Prepared for the unseen

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
CAMBRIDGE CRITICAL WORKSHOP. By Jeffrey and Lynn Wood Cambridge University Press #163;5.95 O 521 44879 4 Age range 16 - 18

This is an extremely useful book, but it addresses only indirectly its objective to prepare students of A-level English for examinations which require them to practise unseen literary criticism. Thankfully, Cambridge Critical Workshop does not bother itself with handy hints for artificial tests. Instead it does something far more helpful, providing a structured and progressive experience of what can still be fairly called "practical criticism", and trusting the developing skills of open critical enquiry to deal when necessary with the enclosed emergency of "unseen" passages.

Many of the poems, extracts and critical exercises suggested in the units of work will be familiar to teachers, and are good of their kind rather than novel or innovative. Indeed, the repeated emphasis on tone, rhythm, diction and imagery runs some risk of training students in the mechanistic technical responses which have tended in the past to replace the living body of a poem or prose extract by a corpse on the critical dissection slab. The difference in this book is that formal analytical procedures are systematically accompanied by more creative undertakings. Sometimes students are invited to try a particular kind of writing for themselves before attempting to analyse someone else's, and often they are asked to continue a piece, or to imitate it, going on to compare their own efforts with the original. Creativity works in tandem with formal criticism, enabling students to take confident possession of a text.

Performance too has its place. Invitations to read passages aloud as if for radio are frequent, and a unit on Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye asks students to prepare a performance of the opening: "Experiment until you find what seems to you an effective way of presenting it. For example, you might wish to use acting, miming, dancing, singing, choral reading, audio or video recording. " Such stimulus is miles away from decontextualised "unseen" analysis, but an excellent way of training students to take unseens in their stride.

A key feature of the book is its inclusion of student writing, exemplifying answers to some of the set tasks. Sometimes several responses to a question are offered for comparison. The standard of the answers is quite high, but the effect is to encourage, not deter. For example, a year 13 student delivers a mature and astute dismissal of Professor John Carey's exceptionally silly reading of Donne's Elegy xix. It proves beyond dispute that, given intelligence and genuine pleasure in writing, the sixth-form critic can take on all comers.

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