Intertextuality in “Zulus”

In English 203, we’ve discussed several ways to analyze literature. Two methods we explored thoroughly are intertextuality and New Criticism. Both methods have positive and negative elements, but I have found intertextuality to be particularly helpful when examining Percival Everett’s collection of poems entitled “Zulus”. I would like to delve into New Criticism and intertextuality to see why I find intertextuality more applicable for these poems.

New Criticism, according to the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms and the handout from Dr. McCoy, is derived from a group of Southern intellectuals called the Fugitives who began meeting around 1920 as a poetry workshop. As a response to the political and social climate around them, the Fugitives developed the New Criticism technique for analyzing literature, especially poetry. New Criticism operates under the idea that literature is self-contained and therefore should be studied “within the text rather than on external factors.” These external factors that New Criticism avoids include the author’s perspective, historical context, and the reader’s feelings/own interpretations while reading. Although it may seem unlikely that any piece of text is not influenced by at least one of these factors, the New Criticism method advocates that the text at hand should be observed on its own, aesthetically and structurally.

Despite New Criticism losing some of its influence since the early twentieth century, the practice of close-reading is still a helpful tool for literary analysis today. To perform a close-reading of a text, one must center the analysis on observable patterns within the text’s language and structure. This means the reader should look for literary devices like rhythm, repetition, and the format of the piece.

Using close-reading as a tool, I can evaluate “Zulus”. At first glance, I notice that the poems are structured in alphabetical order with each poem beginning with a letter and the word it stands for in the poem, “A is for Achtiophel.” Because New Criticism preaches that a work of literature’s meaning cannot be divorced from its structure, noting the poems’ organization is crucial in understanding the poems’ meaning. However, it is difficult to produce a developed theory about the poems’ significance without any other context outside of the poem itself. Hence, this is the predicament with New Criticism. In my opinion, this aspect of New Criticism can be constricting in the study of literature. While I believe it is vital to assess structure and format when reading a work of literature, I think that the reader should take all aspects of the piece into account in order to achieve the best possible analysis.

Intertextuality is a tool I can use with this kind of detailed investigation. Intertextuality explained in the Bedford is “interconnectedness among texts.” In this way, intertextuality is the idea that all texts can be connected through “allusion, quotation, genre, style…” and that no text is completely without the influence of another. This method is vastly different from New Criticism as it encourages looking outside of a text at other texts and information to fully understand the text in examination.

Returning to my earlier analysis of “Zulus”, I can use intertextuality to build a more in-depth analysis. In terms of structure, I can use previous knowledge on author, Percival Everett to possibly deduce why he may have formatted the poems this way. My experiences with reading Everett’s other works have led me to believe he writes to get his readers to think. Most of what he writes consists of more meaning than what can be seen at surface value. With this in mind, I can infer that he positioned the poems this way to make a statement about human organization. Perhaps he wanted to draw attention to the arbitrary nature of the alphabet’s order. He may have intended to show that the alphabet’s order is necessary for humans to be able to communicate, even though the order itself is meaningless. While I can never know Everett’s intentions by just reading his poems, I can make a confident inference about his ideas behind the structure with intertextuality.

Intertextuality is helpful to uncover other potential ideas in “Zulus” besides structure. Each poem in “Zulus” is brimming with references to other texts. For instance, in the poem centering around the letter I, the words ichor, Indian Reorganization Act, and Isaiah are included. Not knowing these terms off-hand, I researched each word. Ichor is from Greek mythology and it refers to the fluid that flows like blood in the vies of the gods. Isaiah is the name of the Hebrew prophet who the Book of Isaiah is named after in the Bible. Finally, the Indian Reorganization Act is an important historical event that promised the return of some land lost to Native Americans. My understanding of the poem increased through the process of intertextuality.

With more intertextual research as demonstrated above with poem “I”, I have been able to generate even more ideas behind Everett’s intended meaning for the collection of poems in “Zulus”. I have found strong evidence behind the idea that Everett wrote “Zulus” to create a commentary about genocide. Beginning with the title, “Zulus”, I’ve discovered that the Zulus are a South African tribe especially known for their brutal war tactics. This is notably evident under the rule of Shaka Zulu, who expanded the rule of the Zulu tribe over large parts of South Africa and Zimbabwe. Shaka is actually mentioned in poem “S”. Shaka Zulu’s armies aimed for their enemy’s complete destruction in war, so much so that they are responsible for 1-2 million deaths during that time. This period of expansion is of many African peoples from the Zulu tribe. If Everett named his poems after this tribe, perhaps he is insinuating themes of genocide. There are other poems that exhibit a similar theme. One example is with the poem “P”. “P” begins with the word peace, suggesting Everett is against killing and genocide. “P” continues with “P is for population and the density therein affected.” Here, Everett could be talking about population losses due to genocidal acts. Other poems have words that imply a similar meaning as in poem “P” such as “orphans”, “killing”, and “slaves”. I can also find more evidence pointing to genocide in poem “R”, where Maximilien Robespierre is discussed. Robespierre is a prominent figure of the French Revolution who was known for his role as execution during the Reign of Terror. Being responsible for numerous executions, Robespierre contributed to a national genocide. Finally, I return to poem “I” to see another reference to genocide. As I mentioned earlier, “I” includes the Indian Reorganization Act. While this act itself is not considered a genocide, many believe that the colonization of early America by white settlers lead to a genocide of the Native American people. When settlers came from Europe to the Americas, they killed the Native Americans in battle and gave them diseases that decimated large numbers of their population. With this textual evidence, I interpret “Zulus” to be a message about the harsh effects of genocide, a warning against it.

While New Criticism can give the reader a way to analyze a text closely and attentively, intertextuality allows for a deeper analysis of the themes and references covered in the poems. I used intertextuality to uncover a potential theme about the horrors of genocide. Intertextuality proves to be a more rewarding method for me as I explore the content in “Zulus”.

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