Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Ambiguity and Grace (#SOL15, Day 11)



Birds in Tree in Winter (M.A. Reilly, Ringwood, NJ, 2015)


I. 

I've been thinking about the problematic use of close reading as the de facto method for interpreting texts in grades K-12 and how the PARCC and other high stakes tests are designed to discern how well children closely attend to the minutia and substance of a text--as if each was worthy of our attention--as if each remained stable. We situate these results as prized namings of children's talents and needs as if truth might be gotten from a 3-day test.  

Could we be more foolish?

I was thinking about the problem with close reading and how we measure it this morning while rereading William Carlos William's "January Morning"--a poem that reminds me how being curious is its own reward. After more than two decades of reading this poem, I still cannot quite understand it and think, perhaps, that I'm the better for such lacking.  

There's little room for lacking at school these days.

The poem is divided into 15 sections and Williams provides a series of quick and quirky visual snapshots of the comings and goings that his speaker sees as he makes his way through Weehawken, NJ on a January morning. It is a mad celebration of the ordinary as different noticings are mentioned briefly and then abandoned. Oh, our good doctor, our fine poet surveys that world with certain exuberance and I find I cannot help but carry his sense of whimsy and joy into this feel good morning of my own. 

This is what it means to embody a work.

II.

Williams was a young man at the time of this writing (1917) and I wonder if at the end of the poem, the old woman he addresses is his mother. Or perhaps, the old woman is more muse than mother. Maybe mother and muse are one.  Let's take a look.


XV.

All this --

                was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write a poem 
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can't understand it?
                But you got to try hard --
But --
Well, you know how
the young girls run giggling
on Park Avenue after dark
when they ought to be home in bed?
Well,
that's the way it is with me somehow.


I take a deep breath at the end and wonder more about the way it is somehow and what exactly does Williams mean by that?  Some mornings I think I can gather that ambiguity and hold it in my hand like cool water that is a balm.

Let it settle there. Soothe me.

                 Only to feel it slip 
                                                     free, again and again and again. 

See, it is the instability, the not knowing that I most want to emphasize here. Meaning is never stable. Never. Why, even Williams's speaker is contrary. 


III.

Reading is a full body experience and we ought to broaden how learners come to (re)name the texts they read. It's foolishness to believe in the singularity of close reading in schools as if the New Critics knew the only way to read a text. 

I hope on this March morning that you want more for yourself, more for your child.

What we privilege and fail to privilege at school matters; deserves our attention.  It is the uncertainty of meaning making that we most need to make room for at school. For is it not important for learners to be able to recognize when a more accurate understanding of a text is attainable and when the complexity of a work eclipses that felt need?  

To become easy with ambiguity is to touch grace. 

I'm not sure what Williams intended or if even his intentions can be named. The possibilities are of interest more so than the certainties

This is the way it is somehow. We are never standing still.

4 comments:

  1. "To become easy with ambiguity is to touch grace." This will be my favorite line of the morning. Thank you, from this librarian, for focusing on the ethereal nature of reading, how the same text can change meaning for a reader from one day to the next. As my college-aged daughter told me recently, "Oh, The Places You'll Go" has a much different meaning for her now than it did in elementary school--then it brought giggles, now it brings tears. I'm tweeting this post out!

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    1. Thanks Chris. I love your daughter's insight to the Dr. Seuss book. Of course those who read recognize that texts are co-composed between the author and the reader. Hopefully, tides will turn a bit and there will be room or other ways to read text at school.

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  2. "It is the uncertainty of meaning making that we most need to make room for at school. For is it not important for learners to be able to recognize when a more accurate understanding of a text is attainable and when the complexity of a work eclipses that felt need?" I've been mulling over these lines, now that we are through the PARCC and I can gauge the skill set it values - which is all about certainty of meaning. Very frustrating.

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    1. Tara, it is frustrating. I elaborate about the PARCC in an earlier post, ELA PARCC Represents an Old Culture of Learning (http://www.maryannreilly.blogspot.com/2015/02/ela-parcc-represents-old-culture-of.html ). Here I take a look at the end of the year PARCC assessment. It may be helpful.

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