Monday, April 11, 2016

"Reading" and "Reading into"

The idea of “reading something into” a poem came up in a discussion just now. I was supposedly “reading something into” a poem; hence my reading of the poem was implied to be wrong.

Whether or not I was doing so, I’m curious if anyone knows of any essays/research that address the issue of “reading into”.

It seems like several issues are involved:
  1. “Reading” the poem is distinguished from “reading into” the poem.
  2. “Reading” the poem is *distinguishable* from “reading into” the poem.
  3. The claim that someone is “reading something into” the poem, that something is being “read into” it, is used to call the validity of that reading into question.
  4. The person making that claim is rhetorically staking out a position of being a better “reader” of the poem: “I am not ‘reading into’ the poem; you are. And my reading is thus better.”
  5. In what contexts does the claim about “reading into” come up? Who speaks? Who is spoken to? — It’s the kind of thing a professor might say to a student, but it’s something a student would surely rarely say to a professor.
So there's a theoretical issue (how to distinguish "reading X" from "reading into X") and a sociological issue (who uses the criticism, and of whom, and in what context).


Joseph Hutchison said...

This isn't exactly what you're after because it's not about reading a particular poem, but it may be of interest:

This issue comes up with students, and my typical response is to plant a flag at the far end of "reading into," using Charles Manson as an example. Manson listened to the Beatles' tune "Helter Skelter" and heard it as a prophecy of race war in the U.S. Presumably he was ignorant of the helter skelter amusement ride, which sports a slide built in a spiral around a high, colorful tower and served as the central metaphor in the song. This is classic "reading into," which usually springs from a failure of the reader's negative capability, resulting in an "irritable reaching after fact and reason" that often does outright violence to the text.

Another example: A student reading Sandburg's "Grass" suggested that it might have to do with marijuana. Well, we live in Colorado....

Andrew Shields said...

Thanks, Joseph. Isn't what your pointing at here a matter of interpretations that are demonstrably mistaken? Manson misread the song because he didn't know what "helter skelter" means in British English. Your student misread Sandburg because he didn't know the history of the slang meaning of "grass" (or more generally of a particular meaning of the word). The former is a cultural mistake, the latter an anachronism. Less a matter of "reading into" than of a poor translation across space (Manson) or time (your student).

Joseph Hutchison said...

You're right. I think those are the two most common types of "reading into," a phrase I think is always used to indicate mistaken readings. No? I've never heard "reading into" in a positive way—praise for really getting into the layers—but I suppose it could be. Here's another example— —which I suppose, if you're a fan of the ridiculous, could be seen as a positive case of reading into....

Andrew Shields said...

The particular case that led me to write my post involved a poem that was decried by some as racist (or at least unthinkingly using racist tropes) and defended by others who said that people were "reading racism into it".

In a sense, that's a third category distinct from the other two. It's a misreading that does not involves deficiency (cultural mistake, anachronism) but excess: "You're seeing something there that is not there."