‘A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written. We read A the better to read B (we have to start somewhere; we may get very little out of A). We read B the better to read C, C the better to read D, D the better to go back and get something more out of A. Progress is not the aim, but circulation. The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do’ - Robert Frost
If you have read several works by an author, whether tragedies by Shakespeare or detective stories about Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you know that authors return again and again to certain genres and themes (tragedy for Shakespeare, crime for Conan Doyle), yet each treatment is different. Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet are all tragedies and share certain qualities that we think of as Shakespearean, yet each is highly distinctive.
When we read several works by an author, we find ourselves thinking about resemblances and differences. We enjoy seeing the author take up again a theme (nature, or love, or immortality, for example), or explore once more the possibilities of a literary form (the sonnet, blank verse, the short story). We may find that the author has handled things differently and that we are getting a sense of the writer’s variety and development.
Sometimes we speak of the shape or the design of the author’s career, meaning that the careful study of the writings has led us to an understanding of the narrative – with its beginning, middle and end – that the writings tell across a period of time. Often, once we read one poem by an author and find it intriguing or compelling, we are enthusiastic about reading more: Are there other poems like this one? What kinds of poems were written before or after this one? Our enjoyment and understanding of one poem impel us to enjoy and understand other poems and make us curious about the place that each one occupies in a larger structure, the shape or design of the author’s career.
Frost’s words, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, imply a good strategy to follow when you are assigned to write about an author in depth. Begin with a single work and then move outward from it, making connections to works that show interesting similarities to or differences from it. With Frost, for example, you might begin with “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and explore his use of woods in other poems. You will find that he sometimes sets them (as in his poem) against the village or city, and that he sometimes sets their darkness against the light of the stars. Each poem is a work in itself, but it is also part of a larger whole.
These are just excerpts for you. For more, please get yourself a copy of Sylvan Barnet and William Cain’s A Short Guide to Writing About Literature.