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Passions in Poetry

Interpretation and poetry

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Member Ascendant
since 08-20-99
Posts 5896
Jejudo, South Korea

0 posted 03-10-2001 10:53 PM       View Profile for Brad   Email Brad   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Brad

Craig, I stole this from another thread but since I've already written it, I figured . . .

For those of you who have accepted the intentional fallacy, shame on all of you!!

If we get away from the idea of 'right' and 'wrong' interpretations, I think we can see this in a slightly different light. When you write a poem, you may have an idea in your head, when you finish your poem you may have an idea in your head, but when you actually write the words, where did you go? My argument here is that you can't write and read at the same time (simutaneously). Now why do I know that some of you are going to try it. Writing and reading makes you two different people. You can switch between the two pretty fast of course but it's still not quite the same time. Hasn't anyone else read your own poem and wondered what the hell you were thinking when you wrote it? Hasn't anyone else changed his or her mind as they wrote a poem about what the thing is about? When you read, you interpret. When you write, you, well, I don't know exactly what it is but it's not the same as reading (maybe we should call it creating but that's another whole bag of beans if we get into that.) Essentially (hate that word), the identity of any person is multiple, the roles a person plays are many. If you follow this, then you can understand that the writer's interpretation is not an AUTHORitarian interpretation but one interpretation among many.

So does this mean that you can believe a piece to be anything you want?

Answer: Yes

So why does this seem so counterintuitive to most of us? I think primarily because most of us like to think that we live in a sort of stasis. The very words I'm using right now serve to reinforce this idea of a set meaning, of a set identity, of a set idea of self.

I am what I am.

On the other hand, there is the tendency for some to see the above argument as a free for all call, of a chance to be completely free from all those crazy ideas that we call thinking but the mistake here is that you can't be free without this tentative idea called the individual. How can you be free if there is no you?

Is anybody still reading this?

Okay, all interpretations are equally valid because in essence (hate it, just hate saying that)there is no such thing as a valid interpretation from the start -- when you write and when you read, you are two different people. However, if we decide that there should be a valid interpretation for any of a number of different reasons (trying to understand each other and the world around us would be a good one), then the idea is to find the interpretation that most people are persuaded by.

There is a great interpretation of God's Chariot in Milton's Paradise Lost that describes it as a tank (another one describes Hell in the same poem as the planet Venus). In terms of the words, it's very convincing but it's just not persuasive because we KNOW that Milton never saw a tank and certainly never visited Venus. Come on guys, get back to the real world, stop this useless theorizing and tell me what he meant.

Actually, tell me something I can believe.

And that's the key I think. If you are persuaded by an interpretation based on your already set belief system (at least we think it's set because it does change but we can't think like that because if we did, we couldn't think at all)[Craig, what you call a touchstone] then you think that interpretation is 'right'. Persuasion is the key, not the author, not the history, not metaphysics, not the depths of your soul, not the authority of your professor, not me.

Still, we all intuitively want to believe in the authority of the author because that confirms the authority of ourselves and what we do. It gives us an anchor in chaos but it is always an arbitrary decision to do so. If we choose not to do this, not to follow the author, you have to start from another base and those that listen have to share that base or you won't persuade them. If you don't have a base, you can't have an interpretation.

It's your decision.

More later,

Member Rara Avis
since 05-19-99
Posts 9708
Michigan, US

1 posted 03-10-2001 11:08 PM       View Profile for Ron   Email Ron   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems   Click to visit Ron's Home Page   View IP for Ron

I can't believe it, Brad! For once, you and I are in total, complete agreement on an issue.  

Yep, the author is the only person who can really knows what his words mean. Everyone else is just guessing.
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since 11-23-2000
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2 posted 03-11-2001 03:00 AM       View Profile for Greg_s   Email Greg_s   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Greg_s

Brad-It is my opinion that you are correct in your last two paragraphs. I like that you say, "Persuasion is the key." This comes close to my own feelings. There are, I think, right and wrong interpretations. That which separates the two of them is the evidence given for the said interpretations. I cannot be convinced that just any interpretation, explication, close reading, whatever you wish to call it, is correct, just becuase someone comes up with it. Granted, the reader feels more validated if their interpretation is based on their system of belief, but a single person's ideas are not all. I think that this is an experience which all poets must have, though some more than others. The author, who is often erronously regarded as the sole authority on interpretaion of their own work, may intend something when they write a poem. However, if someone else comes along and interprets the poem in a different way than the author intended, I would be inclined to believe the reader only if they provide ample evidence for their explication. Evidence, I think, is key.

Because of the malleability of words and the limitless boundaries of human interpretation, almost anything can be constured from a poem. Like your example of Milton and the tank and Venus. I would be willing to accept an interpretation along these lines were the critic to give ample evidence from not only the passage he chooses to conjure this idea, but the work as a whole. I do not know the lines of Milton where God's chariot is discussed, but perhaps they lead a reader to believe that Milton means a tank. My question, does the rest of the work, or the passage in context with the rest of the work support the theory that God's chariot is a tank? And what about the question of Milton not knowing what a tank is? This sounds like a quandry that pertains to the collective subconscious, but I don't know too much about that. Probably a different thread anyway. This said, I think I have come to disagree with you, for I do not think that one can CORRECTLY interpret a piece in any way that they choose.

Yes, one may interpret a passage however one likes, but no, not all interpretations are correct, without adequate support. Thus, once again, evidence is the key (at least for me). To note, I have never seen anyone give an interpretation that seemed completely different or skewed from what appears on the surface of a text. I have seen people try to give interpretations for poems and fail becasue they were not able to back up their claims. Thus, they made an incorrect interpretation. This does not mean they have no reason or right to believe whatever they want, but when they intend their interpretation to be correct, they fall short.

So I wonder, do we as readers and critics of poems not want to have a sense of correctness when we interpret poems? Isn't that sense of correctness the thing that gives us that communal sense of understanding and enlightenment? Once one comes up with an interpretation that works for the individual AND finds the evidence to support it, this becomes the good feeling that the reader has because they understand the poem, and in part, the author. And what of all these English classes I'm taking in college? If the teacher believe that my interpretation does not have adequate support, they (and I) feel it is incorrect, and I get a lower grade because of it. I suppose that is a facetious comment to make, since teachers and school are a bit more restrictive when allowing the student to interpret, but I think it gets back to my idea. There are right and wrong interpretations, but it is not the person that the interpretation comes from, but the evidence that they give to support their interpretation.

I like your last two paragraphs, especially the part about the base of ideas, tabula rasa in Latin, I think. I agree that we must have a basis with which to start interpretation, and hopefully if the poem is a good one, that interpretation will lead one out further from their base than they previously were. However, I do not believe that all interpretations of poems are correct. These are my thoughts.

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3 posted 03-11-2001 10:10 AM       View Profile for Craig   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Craig

Brad I must have missed this gem, there are a lot of interesting points.

Iím stuck for time at the moment, my wife has decided, as they are apt to do, that Iím decorating the kitchen today, Iíve managed to wangle a few minutes so Iíll try to be brief.

Hereís my interpretation of what youíre saying, please correct me if Iím wrong.

Everyone can interpret a poem as they please.

Every interpretation is valid in some measure.

Some interpretations are more valid than others are.

Persuasion is the deciding factor for interpretation.

If this is what youíre saying Iím with you 100% but I still need to step through it just to be sure.

Everyone can interpret a poem (or anything else for that matter) as they please, this seems straightforward, the only possible sticking point is that this includes the author. Youíve used the possibility of a separation of the author into a reader and a writer, very convincingly I might add, to get around this. Iíd feel more comfortable if we took the author out of the equation altogether, there is justification, the author if Ron is correct doesnít need to interpret, he KNOWS what the poem means.

Every interpretation is valid in some measure, no problem with this at all, in fact it fits my touchstone description perfectly. Your statements however seem to be drawing a direct correlation between interpretation and meaning, there is a connection, one is the way we arrive at the other, itís the method of transportation while meaning is the destination. To see interpretation in itís true light we need to separate it from meaning, Iím probably making a hash of describing this so Iíd like to use a poem (not a very good one but good enough as an example here) if I may.

Those eyes hawked, flashed grass upon a greener hill
Wooed me with their beat
Two timed my pulses race,
Caught held me once, they hold me captured still.

That silken mane, that gilded flowing frame
I bolted eager to that purse,
Lungs filled to burst with scent,
Entangled within those tresses I helplessly remain.

Sweet whispering lips, whose ruby beckoned call
Set me on this course,
With tongue tied muscles ache
Whose numb lies tripping stumbled me to fall.

Here I am a reader with no additional information apart from the words and my touchstone to work with to use interpretation to arrive at the meaningÖ..

There done it, Iíve read it and arrived at my destination, this poem is about love. This interpretation is correct, at least to me at this time.

Here I am another reader with the same words but a different touchstoneÖ

This is easy, itís about hunting, the references are all hunting terms. This interpretation is also correct.

Two separate interpretations, both valid measured by individual knowledge or belief but the next hurdle is that some interpretations are more valid than others. Luckily we have persuasion to guide us, I could go into the possible ensuing arguments for either interpretation, at the end of the day both would be found equally valid and the meaning would become an amalgamation of the two. At least until a third interpretation comes along, then the fun really begins.

I have to go, that kitchen and my wife are waiting.

Thanks for the chance to read and reply

Yes, I admit your general rule. That every poet is a fool:
But I myself may serve to show it. That every fool is not a poet.

Member Ascendant
since 08-20-99
Posts 5896
Jejudo, South Korea

4 posted 03-12-2001 07:37 PM       View Profile for Brad   Email Brad   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Brad

Kitchens and wives? Sounds very familiar to me -- "Just five more minutes, Honey. I'm almost done."

Are you sure we agree? I am arguing that interpretation revolves around the author, I
am not saying that the author has the final say in an interpretation. Authors lie, have
masks, play games, change their minds, and generally try to put the best light on
anything they do. I am arguing that any one interpretation's persuasiveness is linked to
what we think the author actually knew but it doesn't rule out disagreeing with the
author. Of course, your statement is not
inaccurate if you take my distinctions seriously.

Greg, we disagree less than you think. I was beginning with an assumption, "a poem
can mean anything you want" and trying to show that isn't really what we do. I agree
with you about evidence, but I was also trying to show what are some of the
determining factors for evidence (maybe I was trying to say too much in the above post?).

Yeah, that's pretty much what I meant. I was starting with a fairly common
assumption and trying to show that that's not what we do. At the same time I was
trying to show that, while the author may not always have the final say, we still use
the author as an anchor to determine what a poem actually says. We still use or try to
use the author's context to determine a poem's meaning. If we don't know the author, we try to understand the historical, social context to determine that meaning.

As a result, a poem cannot mean "anything you want" if somebody wants to convince
you, Greg, Ron, me, or anybody else interested in determining meaning. This doesn't mean there's a final say, a right answer, it just means that at any one point, one or a few interpretations will be more persuasive than others.

The impetus for this thread was in Crash and Burn's thread. Craig disagreed with my comment:

"If everybody can interpret it the way they want, then it doesn't mean anything.

Because it means everything".

I stand by this statement because I think there are rules to this game. Admittedly, some of those rules are so ingrained in the way we think that they aren't really acknowledged as rules anymore. It's 'natural', it's common sense but it also limits what we actually do. The conditional clause above "If everybody can interpret it the way they want" implies that it can mean anything I choose it to mean. Okay, I can then take Craig's poem posted above and argue that it was about my problems Tuesday with the garbage man.

But it gets worse than that.

Doesn't it follow that I don't even have to bother reading it -- it can mean anything I want so I don't have to read it, I can tell you what it means and there's nothing you or the writer can tell me any different, you've already conceded that I don't have to read it. If I don't have to read it, does it matter what it says?

On a philosophical level:

Anything implies that everything is possible. If everything is possible then the poem means nothing; there's no way to contrast it to something, there's no way to say that it doesn't mean something; there's no was to decide on a meaning.

On a political level:

Let's go back to the garbage man example. It is impossible to argue against this interpretation but is it possible to argue for this interpretation? If I argue that it means this for me, I am also saying that it has a determinant meaning, I am therefore arguing that the poem is not indeterminant, that it has a meaning, but someone can also argue that it doesn't mean anything. I guess the argument is that it is determinant for me and indeterminant for someone else but in both cases, the poem has a specific point. It cannot have a general 'anything' for 'everybody' because it always has a specific meaning (or no meaning)for somebody.

If it has a specific meaning for somebody then it follows that someone could decide that they have the sole meaning and enforce that meaning on me; if I believe that he or she can have that opinion, I must relinquish my own in order for that opinion to be valid. I cannot do this and still allow the original statement to stand, can I? When someone says that a poem can mean anything, it is a contradiction.

Meaning means something, never anything.

Member Ascendant
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5 posted 03-12-2001 08:11 PM       View Profile for Brad   Email Brad   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Brad

Hmmmm, I just realize that my two posts can be seen as contradictory to each other. I don't think they are but I can see that the first post says you can say a poem means anything you want and the second post says you can't.

Modification: You CAN say that (people do)but it doesn't mean anything.

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6 posted 03-13-2001 05:26 PM       View Profile for Craig   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Craig

Your last post seemed rather apt, admitting your original post on interpretation could be interpreted incorrectly! I have to wonder whether that wasnít planned.

As often happens I think we are chasing parallel tracks here, each with a point but unable to bring the two together. What you are saying almost perfectly describes our method of arrival at the destination of meaning, numerous individual possibilities measured by proof and reduced by debate into one (or two equally debatable) probabilities.

What Iím saying is that the stations of meaning that are arrived at and then passed through on the way to that destination allow for an interpretation to be Ďanythingí. Those stations of meaning could be so far from the truth that it made no difference, they could be investigated, questioned and waved off as false but their existence cannot be ignored.

"If everybody can interpret it the way they want, then it doesn't mean anything.

Because it means everything".

Everyone can interpret a poem as they please - This means Ďeverythingí and Ďanythingí are possibilities

Every interpretation is valid in some measure Ė They exist so we canít ignore them out of hand.

Some interpretations are more valid than others are Ė Or more probable?

Persuasion is the deciding factor for interpretation - Final stop meaning (until another station is built).

One interesting part of this is that not everbody rides the train to the end, people get off along the way and settle on differing views.

Thanks for the chance to read and reply (sorry about all the train gibberish)
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7 posted 03-13-2001 11:58 PM       View Profile for Stephanos   Email Stephanos   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems   Click to visit Stephanos's Home Page   View IP for Stephanos


I was a little unsure as to exactly what you were trying to say, so I sat back and watched a while. Your second post here clarified it for me and I have to say that I agree with you. Poems cannot mean just anything and be meaningful.

On a practical level, and on an aesthetic level...why would I want to even read a poem that could mean just anything? Meaning to me requires distinction, definition, parameters, else it is too nebulous to be called "meaning". If poems could mean absolutely anything, with every interpretation being equally valid, then "being" might be a more fit phrase than "meaning" to describe just what it is we get from poetry. (And when I say "being" I am only referring to it's most generic sense as existence). That which can be anything paradoxically ends up unable to mean anything, it just IS.

What a bland way to percieve the salty tang of poetry!

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8 posted 03-14-2001 04:04 PM       View Profile for Craig   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Craig


ďOn a practical level, and on an aesthetic level...why would I want to even read a poem that could mean just anything?Ē

To find out what it means, but what it means can be different for different people, each interpretation could be perfectly valid even to the point where two or more possible meanings can be ascribed to one poem.

ďIf poems could mean absolutely anything, with every interpretation being equally valid, then "being" might be a more fit phrase than "meaning" to describe just what it is we get from poetry.Ē

If a poem cannot mean anything why does it need interpretation? After all the meaning would be clear, right?
Without the necessity to interpret we lose one of the main reasons to read and write poetry, poetry would then certainly be pretty bland.
Every interpretation is valid, the equality or lack of equality is measured through presentation of reasoning and proof, mixed liberally with a large tablespoon of debate.

ďMeaning to me requires distinction, definition, parameters, else it is too nebulous to be called "meaning".

And meaning to someone else might require a different set of values, is their meaning valid? Or is yours the definitive definition?

Meaning can be a transient thing, it evolves and changes as knowledge is accumulated, each step in that accumulation is one possible meaning judged by some, one or all to be more valid than the last at that time. The number of interpretations and consequently the number of possible meanings could be anything from one to one million and beyond, restricted only by the number of readers available. From that number (which could be anything) the possible is reduced to the probable.

Thanks for the chance to read and reply.
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9 posted 03-14-2001 10:31 PM       View Profile for Stephanos   Email Stephanos   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems   Click to visit Stephanos's Home Page   View IP for Stephanos


You said,

"If a poem cannot mean anything why does it need interpretation? After all the meaning would be clear, right?"

A poem does not require the quality of "meaning anything" in order to explain the need for interpretation. You have a point in that the "meaning" of any poem may be a little less concrete than I seem to imply. But on the other hand it is much more defined than being able to mean anything at all (with credibility). No matter that there is room for varied interpretation, there are still contextual boundaries.

Yes I know that you can argue that the context can be wholly the interpreters own, but if it fails to draw anything from a) the context concerning authorship, and b) the context of definition and language, then it is a guessing game where nobody is anywhere near right or wrong. What's the point? Interpretation in your view seems to be absolutely subjective. I maintain that it is only partly subjective. However I do not think that it is wholly objective as you might think I do.

I can't quite explain why, but to think that no interpretation is "better" than any other takes away all incentive to try and formulate any particular interpretation. If you say that some interpretations are "better" than others then you must admit a degree of objectivity here. In a wholly subjective scenario "better" means nothing.. for this too is only a subjective judgement. But when one who is trained in the art of literary criticism has to defend his interpretation over that of a novice, he will undoubtedly defend it objectively. I don't place all my confidence in him, but I will listen closer than to the novice. (Just an example).

Context...context context. I hold my own.
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10 posted 03-15-2001 12:07 AM       View Profile for Brad   Email Brad   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Brad

Hey, if everybody agrees with me, more or less, why are you disagreeing with each other?

Craig, I like the train metaphor but it sounds to me like your offering the Schrodinger's Cat of literary interpretation. This doesn't bother me.

Would you believe that I think both of you are right? Outside of a context (between the stations), Craig's right, a poem can mean anything which means everything which means nothing -- the contradictions come into play when we place that poem in a context (as you say). From that point, it makes no sense to say "anything" anymore because the context is always a determining factor in the meaning of any particular poem -- it now means something including the assessment of gibberish. That is, the poem is half dead and half alive until we look.

However, because contexts are multiple, we'll always have different interpretations, some better than others at any specific time and place in history.

You might argue if something is outside a context, do we, can we, even label it as a poem? To label it as a poem is already to place a context around something and to create expectation. Perhaps we can call this a necessary fiction since none of us can get out of a context?

Still, I want to complicate things even more. Is there value in divorcing the poem from the authorial context (like the Venus interpretation -- by Isaac Asimov by the way), not all contexts, of course, for that would be impossible, but of ripping something out of its historical context, of creating a kind of anachronism, of seeing unrelated parallels -- coincidences -- and simply seeing what the words can do?

I wouldn't submit such a thesis as your dissertation, nor would I send it to a journal for publication (unless you were Isaac Asimov of course) but I was just wondering if such thinking has merit on its own?


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11 posted 03-16-2001 03:17 PM       View Profile for OLIAS   Email OLIAS   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for OLIAS

I have followed this discussion with interest and thought I would comment, mainly because I have experimented in the past with interpretation, not very successfully I might add, you can lead a horse to water...etc. My point being for some pieces of work as an author it might be essential to try and mislead the reader, as in the twist in the tail, I count on the readers misinterpretation for the piece to work, if that makes sense. Looking back at the discussion, maybe there is little to be gained from approaching my work from this direction, but thats for another forum. Thank you for the informative read.

Paula Finn
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12 posted 03-17-2001 02:34 PM       View Profile for Paula Finn   Email Paula Finn   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Paula Finn

I think sometimes we try to interpret...sometimes a rose is just a rose...I have a very simple mind...when I read something sure I put my own twist on the words...who doesnt? Does that make my interpretation invalid? Just because its not the same as the authors? Or yours? No two people are the same...we dont SEE things the same...we dont TASTE things the same...why should we READ the same? That doesnt make my interpretation just makes it makes for interesting arguements and this one...
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