There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so

Charles 6 Comments

I don’t know where you stand on literary criticism. I’ve never been a fan, largely because I don’t understand it. Many years ago I taught for a while, and I was charged with showing fifteen year-olds how to back-seat drive Shakespeare and other quite good writers. Despairing of my teaching methods, my students would resort to buying exam cribs so that they could teach themselves. They would come to class wanting to test me about themes and symbolism and other stuff that left me standing with my mouth open. They all did pretty well in their exams, though. The best things we learn at school are the things we find out for ourselves. Very bad teachers are especially inspiring in this respect. I ought to say inspirational, but I won’t.

I was much keener on literary celebration. I encouraged my students to clap and whoop when they encountered something they really liked – a great idea, a well-turned phrase, some yummy assonance. I hope they retained something of this spirit.

The critical faculty can go both ways. Lit crit teaches us what’s good and why. It teaches us taste. It teaches us to be discriminating. And here comes the downside: it teaches us to discriminate against. One measure of cleverness is its ability to demonstrate that something lots of people think is really rather good is, in actual fact, complete crap. I’ve always preferred open-eyed wonderment to narrow-eyed appraisal. I’m not saying I’m right. But I do think that schools teach clever kids to sneer.

If you take a lit crit yardstick to most of the poetry declaimed at funerals you’ll agree that most of it falls short of the highest rank. Try as they may to interest their clients in summat a bit posh, celebrants find it all but impossible to stop them from going downmarket, pouncing on some Poundland stuff about stairways to heaven and how God only takes the best, then asking the celebrant to read it. As practical jokes go, this is a pretty good one to play on an educated person.

Does the literary quality of funerals matter? Of course not. The only thing that matters is the testimony of hurting hearts (Tony Piper’s phrase). Celebrants can attach far too much value to a well-wrought script.

The iniquity of literary snobbery is well exposed by the poem young Ryan Mayes wrote for his murdered girlfriend Nikitta Grender:

My love for you runs so deep, it is hard for me to sleep.

I miss you both so much and I know all our plans and hopes are now in my dreams.

I never thought the Lord would take you both away from me so soon.

Just a thought of you makes me cry, I never had a chance to say goodbye.

I always smell your scent, it makes me think of all the times we’ve spent.

So many things I never got to say Babe, the day God took you a part of me died too.

But now I have to let you rest although my world’s a mess.

I miss you both and will love you ‘til the day I die.

Your heartbroken boyfriend Ryan XXX.


Account of the funeral here. Don’t miss the family member with the pink hair.


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11 years ago

Some of the stuff we are asked to read is absolute rubbish. But if it’s touched a nerve with someone, and says what they can’t find the words to say, then fair enough.

Sometimes the snob in me repeats “this was chosen by Ethel”, but apart from that – good luck to ’em.

I can always recite something from that Bill Shakespeare fella to myself on the way home, if I’m feeling a bit unclean.

gloria mundi
11 years ago

My ideal lit crit would help people to explore and explain WHY they do or don’t like something, rather than telling them why they should prefer one thing to another. Such explorations might enable people to reveal to themselves and for themselves why Seamus Heaney is more highly regarded than Pam Ayres, by people who read a lot of poetry and think a lot about what they read.But if they preferred Ms Ayres, fine – they’d just have more valid and interesting things to say about why. And whatever they want at a funeral is an absolute. Because we may… Read more »

Charles Cowling
11 years ago

Brilliant, GM. Brilliant and thoughtful and humane. I think a lot of us are extremely grateful to you for this.

AS for “Categories of critical analysis wash away in the fierce emotional storm of grief and people hold on to whatever keeps them afloat.” — well, that enters the Pantheon of Great Thoughts suma cum laude!

gloria mundi
11 years ago

Thanks Charles,valued words indeed coming from the old GFG himself.I know literary snobbery – any kind of snobbery – dismays you, and we have somehow to think our way through these complexities if we are to do a good job.

And I guess when I wrote “people hold on to whatever keeps them afloat” I was, without realising it, still reeling from those utterly terrifying and unbearable images from Japan.

11 years ago

I write poetry (though rarely read it); but in practice I seldom use it at a funeral because actually most families don’t relate to it. If you’re not doing Religious because he wasn’t religious, why do Poetry if neither he nor his family were poetic?

You have to be careful how you enunciate ‘Lit-crit’. Which reminds me of the saying, clearly spoken by a straight man: “Poetry’s like penises – I prefer my own.”

gloria mundi
11 years ago

I don’t think people have to be “poetic” (I guess that means “familiar with poetry”?) in order to respond to poetry, any more than people have to know about music in order to respond to it. I still remember the impact made on all sorts of un-lit poeple by the moment in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” when a character read Auden’s “Funeral Blues.” Surely it all depends on the poem?
Let’s not polarise people according to a guess as to their sensibilities and what they do or don’t relate to. Let’s just ask them and see.