Irritation, explanation, interpretation

I had another testy conversation about poetry analysis recently. Hence, this brief explanation, rationale, and license to interpret.

Feeling a mild irritation...

Feeling a mild irritation…

I truly sympathize with people who prefer to avoid any sort of literary analysis; so many times, it is such a badly-taught subject. Nevertheless, it is never a good idea to refuse to learn about something thanks to one or two negative experiences. If that were the case, no one would ever learn to walk (we fell down, we cried, we refused ever to rise up and take another step).

First, let go of the idea that the purpose of literary analysis is to understand exactly what the writer meant. Second, let go of the idea that poetry contains a symbolic hidden meaning.

Instead, recognize the following fairly obvious observations:

1] the poet wrote what he or she meant; the reader can interpret on the reader’s terms.

2] the meaning is in the poem itself.

Poetry is a form of communication, and it is not a detective story. The poet said what he or she said because the poet determined that was the best way to communicate the experience.

Problem: You, the reader, fail to understand the poem. All that means is that you and the poet may be speaking in different terms and that, to you, the poet’s determination of the best way to say what he or she meant does not convey much. Welcome to the world of human interactions.

The reader has choices: turn the page, for example, and ignore the poem. Or read the poem and find its sound or rhythm entertaining. Or read the poem for its summary–the top-line story, if there is one. Or relish the poem’s mood or use of language. Or its images.

Or throw the poem across the room in frustration or anger. Poetry is powerful enough to evoke such responses.

You could also try to examine the poem, look at how the poet uses rhythm or sound or language or image or metaphor or rhyme…you might learn something about how a writer puts a poem together; and even if you do not manage to shoo the “real meaning” out from under a chair, you may be able to come to terms with the poem in your own way.

You are permitted to interpret what the poem means for you.*


*CAVEAT: This approach may not get you an A on your analysis paper (though it might), but it will serve to enhance your lifelong appreciation of the poetic art.

9 comments on “Irritation, explanation, interpretation

  1. Richard Lane says:

    Thank you Ann. This is so very well said.


  2. Here’s a self-deprecating but also wise (and urgent) post by Lesley Wheeler that talks a bit about literary criticism, its irritations and attractions, and poetic “theory” (O, God!):


    • Thanks for the shout-out, Ann! I especially like your para above about the choices one has as a reader. I learned a lot when I started noticing what poems I actually WANTED to read.


      • Being aware you have choices is huge. I also think it affects learning. I’ve learned discipline by studying things I did not especially like, but I learn wisdom and delight from the study of things I enjoy.


  3. Rachel Bowman says:

    Yes. Perhaps I will require students to read this post! Oh, and thanks for the link to Lesley Wheeler’s piece–it was great.


  4. Caro Levin says:

    What I like best about this chunk of writing is the act of offering choices. When we recognize that we have choices we can respond efficiently.


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