the willingness to countersign, not to rely on canonical interpretations or the teacher's readings. This is the position of the respondents in my research, and this ought to be the situation of the classroom readers. My respondents are not stabilized as readers, and their responses often reveal a questioning attitude, possible to be formed and changed by the text as shown in a response to Christina Rossetti's "A Birthday".

"Maybe he/she feels that her feelings are a treasure" (B: TT11: line 5) and "What birthday is that?...Can this birthday mean that he was born again when he met his love?" (B: TT11: line 15)

They countersign the poem in a "committed and lucid way" (Derrida 74) despite obvious confusion during the process, possibly because the notion of poetic language for many learners is associated with more problems than ordinary language.

The headline fooled me, I was prepared for a person with wishes beyond reality -
The poem did not make me interested in finding the exact words describing what sort of rhyme, rhythm and so on, but in how the poem built up my expectations and impressions of meaning. I was surprised by the ending, but line 8 got me back to reality and reminded me of the dangers of being unaware of and indifferent to other people's lives and feelings. (CH: TT1: line 8)

I expected something nasty, and now it has happened. A crab? He's still rythmic, and rhymes a lot. I can picture it.
There's one thing I'm not sure about. Is it a nursery rhyme, or something with a more profound meaning? I like it though. Nice story so far. (MM: S8: line 7)

Literature as Art and the Aesthetic Experience in the Classroom

According to the curriculum plan, enjoyment is an explicit aim in the teaching of literature in English as a foreign language, as it is illustrated in the two samples cited above. Barthes claims that "plaisir" or "jouissance" is the driving force in the reading of literature, but too often "the teacher is the one who finishes his sentences" 8 (Barthes 81), thus complicating the first encounter between the classroom reader and the text, where the aesthetic experience is had "at first sight" (84). In a school context, where the transmitting of knowledge and information has been regarded as the teacher's main task, the classroom readers' experience of art has been neglected, possibly because the aesthetic experience is too personal, too profound, too vague and too risky (Iser 21-22) to be made the object of class teaching, and because the forms of examination give little scope for more than knowledge about a literary text, not the experience of it as an expression of art. This position is also reflected in Le plaisir du texte where Barthes finds the pleasure of the text incompatible with the critical practices of literary institutions (95). Thus school to Barthes is not a good breeding ground for the aesthetic experience. 9  Reading literature at school and my research challenge the zone between the public place of the classroom and the private relationship between text and reader, thus opening up for the personal feeling of "jouissance" or joy (Barthes 34-38), expressed in this way by one of my respondents.

I start to cry. This is a strong poem which gives me associations of my own boy in a box. All the feeling coming up. You are sitting in a class, looking down, your tears are falling, makes you blind, you have to take off your glasses. Hide your feelings, bowing your head more down, 10 minutes break, yes a mid-term break, that's what it's called. You start to think again and that saves you. Inside you you want to go home and hold and hold him, knowing at this moment, stronger than ever, how much he means to you. how dear Take a break old girl, thank God it was just a poem. (MB: TT2: line 22)

This response underlines poetry as the trouble zone, where the relation between meaning and reference is suspended, and literature becomes the "most interesting thing in the world" as it refuses to be "scientific, philosophical, conversational" (Derrida, Acts 47-48). The poem has become art for the reader. 10

Does the experience of art have to elicit such strong emotional reactions to qualify as an aesthetic experience and function aesthetically in the classroom? For Barthes "jouissance" comes close to an understanding of the reading of texts comparable to a religious experience of a mystical kind.11 Pleasure and fear are juxtaposed in exactly the same way that characterizes the mystical experience, 'mysterium tremendum et fascinosum',12  the experience that incites fear and attracts at the same time and transports the person involved out of the ordinary, shattering the ideas of what life is all about (Le plaisir 77-78, 93). Barthes also invokes the Zen Buddhist concept of 'satori' to approach this experience of losing oneself in the text (57), underlining the resemblance between the artistic and the religious experience.13  If this is what is expected and desired when literature or poetry as art is introduced in a school context, many teachers would prefer not to teach it. It takes courage to wish to see the cathartic effect of art realized in the classroom and therefore the teacher's contemplation of the text instead of the students' participation in it is often preferred (Iser, The Act 48). However, once a text is read by a reader, including the classroom reader in a school context, there is no means by which such a strong reaction can be prevented. The mind of the reader may open up for the text and have experiences the teacher never anticipated and will never have access to. Because the explicit verbal expressions of such a strong experience (MB: TT2: line 22) are not communicated, it does not imply they never took place in the classroom reader. The moment the classroom readers are asked to verbalize their aesthetic experience, it disappears, just like the mystical experience, which by nature is incommunicable. In Iser's words, the "aesthetic effect is robbed of this unique quality the moment one tries to define what is meant in terms of other meanings that one knows" (The Act 22).

As mentioned above, our classroom readers and my respondents are situated in the trouble zone between the public and private sphere of art and thus challenge the notion of what form the verbal expressions of reading a poem should take. Despite these difficulties of form, it may to some extent be possible to trace the result of what Iser defines as the "meaning of a literary text", namely "a dynamic happening", and not a definable entity (Prospecting 22), even if it is impossible to measure the quality of the aesthetic experience. For many classroom readers, Iser's "dynamic happening" would be a more fruitful approach to what they search for as the meaning of the poem, which for them seems to be a condition for the aesthetic experience, and which is sometimes so hard to find. It is aptly expressed in this response.

the stone could be a world of small things or too large to be anything. Its a strange sentens, and I know it is another meaning, but i cant explain it. The stone can be home for some and just a stone too others. (MM: S6: line 10)

The aesthetic experience certainly involves more than semantics, even though there is "a dimension in the text which both provokes and stands in need of a semantic transformation" to be communicated also among classroom readers (Prospecting 232). However, the "ultimate dimension of the text cannot be semantic" (232) but the "imaginary", which due to its vagueness, comes close to the aesthetic experience and is best realized in the reception of the text, not in the interpretation of it (234). In the poetry classroom therefore the imaginary is what should be focused on in the work with poetic texts.

Another important aspect concerning the reading of literature is to what extent formal schooling disqualifies classroom readers in their imaginary encounters with literature. In my view, the traditional discourses for critical practices, like literary essays and textual commentaries used during the school year and at examinations, and exercises such as comprehension questions in textbooks are poorly adapted to express their aesthetic experience of literature. The verbal expressions of the classroom readers' reading experiences are often mistaken for a lack of aesthetic experience, because their skill in conveying such an experience is not developed according to recognizable discourses. The question still remains if it is possible at all to convey such experiences, as an "aesthetic experience" must inevitably lead to a "non-aesthetic experience" in class (Iser, The Act 22-23). For this reason, responses to literature, including my protocols, must be studied with an open mind, so as to credit the reading on as broad a basis as possible.14 "Impacting and explanation" must not be confused to discredit the readers from being allowed to express the aesthetic impact the poem had on them in a personal way (Iser, Prospecting 267). In principle this is the conflict Bleich points to in his attempt to find a means through which the aesthetic experience can find a transparent medium, a medium that combines a cognitive and a psychological rhetoric, his response statements.15

"The ideal would be to contemplate thought directly. Since this cannot be, language should be as transparent as possible" (Culler, On Deconstruction 91). No thought or experience can be fully communicated through any language or sign system. Because we are language teachers, we know that paradoxically thought and experience have to be communicated through language. (Telepathy does not seem to offer a real alternative.) 16 From our teaching experience we should also know that the moment the aesthetic experience is communicated through language, the signifier backfires, so to speak, on the signified and distorts and disrupts the nature of it. Through an interminable chain of signifieds becoming signifiers, the original aesthetic experience is impossible to grasp. That is an inherent quality of the sign system, according to Derrida. It implies that the signifier, whether in speech or written language, can never ever represent the real thing, experience or thought. Something will always escape the signifier, and something will always be added to it. This applies to the classroom readers' responses to literary texts in the classroom, and it also applies to the written protocols, where my respondents strive to make the language they command a suitable tool for their innermost thoughts. This explains why some classroom readers often prefer silence to exhibiting their souls in a language that so poorly covers their experiences, emotions and ideas.

By introducing the concepts of general and singular signatures, Derrida elucidates the space between the writer producing his text in a historical context, and the reader occupying a different historical site, but whose competence is nevertheless profoundly formed by what is read (Acts 74). The singularity of the poet's signature is only brought out in the encounter with a singular reader, including the classroom reader, who might take off the "original" work of art elsewhere and give it a new performance. The students' protocols document in written form multiple countersignatures, made possible because in the singular signature of the poet, lies the potential for the general signature which makes possible the generation of endless classroom countersignatures that for most literary critics and teachers may appear as a lack of respect for the literary text or poem. The classroom countersignatures do not necessarily have to follow a formal pattern of discourse accepted by the interpretative community. On the contrary, Derrida himself deviates quite radically from the conventions of literary criticism, and my respondents, who are invited to respond according to the same method, differ greatly in the way they "countersign" the poem. The points of departure should be where the resistance in the text is greatest and where the signature of the poet most fruitfully contests or duels with the countersignature of the reader, who may even "betray the original" work of art (Acts 69). This "betrayal" accounts for the enormous variations in classroom readers' responses to poetry. Four different responses to "A Birthday" illustrate this "betrayal".

Does this mean that the persons heart is heavy? Maybe too many things to care/think about. Or does it mean that his heart is a tree full of fruit, that what he has planted has given him fruit? (B: TT1: line 4)
The character is not very openminded, therefore it says that the boughs are bent with thick set fruit. This could mean that it is difficult for other people to find out which kind of thoughts he or she is dealing with. (B: TT9: line 4)
Now I can see that the poem rimes. Line 2 and 4 rimes and makes the rythm good.
Reading line four, I can see in my mind lots of gifts. Like the apples from the tree. There is so many that they hardly get any place. Big love or big happines I think. (B: S4: line 4)
I think this line is hard to read again. Like the second line, also this starts with "whose". I think it is a positiv line, since there are so much fruit which bursts the boughs. There are much good in the heart right now. I think this is foreshadowing that the person later will have a bad period, when all the fruits fall off. (B: S6: line 4)

Welcome this "betrayal" or the farfetched responses in the classroom as appropriate first encounters with a poem, as in this way young classroom readers may develop into autonomous and competent readers who will enjoy literature after they have left school.

For Derrida, as for other reader-oriented theorists, the essential question always remains: "What should we do with literature?" (Acts 41). There is an experience of literature, no essence, as "one can always reinscribe in a literary space any statement - a newspaper article, a scientific theorem, a snatch of conversation" (Acts 45). The alleged objectivity inherent in the notion of essence is discarded for the sake of the more ephemeral subjectivity of experience. What "literature" and "poetry" have in common is that they are not self-referential" (Acts 45). This accounts for the force and intensity of the aesthetic experience, and explains the possibility for innumerable classroom countersignatures that all fall short of expressing the meaning of the text, even the complete meaning when all countersignatures are added. In the foreign language classroom, it means that not only the so-called competent, mature, or super-reader can feel confident about their readings, but any language user, no matter level of linguistic and literary competence. The universal signified does not exist, and a universal meaning in literature or poetry cannot be found "in the text like a substance" (Acts 46-47). The force of literature lies in the response, in the experience of reading, which is as valid for the uninitiated as for the expert. Nothing is absolute, least of all a key to the reading of poetry or literature in general, which is basically what makes reading so fascinating and attractive. This lack of absolute truths is experienced as another trouble zone for my respondents and is exhibited in the discourse of the protocols, expressing in different ways and on different terms the tracing of a suspended meaning that seems to escape for every new line encountered. The same trouble zone is always present in the literature classroom, but the challenge is to welcome it as a self evident condition for personal experiences that can be openly and confidently discussed to make the reading of literature into the fascinating experience so many of us claim it is.

The Dynamic Prospecting Countersignatory

What kind of reader concept emerges from this discussion? What kind of meaning can this classroom reader be expected to arrive at? What kind of understanding or experience can be expected during the process of reading? Since the concept is to cover real classroom readers, it must be open, in the sense that the range of competences, attitudes and personalities represented in an average class are included, and their role as learners, whose main aim is to develop personally and professionally, is taken seriously. The ‘dynamic prospecting countersignatory' seems sensible to use about the classroom reader. ‘Dynamic' indicates movement or development, essential to all learners without requiring a certain standard of linguistic and literary competence. ‘Countersignatory' implies a restricted freedom on the part of the reader, as to how to make sense of the words in the poems and how to express an understanding of them without being hemmed in by the constraints of definitions of the language of poetry as opposed to the language of prose, as in the heart of all language is the metaphor (Derrida, Acts 41). The ‘dynamic prospecting countersignatory' need not be equipped with the full semantic knowledge of a mature reader and have internalized the properties of literary discourses according to Fish's definition (Is There 48-49), because this definition limits the possibility untrained readers have for experiencing literature through the language they command. ‘Prospecting' indicates that there is something valuable to be found (but not necessarily is found), without defining the nature and weight of this object more closely. By focusing on the act of digging, the experience had during the process, the notion of experience becomes wide enough to cover a range of reactions from the readers, from a general indifference to a profound aesthetic experience, from a rudimentary command of lexis and grammar to a well developed competence of language forms and poetic rhetoric.

If the first encounter with the poetic text is uncensored and unconditional, the possibility of forming new discourses for the joint classroom experience may not prove to be such an ordeal for the classroom readers and teacher. To create a lasting interest in poetry, the teacher must help to make the classroom reader into the autonomous and confident dynamic prospecting countersignatory, so that when literature is presented in the classroom it can work for the classroom reader and not against her. Only then will literature become a valuable means of personal growth and language development.


1 See "How to Develop Literary Competence in the English Classroom" for a thorough discussion of this method. The reader ought to read the two articles together to profit the most from the reading.

2 Wolfgang Iser has developed new concepts of reading and the reader in Prospecting. From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) which will be taken up later in this article.

3 An interesting contribution in this discussion is "Reading in Slow Motion" in In Defence of Reading, A Reader's Approach to Literary Criticism, ed. Reuben A. Brower and Richard Poirier, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1962) 3-21.

4 In "Defense of Readers", With Respect to Readers, Dimensions of Literary Response, ( Itacha and London: Cornell University Press, 1970) 3-26 Walter J. Slatoff discusses the nature of literature with an eye to the teaching of literature at universities, saying: "We rarely even worry on either a theoretical or practical level about the relationship between the qualities of a work and the perception of these qualities, and for the most part ignore much that philosophers, psychologists, and our common sense have taught us about the complexities of this relation and the naïveté of ignoring it" (14).

5 See Fish's discussion of Riffaterre in Is There a Text in This Class?, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995) 59-65.

6 Fish claims that what is very often offered by stylisticians is a circular evidence with no scope beyond describing the obvious, and that the allegation of the stylisticians that they need more data simply to offer substantial documentation in the interpretation of literature is nothing but wishful thinking and completely illusory. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class?, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995) 246-267.

7 Iser's concepts of literature as performance and play take up similar ideas of reading. See Prospecting. From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

8 My translations of Barthes.

9 In "Littérature/enseignement" Barthes reflects on the difficulty of making theories pragmatically relevant in an educational contex by saying that "le théorique est, d'une certaine façon, inhabitable dans notre société actuelle", Le grain de la voix. Entretiens 1962-1980, (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981) 222.

10 In "Changing Functions of Literature" Iser discusses various positions of literature in society, including literature as art. See Prospecting. From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 197-214.

11 See Prospecting, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 204 for the relation between religion and art.

12 For a thorough discussion about the mystical experience see Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), particularly chapters iv and vi.

13 Barthes is here concerned with the author's process of creativity. I distinguish here between the artistic experience (the writer) and the aesthetic experience (the reader) in accordance with Iser's theory of response. See The Act of Reading, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991) 21.

14 Iser points to the fact that the imaginary expressed in reception can be made the object of interpretation and that this implies an anthropological frame of reference. This is my position as a researcher and the school context of my research forms such an anthropological frame of reference, which is referred to at the beginning of this article. See Prospecting, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) 234.

15 The form of these response statements are different from my respondents' protocols. See D. Bleich, Readings and Feelings, (Urbana, Il.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1975) for a presentation and discussion of response statements.

16 Derrida has actually touched upon this question in his "Telepathy", 4-6 and the letters entitled "Envois" in The Post Card. From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987).


maggie and milly and molly and may (MM)
1) maggie and milly and molly and may
2) went down to the beach (to play one day)

3) and maggie discovered a shell that sang
4) so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles, and

5) milly befriended a stranded star
6) whose rays five languid fingers were;

7) and molly was chased by a horrible thing
8) which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

9) may came home with a smooth round stone
10) as small as a world and as large as alone.

11) For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
12) it's always ourselves we find in the sea 


He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (CH)
1) Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
2) Enwrought with golden and silver light,
3) The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
4) Of night and light and the half-light,
5) I would spread the cloths under your feet:
6) But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
7) I have spread my dreams under your feet;
8) Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.


Birthday (B)
1) My heart is like a singing bird
2)    Whose nest is in a watered shoot;
3) My heart is like an apple-tree
4)    Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;
5) My heart is like a rainbow shell
6)    That paddles in a halcyon sea;
7) My heart is gladder than all these
8)    Because my love is come to me.

9)  Raise me a dais of silk and down;
10)    Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
11) Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
12)    And peacocks with ahundred eyes;
13) Work it in gold and silver grapes.
14)    In leaves and silver fleur-de-lys;
15) Because the birthday of my life
16)    Is come, my love is come to me.

Christina Rossetti

Mid-Term Break (MB)
1) I sat all morning in the college sick bay
2) Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
3) At two o'clock our neighbours drove me home.

4) In the porch I met my father crying-
5) He had always taken funerals in his stride-
6) And big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

7) The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
8) When I came in, and I was embarrassed
9) By old men standing up to shake my hand

10) And tell they were 'sorry for my trouble'.
11) Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
12) Away at school, as my mother held my hand

13) In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
14) At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived
15) With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

16) Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
17) And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
18) For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

19) Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
20) He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
21) No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

22) A four foot box, a foot for every year.

Seamus Heaney

Infant Sorrow (IS)
1    My mother groan'd! my father wept.
2    Into the dangerous world I lept:
3    Helpless, naked, piping loud:
4    Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

5    Struggling in my father's hands,
6    Striving against my swaddling bands,
7    Bound and weary I thought best
8    To sulk upon my mother's breast.

William Blake

The author has tried to contact copyright holders. If anyone feels unjustly used, please contact the author. (Signe Mari Wiland)


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Publisert 15. juni 2020 15:06 - Sist endret 15. juni 2020 15:08