Wednesday, February 13, 2013

When Readers Respond

There's a cool thing that happens when you read a novel or poem: interpretation. 

We all do it. It's a natural reaction; our brains, after all, are processors at the core. And when we interpret a piece of writing, we interact with it. We bring our experiences, preferences, prejudices, and desires to the text. Reading, in some cases, can help us learn to articulate these things, or else show us that we are not alone in the world, no matter our baggage.

But the neat aspect of this is that two people could read the same poem and have completely different reactions to it. A great example is the way readers tend to give two responses to Robert Frost's poem "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening": either that it is about death (possibly suicide) or that it is about duty. I happen to subscribe to the latter view; for me, the poem is about a man who would like nothing more than to take a few moments for himself but cannot because he has "promises to keep." However, that doesn't mean the opposite view is incorrect. Without any commentary from the poet himself, we may never have a definitive answer.

Even if Frost told me, "I intended this poem to mean [x]," I would likely disregard his words, unless it became important in a critical, academic sense. Because I prefer, even in my own poetry, to allow the individual to shape his or her own response to the work. My prevailing attitude is this: as long as the reader gets SOMETHING out of my work, I have done my job as a poet, even if what the reader takes away is not the vision I had.

Far too many lower-level English teachers insist that there is only one way to read any given text. This is why I tended to rebel against my instructors until college, where they allowed me to draw my own conclusions, so long as I could articulate the reasons why I felt a certain way. If students were given the opportunity to voice their opinions about the things they've read in a classroom setting, we may find that more people would grow up to be active readers who support the written word. Just a thought.


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