Who Gets to Determine a Poem’s Meaning?


In a 2005 press release upon the death of one of their own former professors, Louise Rosenblatt, New York University published an obituary that included these words about Rosenblatt’s pioneering work on reading theory:

“While teaching literature to college students, [Rosenblatt] developed an approach that broke with the dominant academic model (the New Criticism), which elevated ‘the text,’ declaring it accessible only to those trained in unlocking its code. By contrast, Rosenblatt stressed that every act of reading involved a ‘transaction’ of reader and text in which both were essential. In her view, any text–Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a car owner’s manual, a poem–was lifeless without a reader who is active: active readers create multiple readings of the same text; no reading is uniquely ‘correct.’ At the same time, Rosenblatt argued against the purely personal and subjective approaches more popular in recent years. She noted that some readings were more defensible than others and worked for a community of readers who sought to refine their reading and test their responses against the text. Rosenblatt maintained that this approach–respectful of the individual’s response while dedicated to serious communication and debate–is essential to fostering citizens equipped for democratic life.”

The lead-off batter in my new book, a poem called “Trigger,” could be the poster boy for Rosenblatt’s transactional theory. The 18-line work, first published in Gray’s Sporting Journal in the fall of 2014, is split into two stanzas, the first focused on the speaker, a hunter, and the second on the white-tail deer that is his quarry.

Before I comment on the poem and the assumptions that weigh it (and any poem) down, read it yourself and draw your own conclusions:


This is where I held
my breath—
a stand of red pine,
needles and snowdust
scribed about my boot,
cold crescent
resisting a swollen
finger itchy-numb
with November.

This is where a buck
held its breath—
mouth mid-meal
amid the mast,
a single line
of berry drool
spiking the fur
of his white and
wild-cherried chin.

Ken Craft, The Indifferent World (Future Cycle Press, 2016)

Seems rather straightforward, no? Most readers would interpret this to be the moment before a hunter pulls the trigger on the deer he has in his sights. And that is a legitimate interpretation, perhaps even the most sensible one.

In truth, however, casting myself as the hunter (I hunted with my father, brother, and family friends when I was a young man), it reads differently. It works instead as a poem about the moment before a hunter decides not to pull the trigger.

Note, for instance, the word “resisting” in L7 of the first stanza. A trigger does not resist without an accomplice, namely the man holding his finger to it. Note also the anthropomorphic portrayal of the buck. It “held its breath–/mouth mid-meal/amid the mast.”

Would a buck, even alerted to danger (and he seems too preoccupied with dinner for that), really hold its breath?

I propose, then, that the poem can work either way, as a frozen moment in time before action or inaction. As the writer-reader, I hold with the latter, but realize that I do not get the last say, given that all poems are subject to a fair negotiation between their readers and writers.

Still, there’s the problem of assumptions. When the poem was first published, a few readers–people I knew, mind you–questioned how I could write about such a cruel act. Why kill such a beautiful creature? they asked (as if words in a poem could serve as hunters themselves).

Let’s play along with that line of thinking, then: Even if these readers’ interpretations are correct, are we to assume that said speaker/hunter did not treat the animal with the same dignity as, say, Native American Indians, who would honor it before cleaning it and using every part of its body for the good of family and tribe? Who can read that deeply into a poem and know that much about the speaker’s character and intentions?

Suddenly, I’m led to conclude, a poem becomes as much a reflection on the reader and his/her background, prejudices, and fairness as a reflection of a poet whose actual intentions remain cryptic.

That said, say and write what I will, my poem about not shooting a deer will remain, for most readers, a poem about a hunter preparing to shoot one. Some will shrug it off as the first of many examples of the world’s indifference, little different from hyenas pack-hunting a gazelle. Others will outright wonder why such topics rate a poem.

Me? In my mind, it’s a simple moment of truth, one where seeing a deer as a personality leads to its salvation–justified or not.

In that case, the poem ends but the deer does not.


Ken Craft’s new collection of poetry, The Indifferent World (Future Cycle Press 2016) is available at futurecycle.org or by requesting one from me here at kencraftpoetry.org.