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

  • From: "Mike Geary" <atlas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 12 Oct 2006 12:13:10 -0500


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.<<

No, it's not. Not unless that's the task you set for yourself. I very seldom ever read to figure out what a poet had in mind. I read a poem hoping it opens something in me. That some aesthetic experience will break into blossom. I don't give a damn what the poet had in mind.

The reader doesn't get to make up his own idea.<<

Of course he does. I can show you poems by Ashbery or Jorie Graham or Osip Mandelstam or Patchen and defy you to interpret them. And yet they are treasures of delight. What they mean is not important, what they do is everything.

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.<<

Later in your post you ask what I meant by Formalism. The sentence above is pure Formalism. You believe that there is a definitive interpretation of any and every poem, an interpretation that can be deciphered through a close reading and study of the euphony and rhythm and meter, the style, the imagery and metaphors as well as the author's biography and historical setting. And I agree that all of those things are fun to do. I like reading criticism. But I don't believe criticism can produce anything but interesting essays. What I think is the "meaning" of a poem might well heighten the aesthetic experience aroused by a poem, but it is not the experience itself. And that experience is why we read poetry. Not for meaning. We were all taught to look for the meaning of poetry because the artistic quality of a particular poem can only be intuited, never defined or even described. So we're taught to look for ideas because they can be talked about and talking about things is what school is all about.

You can have your own theory, but you don't get to make things up. It is the poet's poem, not the readers. <<

Obviously, I totally disagree with this. Every reader creates his own poem out of "the poet's poem."

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.<<

I think you missed the point of the article. There is no correct reading. The teacher's response was not any more correct than the students'. I would have faulted the teacher for trying to "set the kid's straight". They experienced the poem as the people they were. The teacher did the right thing, I think, in setting out to explore why they differed so much in their reactions to the words and images within the poem. A variation the teacher assumed was due to different world experiences. The student reader-community came to the poem with very different cultural assumptions and symbolizations. What did Roethke intend? Who cares?

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. <<

Formalism has umpteen different meanings. Some use it pejoritively, some affectionately. I've always considered the hunt for the correct interpretation of a poem to be a Formalist's passion.

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.<<

Yes, the only thing we know for certain is that we don't know anything for certain. "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes."

Mike! I trust you know what this means: At heart you must be a formalist! <<

Yes, I am. I'm also an eclectic follower of Feminist Criticism, Structualism, Deconstruction, Marxist Criticism, Postcolonial Criticism, Reader-Response Criticism, New Historicism and New Criticism. The only school of criticism I reject outright is Psychoanalyic Criticism.

Mike Geary Memphis

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