Poetic Analysis (and all that other boring stuff)

Yesterday I came upon the blog Stone and Plank created by Curt Stump via the Earth Friendly Gardening blog by Caroline Brown.  At Stone and Plank I explored the discussion of “Academic Poetry.”  This got my wheels turning about the topic of poetry and poetic analysis – something I hope to play with regularly at Brainripples.

The words “poetic analysis” can really make me cringe.  I love poetry – I love to write it, to read it, to hear it, to taste it, and to kick it around in my brain – but I rarely enjoy “poetic analysis” proper.

Early introductions to “poetic analysis” in academia left me put-off.  Certainly there is a lot to be gained from learning to see the religious symbolism in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.  Of course there is something to be said for the philosophical undertakings of Walt Whitman in his epic Song of Myself.

What turns me off to “poetic analysis” proper isn’t the attempt to extract deliberate symbolism and significant allusion potentially incorporated by the artist – what turns me off is the frequency with which I encounter academics who believe in the One True Interpretation.

I believe (note the subjective here) that the importance of artistic analysis does not lie in the consensus, but rather in the discord.  Undoubtedly any artist will have a particular meaning, message, or theme that they infuse into their work, but that does not negate the importance of how a work will touch each individual viewer differently.

When we look at poetry here at Brainripples, you might hear me extracting bits of meaning or thought that I find in the work – but that most certainly does not mean that you have to agree!  There is no One True Interpretation.  There is only the infinite ocean of possible interpretations in which we swim, float, or drown as we explore each piece of art we encounter.

With that, how about a little poetry?

What does this piece say to you?  How does it make you feel?  Where does your mind wander as you explore the words?  How does it read after you’ve reread it a few times?

Han-Shan, 50

[I have removed this poem per my discussion about copyrights and fair use which you can read about on Tuesday, July 25, 2006.  If you want to read this poem, I encourage you to visit your local library and grab a copy of the book cited below!]

Source information:

Watson, Burt, trans.  Cold Mountain – 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-ShanGrove Press, Inc. New York, 1962.  p. 68.


11 Responses to Poetic Analysis (and all that other boring stuff)

  1. Flood says:

    I was recently given some poetic works to read and provide feedback, I was terrified because I could only say “I like this one. This one is good too! Oh this one is my favourite.”

    I felt bad because in prose I can say what’s working or what isn’t. In poetry I only know what I like.

    I wasn’t very moved by Cold Mountain, but I did appreciate the tranquility of it.

  2. JLB says:

    Poetry can be intimidating, especially when someone wants feedback on their work! There are plenty of pieces I read that feel as though they fly right over my head, and it takes me a while before I really can articulate any sort of reaction.

    Don’t feel bad! In poetry, there is as much subjectivity about “what’s working and what isn’t” as with any other genre. When I ask for feedback from others on my work, I try to help direct them by asking questions like, “what images or lines do you like?” “what images or lines don’t make sense, or don’t sound right?”

    This way, critics who aren’t necessarily inclined towards poetry can at least point to something and say, “I really like the way this sounds,” or “that just doesn’t make any sense to me!” At least for myself, as a poet, both types of feedback are helpful! If I want my work to be able to speak to the audience, regardless of their poetic interest, then what I’m really going for is whether they like it, or not, and often times – both!

  3. Curt jokes that poetics/poetic analysis is the number one blog-killer. It’s sad, but the concept of One True Intepretation has one of the primary reasons that poetry has been marginalized as a literary art.

    As for the poem, I appreciate the idea that the old man has become swallowed by the tranquility of Cold Mountain. But it probably resonates more with someone who knows about and appreciates Taoist texts.

  4. JLB says:

    Greetings Caroline – as a poet myself, I work hard to encourage readers I connect with to seek their own interpretations and meanings – in any medium. The “One True Interpretationists” are such a turn-off!

    Certainly there is a value in writing something with a clear, discernable message…. but when people read something I’ve written and say, “It sounds great, but I don’t have a clue what it means,” I feel that I’ve accomplished something. Some of my favorite works are the ones I’ve had to read several times in order to extract any sort of understanding at all – and that understanding inevitably changes for me over time with many rereadings.

  5. I like a lot of poems that don’t really mean anything–ones that have nice turns of phrase, or beautiful or moving descriptions and are only trying to communicate that. As long as I get the sense that the poet is “real” and not some poser who’s just trying to impress the reader by being too avant-garde.

  6. JLB says:

    Hello Caroline, are you familiar with the music of the Presidents of the United States of America? I just love their poetry – sometimes I just cannot figure out what they mean, but for all the nonsense that one might see in their playful lyrics, their music and meaning sure does move me!

    The artists who really move me are the ones who strike out with their own voice, or at least make an honest effort, no matter where it lands them.

  7. […] You’ve all heard my thoughts on The One True Interpretation.  This is just one more reason why I dislike that sort of rigid, fixed methodology of engaging with art.  I feel that not only should each viewer be free to extract her/his own meaning from artwork, but we should all be free to put on many different colored glasses, to allow for infinite possibilities of meaning, of changing meaning.  Artists breathe life into their works so that over time, that art can mature, evolve, metamorphose, and tell new stories with each new audience. […]

  8. E. M. says:

    JLB, kudos for your musing on One True Interpretation. (“OTI”)
    In poetry, as with other art forms, beauty should be in the eye of the beholder. I no longer struggle to guess what subtle message an artist or poet might have been trying to convey. It’s enough to enjoy art literally… the visual, aural or cerebral esthetics I can perceive. I love realism, loathe impressionism and am keenly aware that my appreciation is inherently two-dimensional. Only a late in life self-diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome answered nagging questions-
    Why was I unable to “read between lines”?
    How could others so easily spot oblique meanings embedded in a story, painting… or song lyrics?
    Why did teachers put me on the spot, demanding an educated spiel on a poem’s symbolism when I couldn’t see it clearly with Cliff Notes and a magnifying glass?
    One hopes today’s educators are taught to spot Asperger’s signs. Identifying “aspy” students the way they screen for colorblindness or dyslexia might afford them the time to perfect coping skills before being thrust into the real world.
    Asperger’s shouldn’t be stigmatizing, since it is often accompanied by a super high IQ and a creative intuitiveness that allows aspies to think outside the box.
    A writer by profession, I learned to compensate for my quirk by concentrating on more precise forms of communication, i.e., computer programming, technical writing, authoring newspaper/magazine articles. I once dabbled in prose, but attempts at generating real poetry read like Dr. Seuss rhymes. Now, I confidently approach projects as disparate as web design and landscaping knowing I can contribute quality content so long as I leave the artistic presentation to others.

  9. JLB says:

    Greetings EM,

    You raise an important point about the way that we are often expected (and pressured) in academic settings to see the commonly accepted interpretations and symbolisms of a given work. I may not have Asperger’s Syndrome, but there are plenty of instances I can recall when someone could have hit me over the head with a frying pan of symbolic themes, and I still wouldn’t have gotten it!

    And from my experience with other friends and artists, I have found that like you, many people diagnosed with Asperger’s, bipolarism, or other disabilities (perhaps better said, different abilities), in fact have an incredibly unique, intelligent, and creative perspective on the world and their art.

    People can truly do themselves a disservice by assuming those with a different take on things have nothing to share! What’s really fun for me is sharing my work with someone, and having them point out to me some pattern, symbol, or meaning that I didn’t see in my own work while creating it! That’s art is action!

    What I have also found with interpretations, as you’ve probably seen in some of my other posts, is that an individual’s relationship with a piece of art can (does) grow and evolve over time. I love those “AHA!” moments when a piece of art which I have loved for a long time suddenly jumps out at me as though painted fresh that day, complete with a whole different way of thinking about it.

    Thanks for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts!


  10. EM says:

    Never been a fan of euphemisms. IMHO, disabled/handicapped/crippled are terms perfectly apropos to anyone incapacitated by disease, defect, injury or syndrome. OTOH, someone who successfully adapts to the quirks and limitations handed him, at least enough to function in (or outside) society without burdening taxpayers or family members is not really “disabled”, especially when only their sociability skills are stunted. As with many things, it’s a matter of degree and perception. Unfortunately, lawyers and legislators continually push the definition envelope in their insatiable drive to pander to clients and special interest groups.

    Using “Differently Enabled” (DE) in context with Asperger’s (at least higher functioning individuals) certainly captures the essence of the syndrome. Perhaps DE could describe those with synaesthesia, too? A philosopher might ponder whether an aspy lives in his own little world because he feels out of sync in the NT world, or if the oblivious NT’s are shut out of the “real” world because they cannot begin to appreciate the multi-faceted landscape an aspy experiences.

    As an aspy, my DE-ness frequently bumps into glass ceilings and brick walls. It’s difficult for me to interpret what many artists or lyricists try to convey. I simply do not “get” impressionist art. As for music, two songs come to mind: Dan Hill/Barry Mann’s “Sometimes when we touch” and Sarah McLaughlin’s “Full of Grace”. I love the music, but can’t read between the lyrics’ lines well enough to be confident of the intended message. It is FRUSTRATING… but not crippling.

    Offsetting that frustration, there are instances when I can “read between lines” quite adroitly. One- I look at a maze and instantly solve it in my head. Two- my best “Ah Hah” moments involve programming. (inherently logical and structured) Stymied for a solution that simplifies some bloated code, I can suddenly wake in the middle of the night with the answer. Maybe that’s the aspy-version of “vivid dreaming”? The brain is a very cool organ.

  11. JLB says:

    The brain is a very cool organ

    Indeed EM! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts on these topics.

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