Literary Theory in the Classroom: Three Views of P.K. Page's "The Permanent Tourists"


by Laurie Ricou

Jonathan Culler summarizes intertextuality in this familiar definition:


literary works are to be considered not as autonomous entities, `organic wholes', but as intertextual constructs: sequences which have meaning in relation to other texts which they take up, cite, parody, refute, or generally transform. A text can be read only in relation to other texts .... The work is a product not of a biographically defined individual about whom information could be accumulated, but of writing itself.1



Culler's text should be read in relation to other texts which have become the motifs of contemporary literary theory: that the author is dead (Roland Barthes), that literature is the ruin of all reference (Terry Eagleton on the Yale School), and that perception does not exist (Jacques Derrida).2 In the face of such challenges to some cherished (non-existent?) critical perceptions, it seems necessary to ask, again, how our theoretical positions, as academic critics and writers, affect what we do in the classroom. The particular form of enquiry which follows was discovered in a session on "Influence and Intertextuality" at the annual conference of the Association of Canadian University Teachers of English (ACUTE), Guelph, 1984. Peter S. Rae and Thomas Cleary presented short papers, respectively, on Malcolm Lowry, and Robert Frost's "In a Silken Tent." (A third scheduled speaker, Dominic Manganiello, was, unfortunately, not able to participate.) Of the interesting discussion which followed, I remember especially comments by Norman Feltes and Pamela McCallum which urged that approaching a common text, such as Frost's poem, from differing theoretical perspectives, illuminated very different aspects of the text. When asked to organize a session for ACUTE's 1985 meetings, I decided to continue the discussion of how theory might shape our understanding —and especially teaching — of a single text, one short enough that the audience might all read it in the course of a seventy-five-minute session. I invited three critics whom I categorized — too simplistically and over their (mostly silent) protests — as Freudian (Kay Stockholder), post-structuralist/feminist (Shirley Neuman), and historical/practical (David Bentley), to agree on a single poem for discussion.


I asked them to share with us how they might present this poem to a first- or second-year undergraduate class involving students from various faculties and disciplines. I was interested, of course, in how different the three approaches might be. I was also interested in whether what we say, what we claim by the theories we adopt (or try to ignore) is what we do in the classroom. The selection of a single text (as in the definition of an entire syllabus) itself reveals a theoretical bias; each panelist might have been more comfortable with a different work, yet each agreed promptly to participate, and quite readily focussed on P.K. Page's "The Permanent Tourists" from among three or four poems I suggested. An academic forum, with its specialist audience and peculiar protocols, necessarily will not answer for the classroom itself (behind whose doors we are all transformed). So, rather than give my reactions to the session, I have limited my comments more or less to those I actually prepared before the event. With one exception, because I am tempted to let the poet have the last word, first. When I asked for permission to reproduce the poem for distribution at our session, P.K. Page replied with gracious consent and then commented in conclusion: "I find it all quite hilarious and hope you don't mind my mirth. It is hard to believe that one is taken seriously."



The Permanent Tourists1


Somnolent through landscapes and by trees
nondescript, almost anonymous,
they alter as they enter foreign cities—
the terrible tourists with their empty eyes
longing to be filled with monuments.

Verge upon statues in the public squares

remembering the promise of memorials
yet never enter the entire event
as dogs, abroad in any kind of weather,
move perfectly within their rainy climate.

Lock themselves into snapshots on the steps

of monolithic bronze as if suspecting
the subtle mourning of the photograph
 might later conjure in the memory
all they are now incapable of feeling.

And search all heroes out: the boy who gave

his life to save a town; the stolid queen;
forgotten politicians minus names
and the plunging war dead, permanently brave,
forever and ever going down to death.

Look, you can see them nude in any café

reading their histories from the bill of fare,
creating futures from a foreign teacup.
Philosophies like ferns bloom from the fable
that travel is broadening at the cafe table.

Yet somehow beautiful, they stamp the plaza.

Classic in their anxiety they call
all sculptured immemorial stone
into their passive eyes, as rivers
draw ruined columns to their placid glass.







Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca, New York: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981), p. 38.[back]



I am paraphrasing from Culler, Pursuit of Signs, p. 38, and from Robert Scholes, Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 79, 92. Scholes' book is a lucid and stimulating exploration of some of the central issues raised in the panel discussion I am describing.[back]


The Poem



The text of "The Permanent Tourists" is reprinted from Cry Ararat!: Poems New and Selected (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), p. 67 by kind permission of P.K. Page. All subsequent references to the poem are to this text.[back]