|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:
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."