THESE days, media-hyped potboilers, paranormal anthologies, and international tear-jerkers crowd many shelves. But every now and then, there is that cranial knock that yearns for reading of another kind: reading that engages the brain cells, and at the same time tugs at the heartstrings.

Now, how can one make the right choice? When most readers are not adept at literature, or blessed with a worthy literary pedagogue, to judge by the cover is not an option.

Spanning three literary genres, namely the poem, the novel, and the short story; poet and literary critic Ophelia Dimalanta, director of the Center for Creative Writing and Studies, and Literature professor Ferdinand Lopez from the Faculty of Arts and Letters, take the time to cast off the chains that hold back a reader from turning the page.

Verse case scenario

These days, commonly short and cheap or even free, poetry is considered an easy way to taste literature. But with today’s poetry being the complex mix of words that it is, how can beauty be found?

Referring to the poet, Dimalanta said, “In poetry, you either have the poetic sensibility or you don’t,” arguing that poetry is “a natural virtue.” Poetic sensibility points to a writer’s awareness to the essence of things around him and how much of what he perceives is realized into writing.

According to Lopez, to detect this sensibility in a work, a good poem should “get the point across.” He explains that literary criticism largely depends on a reader’s sensitivity as an individual, and going beyond the accepted views about literary elements.

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Since many works today are in free verse, an unrestricted poet on print further complicates the reader’s job. For this, Lopez reminds readers that, “Free verse is more difficult because it demands musicality,” and that the beauty of free verse lies in its ability to achieve musicality through an internal rhyme, something that occurs not necessarily at the end of each line.

But how about reading poetry from the past? Most readers would testify to the seeming resistance of certain pieces of poetry to understanding’s grasp. Often frowned upon are old works such as Shakespeare’s. Here, Lopez persuades readers to explore older works saying, “There is a need to demystify poetry—to make poetry more accessible.”

In the same track, Lopez said that today, classics can be read from more than one perspective.

“Imperialist literature,” Lopez said of the past, “dictated that a good writer should be white and male. These days, you can read those works from a feminist perspective, or from other points of view.”

A bedtime novel

Regarding the novelist, Dimalanta describes him as someone who has vision coupled with experience and age. Furthermore, like any writer, he must be able to seduce with his language.

“I always think that the secret lies in the language. The language should be pleasurable,” Dimalanta said. “There are a lot of people who know their grammar and yet their language is simply cold, unattractive, and unreadable.”

Dimalanta further helps the reader, saying, “After going on for a few pages, you try to look for characters that will appeal to you, characters that you can identify with in real life.”

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She explains that a character in a novel changes after so many situations, meaning, “The change does not come overnight.”

Lopez characterizes the well-spun yarn as having a carefully knit plot “such that if a part was taken away, the story would fall apart.”

And if a reader finds himself standing before a shelf wondering whether or not to buy the book in his hand, Dimalanta’s words could offer comfort: “There are times after reading a novel that you still cannot tell what the writer is trying to say. It doesn’t matter, as long as you had been engaged or attracted to the characters and you are having a peek into your own life—into your own condition as a human being.”

For short

Dimalanta and Lopez agree that unity is a staple in a good story.

“A short story must be a unity; all the elements conspire toward a particular direction.”

Lopez describes fine characters as those who are “realistic,” unconventional, and well grounded.

“Sometimes, characters can attain symbolic value in a story,” Lopez said.

For Dimalanta, “Each character must have a function; the writer does not put him there then make him disappear in a few minutes.” She also stressed the need for a writer to intensely involve a reader in the setting of a story.

“A writer must know how to appeal to the senses. In other words, when you read a good story, you can smell the setting and hear the characters talk,” Dimalanta said.

Both disciples of literature agree on the need for forward movement or progress in plot. For Lopez, “Forward movement is a change in the character.”

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Dimalanta further notes the importance of such a movement, saying, “If there is no change in the character, the plot does not move. It is a bad story, a ‘tragic’ one.”

In general, according to both Lopez and Dimalanta, the attention we give to literary works should depend on our interests, and to the extent that we can relate with the ideas encapsulated in them. Lopez believes that within good literature is a “gem of truth he (the reader) can bring home.”

As if in reply to Lopez’s statement, Dimalanta said of the truths within literature: “These are truths that you know, but truths that you are reminded of, and you believe (in them) more strongly.”

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