Sunday, March 19, 2006

Poetry; Take Two

I'm still thinking about poetry over here, and about interpretation and about how every one of us brings a unique perspective to whatever we encounter.

Sure, there are some things that are pretty obvious as to what they mean - it would be difficult to misinterpret my WAFFLES! limerick** or Shakespeare's 116th sonnet, though we all might take something slightly different away from the piece depending on our mindset at the time of reading. As long as you don't ADD anything to a poem that isn't there and come up with an interpretation that is essentially made up - if you take your cues from the text and whatever the words mean to you - then you're doing it "right." (One of the things that annoyed me about my college poetry classmate was that he insisted that the speaker in Frost's Acquainted With the Night poem was a rapist fleeing capture, and there's NOTHING in the text to suggest that kind of violence. But I digress...).

I find, though, that students want to know the "answer" more than they want to find out what answers they can generate on their own. I'm constantly being asked what the author meant when the piece was written. Granted, I'm working with freshmen who may not have had much experience yet in challenging textual authority, but I'm working hard to get them to understand that there may not BE any answers beyond the ones that come from their own experience with the text and the meaning they make from it. More than that, I sometimes find that I don't WANT to know what the author was thinking at the time he or she composes a poem; very often - and more than a little obviously - my personal interpretation brings far more meaning to me than whatever the "real" meaning of the piece was intended to be.

Case in point? Jonatha Brooke is one of my favorite singer/songwriters. She put out a song called "Is This All" that I LOVED. It's beautiful and lyrical and, well, it sort of spoke to me. That is, until I read what she was thinking about when she wrote it. I couldn't help but feel that the song was kind of "ruined" for me, since knowing that little bit of information supplanted my own interpretation of the song. I've vowed to never again go to artists' websites or liner notes or biographies to find out what they were thinking when they wrote a particular song or poem or novel; I have enough faith in my own ability to make meaning that I don't feel I need to rely on others' truths - even the authors'.

It happened to me once by accident, though, that I learned the background to another song after I'd already made an imprint of it in my mind. Patty Griffin's "As Cold as it Gets" is a
painfully gorgeous song that I interpreted through the lens of my less-than-healthy childhood; It resonated in me as the adult child of emotionally abusive parents. It was interesting to me to find out later, though, that the song had been written about Simon Wiesenthal and was almost titled "Nazi Hunter." Strangely, my feelings for the song didn't change after learning this, though - I felt as though my thinking about the song was in line with the original intent in a strangely sort of cosmic way - unlike my feelings about Jonatha's song.

My point is that, in neither case is my interpretation "wrong." It may not be what the artist intended, but I'm not sure that I buy that the artist has any say over how their work is viewed anyway. I stand by my assertion that literature in its broadest sense - poetry, novels, music, short stories, art, you name it - doesn't really exist until someone looks at it, "reads" it, and makes meaning from it. I'm going to quote Probst again here:

In a very important sense, it (literature) does not exist outside the individual reader in the same way as do the physical phenomena studied by scientists. A volcano is there, regardless of who sees it or fails to see it, and it will erupt or lie dormant whether anyone cares or not, but a literary work has no significance at all until it is read. The ink on the paper is nothing until a reader picks up the page, reads and responds to it, and thereby transforms it into an event.

THAT's what I'm talking about. Am I making sense?



I woke in a mood mean and dour
My orange juice spoiled and sour.
WAFFLES! I thought,
would cheer me a lot,
though it seems I am quite out of flour.


Blogger vanx said...

It's all about the personal experience. That is what we draw from when we create and when we appreciate art. You discuss popular songwriters here—one of my favorite songwriters, Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco, has said incredibly on-target things about all of this as well. He speaks of songs—art—as having “holes” in it that are filled with the experience of the person regarding the work. Only when that happens—when someone responds to art and makes it their own on the level of personal experience—does the work become art or even exist. He says very Dylan-like, baffling things when asked what one of his songs is “about,” because there is really no answer to such a question. He also has very interesting things to say about creation: “I feel better when I’m making raw material...That’s the pure stuff, the essence of everything, the stuff that comes from somewhere that you can identify as being other than you... The best stuff is smarter than you are, and it just doesn’t smell like you.” That’s kind of a challenging idea—I think he’s referring to work that comes from a “real self” that the artist has a hard time getting to through all the layers of acculturation. It’s the shock of recognizing one’s self, and it works for the artist as well as the audience. Tweedy also likes to work through a process of destroying things as he goes along to see if there are better, simpler, truer ways to put things together. I still love Rock n’ Roll!
I really enjoyed and learned a lot from your poetry posts, Mrs C.

March 20, 2006 9:09 AM  

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