interpreting poems

2 posts

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 first book, a poem called “Trigger,” could be the poster child 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 to 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 (2016)


Seems rather straightforward, no? Most readers would interpret this to be about 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.

To get to that interpretation, however, one must make assumptions about the hunter by making said hunter think and act like hunters stereotypically do. What if, however, it is the speaker’s first hunting foray? What if the speaker is struck by the beauty of the animal? What if the speaker just witnessed a deer carcass eviscerated and cleaned by another hunter and has decided he or she has no stomach for it? In that case, the same poem might read differently. In short, it could work 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 person holding a 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 it seems too preoccupied with dinner for that), really hold its breath?

I propose, then, that the poem works either way, as a frozen moment in time before action or inaction. But as the writer, Rosenblatt would argue, I do not get the last say, given that all poems are subject to a fair negotiation between their readers and the poet. The key is this: Reader interpretations must be backed by evidence in the poem. All parts of the poem, not just cherry-picked parts.

Bottom line: Even if the poet has a specific meaning in mind (and yes, that meaning could be trigger pulled, trigger not pull, or poem’s purpose cryptic as an artistic statement), it becomes, once it’s read, as much a reflection on the reader’s cultural background, prejudices, and artistic tastes as it does a reflection of the poet. Louise Rosenblatt, I think, would be cheered by that.

Either way, readers can agree, at least, on one point — the poem ends, but the deer does not. Yet. That will come in seconds.

Or years.


Ken Craft’s new collection of poetry, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants is available on the BOOKS page of this web site.



The Only Tool Needed To “Get” Poetry

why poetry

I spent most of yesterday afternoon and evening sick in bed. My bedside companion was not Nurse Nightingale, but Matthew Zapruder’s book, Why Poetry. Books read when your fogged brain has one lobe in Kubla Khan’s rich-scented gardens are always memorable, and this one distracted me mightily despite my dizzy spells and headache. I plan a series of posts here in response to some of the things I’ve read (and have yet to read). For today, a look at Chapter 2, titled after the Marianne Moore quote about poets: “Literalists of the Imagination.”

The chapter title itself is poetic. It should be, as it’s taken from Moore’s famous poem, “Poetry,” which features “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Using Marianne as his inspiration, Moore or less, Zapruder begins to riff on layreaders and how so many of them shun poetry because they find it difficult or mysterious. In short, they throw up their hands because the meaning is hidden and wonder aloud why poets have to play hide-and-go-seek with their purpose, anyway.

The damage is done in school, chiefly (schools, after all, are the scapegoats for most all of our woes… thus, Betsy DeVos). Darn those English teachers who constantly ask students to divine the meaning, the theme, the purpose, the symbolism, thus ruining a perfectly good poem. In Zapruder’s view, poems should be read for (brace yourselves) fun.

Of course, poems can’t be fun unless we know what the heck’s going on, so Zapruder recommends one essential tool to understand poetry: a dictionary. (You were expecting Siri or the dreaded Google search bar, maybe?)

“The portal to the strange is the literal,” he writes. Thus, as a teacher (most poets need full-time jobs, after all), he has students choose a word in the poem to investigate big-time, as in right down to its multiple meanings and history, or even, maybe, down to what it might have meant at the time that the poem was written.

Zapruder adds, “…the exercise of getting as deeply into the words as possible has the effect of showing them that this is the way into a poem, and that meaning and possibility come from that act, and not from some search for an interpretation someone else already made of the poem, that they have to figure out to get a good grade… It turns out that close attention to definitions and etymologies can be a portal to the power of poetry.”

From this paean to the literal’s eminence in an unexpected place — the genre of poetry — Zapruder goes on to say that many beginning writers of poetry get snared by the same misconceptions as layreaders. They purposely write in abstractions, mysteries, double meanings. They forsake the literal for the “deliberately obscure and esoteric.” It is, in short, a recipe for failure, just as reading poems strictly to interpret their coded language is a recipe for alienation.

Three cheers, then, for the literal and for taking poems at their word, both as readers and writers.

In my next column, I’ll discuss Zapruder’s ideas on how ordinary words can pull off extraordinary effects in a poem. I’ll leave you with the Mahmoud Darwish quote he uses as a hint: “Extreme clarity is a mystery.” But of course!