When I was young, my brother’s dresser stood near my bed and, just after waking, I’d search for forms and faces among patterns in the wood. I could make clowns and rockets and bullfights from the waves and whorls, and I was proud of my talent, the sort of talent a child assigns himself when he doesn’t know everyone can do the same thing.
I’ve since discovered we all find something. My job often seems the verbal equivalent of my early searches. Literature is a system of relationships—imagery with character, character with plot, plot with narrative voice, narrative voice with implication. The variables proliferate until there is no telling exactly which or what elicits what. Nor can we know how much is us, not it. The Turing Test might not confirm my thinking, but for me literature is like artificial intelligence. Each story, poem, and novel provides answers to any question, and the frontier of complexity isn’t very far out at all. Eleven words is often enough:
In just one night
My razor has rusted over
Bonchō has nothing to say about the capital of Brazil, but a great deal to say about change, decay amid growth, and the sting of aging. I picture a wanderer barely clinging to propriety—that razor—pulling it out to make himself presentable only to discover with what short order nature has spoiled his resolution, spilling as he shrinks, growing as he rusts.
This is my reading, of course—an echo of my mind, a constellation I’ve constructed from stars I see. Others might see other stars, and some familiar image inside them will find its own way into the skies. They read patterns just as I do, and sometimes more resourcefully and persuasively. In doubtful moments, I worry my work is a sham, that I’m more interested in what I might make of literature than teaching the process we all use to make something of it.
Details in the literature can disallow interpretations, no doubt, but even flawed interpretations can be oddly beautiful, the reconstruction of clouds with a few pieces missing.
At school, we have shelves of cloud readings, famously smart persons holding forth on all the novels, plays, and poems we study. Preferring to find my own way, I don’t value their thinking the way I used to. I’m wondering now how many correct patterns we can devise. I read their interpretations as a wanderer in another mind. I like being there but can’t pretend it’s the only world.
We interact with everything we see, hear, and sense. It’s part it and part us. The pleasure rests in that relationship, in appreciating the meaning-making we all do.