Louise Rosenblatt

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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


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 pulled, or poem purposely 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 most recent collection of poetry, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants is available on the BOOKS page of this web site.