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I am a Little World Made Cunningly: The World of the Text

Recently, I have been reading a lot about Text World Theory (and specifically the work of Ian Cushing and Marcello Giovanelli) as I think this has massive potential for how we frame a lot of English teaching and literary pedagogy. However, I’m still working my way through its implications and experimenting with how to use its ideas in the classroom. One such strategy I’ve adopted recently, which I’ve had a lot of success with, is using Text World Theory to rethink how students might imagine and encounter the plot or story of a poem.

Whilst I don’t always do this, and I’ve posted before HERE and HERE regarding how I might frame a first encounter with a poem, I do quite like to establish the plot of the poem before moving onto more detailed analysis. Why? I’ve found, purely through my own experience, that when students pursue an interpretative path that isn’t persuasive or even verging on wrong, it is because of some misapprehension about the basic details of poem’s plot. For instance, they misread the poem as being written to address the speaker’s son when really it is factually established the speaker is addressing their father. This then of course has significant implication for the way in which students think about and understand the poem more holistically. In the past, then, when I’ve wanted to establish the plot as a way into the poem (which again I don’t always do, anyway) I’ve simply asked students: ‘What’s the plot? What’s happening?’

Now this doesn’t often generate the kind of response I was hoping for. For a novel or play, thinking about plot seems an easier question to answer, but for a poem students are often stumped. And for good reason: unless it is a narrative poem, the concept of plot doesn’t really map very well onto poems. Does a speaker talking about some daffodils really encapsulate a ‘plot’?

So, realizing this, I started to prompt students to think about the story of the poem instead. This seemed to capture a little more of what I wanted students to consider: who is in this poem, what are they doing, and where are they doing it? But even here how do we reconcile this set of questions with a typically lyrical poem of introspection? There isn’t really a story, students might reasonably assert. My instinct is to prompt and cue students to think about this, but then I become a little unstuck: what exactly do I want students to consider and does the narratological concept of a story (or plot) really conceptualize the kind of thinking I want students to be doing at this point? No, not really.

And this is where Text World Theory enters the picture because this does offer a set of prompts and tools that far more generatively and accurately frames the kind of initial thinking that I’d like students to be doing when I am asking them to think about the plot or story of the poem.

So, now, rather than asking students what the story of the poem is I instead ask them to consider the world of the text. What do we know about the world of the text? What world is the poet creating? What world does the speaker inhabit? What are we finding out about the world of the poem? These are all far better questions to be asking.

By asking these questions, I’m able to prompt and facilitate an encounter with a poem where students are considering:

1. What we know about the speaker? Who are they? What do they look like?

2. Is the speaker talking to someone or something? If so, about what?

3. Where is the speaker? What do we know directly from the poem? What might we infer about the world beyond the parameters of the text?

4. What kind of attitude or relationship does the speaker have to the world of the poem?

5. What do we, as a reader, think about this world? What kind of relationship do we have to it? Why?

These questions still allow us to discuss the kinds of things I probably had in mind when I asked students about the plot of the poem (who is speaking, what about, to whom, and where?) but in a far more authentic manner that is actually germane to the process of meaning-making within the context of poetry.

I also very much like that, unlike asking about plot or story, it puts the reader into the world of the text: what do they bring to the poem that influences how it appears to them? What gaps are they filling and why? When they imagine the world of the text, why do they imagine it in that manner and how is this the product of the intersection between their world and the world of the text? And that this is itself something to talk about and explore.

And, all of this helps to direct our collective attention to how the writer is able to create this world. What are the images or words that make us imagine this world as do? And how is it that such language creates slightly different variationsof thisworld? This strikes me as a far more generative way to move towards a discussion of language and imagery, one in which the language exists not in isolation but rather as part of our thinking about the world of the text.


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