Intertextuality: 'It is Dangerous...'

Area of Exploration 3: Intertextuality

The title of this poem, It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers, suggests the power and influence of texts in our lives, and on one level the poem is about how no one, perhaps least of all writers, can live and act in isolation, free of connections to others in the world, no matter how far away they may seem.  This interconnectedness is a concern we see elsewhere in Atwood's poetry: in her poem, Three Desk Objects, for example, the writer-speaker speculates about the "histories of slaughter" that have led to the letters and language ("scars") that she how creates work with on her typewriter.  

This heightened awareness of interconnectedness is what this area of exploration seeks to develop in students, encouraging them to see  "connections between and among diverse literary texts, traditions, creators and ideas." A term first used by Julia Kristeva in the 1960s, intertextuality is a potentially complex concept that raises challenging questions about authorship, creativity, originality and the construction of meaning for writers and readers.  While it may be useful for students to have some awareness of the term's origins and the theory that lies behind it, the IB guide's overview makes it clear that this should not be a primary focus for study.  Instead, study for this area of exploration "focuses on the comparative study of literary texts so that students may gain deeper appreciation of both unique characteristics of individual literary texts and complex systems of connection," as well as "gain an awareness of how texts can provide critical lenses to reading other texts."

There are many different approaches we can take within this area of exploration and the following suggestions use It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers as an example of a text that could be included alongside others for intertextual study.  These three approaches and questions are specific to this poem but are all adapted from the Subject Guide's broader suggestions and questions for Intertextuality.

Approach 1: the study of a literary form - Poetry

In broad terms, this poem can be explored in the context of studying poetry as a literary form, and its development over time, which could include consideration of Atwood's modern, free-verse approach in comparison to older, more traditional forms and/or other, similar contemporary writers.  Certainly this could include consideration of Atwood's influences although we should bear in mind the following statement from Roland Barthes:

"Intertextuality, the condition of any text whatsoever, cannot, of course, be reduced to a problem of sources or influences; the intertext is a general field of anonymous formulae whose origin can scarcely ever be located; of unconscious or automatic quotations, given without quotation marks."

While this quotation serves as a fair warning that we do not need to go looking for direct or obvious connections or that, if we find these, they will somehow "unlock" texts for us, we also may not get very far with Barthes' "general field of anonymous formulae whose origin can scarcely ever be located"!  So, just as we might caution students about making biographical fallacies if researching the author's life as part of Time and Space, so we need to make them aware that simplistic statements based on direct references or influences should also be avoided. 

This 1978 New York Times interview with Margaret Atwood by Joyce Carol Oates, includes some interesting material that could be used as part of a broader study of poetry as a literary form.  While her reference to Poe as an influence might be something worth exploring, it is her broader statements about poetry and the act of writing poetry that might provide richer material for the study of similarities and differences between disparate poets.  The following, all taken from this interview, could be used with the accompanying questions as the basis for an intertextual study of poetry:

'I don't think of poetry as a "rational" activity but as an aural one. My poems usually begin with words or phrases which appeal more because of their sound than their meaning, and the movement and phrasing of a poem are very important to me.'

  • How important is sound in poetry, and how does sound relate to meaning in poetry you have studied? 

'But like many modern poets I tend to conceal rhymes by placing them in the middle of lines, and to avoid immediate alliteration and assonance in favor of echoes placed later in the poems.'

  • How do modern poets use sound effects differently to older, more traditional poets, and what effects are created by these differences? 

'For me, every poem has a texture of sound which is at least as important to me as the "argument." This is not to minimize "statement." But it does annoy me when students, prompted by the approach of their teacher, ask, "What is the poet trying to say?"'

  • What issues and potential problems do we need to be aware of when we attempt to analyse and interpret a poem?  
  • Do all poems have an argument or make a statement of some kind?  
  • Should poetry be formally studied at school?  

'I'm not sure what the function of poetry is. That is, I know what it does for me, but I don't know what it does for other people. Probably many things, since each reader is different; we talk a great deal about the subjectivity of the reader.'

  • What is the function of poetry?   Based on your study of poetry are there some universal and timeless truths in terms of what poetry does, even while it may also be doing "many things" for different people? 

'I sometimes say that poetry acts like a lens, or like a thread dipped in a supersaturated solution, causing a crystallization, but I'm not sure that's it either. Perhaps because of my earlier scientific background, I like things that can't ever be quite pinned down. But I know we're in trouble when we start talking about what poetry "ought" to do, about the supposedly good social effects of it.'

  • Which poems from your study can you relate to these images?  Which poems have acted "like a lens" or caused "a crystallization"?  
  • In your experience, is a successful or effective poem one "that can't ever be quite pinned down"?  
  • Can/should poetry seek to have a positive social impact?
Approach 2: the study of a sub-category within a literary form - War Poetry

When we think of war poetry, most people think of the famous poets from the first world war and studying It is Dangerous to read Newspapers alongside some of these poems could certainly lead to some potentially interesting explorations, with possible areas including differences in terms of experience and reportage, proximity and distance, causes and effects, as well as traditional and free verse poetry.  

However, this article by Andrew Motion  - There is more to War Poetry than mud, wire and slaughter - calls for the study of war poetry beyond that written in the first world war, to allow for a "wider view of conflicts" in the scope with which we students approach this sub-category of poetry.  This article could be used as the starting point for an intertextual inquiry into war poetry, using the following questions: 

  • In what ways do different poems about war share points of similarity?
  • How valid is the notion of a "classic" literary text? Why are the First World War poets taught so often and classified as part of a "canon", whereas other poetry about other wars is often overlooked? 
  • How many different perspectives on war are there in the poetry you have studied? 
  • Which perspectives are the most voiced? Which are the most powerful?  
  • In what ways has comparing different war poems transformed the way you have seen one or more of the poems you have studied?  
Approach 3: the study of a topic across literary texts  - the Vietnam War

Another approach is to find connections within a more specific topic, in this case texts about the Vietnam War.  A good starting point might be to look at non-literary works, such as news reports from the time and some of the most famous photographs such as those featured in this article here.  While poetry from the era is less well known, it was a conflict that gave rise to many memorable protest songs such as Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Fortunate Son by Creedance Clearwater Revival, What's Goin' on by Marvin Gaye, Masters of War by Bob Dylan and Saigon Bride by Joan Baez. 

In addition, find below a few suggested literary works where worthwhile connections could be made to Atwood's poem:

  • Referenced in the Andrew Motion article from Approach 2 is Yusef Komunyakaa, who experienced the war as a correspondent and whose poem Facing It has been called “the most poignant elegy that has been written about the Vietnam War.”
  • Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese-American poet who has written several poems about the war, including Kissing in Vietnamese.
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015) is a highly recommended novel told from the point of view of a Vietnamese army captain who has fled to America after the fall of Saigon.  An extract and some questions from this novel can be found here:  Satire: The Sympathizer 
  • The Things they Carried by Tim O'Brien (1990) is an incredibly powerful, beautifully written collection of stories based on O'Brien's experiences as a soldier in the war. 
  • The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (1990) is told from the point of view of a Vietnamese soldier as he collects bodies of his comrades after a battle. 

 The following questions can be used to guide the comparison of different texts within this topic:

  • In what ways do different texts about the Vietnam war share points of similarity?
  • What are the most striking differences in the ways these texts explore experiences of the war? 
  • How do these texts offer different perspectives on the war?  
  • Which perspectives are the most voiced? Which are the most powerful? 
  • In what ways has comparing different literary texts from the war transformed the way you have seen one or more of them? 
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