A while ago I was asked by a Twitter user to offer my thoughts about one of his poems. I had done the same with previous works, and my interpretations had been embraced. However, this time things were different.
This poem held different meanings for me, and, according to the poet, the one I offered was not correct. In fact, I discovered it was wildly different from the poet’s intended meaning.
My Experience Reading Poems
I have read poems that have left little to imagine or interpret, and I have read poems that were so vague that I wasn’t sure how to begin to decipher them.
Ultimately, I believe anything a person creates and then offers to the public, whether art or music or literature, is open to an individual’s interpretation—no “right” or “wrong” exists.
What We Bring to the Interpretation Table
When we explicate our feelings about a particular work, we bring along an arsenal of experiences, encumbrances and personal tastes for the ride. We might even throw in the prejudice of seeing, reading or listening to a previous work and/or a bagful of conflicting emotions brought on by a bad day or illness.
Outside factors can also influence your ability to interpret poems. On Twitter, some works have been posted that were read and recorded by voice actors. Because I had not read the poems before listening to the audible versions, I have no way of knowing if I would have experienced the same emotions had I read the poems natively.
Interpretations by others can also influence your own feelings about a work, and I’ve learned to avoid comments before reading a short story or a poem.
‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by Robert Frost is a relevant example of a poem that allows–and maybe even encourages–more than one interpretation. Is the interpretation that Frost is writing about the contemplation of suicide any more correct than another that holds the narrator is simply momentarily distracted by his everyday obligations? Is one more superficial and simplistic than the other? Is my interpretation more “literary” if I choose to believe the narrator is thinking of suicide? Did Robert Frost care?
A hundred different internet theories, analyses and examinations might exist on Frost’s intention, but in the end the interpretation is yours and yours alone. Directives on how a poem (or any work) should speak to the reader must not be placed into a box labeled “the one and only interpretation.” This practice limits the imagination of readers and could possibly serve as a deterrent to future analyses—and writers would be the poorer for it.
What Would I Do?
How would I respond if my work had been interpreted in an entirely different way from what I had intended?
First, I would thank the reader for reading it. I know from experience that it’s quite difficult to convince people to read what I’ve written.
Next, I would take a moment to understand the reader’s analysis. Even if it’s wildly different from what I had intended (like my analysis above), I would feel overjoyed that a pair of eyes landed on my writing.
I might then ask the reader to clarify any analysis I thought ambiguous, but the writer must understand that social media such as Twitter is a fleeting one and timelines pass by in a blink of an eye. People quickly move on to the next shiny object (and I speak from experience). If the interpretation appears on other social media or your site, you have the luxury of formulating a longer, more nuanced response.
Finally, I would try to remember that honest feedback can prove valuable. Will my work benefit from the reader’s feedback? Has another reader offered the same feedback? Should I change this word, line or sentence to enhance and clarify my writing?
Of course, I am under no obligation to change anything.
I still remember an online marketing class I took years ago. One assignment required each student to create a plan to convince someone else to undertake a project. I decided to write a letter to my husband to convince him to buy into a business he had been eyeing. Once written, students were required to share it with classmates to get feedback. Most of them warned me that writing a letter was not part of the assignment and offered me no other feedback. I changed nothing and turned it in. The instructor loved it.
So, how might I respond to the reader if I had no intention of changing anything?
I really appreciate that you took the time to read my (poem, story, book) and offer your viewpoint. Even though yours differs from mine, I know that my work is open to interpretation. You thought enough of my (poem, story, book) to reply, and for that I am grateful.
And I would move on.
The internet is filled with writers of all types who only want to tell their stories. And after my research of literary criticism (focused on poetry), I have discovered that a hundred different poems can have a thousand different interpretations.
Dog reading photo by 2Photo Pots on Unsplash.
Man and woman image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay.
Featured Photo by Jack Skinner on Unsplash.
Woman and hand image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay.