Seeking an unseen world of words

My daughter was struggling with her book report. The assignment required her to go beyond a synopsis of the plot of "April Morning," to delve beneath a mere recital of the list of characters. It required her to step outside of her comfort zone with language.

A seventh-grader, Hilary was in a bumpy transit from her competent summaries of the text to the subtextual observations her teacher was training the class to do. The time had come in her growth as a reader and writer to write about the abstract sense of things, the figures in language, not just the concrete details of the story. It was a painful struggle. It seemed like an unfair subterfuge to learn that words could be about something other than what they say.

"I don't know what he means by this question," she moaned, rereading the teacher's assignment for the tenth time. "I can't interpret what happens. It just happens. There's no interpretation. It's about what it's about. That's all there is to it!"

I remembered well the parallel scene in my own schooling, how one night I worked long and hard to make the usual time-honored book-report display by pasting a collage of magazine photos on poster board, surrounding my dutiful prose regurgitation of the plot, to illustrate the trials and tribulations of the characters in "The Outsiders." Photographically, concretely, literally, the report took shape.

When Mr. Katz returned my hard work, his comment suggested that I needed to interpret the story, think about the "why" of the story; think about the writer's motivation in telling the story. Apparently, the story meant something other than what it said. The writer had been saying one thing and meaning another. It was about more than it was about. Go figure.

I remember what a thrill the subsequent moment of revelation was when the "insides of words" was illuminated to me and I left behind the illustrated book report (with fancy cover and huge titles) forever. A writer actually has control over this stuff? A writer isn't just recording "the way it happened"? The story is something imagined!

And so I entered my Eric-Sevareid-imitation period and took a giant step away from passive acceptance of the story and a giant leap toward critical examination of the craft of assembling words in a particular order for a particular reason. I became suspicious. The text was about more than the sum of its parts. And I remember finding joy and new music in this gestalt.

As I listened to my daughter's complaints and dabbed her tears, I thought of the poignant scene in a poem by Richard Wilbur. In "The Writer," he observes his daughter as she writes a story: "In her room at the prow of the house" and she struggles, like a room-bound starling, to "[beat] a smooth course for the right window ... clearing the sill of the world." (in "The Mind Reader: New Poems," 1976). Wilbur empathizes with the hard work of comprehending words, working at choosing the right ones, starting and stopping in the attempt to get them down just right.

How many of my own writing students had I heard complaining about the "deep inner meanings" produced by sleight of hand in the poetry and prose we studied in my courses? "How do you know that the writer intended for those words to be symbolic?" they griped. How do you know that's what it's about? Then, their objections bemused. Now, with my daughter asking the questions in frustration - now that she was the starling trapped in the strange room of her writing assignment - the problem preoccupied me in a different way.

The teacher-writer-dad in me craved a reconciliation of roles. But beyond that, I hoped for my daughter's successful transit to the love of the "second sight" of well-wrought language, the stuff of poems. Howard Nemerov expressed it aptly in an invocation to a student in "To David, About His Education":

The world is full of mostly invisible things,

And there is no way but putting the mind's eye,

Or its nose, in a book, to find them out....

"Mostly invisible things" - the deep inner meanings, the saying of one thing and meaning another - sounded like the hypothetical anti-matter of physics ... or is it science fiction? The meanings, beauties, and truths posited by English teacher and dad surely awaited somewhere beneath the words on her page. If these are the things the world is "mostly made of," they must outweigh so many things credited with weightier weight! What a world there is to gain by their appreciation. What a world we're missing if not putting the mind's eye to the lens. What the world is "about" is not what it says it's about!

We're accustomed, of course, to a world that is carelessly worded. "It's about..." is a constant refrain, as if meaning were something obvious, declarative, visible, agreed-upon. And what Hilary was encountering, as we all do at some point, was the opening of the mind's eye. I don't think even she, sitting at the prow of the house, thought it was just "about" a book report in seventh grade.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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