How to Read Poetry: un-Defining Interpretation

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. “It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more or less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Lewis Carroll
Cultures use language to create reality. People name a thing, agree upon the name, and use the name to refer to the thing in civil and uncivil conversation. For concrete things like apples, staircases or heckelphones this approach works very well. In a room of three people, if you say heckelphone, one will think oboe, one cor anglais and one clarinet, but all are thinking black sticks that make music.
When it comes to words used to name abstract things like God and Patriotism, we tend to follow Humpty Dumpty’s lead. In a room of 100 people we’ll find 42 different definitions and 58 people who have not really thought about what the words mean but know how they feel when the words are used in conversation. Rather than cause obvious chaos, this seems to work for humans; probably because we enjoy gathering with people who define abstracts in a similar manner to our own and to gossip about the poor, lost souls who do not define their word the same way we do; or worse, the uncivilized heathens who use different names for abstracts for which we have coined more sophisticated and accurate labels.
So it goes with interpretation. The word interpretation should be familiar to most readers. For most, in the context of poetry, interpretation probably conjures images of essays or lectures describing meaning of a poem, the work of a poet or a poetic genre.
In a heinous act of humpty-dumptyism, the How to Write Poetry posts define interpretation differently from the norm. In How to Write Poetry, interpretation has two, sometimes concurrent, meanings depending on context. At one level, interpretation refers to complex responses internally experienced by readers when reading a poem. These are private responses, complex and twisty, involving too many areas of the conscious and sub-conscious for individuals to share them completely.
The second use of interpretation refers to the way readers use voice, whether internal or external, to hear the words of poetry.
To share our interpretations of poetry with others, and with the conscious, intellectual parts of our minds, we need to find a method of expression that communicates that interpretation as completely as possible.
Readers express poetry in many ways: painters cover canvas with pigments; musicians make music from poetry; stage-writers stage poetry. It is easy to imagine a typographer selecting just the right fonts and page layout required to share a partial interpretation of a poem. Readers with talent for essay express interpretations through critical assessment of prosody and theme. These are secondary expressions of readers’ responses to poetry inspired by deeper, private interpretations; complex collections of responses, insights and unexpected relationships between unlike things invoked by the magic of poetry. Our initial response happens inside and, if we are reading well, synthesizes words into images, feelings, connections and recollections; a mixture of intellect, emotion and intuition beyond the reach of explanation; we can never completely share our responses to art and poetry is art.
Poetics come to us from a tradition of performance, recitation and song. As they read, most readers experience a performance by their inner voice. Other readers read poetry aloud to hear the sounds, rhythms and syntax. The voice, whether inner or external, is where we begin to interpret and express poems to ourselves.
The remainder of this series will focus on experiencing poems with our voices.
© 2009 Chrome Poet


  • http://sharkey.xanga.com Sharkey!

    First of all, the Lewis Carroll quote was AWESOME. It explained so much in so few words.

    …and if I’m in the room when someone says heckelphone I’m gonna think an asshole who calls you in the middle of the night just to piss you off.

    As I read this I realized I DO read aloud inside my own head. That’s a good thing?

    • Chrome

      @Sharkey! When I started this series of posts I thought I’d write three, maybe four, foul, ranting posts about how our education systems makes it impossible for all but a select few to enjoy the wonders and benefits of poetry. The voices in the head comprehending poetry without the busy-work details of prosody seemed key. As I wrote, this concept grew and clarified. I’ve reached a point where I think the answer is — Yes, it is good you read aloud in your head … but, and this was an illumination for me too, our normal reading voices do not do poetry justice. We need to develop poetry voices. Our business, user-guide, spreadsheet, newspaper voices link to an analytic process that is the antithesis of art. Need to develop new voices that link to a process that synthesizes a new whole rather than a bunch of parts. (does this need to go into another post I wonder)

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