Friday, April 4, 2014

Taking things literally

It's hard to say what the word 'literally' means. When I was in graduate school someone suggested that the literal meaning of a word is its most common use, and Wikipedia echoes this in part. But I suspect the most common use of the word 'literal' itself is incorrect and therefore not literal. If someone says "It was literally raining cats and dogs" they (probably) mean it was raining as much as it does when people typically say "It is raining cats and dogs." They don't mean that it was literally raining cats and dogs, i.e. that animals are falling from the sky. Literal meaning is better understood, I think, as non-figurative rather than normal or common meaning.

Why should anybody care? I suppose because of the people who say we should read the Bible and the US Constitution (etc.) literally. It's a political issue, in other words, since literalism is generally used to support conservative views. Against those who emphasize the (supposedly) loving spirit of the Bible or the liberal (and, e.g., supposedly pro-choice) spirit of the Constitution, literalists will insist on following the letter of the law. Along with rights to guns and no rights for gays, this leads to such additional benefits as the denial of evolution. So it's a big deal.

Having said that, debates about constitutional interpretation tend not to focus on literalism but on such theories or positions as originalism. For a response to that position I defer to Sean Wilson. One problem with taking the Constitution literally is that doing so doesn't give people what they want. The House of Representatives is not literally a house (not only is it not a place inhabited by a family, it is not a building at all but a group of people), the right to bear arms is not literally just a right to carry weapons but to use them, and talk of rights is hard to take literally at all--what is a literal right? Words like 'rights' don't have a clear, non-figurative meaning. When people say they believe in taking the Constitution literally they mean that they support something like originalism, which is clearly a kind of interpretation, one way among a plurality of ways of taking the Constitution. In this case, then, literalism does not get us away from interpretation. There is no option but to interpret (or ignore) the Constitution in one way or another.

Something similar goes for the Bible too. No sane person would deny that there is figurative language in the Bible. People who say they want to take the text literally don't really mean that. They mean they want to avoid over-interpretation (who doesn't?) and that they believe other people are guilty of such over-interpretation. This position faces problems, such as how to deal with the apparent contradictions in the Bible and what it could mean for the Earth and sun (and everything else) to have been created in six literal days, but these are not necessarily insurmountable. The point I want to make is that Biblical "literalists" don't actually take the Bible literally (i.e. completely non-figuratively). They support a particular kind of interpretation.

Does it follow that no utterances have a literal meaning, that all call for interpretation? No. However unlikely it might be, I could mean "It's raining cats and dogs" literally. Do utterances always need interpretation? No. They always need to be understood (if they are to be understood) but nothing is gained by calling understanding interpretation. Does understanding always take place within a context? Of course. Does this context matter to the meanings of words? Of course. Is understanding therefore always in fact a case of interpretation? No.

What about literature? Does a novel or poem have a literal meaning? I don't see why we shouldn't say so. Some literature is more figurative, some less so. "I caught this morning morning's minion" should not be taken literally: he wasn't out catching birds. But is he talking about a literal falcon or is this a metaphor? Or both? These seem like reasonable questions. It is useful to be able to distinguish a literal from a figurative reading, so why not allow for such distinctions? Is the literal reading not an interpretation? It is a way of taking the poem. And in the case of this particular poem, which is full of figurative language, it seems that any way of taking it is going to be an interpretation. But I don't see that anything is gained by saying that all takings are interpretations. If you recite a poem about an old man from Nantucket who has an unfortunate episode with a bucket, and I laugh then I am not interpreting your poem as funny. I do, I suppose, take it to be funny, but even that is a bit of an odd way to put the point. I just react.

Now, it might be objected that I don't just react. I react within a certain context, which has historical, political, social, etc. aspects. That's true. But it's also true that I react within a certain physical context: I am breathing air near the surface of the planet, etc. It's still true that I just react because "just react" means react-without-having-to-do-any-such-thing-as-stop-and-think. It does not mean that I react and do nothing else whatsoever, including existing within various kinds of contexts. Nor does it deny that these contexts affect the way (or fact that) I react. We shouldn't take the word 'just' here literally.            


  1. I like a lot of what you say here, particularly the distinction between "literal" and "originalist" readings of the Constitution (although I think you undersell the possibility of words having multiple, related, yet distinct meanings: i.e. the House of Representatives is not claiming to be the home of representatives, and neither is the House of Lancaster, etc.).

    Speaking of definitions, I have a question about how you use the word "interpretation." I understand that word to mean something like "the way in which we come to understand texts" or, more concisely, "hermeneutic activity." This is, I think, a fairly normal and possibly normative way of using the term in the disciplines of literary studies and rhetoric (where both the noun and verb forms of "reading" and "interpretation" are used interchangeably), and, at least since the Middle Ages, it has been flexible enough to include "literal interpretations" (Dante describes literal, moral, allegorical and anagogical interpretations of texts).

    So, on one hand, we have a long-standing historical precedent for describing all textual meaning-making as "interpretation." I think that we also have legitimate contemporary reasons for noting in our use of language that, since language is itself a medium, it does not make sense to talk about unmediated or uninterpreted readings of texts. In fact, you indicate several of those reasons in your post. (But perhaps the very "non-sense" of an unmediated relation to a medium is why you don't think we need to describe all hermeneutic practice as "interpretation.")

    I take it that "hermeneutic practice" is not what you mean when you say that not all reading is "interpretation." It seems to me that you are offering a more limited definition of the term that would be something like "a conscious, deliberate exertion intended to resolve some significant ambiguity." This is what we mean when we say, "Can someone interpret this for me" or "Let me interpret that for you." For my part, I don't see what we gain by privileging this more specific (and, I think, parasitic on the special case of interpretation from one language into another) definition of "interpret." So, tell me, am I interpreting your definition of "interpret" accurately?

    1. the House of Representatives is not claiming to be the home of representatives, and neither is the House of Lancaster, etc.

      Oh yes, I know. But if you look up 'house' in the dictionary the first meaning is something like home and the second is a building of some kind. The house of representatives really is a house. But it isn't, I would say, literally a house.

      I'm not quite sure what to say about "interpretation." The way in which we come to understand texts is, at the risk of banality, reading (and before that learning to read). If that is all you mean by interpretation then I agree. But I think you mean something more, both by 'interpretation' and by 'reading.' If you don't, then we don't really disagree. I just think it's misleading (or at best not helpful) to use the word 'interpretation' in this way.

      I'm not totally sure what it is that you do mean though. By "meaning-making" do you mean sense-making, as in understanding (making sense of something)? This also seems misleading to me (I know it's common in certain circles), because it suggests that the individual hearer or reader creates the meaning of the text or utterance, and that is a kind of Humpty Dumpty mistake again.

      I'm not sure I want to agree that language is a medium, either, since that suggests the idea (which we both reject) that language is a vehicle for independent things called meanings. And, yes, if an unmediated relation to a medium is nonsense (I don't think it is, but I also think this is a side issue) then there is no reason to complicate or change our use of language in order to make clear that we are avoiding such nonsense.

      What do we gain by privileging the more specific definition of 'interpret'? It seems to me that this is the normal, standard definition, and that recognizing this is not really privileging anything. If what we mean when we talk about interpreting a text is just reading it or understanding it then I think it's misleading to talk this way, because it suggests something other than what we mean (given that the normal use of the word 'interpret' is not this). So, if you like, that's another reason to privilege definitions as I do.

    2. I would be happy to define "meaning-making" as "making sense of": either describes a process through which we come to understand a text or utterance. Both descriptions also emphasize in their language that sense/meaning is something we make, and that is, I think, inescapably the case, but not in a Humpty-Dumpty sense (he believes his words mean precisely what he wants them to, no more and no less). On the contrary, I would argue that we always say both more and less than we mean, and that an utterance, once it leaves our lips or is inscribed on the page, operates beyond our control or our intentions. We can try to convince others to interpret what we said in a certain light, but, at that point, we become hearers who have to interpret the utterance like everyone else.

      I think I can address two of your concerns--1) thinking of language as a medium will draw us into an "information transfer" model, and 2) if readers make meanings, then... (I'm less certain of your concern here, but I think it may be some version of that old bogeyman "relativism").

      I think we can resolve both problems by seeing language as the medium in which we make meanings (not a medium that carries meanings). Meaning is a function of the relationships between the utterance, the hearer, and the context of interpretation (including especially the hearer's interpretive community). Language is a medium (I don't know what else we could call it), but it doesn't hold packets of meaning. It is the medium in which we hear utterances and in which we make sense of them for ourselves and for those around us.

      If language were a medium and readers/hearers didn't construct meanings (or participate in their construction), then meaning would have to be already present and available in the text/utterance, in which case language would be a vehicle for communicating pre-existing packets of meaning. But, meaning is not a thing that exists within the text (or, in Humpty-Dumpty's case, within the intentions of the speaker); meaning is a function of the relationship between text and reader (within a context/community).

      Recognizing the presence of an interpretive community is important. For starters, we did not teach ourselves language as individuals: we receive it from others and it always operates within our relationship to other speakers. Because the individual hearer/reader does not make meaning on her own--she interprets within a community of interpreters--she is not free to create just any meaning (and if she tries to, we can call her on it by offering more plausible alternative interpretations). If she persists in her idiosyncratic reading, we call her a bad reader or a solipsist (but probably not a relativist; again, I'm not certain about the content of your second objection).

      Understanding any piece of language--whether a vocal utterance or a written text--requires a process through which we discover or construct (I think it is always a combination of those) the significance of the utterance. Words (spoken as much as written) are arbitrary, conventional signs operating within linguistic systems and social structures, and they always carry some ambiguity that needs parsing (at bare minimum, "is this language" and "is it addressed to me").

      If you want to reserve the term "interpretation" for the process of understanding particularly ambiguous utterances (and I can see some reasons why this would be attractive), then we need another term for "the process of coming to understand an utterance." You said that "reading" would be the banal term, but it isn't so banal to talk about "reading speech" (and it would have to mean something other than recognizing written characters). If we don't interpret language, how do we come to understand it? Where does its meaning come from?

  2. FC,

    Can you explain what you mean by "hermeneutic practice"? - the reason i'm asking is b/c i'm suddenly not clear i understand the difference b/w that and the activity you described as "a conscious, deliberate exertion intended to resolve some significant ambiguity."

    So in particular, i feel i need to get clear about this difference. could you help?

    1. Reshef,

      I am using "hermeneutic practice" as a short-hand for "the process through which we come to understand the meaning of any text or utterance," not just difficult or obviously ambiguous texts.

      Some texts or utterances require more exertion because they contain relatively more ambiguity than others. I think that Duncan wants us to reserve the term "interpretation" for instances that make us sweat (a text or utterance whose ambiguity poses a specific challenge to understanding within the context we encounter it).

      But, since we do not immediately understand even the simplest utterances, we need a description of how we come to understand them. I have been using "interpret" to describe this broader, inescapable activity. If we want to reserve it for the sticky situations, what term do we use for the everyday practice of making sense of language?

    2. FC,

      You ask: “If we want to reserve [the term ‘interpretation’] for the sticky situations, what term do we use for the everyday practice of making sense of language?”

      I’m going to have to ask for your forgiveness. I have to leave this question for a while. I hope you won’t mind. I’m doing this, because I don’t yet have a sense that I fully understand the question, and I don’t want to give an answer to the wrong question. That is, it is possible that my philosophical training has made me blind to something here: to what you call “the everyday practice of making sense of language.” I ask you to believe me that I don’t have a good sense what this is supposed to mean. Perhaps much of the reason for my questions is exactly that: that I don’t understand what you have here in mind. So if this is okay with you, let us remember that I have a debt here—or at least that this is something that we need to go back to.

      Let me, therefore go back to trying to understand your position. You have given me a better sense of the distinction between interpretation in the limited sense that applies to, say, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and interpretation in the sense that applies for example to literary or philosophical texts in our own language—texts from our own culture and tradition. What I am not sure I understand is how deep you take this difference to be. (I can’t speak in Duncan’s name, but he might have a similar question here. And I’m saying that because I think there might be a miscommunication here between you two: he might not be making the distinction you think he is making. But I may be horribly wrong about that.) In any case, the importance of this distinction is not clear to me. This is because in both cases (the hieroglyphs and the literary text) the term ‘interpretation’ refers to a process through which we come to possess a text, find a way to have it in our world, make room for it in our mind. And of course, this can be applied to things other than texts, to which we are trying to find a place in our world. And if this is true, then there isn’t such a deep difference between the two activities (although there are, of course, differences).

      Now, if this is true, and if such processes of interpretation (that is of bringing things into our world) characterize our attitude to texts in general (for, as you say “we do not immediately understand even the simplest utterances”), then this seems to imply that we live in a kind of foreignness from texts in general (and perhaps other things as well): we always need to bring them into our world. They are never already in it. When I see you, for instance, this would mean that I have to go through a process of identifying you—interpreting the “text” of my visual input—before I can say “Hi!” And even after I have interpreted the situation, what I have is an interpretation of what I saw, which is just another “text” that I will then have to interpret again. I still don’t have you. In this way, I seem to remain always foreign in my own world. I’m never at home in the world. I never really have a world in the first place.

      Perhaps we can take this attitude of foreignness towards things. I’m not sure. It strikes me as terrifying. But maybe I’m supposed to be terrified.

      So, to recap, I’m trying to understand your position. I take it to be that texts are always in need of interpretation, that they always need to be brought into our world, and that we always need to bring them in, “even the simplest utterances.” And I don’t understand how this doesn’t have terrifying consequences, which makes me think I don’t understand it at all.

    3. Reshef,

      I can recognize my position in your explanation, and I think that we are now much closer to understanding each other. I think that "foreignness" has some particular strengths as a term for our relationship to texts (and, as you indicate, worldliness in general).

      You say that, if none of our interpretations will put an end to the need for interpretation, then "I seem to remain always foreign in my own world. I’m never at home in the world. I never really have a world in the first place."

      I would certainly agree with the first two of these claims. We are never entirely at home or simply at home in the world (just as we are never simply or entirely in possession of our selves). But, I would argue that this does not mean that we never have a world, unless by "have" you mean "securely possess." We inhabit a world, and we share this common world with others, but we are never simply at-home in it (or, in smaller terms, we never simply posses a finished or final meaning that lies beyond interpretation precisely because meaning is a social-textual function).

      I don't find this terrifying, but I can see how it can be (and, of course, being terrified would not be an argument against the position, only an argument that we would prefer it otherwise). For one, the lack of fixed ground leaves us continually responsible for a process of meaning-making and -unmaking that does not and could never have a final end. We don't usually live up to that responsibility (we take shortcuts, we are inattentive, we hold onto a meaning we came to once and refuse to reevaluate, we make assumptions about groups of people rather than listening to the individual, etc.), but we couldn't live up to it all the time. And that's probably OK. We are finite human beings, and we use our time-saving talent for pattern recognition to make a rough map of the world that serves most of our everyday needs. When an interpretation ceases to work, or when someone challenges our constructed meaning, then we should return to it and reevaluate it as best we can (recognizing that this won't be the final word on the topic). That is, from my perspective, where we find ourselves.

    4. Thanks. What you say helps.

      I think there is an ambiguity here, which I think prevents us from fully understanding each other. Let me try and sort it out, and tell me if I am missing something. You talk of putting an end to the need for interpretation, and I have been too. You seem to be saying that such an end will not come, and I’m saying that it has to. So we seem to be contradicting each other. But I’m not sure we are. I think it might be the case that you are speaking about one thing and I about something else. So tell me if the distinction I’m making makes sense. (That’s my first request.)

      When you say “end to the need for interpretation,” you mean end once and for all. When I talk of that end, I mean a temporary end—for a particular occasion with a particular purpose and in a particular context.

      If I understand you correctly, I completely agree with you. I don’t know how to imagine an absolute end for the need for interpretation once and for all. Perhaps this could be a way for someone to express some kind of faith, or an attitude towards life and the world—I don’t know. I am not sure how vital it is for our purpose.

      But it is a different matter settling what something means on a particular occasion and for a particular purpose—for instance if while reading paper I come across a word I don’t understand and look it up in a dictionary. Once I do that, I can continue with the paper. And this certainly doesn’t mean that in another occasion, and another context, and for another purpose, the word will not mean something else, or that my interpretation of the word is given for all purposes, and for all contexts, once and for all. It only means that once I have settled what the word means, I have no more need for interpretation on this occasion, and I can go on with my reading. And until then, I can’t. Until then, I don’t have a text (a world).

      I’m not entirely sure, but I think that you would agree with the stuff I said so far. Correct me if I’m wrong. (That’s my second request.) What I’m about to say next seems to me to follow naturally from what I have said, but here I’m not sure you’ll want to accept it. What I want to focus on now is the text—the word—as it has been interpreted by me (using my dictionary). I want to focus on the interpretation that allowed me to move on, to have a text. What I want to say is that THIS word does not now stand in need for further interpretation. And if this is so, then in this sense, admittedly very limited and temporary sense, there is an end to interpretation (an end to the need for interpretation on this occasion). – Does that go against what you are saying, or only superficially so? (That’s my third request.)


    5. Two comments:

      Most words I read are not like the one I read and couldn’t understand. Most words I already am familiar with. I already have them in my world, and do not need to interpret them. Again, this having a world is nothing permanent—it is not a once and for all kind of thing. This, in the kind of sense that you emphasize: that I may always find new ways of using familiar words, and so on. The point of this comment is to say that in the limited sense I described, certain words that I’m already familiar with (and texts, and things more generally) do not need interpretation. Explanation: I do not mean to say that they don’t need interpretation because I have them securely in my word once and for all, and that they can never become problematized for me. Not at all. I don’t know how to imagine a word that would have such an absolutely fixed, unproblematizable, meaning. I only mean that until the meaning of those words become problematized (and I can take the initiative, I don’t have to wait for them to become problematized), interpretation is not called for.

      If this is true, then this too seems to go against some of the things you said, at least superficially. Tell me if you would want to disagree with that. (That’s my fourth request.)

      This comment concerns the idea of absolutely fixed, unproblematizable meaning—the idea of an absolute end to interpretation once and for all. One of your main points, if I understand, is to argue against this idea. But it now occurs to me that there is a sense in which I’m here being even more radical than you are. You seem to be saying that there will never come an end to the need for interpretation. But saying that—this is my worry now—keeps the idea of an end to interpretation alive (if not the hope). It is saying something that has the form: ‘I know what you want (an end to interpretation); well, you can’t have that.’

      In other words, perhaps I’m mistaken, but I hear in what you say the claim: “A temporary end for interpretation is not really an end at all.” Again, I’m not sure you are saying this. But to the extent that you are, I think, you will be sharing the idea of an absolute end for interpretation, and the only difference between you and the absolutist will be that they think such an end can be achieved (if not in this life then in the next) and you think it can’t.

      Part of what I’m saying is that I don’t even have a clue as to how to imagine what someone who says they want an end to interpretation, what the absolutist, wants. Unlike you, I can’t say to them “I know what you want.” Their wish seems to me prima facie incoherent. At least, I don’t know how to make sense of it.

      So my question is (and this is my fifth and last request): Am I really being more radical then you? Duncan might hate me for this.

    6. I'm a bit lost (I feel the need to move with much smaller steps), but not feeling any hatred.

  3. Duncan,

    I'm putting this in a different thread, b/c I think it would be useful to separate the conversations. to at least try to prevent confusion.

    Regarding your last comment: Did nothing i said make any sense? What exactly was your remark a response to and whom? can you elaborate?

    1. Sorry, I should have been clearer. It's the conversation taken as a whole, and the multiple issues it raises, that confuses me. I've drafted (in the form of a separate post) a response to some comments, which might clarify what is puzzling me.

  4. I've missed a lot here, but this post reminded me of a poetry professor I had, who drove us students mad with his insistence that Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is about a man who went for a walk, and went one way rather than the other. When someone would suggest that the poem is really about something else (cherishing life, having no regrets, having regrets, etc.), he would ask for an indication of this in the poem, and then reiterate his position that the poem is about a man who went for a walk, and went one way rather than the other. Seems like a good example of (one way of) taking things (a poem) literally. (I see now he was probably trying to teach us a lesson about the dangers of "over-interpretation.")

    1. Yes, and it's a nice example because that's a poem that invites over-interpretation (or misinterpretation). Like most poems (I would think) Frost's can be taken in various ways, including literally.

      But compare that with instructions for putting together a piece of furniture. Would it be intelligible to talk about taking such instructions literally? It might as a joke, if we've just been having this conversation, or if taken literally the instructions are absurd (a bad translation from the original Swedish or Chinese, say). But if it says, "Now attach piece B to piece A using one of the screws in packet C" then it would be really weird to talk about taking this literally (or any other way).

    2. I see. I agree that there isn't much question about taking the instructions some other way. That would then raise questions about what is going on in other cases where it seems that we can "take" a text (or statement) literally or otherwise. (What is the otherwise called?) But I suppose, as you say, the instructions could be taken some other way as a joke. But aside from poor sentences, how the instructions are to be taken is clear. Maybe in the case of the constitution, you could play around with this analogy to assembly instructions.

    3. Maybe. I think I just want to say that the fact that we sometimes take things literally or figuratively or as a joke or...etc. doesn't mean that we always take every sentence some way or other. In some cases the language of taking it just doesn't apply.

      Some conservatives might want to treat the constitution as something that can only be taken one way (I don't know whether anyone claims this or not), but that's pretty clearly not true.

    4. I think that the word you are looking for isn't "literal" but "plot." Your professor wanted you to start by noting the plot of Frost's narrative poem (a man takes a walk, he remembers it, he predicts how he will remember it in the future). Once you notice the plot and its chronological structure, you can see things about the narrative (how the plot is presented by the speaker of the poem). For instance, the speaker is not identical to the previous version of himself who took the walk (this version is a character in his narrative) nor the future version of himself who will remember it farther in the future ("somewhere ages and ages hence"). After you've made that set of distinctions, you can notice that the final stanza is largely a quotation in the voice of the "future" character, which means the claim does not belong directly to the speaker of the poem as a whole. That, it turns out, is the most important distinction in the poem. The final nostalgic stanza offers the "moral" that his decision made "all the difference," but the speaker in our present does not yet know what differences this choice will have made. For that matter, he acknowledges (unlike his future nostalgic self) that the two paths were essentially identical ("both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black"). So, the poem may be about nostalgia or about the way that memory distorts our perception of the past in predictable ways (and not the "guidance counselor" interpretation of "go your own way," the interpretation most people want to rush into). None of these meanings are "literal." They are, however, all based in the words on the page. They are supported by evidence and reasonable argumentation. And, I feel compelled to point out, they begin by the non-simple and non-obvious work of finding the plot and separating it from the narrative.

    5. Right, the literal meaning of the poem is not something about nostalgia or memory. It's about a man going for a walk. That isn't an interesting fact, and it seems obvious that the poem is meant to have something like a moral. It isn't simply a diary entry plus a prediction. But it still seems to me that there is a literal meaning, however uninteresting it might be. It isn't a meaning in the sense of being a message or a point made indirectly by the words on the page. But that's literal meanings for you.

    6. Maybe I should say more. If you asked me what the poem means I might tell you the plot, and you might say, "No, I want to know what it all means." If I really, implausibly, believed that the poem was nothing but a report on a walk plus a prediction then I might insist that the poem's meaning is just what I said it was. But I think one might also say that in this sense of meaning (meaning as significance or point) there is no such thing as literal meaning. Because part of what we mean by the word 'meaning' (when used in this way) is something like 'indirect purpose.' So if I ask what you mean by a certain remark and you say "Nothing," what you are saying is that there was no further purpose to your words, not that you were talking nonsense. In one sense of meaning, then, it is reasonable to say that there is no such thing as literal meaning. But there are other uses of the word 'meaning'. If one person says that by 'yellow wood' Frost means middle age and another insists these words be taken literally then this person is not talking nonsense. So the word 'literal' and the words 'literal meaning' do, it seems to me, have a legitimate use.

    7. I can agree with you that, in a certain way, we do ask for a literal (as opposed to allegorical, moral, ect.) reading of the poem. If one of my students says "the yellow wood is middle age," then I might say "you're jumping to allegory, let's stay with the more literal meaning," but I'm much more likely to say "prove it: show me the evidence that it's about middle age."

      While asking for evidence has some of the same effects as asking for a literal meaning, it differs in a couple of important ways. First, it doesn't assume that the literal meaning is clear and/or free from the burdens of evidence. Many people misread this poem because they think the "literal" description is of two very different paths. If we read carefully, however, we see that they are practically identical. Even the "literal" reading of the plot needs textual evidence. Second, asking for evidence doesn't draw a sharp line between the "literal" and the "interpreted." Any meaning we take from the poem needs to be supported, so they all share a structural need for evidence, analysis and argument. You might be able to prove that the "yellow wood" is middle age (autumn leaves, Dante allusions, etc.), but you have to defend it, and, if you can defend it, then that interpretation is no more or less valid than the "literal" reading of the plot. Third, that continuity is important because even the "literal" reading of the plot implies a complex act of interpretation. (This may be something like "indirect purpose," I'm not sure). We read a poem not as Robert Frost's diary entry or someone's lunchtime conversation but *as a poem,* as an utterance that has a plot and a narrator who is separate from the person who wrote or is reciting the poem. (In this sense, none of the above meanings are "literal.") We treat it as a poem and not as report on weekend activities because it indicates a context that governs how we read poems.

      Someone could, of course, mistake it for one of those more mundane forms of speech, but we would want to correct them. We would do that by pointing to evidence in the poem or its context that indicates they are trying to interpret the poem out of context. In other words, we determine the plot, narrative, thematic significance and even the poem's status as a poem through the same process of interpretation (support a potential understanding by pointing to available evidence). In that way, any defensible interpretation is as literal (and non-literal) as the next.

    8. If one of my students says "the yellow wood is middle age," then I might say "you're jumping to allegory, let's stay with the more literal meaning,"

      Right. I'm sure this is true. I'm not sure why, given this, you switch in the next paragraph from using the word literally seemingly quite happily to only ever using it in scare quotes.

      we determine the plot, narrative, thematic significance and even the poem's status as a poem through the same process of interpretation (support a potential understanding by pointing to available evidence). In that way, any defensible interpretation is as literal (and non-literal) as the next.

      I'm not sure what you mean. We don't determine the poem's status as a poem through a process of interpretation, surely. We might if we found it somewhere and were not sure whether it was a poem or something else. But typically we find this poem in a book of poems assigned in a class on poetry. In that context it could only be a joke to say that we determine its status as being that of a poem. Or so it seems to me. I also don't see what determining the plot, etc. has to do with whether a certain interpretation is literal or not. As you said, a reading that takes it to be about middle age, say, is less literal than one that takes it to be about a walk in a wood. That doesn't make it less good or less right, but it is less literal. Literal does not mean defensible (or correct or anything else).

    9. The reason I demote literal to "literal" is that, while I might use it to push students in one direction or another, it isn't a very useful term in the end because it doesn't mean very much when applied to literature. "Literal" doesn't help us distinguish "plot" from "narrative" from "dialogue" (and the list goes on), and none of those are the same as Frost telling a friend in a letter that he went for a walk yesterday. In fact, we have no reason for assuming--based on the poem taken as a poem--that Frost ever took the walk described in this poem (his speaker takes the walk, and he is not the lyric speaker). Even the most basic reading of plot in the poem disregards the question of whether he ever took the walk because, when we read it as a poem, Frost is not the person speaking to us. Any reading whatsoever that takes the poem as a poem includes playing along in a game in which the person speaking to us is not the author but an invention of the author (but playing along in such a way that the author is also speaking). For my money, "literal" is far too weak a term to capture that complex reading activity. Some people make this distinction between invention and reportage by calling one figurative and the other literal, but that doesn't get us out of the woods either (since much non-poetic speech is figurative).

      As for recognizing the poem as a poem, we absolutely do determine its status as a poem through a process of interpretation. Saying that it is obviously a poem because it is in a book of poetry assigned in a poetry class obscures the work of interpretation done by the teacher who designed the course, the editors who curated the volume, the original publishers who made it available for selection and the poet himself who sat over his desk asking "is this a poem yet, or not?" We can't rely explicitly on our community's prior interpretations in order to say that interpretation is not necessary. That is arguing in bad faith about the need for *someone* to make the interpretation (and functions explicitly as an appeal to authority).

      Even when all of those institutionally confirmed interpretations of the words on the page as poetry are in place, students in classes like the ones you describe often ask "what makes this a poem" or simply refuse, on first sight, to recognize poems as poems. This is especially true when teaching prose poems and/or free verse.

      In cases where people do quickly and uncontroversially recognize a poem as a poem, they are relying on evaluative criteria that they receive from a community of readers (regular meter, line breaks, rhyme). They may make this call quickly or reflexively, but that just means they are practiced in making this interpretation and can make it quickly (not that they aren't interpreting). If, on a closer look, those line breaks turn out to be the column breaks in a newspaper, they will probably revise their original interpretation of the line breaks as indicating a poem.

      Recognizing a work of art as art is even more challenging in painting and conceptual art, where people frequently reject the institutions that curate and present those works (Duchamp's Fountaine was rejected as not being art by an exhibit committee on which he sat, it is now recognized by art historians as one of the 20th century's most important art works, and my students vehemently deny that it is art).

    10. Side question #1. Is this poetry:

      Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
      And will not let belief take hold of him
      Touching this dreaded sight twice seen of us;
      Therefore I have entreated him along
      With us to watch the minutes of this night,
      That, if again this apparition come,
      He may approve our eyes and speak to it.

      Side question #2. How about this:

      Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!

    11. The reason I demote literal to "literal" is that, while I might use it to push students in one direction or another, it isn't a very useful term in the end because it doesn't mean very much when applied to literature.

      I think I agree with everything you say in this paragraph, except that I don't see why a word's not being very useful is a reason to put it in scare quotes when you do use it. I don't think the word 'beautiful' is very useful in art criticism, but if I ever did want to say that a painting, e.g., was beautiful I would say so. If I called it "beautiful" (in scare quotes) instead that would imply that I did not really think it was beautiful. Are we just using quotation marks differently?

      Saying that it is obviously a poem because it is in a book of poetry assigned in a poetry class obscures...

      Well, I don't think so. I think that saying this is simply stating an obvious truth. Taking it to obscure anything is reading into it things that aren't there. It is also to fail to see the determining work done by the context. (And saying this is not denying that this context is very largely a human creation.)

      we absolutely do determine its status as a poem through a process of interpretation

      You are using the words 'process' and 'interpretation' in ways I don't understand. But we've talked about this before so there's no need to go over it again.

      As far as I can see the point you then go on to make is that telling what is poetry or art is sometimes difficult, and can be controversial. Of course I agree. But this does not mean that it is never easy or beyond doubt.

  5. "In some cases the language of taking it just doesn't apply."

    That seems like a good way of putting it to me.