Los Angeles, CA
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.