Alan Shapiro writes the following at the end of a book called In Praise of the Impure: Poetry and the Ethical Imagination in an essay called “The Dead Alive and Busy” :
“If all great art is symbolic of a kind of moral plenitude, of conflicting attitudes and impulses explored and worked through toward some ideal clarity, the act of reading is itself a model of ideal human relations, aspiring toward a perfect attentiveness in which emotional possession and intellectual comprehension–what experience conditions us to see and what the text insists we see–inform and alter one another. Reading well, in other words, is symbolic loving.”
In the book Shaprio describes a student who has had cancer which is in remission. Her knowledge of death informs her readings of the poems they study. She is reticent about the fact of her cancer but it informs the kind of urgent attention, questions and insight she has into the poems. Shapiro observes that teachers sometimes speak as if all poems were simply products of other poems operating at a great distance from the world, but encourages us to remember that art is meant to look “as deeply into the world as it looks back at its own literary past.”
Even to get as far as looking into the literary past seems a glaring accomlishment these days and, indeed, Shapiro speaks to an audience of his peers who are writers highly interested in craft and meaning. Francine Prose describes the state of things I encountered as a first year English major at a leading university when she describes (in her book Reading Like a Writer) her encounters with graduate and undergraduate students alike:
I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead they had been encouraged to form strong critical and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born. They had been instructed to prosecute or defend these authors, as if in a court of law on charges having to do with the writers’ origins, their racial, cultural, and class backgrounds.
There is apparently little attempt in the students or the methods of literary criticism that she describes to create a receptivity or silence within the reader-self. The analogy might be a person who wants to talk, but never listen, in the course of conversation day after day but, worse, her quick garrulousness is all judgment. Sven Birkerts speaks of the goal of listening this way (he is defining close reading) “to hear the language of the poem as intensely as the poet heard it in the process of composition and to feel its rhythms and hesitations and pauses, not just in the ear but in the whole body.” Like Shapiro, he brings it into the realm of our lived lives when he says “you must push your way through the shallow-field perceptual mode that modern life makes habitual.”
I like the language that Edward Hirsh and Hans George Gadamer use when they talk about the mutal encounter of a poem or story or other literary work. Gadamer asks whether we have a consciousness that allows itself to be addressed by what it reads.
This is what Shapiro describes beautifully in his quote and essay, bringing it into ethical realm of human relations. He argues that a story or poem (in particular, but certainly other forms of writing) are addressing us. One can’t help but think of Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo which ends with the viewer/speaker feeling that broken marble sculpture has addressed him saying “You must change your life.” Shapiro describes great art as full of a morality which is not reductionistic or simple, which has explored the conflicts and complexity of lived life and arrived somewhere deeply valuable—some point of ideal clarity. In order to read the work worthily we are bound to contend with what the text is insisting we see. Our own experience conditions what we are able to see. Shapiro’s student dying of cancer (she did die shortly after the class) was able to attend to the insistence of the text with the lucidity of someone who was tasting death. This informed what she could see and hear and yet she was not, as so many critical methods encourage, imposing a solipsistic reading that served only her particular situation.
The language he uses includes conflict, exploration, attentiveness, self-possession. This brings to mind a range of metaphors from Jacob wrestling with the angel insisting “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” But there is also the hollowing out of the ground before you put the seed in it, the quieting of the hiker to hear the wood sounds and the animals that surround the trail, the emptying of the rain barrel so it can be filled, the going silent in conversation so that your partner can speak. The process by which we come to understanding as readers must involve both—labor and contention as well as receptivity. We come with our loaves and the story or poem comes with its fishes of characters, plot, language, rhythm, theme and we make a feast that has the potential to feed many.
Shapiro uses the metaphor of loving, of a relationship—love, he argues, is taking the friend or neighbor’s (or text’s) version of reality and weighing and sifting it with ours, coming out on the other side after conflict, impulse, listening hard, composure, altered by the encounter, closer to clarity because we considered what they insisted upon and tested it against our own insistence.
At an educators retreat I attended this fall, we studied the book Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning. In one essay in particular (“Reading Practices and Christian Pedagogy: Enacting Charity with Texts”) David Smith argues that we must approach our reading with humility, with some degree of submission, of receptivity; he goes on to describe how he created the conditions under which this could happen. How lost this art is in our times in relationships as well as in reading. What would happen if we read and lived this way with each other. We would love each other well, argues Shapiro.
Practically speaking, this does not assume that there is one thing the author is saying which we must figure out. It also does not mean that we have to understand everything about the context of what we are reading in order to begin to contend with it. It’s easy to begin to see that all of the heresies of reading have involved absolutizing a single insight. Does the reader’s response figure into a close reading—of course, can it be everything—certainly not. Does a writer’s context and biography play a role in our interpretation and ability to situate her and understand the period she was a part of—naturally. Does a writer’s body of work help us to understand what he might suggest in a particular moment—by all means. Does a writer want us to go beyond what she was imagining at a particular moment in the creation process—without a doubt! Do we need education in the histories and methods of composition, of meter, rhyme, and other formal enticements—yes! There are many angles by which we approach this privilege, this gift wrapped on the mantlepiece. But we can start with the model of our lived lives—with one relationship in which we have learned to speak with and listen to the other. The literary prophet Allen Grossman says that reading keeps the image of the person precious in the world. Reading is a conversation, an encounter, just as thoroughly as a coffee date or dinner table. We can bolster our skills, confidence, and humility in each realm by taking Shapiro’s advice to love well.
The Relevance of the Beautiful by Hans-Georg Gadamer
How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
In Praise of the Impure: Poetry and the Ethical Imagination by Alan Shapiro
Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning by David Smith and James Smith