[lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 11 Oct 2006 23:22:41 -0700

You aren't making a whole lot of sense here, Mike.  A poet creates a poem
and he has something in mind when he does so.  Interpreting the poem
involves trying to figure out what that is.  The reader doesn't get to make
up his own idea.  Oh sure he can say what he thinks it means, but if the
teacher has some evidence that he is wrong and tells the student, the
student should correct his interpretation.  You can have your own theory,
but you don't get to make things up.  It is the poet's poem, not the
readers.  I think the teacher was at fault for not explaining to his
students that they were engaging in anachronistic thinking -- and I'll bet
he did.  It just makes his article more interesting to leave that part out.


And what do you mean when you say that at heart I'm a formalist?  Formalism
means an interest in formal poetry, sonnets, Iambic pentameter, regular
lines, regular forms.  You have seen my poetry so you know I'm not a
Formalist . . . unless your note is poetry and you are making up your
definition of formalism -- following your own rule.  In this case you would
mean that suggesting a poet had something particular in mind when he wrote a
poem is formalism (at heart).  Because the next thing you know a reader
might want to know what that was instead of relying upon his own imagination
for an interpretation.  And with that domino falling the whole chaotic world
might fall and order be discovered after all.   Then where would we be?


Buttttttt if your interpretation is "the right one" as you say, then I don't
get to make up my own interpretation which violates your principle.  Mike!
I trust you know what this means: At heart you must be a formalist!




-----Original Message-----
From: lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx [mailto:lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx]
On Behalf Of Mike Geary
Sent: Wednesday, October 11, 2006 9:43 PM
To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72



>>That's interesting, but what did Roethke have in mind when he wrote the 

>>poem.  That seems critically important to me. <<



I know it does and that's where I disagree with you.  What Roethke meant is 

knowable only to Roethke.  He wrote the poem meaning what he meant (assuming

he even knew, perhaps he only liked the sound and form of it and cared not a

whit about its meaning), whatever, once it's out there it's no longer his. 

It belongs to the world then.  It means whatever it means to any reader.  My

response to the poem is almost identical to the teacher's in the essay. 

I've always loved the poem, very much so, it reminds me of my own father.  I

was as startled by the response of the students as was the teacher.  To me 

it's one of the loveliest of love poems.  Every image in it is loving and 

wonderful -- even whiskey breath is lovely if it's associated with one you 

love.  It made me wonder if those students had ever even experienced love, 

they seemed so bound up in moralizing, which is, if not the opposite of 

love, certainly hate's helpmate.


I'm not sure why Roethke's intent is critically important to you.  I think 

it's because at heart you're a formalist.  You believe there's meaning out 

there to be deciphered.  I tend to think meaning is a patchwork of 

experience.  Maybe we're both wrong.  Maybe the Muslims are right.



>> I recall Robert Frost talking about one of his poems -- I think it was 

>> Mending Walls.  He laughed at the various interpretations of that poem 

>> and then described what he had in mind when he wrote it.  If I recall 

>> correctly it was an actual occurrence.  He didn't intend any of the 

>> interpretations people applied to it. <<


Yes, here's an excellent example of what I'm preaching.  Over the last 

several years conservative commentators have had a penchant for quoting the 

"good fences make good neighbors" line as though Frost were on their side. 

I've often wondered if those commentators were really that stupid or just 

hoping that their readers/listeners were.  Frost was obviously being 

sardonic, sarcastic, ironic and outright contemptuous of those who thought 

such simplistic thoughts.

But what if some incontrovertible evidence came along proving that I was 

wrong, that Frost did indeed believe that "good fences make good neighbors" 

regardless of what you're fencing in or fencing out -- how would I say then,



I  think would say that the community of readers at this time -- among whom 

I count myself -- read Frost's tropes differently, but essentially, it's 

unimportant what Frost meant.  What we mean is the meaning of the all 



Well, yes, but, of course, that is just my interpretation.  But it's the 

right one.


Mike Geary









----- Original Message ----- 

From: Lawrence Helm

To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx

Sent: Wednesday, October 11, 2006 8:38 PM

Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72











From: lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx [mailto:lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx]

On Behalf Of Mike Geary

Sent: Wednesday, October 11, 2006 5:00 PM

To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx

Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72


My point, Lawrence, is that there's no correct way to approach literature or

any art.  I tend toward reader-response criticism more than any other, 

certainly more so than formalism or New Criticism though I think they all 

have valid points to make.  Deconstruction can be fun, but I've never read a

deconstructive critique that brought me more understanding and appreciation 

for the work itself, only amusement at life's inherent incoherence.  Knowing

Berryman wrote a poem may tell us something about Berryman, but it says 

nothing about the work itself.  Only you as a reader can give meaning to it 

or -- as Stanley Fish would say -- only you as a member of a reading 



For any not familiar with Reader-Response (or Reader-Oriented) criticism, I 

include Roethke's poem's My Papa's Waltz and a URL to a Reader-Response 

essay around the poem.


My Papa's Waltz

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans

Slid from the kitchen shelf;

My mother's countenance

Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist

Was battered on one knuckle;

At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head

With a palm caked hard by dirt,

Then waltzed me off to bed

Still clinging to your shirt.



The essay is here:




Mike Geary




----- Original Message ----- 

From: Lawrence Helm

To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx

Sent: Wednesday, October 11, 2006 12:13 AM

Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72


Interesting idea Mike, but Dream Songs, Berryman's magnum opus, was 

autobiographical.  Henry was a nickname one of his wives, Anne I think, had 

for him.  She called him Henry and he called her Mabel.  So if you read the 

Dream Songs, whatever your poetical philosophy, you'll know how it ends.


Ages ago poets wrote poems that could be separated from their lives -- at 

least that is an idea it would be hard to disprove, Iliad, Odyssey, and 

Beowulf, for example, but consider The Divine Comedy.  If we didn't know so 

much about Dante we might not have realized that some of those in Hell are 

there because Dante was interested in getting even with them.  He was a very

vengeful fellow.  And of course there was a theory in the early 20th century

to the effect that a poet's life had nothing to do with his poetry, but that

idea, I believe, has long since been abandoned.  Now, I believe, most 

critics think you need to understand a poet's bio to understand his poetry. 

For example, Hugh Kenner wrote The Pound Era and his insights reawakened an 

interest in Pound (very difficult to understand without biographical 

insights).  And then there is Stephen Burt's Randall Jarrell and his Age. 

Jarrell was considered a critic primarily except for a few anthologized 

poems, but Burt opened up his poetry to general appreciation.


However, I didn't mean to imply that my opinion of Berryman's poetry was 

affected by my poor opinion of him, if that's what you were thinking.  What 

I meant to convey was that Berryman gave up his life, in a manner of 

speaking, for his poetry and when I first read it I thought it was 

marvelous -- in other words I tended to think it was (arguably) worthwhile 

to give up a life for such a body of great poetry.  When I reread it years 

later it didn't have the same effect on me.  When I first read it I thought 

Berryman would go down as a major poet.  Now I think perhaps not; which, if 

I am right in my current opinion of him, means he gave up his life for 

something of minor value, so to speak.  So that's one thing I thought.


Another is that they (Berryman and his competitors) may not have been in it 

for the absolute value of their poetry but for the fame.  They knew each 

other.  Toward the end it was important to Berryman to be considered king of

the poetic hill.  Was he king or was it Lowell?  Lowell seemed to give up 

toward the end.  Lots of poets seemed to fall by the wayside, and they held 

grudges, Allen Tate for example.  They wanted the poetic prize but couldn't 

compete, and they were bitter.  In other words they weren't measuring 

themselves against any absolute idea of poetic value but against the 

relative idea of who was to be recognized as the top-dog poet.






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