Sunday, October 19, 2008

Two scenarios of misreading

My students seem very concerned right now about two ways to misread that are intimately tied to value. I'm trying to puzzle out what's causing all this concern.

The first scenario is "not getting it"; the work is "deep" but the student cannot master it. I think the sense of mastery is key here; I think my students are uncomfortable with the idea of understanding partially. They are particularly uncomfortable with the idea that they can be responsible for material (say, a poem) that by its very nature cannot be "mastered" entirely. This is why many of them want to be given answers; they can master a reading of a poem quite easily. (This of course requires conflating the poem with the reading of the poem -- a problem.)

The second scenario is the "emperor has no clothes" scenario; they are wary of investing mental energy in something that might in fact be crap. If something at first seems not to make sense, cannot one simply dismiss it as so much garbage?

I did open this Pandora's box myself, since I've been encouraging them to examine their real opinions about poems. I've authorized them to feel that not every poem is a good poem, and to question how you know whether a poem is good. But, ever time-oriented, they raise a good question: is it ever worth reading bad poetry?

Either of these scenarios, the class seems to feel, would be terrible. Both involve the specter of investing time and not being rewarded. Of course, there is the extrinsic reward of knowing enough to pass the class, but this, I am happy to say, is not the issue.

Both of these scenarios involve a tension between, on one hand, the reader asserting her or his authority as a reader, which is in part the authority of judgment, and on the other hand, the reader giving the author due credit and suspending judgment until the author has been given a fair shot. The central question might be rephrased: how much of a shot is a fair shot? How much time do you have to invest in a poem before you can authoritatively deem it crap?

Both of these scenarios also envision a little nugget of truth that may lie in any given poem. The nugget, in these scenarios, is the important thing, rather than the searching. That is why it is so terrible to search in vain.

Bad poetry in these models is poetry that "has no point," or that "fails to get its point across." It's an information theory of poetry; the "point" is the information; everything else is noise.

This is a theory of poetry that is so foreign to me that I have a hard time not dismissing it outright, and yet since so many of my students hold it, I feel that I should examine it, at the very least in order to figure out how to offer alternatives.

Most poetry does fail under the information model, and perhaps this is why so few students seem to genuinely like poetry (I speak, of course, of non-majors). In fact, the poetry valued by academics almost by definition fails.

Whose problem is this?

Right now, I think it's my problem.


Will Fitzgerald said...

This reminds me of an CS Lewis's Introduction to Paradise Lost in which he treats misreading narrative poetry as lyric poetry: "The unfortunately reader has set out expecting 'good lines'--little ebullient patches of delight--such as he is accustomed to find in lyrics, and has thought he was finding them in things that took his fancy for accidental reasons during the first five minutes; after that, finding that the poem cannot really be read in this way, he has given it up."

Interesting contrast with the information theoretic misreading by your students. Or is it the same kind of misreading?

Natalia said...

That's an interesting quotation, Will.

Just to clarify, I wasn't identifying the information model of poetry as a misreading. It's not a reading at all, but an a priori assumption about the nature of reading.

The misreadings were the two scenarios feared by my students -- digging and missing the nugget of truth, or digging for a nugget of truth that was never there. My students don't want to misread.

You and I are both observing that certain kinds of misreading are only made possible by the a priori assumptions we make about genre.

I take Lewis's point is more about sustained attention, but I can't agree with his theory of poetry either. The idea that one reads lyric poetry for little patches of delight seems to me as bogus as the idea that one reads it for the "deep" nugget of truth. Dylan Thomas opined that all poetry is at some level narrative, and I more or less agree.

But perhaps that difference doesn't matter, because I think the idea of sustained attention is more crucial to Lewis than is the theory of lyric poetry that he offhandedly floats. The little patches are symptoms of an unwillingness to keep the mind trained on the poem. Lewis doesn't really care whether you're finding "good lines" in Paradise Lost (which of course you can); he cares that you not "[give] it up."

It seems to me that that's a separate, though equally important, issue.

Beni said...

My own theory of reading perserverence is that I have to be piqued, charmed, enraged, 'brought a truth,' or in some way engaged on a first round skim before I will really take the time to sit down with a whole poem.

I am not above being delighted. Nor am I above love scenes, car chases, or anthropomorphic animals. But primarily what I find value in now is smaller things, on small, curious, delightful turns in the writing. This anyway, is the beginning for me, the first baby step towards reading the poem. If I can find that, I'll keep going. But otherwise, I don't care how famous it is, I'll let it go. Sorry, Ezra Pound.

I consider myself a curious and open minded reader. Also, lazy. Middling level of sensitivity, depending on mood.

I feel that one thing great English teachers do is to train their students to be more sensitive to the nuances of language, so that they will be piqued when the time comes. And the other thing that my best English teachers (in high school, some in college) did was also to inspire me to want to be more sensitive to these things. They convinced me that it mattered and was worth the effort. And it's a hard thing to do!

In college, I used to be a 'nugget of truth' seeker. I was always searching for that one phrase, that one word, that one something I could latch onto that would deliver to me a decent thesis sentence. (That may have been my own neurosis.) It really destroyed my enjoyment of reading.

And, as someone who, despite being an English major, now rarely reads 'literature' -- although I read plenty of newspapers, magazines, blogs, and other things -- I definitely read for the information. It does become a habit. It takes a lot of work to break that habit. I, personally, think it's worth the work.

For me, it's helpful when approaching a poem to think that poetry is an art form and a practice, like dance, or music, or yoga. The 'point' of yoga is not to stand on your head. It's all these things, little and big, physical and mental and philosophical and intellectual, that you do and meditate as you move into a handstand. And knowing what these things are and how they work and affect your handstand and your body, these things are delightful. In contrast, if you do a handstand, but none of these little things are attended to, if you step right up and just stand in a handstand without any intention, or with a proud or malicious intention, you might have gotten the pose, but are you doing yoga? What makes it yoga and not, say, gymnastics? And is it delightful in the same way?

Similarly, if you look at a poem but all you see is the handstand, then are you really reading the poem as its meant to be read? Are you reading? Or are you skimming?

In college, I felt that so long as the class is 'work,' and one is under a tight deadline, and one is under pressure to make a cogent, coherent, interesting and original argument while one can hardly touch one's toes let alone stand on one's head, it's easy to just aim for the big move that you can do, to skip all those little things that are really the foundation of the grander gestures, so to speak, and try to find the 'nugget of truth.'

Here's another question: do you have any techniques or suggestions to make one comfortable being responsible for writing a paper, making claims and arguments that somehow are novel and interesting and pass the 'so what'? thesis test, based on material--let alone critical approaches--that you haven't mastered? This always bugged me as an undergraduate!! I always felt very uneasy, like I was under all this pressure to make a grand claim. And reading essays by super accomplished people didn't help, because I never felt smart enough or knowledgeable enough about other material to make those grand claims. So I made them anyway, guiltily. Badly. But 'in conversation' with them. Ugh.

That having been said, I found it a relief to have a clear audience given for papers (ideally, the class, with the paper an extension of what had hopefully been a lively class discussion), or in other cases, and better yet--no papers at all! Essay exams. I loved essay exams.

I found that part of what makes mastering a reading of a poem less anxiety inducing is that the values and biases of the critical approach presented are often clear, and so one is given more of a framework for this 'so what?' test when thinking about a possible point to make.

Natalia said...

Beni, I'm fascinated by your college reminiscences. I don't think we actually took many classes together, did we? I can't think of a single one, offhand. I like the idea of priming students to get intrigued. I hope that's what I'm doing.