This is an absurd red herring. The issue is not a simple dichotomy of
all or nothing. The fact that a poem may mean many things and diverse
things does not mean that it can mean anything. Otherwise there is no
reason for it at all.
In any reading there are several elements (I am drawing on other
scholars; this is not my formulation): the text, the reader, the
"author" (whoever made the marks on the page or the notes or the paint
or whatever), and whatever the "author" meant to refer it to. To
eliminate any of these is to distort reading. If a poem has nothing
whatever to do with the words that comprise it, there is no reason to
make those black marks on white pages.
It is nothing so silly or naive as requiring students to agree with
whatever the professor thinks: saying that is just a way of shifting
the discussion away from any serious idea. It is about the nature of
texts at all.
>>> [log in to unmask] 07/15/05 4:52 AM >>>
Nancy Gish wrote:
>I don't know where it comes from, but my students seem to start out
with this idea, that a poem (unlike anything else, apparently), is
"about" whatever one thinks it is. I point out that if you think TWL is
about the joys of rural life in a pastoral landscape with cows and shows
that nature will teach you about god, you are, in fact, just wrong.
>The words on the page are also involved in what a poem is about; they
are not just a point of departure for anything on one's mind
Why not (except in an advanced English lit class, of course,
where one is in a state of potential existential crisis if one
disagrees with the "teacher" and expresses it)?
Eliot, T.S. "The Music of Poetry." ON POETRY AND POETS. NY:Noonday,1961.
(originally Faber, 1947).
... when I learn that a difficult sonnet was inspired by seeing a
painting on the ceiling reflected on the polished top of a table, or
by seeing the light reflected from the foam on a glass of beer, I can
only say that this may be a correct embryology, but it is not the
meaning. If we are moved by a poem, it has meant something, perhaps
something important, to us; if we are not moved, then it is, as poetry,
meaningless. We can be deeply stirred by hearing the recitation of a
poem in a language of which we understand no word; but if we are then
told that the poem is gibberish and has no meaning, we shall consider
that we have been deluded -- this was no poem, it was merely an
imitation of instrumental music. If, as we are aware, only a part of
meaning can be conveyed by paraphrase, that is because the poet is
occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail,
though meanings still exist. A poem may appear to mean very
different things to different readers, and all of these meanings may be
different from what the author thought he meant. For instance, the
author may have been writing some peculiar personal experience, which
he saw quite unrelated to anything outside; yet for the reader the
poem may become the expression of a general situation, as well as
of some private experience of his own. The reader's interpretation may
differ from the author's and be equally valid -- it may even be better.
There may be much more in a poem than the author was aware of. The
different interpretations may all be partial formulations of one thing;
the ambiguities may be due to the fact that the poem means more, not
less, than ordinary speech can communicate. So, while poetry
attempts to convey something beyond what can be conveyed in prose
rhythms, it remains, all the same, one person talking to another; and
this is just as true if you sing it, for singing is another way of
talking. The immediacy of poetry to conversation is not a matter on
which we can lay down exact laws. Every revolution in poetry is apt to
be, and sometimes to announce itself to be, a return to common speech.
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