Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Constructing the Innocence of the First Textual Encounter

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Constructing the Innocence of the First Textual Encounter

Article excerpt

"Anarchism and the Parking Meter"

   As I was about
   to put a quarter
   in the parking meter,
   a man walking by
   stopped, whirled,
   fired three karate kicks
   decapitating the meter,
   and stretched out
   his hand
   for the quarter

--Martin Espada

Espada's poem never fails to evoke a smile, if not an outright laugh, from readers when they encounter it for the first time. Whether first encountered in a poetry text, in an essay such as this one, in a classroom, or at a college open house "mini-lecture" showcasing the "value" of literature for prospective students and their parents, the poem's parking meter is a familiar object and the rage it elicits is a shared sentiment.

The language of the poem is simple, despite the word "anarchism," and therefore accessible to both hesitant and sophisticated readers. Seldom does anyone feel that the poem presents an insurmountable barrier to comprehension. It is precisely because of its semantic transparency that Espada's poem provides the ideal ground on which to examine the relationship between innocent and experienced reading, and the different responses we have to the familiar and unfamiliar. Most readers voice their familiarity with the parking meter and almost immediately say what a hated object it is. They follow up this response with a sense of surprise: anarchism?? How strange that something as concrete as a parking meter would be yoked to an abstract and a complex idea like anarchism.

They're fascinated as well by the word "decapitating." Imagine the anger, imagine the turn to violence that would lead an individual to such an act, they observe. At the same time, they sense the humor in the visually rich language--"whirled/ fired three karate kicks"--leading up to the parking meter's decapitation. Then, someone will say that the parking meter is a symbol of state power, a reminder of the constant intrusion of the government into and its regulation of our lives. Others might be most interested in the outstretched hand and the request for the quarter; the violent kicker is transformed into a needy scrounger. Such an observation might (and has) led to the view that "It's a commentary about society. We would rather 'feed' an inanimate object than a human being." Someone else resists this suggestion, aggressively, "How are you getting that? You're reading too much into the poem!"

Of course, it's no surprise to those of us who teach literature, that a text that elicits such varied and rich responses is precisely the kind of text we should be teaching. But Espada's poem is useful not simply because it reminds us of the pleasure of the textual encounter, but also because it very efficiently both allows every reader to re-conceive the familiar parking meter and gain insight into her/his own "tolerance" for certain kinds of analysis. The textually-oriented reader feels her/himself reluctant to move away from a focus on the play of language and the intellectual energy of the words in the poem and their relationship with one another. The world-oriented reader moves in and out of the space of the poem to connect to experiential urgencies. There are, of course, the hybrid readers who are both textual and worldly in varying degrees. For many individuals, the recognition of the type of reader they are can come as a shock--I didn't realize I was that kind of reader.

For teachers, too, the terrain of the classroom can shift unpredictably as a result of many forces, none of which we can account for fully. As a result of that shifting terrain, teachers can find themselves changing their own interpretations of the poem and their understanding of how they themselves read. Teaching the Espada poem can feel at one extreme like an innocent and spontaneously embraced adventure--when you have no way of knowing what the poem will do to the students in your classroom or the audience at the open house mini-lecture; or, at the other end, it can feel like a carefully rehearsed performance where you orchestrate when you will say what and how you will invite the voices of people in the room to make their contributions. …

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