What Do You Mean by That?

Maybe you didn't hear me right.

Michael Robbins discusses New Criticism and the problem of intentionality today in the BAP blog. It’s a thoughtful post, especially the part in which he admits to allowing for meanings in his poems that he didn’t originally intend because when exposed or pointed out by a reader “seemed so right that I couldn’t help adopting them as part of my own understanding of the poem.”

Read Robbins’ complete post here.

I find that particularly interesting because it’s a phenomenon that comes up from time to time in workshops—both ones I’ve participated in and ones I’ve led as the instructor. Recently in fact, I pointed out a remarkable connection made within one student’s poem. I remember telling the student that even if he didn’t do that intentionally it was still brilliant, and he should take ownership of it (and further develop it).

If you’ve read other posts of mine, you probably know that I like poets to take some responsibility for their words. I want them to actually intend something, and I want to be able to connect with that intention without needing footnotes or a backseat driver. That of course doesn’t mean I’m against the mystery and discovery involved in good poems. I’m not advocating literalness. On the contrary, we work in images, metaphor and other mystical herbs that scare most readers away. But if intention counts for nothing, then I don’t really know why I work so hard at this.

Yes, there are times when the perfect word or perfect image comes to me, and I may wonder why a perfect word or perfect image won’t come for another poem. If I put the same amount of effort into it, why don’t they both work out equally well, intent be damned?

I suppose I could ask the same thing about fishing. Two days or two weeks in a row I may fish the same stretch of trout stream, applying the same techniques, casting the same flies, and come away with completely different results. There’s a lot of craft, a bit of science and a touch of alchemy to both endeavors.

That’s the mystery, of course, and probably the subconscious is involved somehow, and maybe the wine or coffee I was drinking at the time. Robbins isn’t willing to give much credit to the subconscious in those situations, so we’re left with just the wine. This is a craft after all, right? I could throw out intention if we were talking about reading tea leaves, but poetry isn’t quite so random, usually. Trout fishing also is a lot less random now than when I first started doing it, but the trout still have the edge.

Anyhow, I have no answer, or at least not an easy one. Maybe that’s why I like poetry so much better than math. And fishing so much better than, well, almost anything. If there’s no single answer, then you can’t be wrong.

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