I once had this problem with my daughter Eva. She was almost eleven years old and loved to read. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that for homework her teacher wanted Eva to write in a journal about what she read. Getting her to do this was like pulling teeth. It's not that the teacher wanted Eva to write anything sophisticated, just to talk about what she loved in this or that passage of a book of her choosing. She didn't have to write a lot, a page or two a week would do. Fifteen minutes a day. But each day when I reminded her, she made this face, scrunched up her eyes and nose, and says,
"I'm busy. I'll do it later." And then the night before it would be due, simply: "I'm not doing it." Now Eva goes to a so-called "open school" where one of the central beliefs is that a child ought to participate actively in her learning, select "home" activities that are fun and engaging. I reminded her of this:
"But Eva you picked this assignment together with your teacher. I mean, you chose this. And besides, you love to read."
"Yeah," her voice rose, "I love to READ, Dad, READ, not write about it."
"But maybe it would be good to discover what you love about it, no?"
"That's not how I read," she countered, "I just read it, finish it and I'm done."
"But," I offered, "don't you want to be able to talk with others about what you've read, to tell your friends about books you've liked, just to share the good feeling, and maybe even to get them interested enough to want to read it too?"
"I just wanna say that 'this book is great, you should read it." Her mother said, "You know, her homework could be eating an ice-cream cone and she'd resist just because it's called 'homework.'" I think her mom's onto something here. She's pointing out that Eva had created a difference in her mind between the experience of reading for pleasure and reading for schoolwork.
When I look at it that way, I can totally relate to Eva's feelings. I used to love to read, just the way Eva likes to read. I'd get a book. It didn't matter much to me what it was and I would just read and read. All through college, reading was one of the most joyful experiences in my life. So much so, in fact, that I switched into Comparative Literature as a major, just so that I could spend more of my time reading. With that came the complicating pleasures of understanding how the books I was reading worked on me, how they made me feel this joy, how they worked. And beyond this, I recovered a childhood pleasure in making things out of words myself. Poems and stories and just, well anything. I just loved that I could make something out of words, could make words do things to people like feel happy or sad or think differently about something, or make them do something they wouldn't normally do. So I started to think of myself as a poet. Of course, poets can't make a living making poems and I wasn't brave enough to betray my social class by just striking out on my own and washing dishes or landscaping or whatever it might be. So I got myself into a graduate school thinking, naively as it turned out, that I'd take the fellowship and read more books for a couple of years, move from my Midwestern hometown, away from my family, to Durham, North Carolina and make more poems and then, when the fellowship was up, well, I figured, I'd figure it out and drop out when the time came.
But when the time came, I guess I didn't recognize it was "the time" and I sure didn't drop out. I dropped in to Duke University's Graduate Program in Literature in the fall of 1987, "Theory central." A place where, the very first week I was there, a conference was being held called "Theories of Narrative and Narratives of theory", with speakers like Terry Eagleton, Gayatri Spivak, Fredric Jameson, Jonathan Culler, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Peter Burger, and Stanley Fish. A place where the very idea of taking joy in reading was one of the first things to be analyzed and theorized until for me the feeling shriveled up and shrank away in shame into some dark corner. In place of the joy of reading, I developed the considerably cooler pleasure of producing acute ideological critiques of works of literature. I learned to show how books simultaneously protested and unwittingly betrayed their complicity with the oppressive social conditions in which they were produced. Open enjoyment of the surface of the text gave way to a suspicious interrogation: "C'mon, we know you're holding back buddy, cough it up, talk! We have ways of making you cooperate." I learned to say that something was "really interesting" when I meant either that I really liked it or really didn't like it. And the joy I felt when I read such works - if I accidentally confessed it - well that was to be diagnosed as a kind of symptom - of my addiction to the false palliative of aesthetic enjoyment - and interpreted and treated accordingly.
Of course, that's an overly dramatic, and one-sided way to tell the story. It's not that I think the people there were doing anything wrong. It's not that it wasn't satisfying in its own brainteaser, SAT logic question sort of way. And it's not that I didn't (nor that I don't now) see the possible value in that sort of critical reading of texts. On the contrary, I think it's perfectly reasonable, even desirable, that intellectuals tend to the connections between their particular objects of interest and their society. Rather, it's partly that I was very young and, like lots of very young people, was easily seduced by the certainty of others. I'm not even saying that this was a bad thing. As I'll observe in a little bit, I gained tools and abilities during that time that continue to serve me well. The point, really, is that the experience overall led me temporarily to lose sight of something important. By temperament, I was accustomed to and preferred the joy of the read, the joy of the ride. Also, and also by temperament, I'm more inclined towards affirmations than to negations. And I believe it started to feel to me that most of us there in that program were devoting more energy and deriving more pleasure from the force and sophistication of our negations of other people's pleasures than from elaborating affirmations of our own.
At the very least, I certainly was doing so. And when I became aware of that, it didn't feel too good. Somewhere along this path from the beginning of graduate school in 1987 to the beginning of 1995, the year I came up for tenure, I started to feel the way Eva feels when she's got an assignment to do. I still loved to read, but writing about what I read had become a dull and colorless affair, a chore to be carried out with a kind of mechanical efficiency, occasionally with some intellectual flair detached from the beauty of the book, never ever with joy. It was a bad spot: here I was supposedly getting paid to do what I loved to do, but I didn't love to do it (and I didn't get paid that much either). I mean if I was going to do something joyless for a living, shouldn't I make a bunch of money doing it? Of course, as an adult, I didn't make faces and cross my arms and argue with the people who imposed the deadlines (after all they were no more imposed than Eva's), but I sure whined around the house a lot. And this inevitably led to someone in the household subtly calling me out on the problem with a comment like, "Do you have a deadline for something?" Mostly, I guess, I just sort of numbed out.
So last year I had a conversation that's actually the point of departure for these reflections and that reminded me again of my own past. I was part of an interviewing team at my university for a search in Latino studies, a joint appointment in English and American culture. The person we were interviewing was a rising star in the field and had finished a book manuscript on some writers she was characterizing as diasporic Puerto Ricans. The point was that if you saw them this way instead of as just Americans you'd see something previously unseen in their writing. Among the authors she discussed was William Carlos Williams. Now to be truthful I didn't know a whole lot about her field, or about the other writers she worked on and I don't in fact know very much about Williams. But when I heard the name I got excited because one of my favorite poems of all time is Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" and I was curious to know what she thought of it as an "expert," expecting I suppose that she'd unfold for me some new intensely joyful corner of this poem. So after the other committee members, specialists in her field, talked with her about theory and culture and the canon of American studies, it was my turn. I asked her about it.
I said, "This isn't really an interview question. I just really love "The Red Wheelbarrow" and wonder what you have to say about it."
She paused and replied, "I haven't thought about it."
I persisted, "Do you like it?"
"Oh yes, of course I love that poem, it just doesn't fit with the rest of the stuff in the Williams' chapter."
Haven't even thought about it?! Doesn't fit? I came away disappointed and puzzled. And then, 'cause I'm a well-trained academic, I tried to think my way through the puzzle. How could a person like this, with an admitted love for the most famous poem of this writer, with a presumably interesting, presumably original lens in hand with which to read his other writings - a person, in short, in a unique position to give me insights - have left this poem out? In a way it was a stupid question because she already told me the answer: "it didn't fit", meaning perhaps the poem didn't support the argument of her book, or perhaps that the way of reading she'd developed in the book couldn't generate any statements about this poem.
But she still had an emotional response to the poem. So maybe that's what didn't fit or, at least, maybe she felt that her personal love of the poem was irrelevant to the argument she was making. I could understand that, I suppose. There sure doesn't seem to be anything especially diasporic-Puerto Rican about the poem. But then maybe if she'd followed the subterranean connections carved by her loves, she'd have discovered a way in which there is something about the poem that speaks to her argument and that enriches and complicates it. On the other hand, I wonder if in the process of developing this highly marketable manner of reading in order to emphasize Williams' Puerto Rican roots she hadn't forgotten (or unintentionally been encouraged to forget) to make room for joy? In fact I don't know. Maybe that's not what happened to her. Maybe she gets all the joy she needs from what she did. But even if she does, it was the kind of moment I like to make into an emblem, or better yet, an index. In this case, it became an index pointing me back to my own feeling of the increasingly intolerability of what had come to feel like a mutually exclusive choice: read for fun or read for professional success; read for pleasure or read for work.
A couple of years ago, I came across a passage in John Dewey's book Art as Experience that sheds some light on this problem for me. When we view art as an "escape" or a "release" from reality, Dewey believed, we implicitly suppose "freedom can be found only when personal activity is liberated from control by objective factors" (Dewey 279). We implicitly take what Dewey called "experience" - the ceaseless exchange of matter and energy of a live creature growing in and with its surroundings - and split it into two opposed and mutually exclusive halves. On one side: the live creature, which we call a "subject" or "our self," together with our desires; on the other side, the surroundings including other subjects, which we call "objects" or "others," together with the limitations we perceive these surroundings impose on us. Therefore in viewing art as an escape from reality we implicitly pretend to isolate - perhaps we seek to protect - our "self" from everything that we perceive as "outside" it. "Play" then becomes the name for what we can do when we suppose ourselves to be free of objective limitations. "Work," by contrast, becomes the name for what we do the rest of the time, when we numbly or sullenly submit to those limitations and thereby protect our "self" through a detached intellectual posture (Dewey 280).
But for Dewey, "the very existence of a work of art is evidence that there is no such opposition between the spontaneity of the self and objective order and law" (Dewey 279). True, Dewey admitted, "the contrast between free and externally enforced activity is an empirical fact." However, he added, "it is largely produced by social conditions and it is something to be eliminated as far as possible" (Dewey 280). It is a sad mistake to see this social and historical condition as natural and immutable. And perhaps even sadder to see it and just let it be. After all, as Dewey points out, "children are not conscious of any opposition between play and work" (Dewey 280). Of course, here I'm thinking, well he doesn't know my kid. But thinking further, I see that it wasn't until the structure of school, the importance of grades, and the assigning of homework entered her life that Eva started to experience the difference between learning as play and learning as work. She was, after all, nearly eleven and has had plenty of exposure to -- and modeling by me of -- this opposition between play and work. Dewey's point is that there's nothing natural or given or unchangeable about this and art can be a way to rub away at this stark opposition because it invites us to participate in and experience as integrated what have become for most of us two mutually exclusive ways of engaging the world around us.
In saying this, Dewey reminds me of a favorite passage encountered in my study and practice of Zen Buddhism. The Japanese Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki introduces the phrase shoshin which means "beginner's mind." He explains, "For Zen students the most important thing is not to be dualistic. Our 'original mind' includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty [we might say "open"] mind and a ready [we might say "willing"] mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything" (Suzuki 21). He concludes: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few" (Suzuki 21). When I connect this to Eva's situation, to my own earlier in my career, to that of my graduate students and undergraduates and junior colleagues it makes think that in the beginner's mind we would read with the sense of joy and wonder we had when black marks on white paper first shaped themselves into figures in our imagination. But we would also allow those emotions to be unfolded, complicated, enriched by the application of the intellectual tools we've acquired through our training. If you write only from joy: you get something along the lines of "I love this book" and there's not much more to say about it, unless it is something so personal that nobody else will give a shit anyway. If you write only from the intellect, you get an analysis that may be logically compelling, but will leave your readers merely thinking about feelings instead of feeling them. But what if you could put the two together?
My desire to infuse joy into the writing I do for money has proven complicated. As Eva's mother has said to me, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions. You want to merge the two, but when you analyze or profess you state your feelings, you think them, instead of using words that make me feel." So I did an experiment. I'm not an expert on Williams. I just love this poem. I love that he was a doctor and a poet, that he never stopped being either and, as far as I know, never wanted to. So to prepare for today I just sat down and wrote longhand several pages responding to the question: "How do I love this poem?" First, here is the poem for those of you who aren't familiar with it.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
chickens (Williams 224).
And now, here are my pages.
I am exhilarated by the poem's apparent simplicity. Sixteen simple words, bare and stark, merely an observation, just a glance, one look at a gardening implement and this is a poem, and a celebrated anthologized poem. The language isn't fancy or stylized. It is simple and stated. An uncomplicated expression that makes me feel to my core. No quick cuts and dazzling dialogue necessary to intrigue and awaken the jaded. I remember going to an outsider art show once and overhearing a visitor say, "I could have done this and called it a painting." The gallery owner standing next to the person said, "Sure, but you didn't." Williams did it. Henry Miller writes somewhere in Sexus that "Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers." Anybody could do it. But some people do. Williams did. And my first response to this sixteen or seventeen years ago, a response I still feel to this day every time I read this poem, is a rush of gratitude for his inspiring model of simple courage required to do it. But I also love that the poem is only apparently simple. Williams doesn't simply say: "Look, I see a red wheelbarrow with rain on it next to some white chickens." That report itself is made more than bare bones, is given flesh and mystery by the way in which Williams reports, by the "so much depends", by the line breaks, by the word "glazed".
At first glance, Williams appears to tell me "so much depends" on ordinary objects, like red wheelbarrows, being there. Maybe this seems obvious enough, but if it is, it's one of those obvious truths that I can never seem to hear enough. After all, what would crumble to dust in my hands, heart, and head if my world were suddenly drained of ordinary objects: a pencil, a plate, a window pane, a chair, a plum, a cooking pot? Yet do I notice, really notice, such things and feel grateful for them, not grateful that I possess them, but grateful simply that they are; that they are there making up the material fabric of the universe, there quietly weaving themselves into the spiritual and intellectual and emotional fabric of the universes I make for myself and others?
But then as I write that I notice that I've shifted the emphasis from the value of ordinary object itself to the value of my seeing the object in some particular way. This is where the line breaks come in. Four stanzas of two lines each. In each stanza, the first line has three words, and the second has one. The magic is in the way Williams, through this, prompts me to read his words. I'm invited to slow down and read in a new way. It's just a simple sentence don't forget. And so if I write it out like this --
So much depends on the red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.
-- from left margin to right margin across the board I don't think I'd read it the same way. Then it would just be a proposition claiming to represent a truth about some bit of the fabric of the universe. Then I could agree or disagree, if I were even interested enough in it to take a position. But by breaking the lines the way he does, turning a one-line proposition into an eight-line poem with a pattern, Williams does more than just draw special attention to the proposition. He makes me slow down. And by doing that he makes me actually do what the proposition presupposes the poet has done and what the poem implicitly suggests is a good thing: it makes me see the red wheelbarrow and that so much depends on it - I mean on the red wheelbarrow itself, on my slowing down, and on my seeing the red wheelbarrow.
I love this because Williams has worked the creative or generative side of words. Usually we just use them to represent things in the world. Or, more precisely, usually we just them as though they represented things in the world instead of using them with an understanding that they work more like prosthetics with which we do things in and to the world. But Williams now is making them do something to things in the world. So now I think I'd rather put it this way. I'd rather say that the poem makes me follow Williams in bringing this red wheelbarrow forth in language.
A good friend pointed out that the one word that really does seem just a bit out of place in this poem of very simple words is "glazed". I think that's connected to this shift from the object to seeing the object, to my relationship with it. "Glazed" describes a kind of addition to the surface of the red wheelbarrow. It's where the red wheelbarrow meets the rain and their meeting makes a glaze. But if that's the case then glazed also describes the moment of my optical encounter with the red wheelbarrow. It is what my eye meets when I look, this glazed surface, which I might imagine for myself as translucent, somewhere on a scale between completely reflective and completely transparent. Glazed then also brings out the surface of the wheel barrow over any depth perception I might have it. It's not so much that I can't imagine or, if I were there, that I couldn't see the whole wheelbarrow. It's that my attention is drawn by this word to its surface. It's a bit the way that visual artists talk about seeing what is there when you look, and not what your mind expects to see. In this sense, I think of this poem as a way of saying, "Yes!" I mean "yes!" in response to a question. But the question isn't so much the metaphysical question: "does a red wheelbarrow exist?" The question, rather, is "Do you see that a red wheelbarrow exists, and do you see that it matters, do you see what depends upon it?" As important as the object, and in fact indispensable to grasping the importance of the object, is grasping my relationship to the object, my recognition of my participation in the existence of the object.
But I think that for me, "glazed" takes me beyond the optical encounter with the surface. The translucent glistening of the surface makes the surface not only visible but also palpable and touchable. When the poem makes me slow down, I feel like my eyes touch, really. Through "glazed," it is as if I can almost feel the cool, slippery surface, and seeing seems like touching. It becomes, then, a question of texture. And that's where the chickens come in as well for me. I just love those white chickens that seem to punctuate the poem, and I think it is because "white," besides being just a color with its optical contrast/harmony with red, becomes a texture - feathers - in contrast/harmony with the surface of the wheel barrow. And I start to wonder if the feathers of the chicken are also wet and if so how? -- surely differently than the way the wheel barrow is. So I am drawn in to play along these varied surfaces and I think this is so simple and just so nice.
The poem is a prayer or incantation. The poem is magical in the way that it uses the vehicle of verse poetry to draw intense focus upon a single instant of ordinary seeing of an ordinary object upon which, it turns out, in fact, in the moment that I read, so much does depend. So it's a poem made of magic words. And like all magic words these sixteen magic words make themselves true by being said, they bring into being the conditions in the world that they describe. "Abracadabra!" "Presto!" "Guilty!" "Innocent!" "Husband and Wife." "The Body of Christ." Okay, but actually it turns out that it's not just magic words that work like that. All language is like that. So "I am your mother" "I am leaving you", they're magic words too. All words are magic words, at least in the sense that even when they are pretending just to describe a bit of the world they are doing something to the world (Rorty xxiii). Or again, to speak more precisely, I'm arguing that we might gain something valuable in our relationship to words if we accept the following description of how words work: that all words - like so-called "magic words" - are tools with which we reach out and do something to those parts of the world that aren't made of words. At any rate, nothing could more excite a person like me who has devoted half his life to words than to hear that they are all magic, and magically powerful.
Now Williams' words scurry around the page like elementary schoolchildren bustling to get in line during a performance. They range themselves in an orderly single horizontal line stretching across the page, each one exciting on their own, but also now with their unique mysterious powers fully restored, the overall magic intensifies. Because now that horizontal line of words isn't an ordinary proposition claiming to represent truly a piece of the world. Now they cause me to bring forth not only the magical force of an ordinary object like a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens, not only the magical force of the act of seeing, but also the magical force of what I might dismiss as ordinary language and this has the effect of bringing forth my magical relationship to the universes moving inside and outside of me. Williams magically makes the ordinary extraordinary and then shows me how it is done so that I can do it too, with him in reading the poem but also on my own, when I have set his book and his words down and picked up a pen to write my own.
In so doing he also moves me back from extraordinary to ordinary. The poetic function, in most cultures an extraordinary function of seeing and making, ceases to be the special property of the poet as an exceptional genius. What else might I have expected from an extraordinary poet who never stopped being an ordinary doctor writing poems on his prescription pad between visits? It is extraordinary to bring the extraordinary back to the ordinary. Williams brings us the extraordinary capacities of the poet and turns them over to me like a gift. In that sense he makes me feel gifted. And so I am, in fact, to the degree that I am aware of the gifts of a red wheelbarrow and of the facts that I can see it and bring it forth in language. And that, I suppose is what was behind the feeling of exhilaration I experienced when I first encountered this poem: Williams' poem had made me able to say I am a poet, and that is both extraordinary and completely ordinary.
This brings me back to modes of reading. It's clear enough probably that everything I've just written about Williams' poem didn't just spring from feeling, from sort of unmediated contact between heart and poem. That was there, to be sure. Or rather, more accurately, I like to make an evocation of that sort of affective contact with a text a part of my stories about what texts do to me and what they can do in the world. But clearly those words I've just written draw upon more than just feeling, more than just my love of the poem. My love of reading, my joy in words, and my intellectual training as a professor of literature enable me, like Williams, to bestow this gift on others. That I might help to dissolve Eva's problem, Dewey's hard opposition between play and work, is magic. But to work this magic I must be willing to wonder, in every sense of the word, and I must have faith. I must be open to everything. A beginner. I do not fear that my brain will shut down or stop working, but I do worry that by thinking I will forget to feel. So I remember as I read and see and experience that thinking, when I am open, when I slow down, is not the enemy of feeling. They can work hand in hand, complicating, deepening, and enriching each other. And with that I become ordinarily, extraordinarily alive.
So I want to finish my story about Eva by sharing with you a passage from a book she chose, with certain words underlined and the few lines she wrote to explain why she'd underlined those words. We found a passage in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. Maybe you remember that the book centers on the adventures of a young, headstrong girl named Meg whose gifted little brother has mysteriously disappeared. In a climactic scene in the novel, Meg encounters Charles, apparently possessed by this emotionless brain called IT. When you get to the scene that Eva chose, Meg is at the end of her rope, unable to think of a way to rescue her beloved brother. It goes like this:
She could stand there and she could love Charles Wallace.
Her own Charles Wallace, the real Charles Wallace, the child for whom she had come back to Camazotz, to IT, the baby who was so much more than she was, and who was yet so utterly vulnerable.
She could love Charles Wallace.
Charles. Charles, I love you. My baby brother who always takes care of me. Come back to me, Charles Wallace, come away from IT, come back, come home. I love you, Charles. Oh, Charles Wallace, I love you.
Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she was unaware of them.
Now she was even able to look at him, at this animated thing that was not her own Charles Wallace at all. She was able to look and love.
I love you. Charles Wallace, you are my darling and my dear and the light of my life and the treasure of my heart. I love you. I love you. I love you.
Slowly his mouth closed. Slowly his eyes stopped their twirling. The tic in his forehead ceased its revolting twitch. Slowly he advanced toward her.
"I love you!" She cried. "I love you, Charles! I love you!"
Then suddenly he was running, pelting, he was in her arms, he was shrieking with sobs. "Meg! Meg! Meg!"
"I love you, Charles!" she cried again, her sobs almost as loud as his, her tears mingling with his. "I love you! I love you! I love you!" (L'Engle 187-8)
Eva and I sit at the kitchen table. And I ask her,
"What words jump out at you?" Almost without hesitation she circles the phrase "Slowly his mouth closed. Slowly his eyes stopped their twirling. The tic in his forehead ceased its revolting twitch." So then I ask her,
"Why do these words jump out at you do you think?" Eva stumbles a bit,
"I don't know...they just do...it's like...'slowly his mouth closed'..." and then Eva falls silent but she slowly closes her mouth. And then she stands up and begins to twirl her body around.
Here's what she wrote for her homework: "I like the way the author said 'twirling' and 'slowly his mouth closed' because it makes me so excited that I want to do the movements instead of just thinking 'I'm reading this, wow whoopee, what the heck!'"
What better demonstration could we have asked that even descriptive words do something to the world?
When she had finished her homework Eva danced around the room repeating the words and then, still chanting the magic words, she skipped off to her bedroom to reread the book. She'd been transformed by the magic. She was spellbound. In that moment, the author and Eva and I had worked together to brings word to life, to give words dimension and depth and feeling and flesh. May she always be so enchanted and may she always be so graceful in communicating her enchantments.
Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigree, 1980.
L'Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle In Time. New York: Dell, 1976.
Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and Social Hope. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1996.