. . . in the immortal but out of context words of Talib Kweli.
Speaking of intention, what if one’s intention be muddled? One wouldn’t get very far. But even if one does not aspire to go far, one needs to know where one is going (and though it is always lovely to leave space for beautiful surprises, it’s also good to have an idea of what one might do when one gets there).
That is, intention–like levels of interpretation–can rest comfortably in the shallows or can swim in the deepest depths of the deep blue sea.
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a colleague about the interpretation of figurative language. As we talked, I realized I have an internal framework for the interpretation of figurative language, a framework that I used when I taught, that I use when I help my daughters with their ELA homework*, and on which I absolutely rely in my work–but that I’d never fully articulated.
At the time, I was putting finishing touches on the manuscript of a book that will be published in June, God willing and the creek don’t rise, a book with a title that leaves little room for ambiguity and makes up in clarity what it lacks in evocativeness (The Hidden Market for Children’s Literature: Getting Paid to Write for Reading Tests) I decided to include this part of the conversation in the book toward the interest of value-added:
If we’re talking about imagery and figurative language, we would say that the progressive levels of interpretation would proceed in a manner something like this:
- literal meaning: this is the basic, word-by-word view and is restricted to the literal definitions of the words that are then combined into sentences, lines, and paragraphs to convey literal meaning. Nothing wrong with the shallows in some circumstances. Sometimes that is the best place to be.
- sensory-dependent meaning: creating visual images, developing rhythm through meter and structure, musicality through rhyme, assonance, repetition, etc., and the sensations of touch and taste through the use of evocative words and phrases. I see this as the body level of interpretation.
- connotative: suggestive of shades of meanings and feelings, thereby establishing and developing tone and mood. This is emotional.
- in terms of author’s craft: contributing to and supporting the development of narrative elements(e.g., characters, setting, plot). This is artistic and intellectual.
- symbolic: offering motifs to represent or carry the overarching theme and other big ideas of the work. Touching the soul here.
- extending ideas and making connections: taking the aerial view and creating a bigger, more universal picture of the human experience that may cross genders, generations, social class, cultures, historical epochs, philosophical schools/movements, etc.; making allusions to people, objects, historical events, or even cultural (including artistic or literary) periods, values, and movements. Connecting with the universal human spirit.
To return to the aerial view, when we writers are working on an assignment, sometimes our intention is so limited that it becomes wrongheaded. We forget the big idea. We think that our intention is to deliver a certain number of words assembled according to certain rules by a certain date in order to get paid. (We’re not the only ones who do this; it happens in companies, too. Who hasn’t seen the tension between marketing and development? Not that tension is necessarily bad–I mean it in the sense of pulling from both sides–it keeps the tent aloft.)
Some of this is necessary, right? We have to sit down, engage the mental machinery, and produce. We can’t always be floating among the stars. But, and–it’s well to keep in mind the ultimate goal, the real underlying purpose, which in our case is generally to give a child a fair opportunity to show us what he knows or can do in a given arena of knowledge and skill.
Because knowing this helps us to make decisions in our work that will serve that child.
UPDATE: I always think of more to say after I walk away. Esprit d’escalier. This is directly related to the deplorable tendency to repeat standard language verbatim in test items. You see? The item writer is thinking in the limited terms of providing a question that meets the specifications at the lowest possible level: You want a transition item? Here is a transition item. Again in the immortal words of that great sage Oprah, when we know better, we do better. We can do better.
UPDATE: Oh, gracious, I forgot to add the footnote to the * following “ELA homework.” Here it be:
* I simply cannot believe how much homework my daughters have. I will go out on a limb and say it is immoral. Why, you may well ask. Because one strategy to compensate for inadequate instruction is to load up on the homework and in so doing, assure oneself that the kids will learn as they plod through hours of busy work at home. Sometimes my daughters have 4-6 hours of homework. They’re not getting a Ph.d. They’re in the eighth grade.