Poetry analysis: Bookworm by Norman MacHaig

VCE English does require students to analyse texts, both in Outcome 1 and Outcome 3. The curriculum is not the same in Scotland where the focus for the analysis of literary techniques is much greater. I have found the pursuit of strong literary analysis to be extremely beneficial to students.

    In VCE English, students can certainly aim to improve their grades for Outcome 1 by performing strong and successful analysis of literary or cinematographic techniques when composing their Text Response. Often this particular aspect of VCE English students’ submissions is weak, so a student who can achieve a strong analysis of authorial techique immediately gains better grades by comparison to the efforts of their peers. In Outcome 3 analysis is essential – unfortunately Outcome 3 demands an analysis of persuasive technique, and thus focuses often on texts that are not necessarily creative or poetic.

    It has been clear to me, through the efforts of the students I have worked with, that literary skill is greatly advanced when students are provided with strong courses analysing and exercising such techniques. In other words, students who learn about the skills demonstrated by creative writers (as described in the metalanguage and meta-literary analysis of the piece below) quickly with practise become much better writers themselves.

    By contrast, students submitting to both Outcome 1 and Outcome 3 of VCE English do not enjoy the same focus for learning. Their studies must recognise the ideas, themes and arguments presented in a text, and such is the first criteria upon which they are assessed, but analysis is often alien to them. Further, such students might not enjoy the opportunity to simulatneously develop their own literary skill, as for Outcome 1 they must only submit a response to the studied text, whilst for Outcome 3(b) they must compose an persuasive piece using techniques that need not be imaginative. These products do not always favour advancement of literary skill.

    I’m not arguing that the VCE curriculum must:

      • in Outcome 1, give stronger weight in the criteria for assessment to the analysis of literary skill

      • in Outcome 2, recognise the value of metalanguage and meta-literary self-analysis in the statement of intention for folio pieces as part of the assessment criteria

      • in Outcome 3(a), analyse imaginative pieces rather than persuasive pieces, and exercise these literary techniques to stronger effect in Outcome 3(b)

      I prsent only that such is what I do with the students I work with, and the results are better for it!

        Below is a text response essay that analyses poetic techniques – it’s the kind of task completed as part of the curriculum in Scotland, and a sort of cross between VCE Outcome 1 and Outcome 3 that achieves the weight, value and effect described in the dot points above. For a word document version of much better presentation and formatting than what is shown here email me at angus@gbdeducation.com.au.

        Poetry analysis: Bookworm by Norman MacHaig

        Bookworm is a beautiful, if sad, poem that is full of imagery and despair. The supposed lyricist is presented as a literary man, who describes the world in the special way in which he sees it and does not manage to ever take his reading glasses off. His interest in print is obsessive, and through his eyes the world is made known to the reader of the poem in terms of the texts that he so clearly loves. However, the man has a new interest in his life, a woman of flesh and blood, and now he is in a state of frustration and confusion because she will not turn for him as easily as the pages of a new release. We are left to wonder if she will fall for his poetic advances, or if he will be left to become musty on the shelf.

        In Bookworm we are informed of the vocation/practice of the narrator through his familiar and idiomatic use of literary terms and references. The title of the poem is a metaphor to identify a man who spends his time buried in amongst books. This “bookworm” thus talks about his knowledges of things pertaining to “paragraphs”, “pages” and “print”. He even demonstrates a fine appreciation of “gothic script”, “fancy italics”, and “sweet lyric” in the non-print realm of living things around him. The writers choice of vocabulary is intended to convey to the reader the idea of an individual very used to dealing with words and letters as they are written on a page. Indeed, the obsession of this character with words in books is so strong that he can barely think of anything else.

        Thus, the literary man describes himself as having an interest in words in print that overrides his senses and reduces his appreciation of the objects of the world to the practice of reading. Norman MacHaig makes this apparent to us through a consistent use of metaphorical description. In playing “She loves me, she loves me not” the bookworm describes himself as picking through “the second volume of a rose”, and he has given up trying to probe the night’s mysterious and endless depths and thus refutes them as “black pages”. Ponds and pine-trees take on the aspect of letters in different fonts, and even emotions as extraordinary as love can be filed away neatly in a lexicon! This world is “the library of everything”. Through these metaphors, an understanding and appreciation of the world only as it can appear through reading is made clear, but such lateral literary thinking is bound to create social problems for the narrator.

        In the depicted act of writing the bookworm is admitting that there other interests in life that don’t involve reading at all, and the tone of this reader marks his puzzlement and frustration as he struggles hopelessly to listen the music of the world and dance. Throughout the poem, MacHaig has his character both posing questions, and pleading for help. Having unfortunately determined that “She loves me not, she loves me not” the bookworm’s thoughts turn dark. He is “annoyed” and cries out for Shakespeare’s famous waves to be returned to their divisions into paragraphs that he can manage the counting of. His confusion concerning love is total – he can “make nothing of it” – and the girl remains strange as a “closed book” to him. The poor bewildered guy! Of course he should bite the bullet and simply get out more, but his despair is overwhelming and he can only appeal to her “When will you… show me the meaning?” His attitude is not inspiring – he is a long way from a society that does not share his deftly composed lyrics – and we have little hope for the character in ever reading love in the real world of human contact.

        Some critics may consider that I have taken too literal (pardon the pun) an interpretation of the poem. It can be argued that there is no character of the “Bookworm” as I have described. The poem is instead an honest and humorous admission by the poet that his love interest (in this second interpretation: a woman, not a book) is not sharing with him her true feelings. As such, she is “the closed book” for whom such expressions are “hard words”, and the poem is an exercise in the expression of this idiomatic metaphor. Whilst MacHaig easily finds and shares romantic poetic references from “the library of everything”, his partner fails to do the same for him. Bookworm thus has the purpose of pointing out an existing irony in which the poet can appreciate and describe in several verses his love and romance, whilst his partner refuses to return his expressions and instead remains silent and uncommunicative.

        Nevertheless and conversely, I believe that I have instead successfully argued for an interpretation of Bookworm as the despair felt by a reclusive reader realising that he has spent too long in the library. The choice of terms used by the writer and voiced by the narrator convey a strong image of the bookworm’s practices; the bookworm’s character is realised through metaphors relating everything to reading; and his angst in discovering his inadequacies is marked by a tone that matches his feelings of despair. If Norman MacHaig were describing an honest concern of his own situation with his partner, I don’t think he could seriously bring himself to write of “the lexicon of love”: people are not books and emotions cannot be indexed, and this alliterative description is simply unbelievable to any but a true bookworm. Instead, we must treat Bookworm as the fictional narrative of a sorrowful word-smith who struggles miserably to learn non-literary love.

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