I’ve had a number of epiphanic moments in the last year or two that I chalk up to experience. One of these has to do with a tendency I’m noticing among people, a tendency to decontextualize a bit of information by removing it from a larger source and then using that shard to insist on a meaning which it never was meant to carry. Take, for example, how those who claim to be adherents to a particular set of religious beliefs pick and choose from the Ur text, deciding which rules to follow and which to ignore. Many who point to Leviticus (as the New Testament says precious little about homosexuality and the Gospels nothing at all) to demonize homosexuals easily ignore other parts of the Book. Leviticus 19:27, say, lays down this law: "'Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” So, clean shaven men are in trouble with God. Biblical rules from both the New and Old Testaments are routinely ignored, such as those against tattoos or the eating of pork, while others are wielded like weapons by holy rollers. The part does not speak for the whole.
This happens in political discourse with great regularity now that real, honest journalism, for the most part, no longer exists, replaced by manipulative deceivers of all stripes who take words out of the larger context and spin them in such a way as to place the speaker of the extracted words in a particular, artificial light. It’s devious, and we are all lesser for it. We ought to be ashamed.
It happens in poetry, too, by misreading poems, allowing some line or two to stand for the whole. That is, sometimes we read sloppily and fail to realize what the poem is really trying to say. Two classic examples can be brought to bear here. The first has to do with the famous partial line from Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “For poetry makes nothing happen . . . .” As Don Share points out in a wonderful blog piece, this partial line is often used “as some sort of evidence for the reductiveness and hermetic inutility of poetry. And yet…This ignores the fact that the phrase occurs in a POEM – one, moreover, that eulogizes a poet who made things happen (being a politician and activist, as well as a writer), W.B. Yeats.” You can read the rest of his essay here.
Another case has to do with Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” which can be viewed here. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone misread this poem via the partial sense of its final three lines (lines I’ve seen severed from the poem and placed on posters hanging on classroom walls), I could keep my car filled with gas for a couple of weeks at least. The lines are these: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” To try and understand the whole poem by what appears to be, excised from the entirety of the poem, a simple, pat closure belittles Frost’s artistry, as it does the careless reader. The poem DOES NOT mean to suggest that the choice of the less used road has led him to success; in fact, the poem makes clear that “Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same, // And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” Furthermore, the speaker implicates himself in the telling of a fictional story. In other words, reading the whole poem with attention complicates the narrative and makes it real; to read it as some sort of feel good, different drummer propaganda is to misread it. The part does not equal the whole.