In our recent online discussion about analyzing texts ("Must We Analyze So Closely?" - Google group members only), some folks expressed concern that "picking apart" a work of literature might ruin the enjoyment of it. Others responded that it's necessary to read closely if we really want to understand what's in a work. If we don't analyze, we might enjoy the work, but we might be missing something. Moreover, deeper understanding might also bring with it fuller enjoyment.
Both the complaint and the response have some merit. But both also overlook something. The fact is that whenever we care about the meaning of an utterance (written or spoken), or about why it affects us the way it does, we have no hesitation in analyzing closely. This is as true of our ordinary utterances, and of utterances that we don't ordinarily consider "literary," as it is of poetry or fiction or drama.
No one who cares about the meaning of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for example, would likely argue that analyzing it closely is unnecessary, or that doing so might detract from our experience of it.
Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen has written extensively about the way we analyze the things we say to each other in ordinary conversation. In "I Heard What You Didn't Say" (first published in the Washington Post on May 13, 2001), she offers this example among others:
A couple is looking over the menu in a restaurant. David announces, "I'll have the steak." Irene says pleasantly, "Did you notice they also have salmon?"
David protests, "Will you please stop criticizing what I eat?"
Irene feels unfairly accused: "I didn't criticize. I just pointed out something I thought you'd like."
Irene's question is not, on the message level, a criticism. It could easily be heard as friendly and helpful. But David knows that Irene thinks he eats too much red meat, too much dessert and, generally speaking, too much. So when Irene makes a remark — any remark — about his eating, he is primed to hear it as criticism. The impression of disapproval comes not from the message, but from the metamessage, based on their shared history.
You can imagine for yourself where David and Irene's conversation might go next, with David perhaps bringing up the things Irene has said in the past as the context in which he has heard what she "didn't say," Irene protesting that he's "reading in" to her simple, innocent remark, David countering that in addition to the context, Irene's "tone" made it clear that she was criticizing, and Irene finally throwing up her hands and saying, "This is nonsense! I said they also have salmon. I didn't say you shouldn't have the steak!"
To which David would undoubtedly respond, "I know you didn't say it. You didn't have to."
Tannen makes a distinction between Irene's "message" — what she literally said about the menu — and the "metamessage," the message floating in the air, so to speak, "above" the literal message.
But in its basic form, her distinction is no different from the one we make as literary critics when we say that there is more to a line of poetry than what is evident on its "surface" — that there is more meaning, or even a quite different meaning, available to us if we "dig deeper."
And the way we "dig deeper" when we read poetry is not, in its basic form, different from the way we dig deeper into our conversations with friends and family. We look at any given line of a poem in the larger context of the poem as a whole, and perhaps at the whole poem in the context of its author's life, or of the time and place in history that it was written, or of the relationship between the author and her readers. We look, also, for cues that can help us determine the line's tone. (Is there irony here, for example?)
Sure, there are things we think about when reading poetry that we don't think about when talking to friends and family, but that's only because we know that poets make systematic use of resources — the sounds and rhythms of words and phrases, for example — that aren't usually relevant in ordinary conversation (although they can be relevant, and probably are so more often than we recognize).
But — to come back to where we began — we are only likely to think about any of these things if we care what the line of poetry means. And we're only likely to care about the line if we care about the poem as a whole. And if we do care, then as I said above, we don't ask whether analysis is necessary. We just do it.