Thursday, August 04, 2005

Guide to American Poetry Explication
James Ruppert, G.K. Hall & Co., 1989

Thanks to Steven Harris, head of collection development at Utah State and erstwhile supporter of the LES New Members Discussion Group, for this one. At ALA Annual in Chicago, Steven gave us a brief talk about explication guides. They are now my new favorite toy.

Basically, explication guides are books that painstakingly index all of the explication-type criticism on short stories or poems or drama, listing all the unlikely, hidden locations to find out what Emily Dickinson meant by, "It's Easy to Invent a Life," for instance. How is this different from MLA? Well, most of what's in MLA isn't explication--it's criticism. It's more fine-tuned, it's often theoretical, it's usually highly specific, and it may not so much explain the "meaning" of the poem as apply a theory to it, or use it for cultural analysis, or... In short, it's not usually the kind of stuff that undergraduates want to find when they're looking for something to help them read and analyze a poem. (Or a short story, or a play.)

Also, MLA indexes chapters in books, but it doesn't index two-page discussions of a poem within a chapter. Explication guides will literally tell you that you can find a run-down of "It's Easy to Invent a Life" on pages 103-105 of Heaven Beguiles the Tired, by Thomas W. Ford. (And you can.) This is what I mean by "unlikely, hidden locations." Explication guides offer access to the nitty-gritty discussions tucked inside larger works--the things you otherwise have to tell a student to just browse through, or check the index for, or read entirely. They help you not crush a student's spirit, in other words.

The guides I've seen are better at covering major authors than obscure ones. But they're still amazing resources, and thank you, Steven, for telling me about them. It's a lot better than having to rely on Gale's Literary Index for references to excerpted gobbets reproduced in the various Gale series. God help us if we ever have to rely solely on those.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

more posts, please

2:04 PM  

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