The Meanings of Poetry and Prose

Cathbad

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A recent FB conversation reminded me of this pet peeve.

What I'm about to say I believe applies to
all literature (and music), but especially to poetry:

Once you have written your piece and put it out there to the public, it belongs to each individual reader. No matter how you meant it, the meaning is now personal to each reader.

I long tutored in a variety of subjects, but mostly English and Math. When it came to poetry, I could teach what a phrase means, or what a colloquialism means or used to mean, or that this-or-that word might have multiple meanings. But I could not - no, would not - teach the meaning of a poem!

So it peeved me to no little extent that the English portion of the Georgia GED exam had a section on the interpretation of poetry - and yes, there were right and wrong answers. I'd tutored for years in Florida, but they didn't test on this.

Poetry is deeply personal. What I get out of a poem might bear no resemblance of what @Jo Zebedee gets out of it! To test on this is ridiculous! (And certainly, @BAYLOR will disagree with me on it's meaning! :p )

I prepared them the best I could, but made sure they understood that there were really no right or wrong interpretations of poetry. Only one of my over 100 students did not pass the GED on the first try (even though she scored high enough to pass each of the five subjects, her overall score was just a tad short). So I guess it wasn't a major problem.

Am I the only one who thinks the interpretation of poetry is something that should not be on a "Final Exam"?
 

Jo Zebedee

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I think you can assess how well a person can interpret poetry (or wherever) but that that assessment should not be based on an agreed meaning (or, indeed, a person finding a particular poem to have value.)

So, it's good to encourage people to think about what moves them, what works for them, and why. It's good to learn to explore for personal reasons or to look for meanings that can resonate. But learning to appreciate a poem because someone says we should find it good is a pretty poor show

(Hope that made sense...)
 

Phyrebrat

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Oh God, don't get me started on this; it's one of the main reasons I quit teaching dance in State Education because of the one-size-fits-all approach and the message that it gives to students in art subjects that they are nailing 'the right answer.'

Mind you, the way the creative arts are approached in education is hopelessly binary in general. I'd rather have a class of kids who can choreograph a moving and interesting piece of dance than write an art appreciation essay about what Alvin Ailey was saying in 'Buked.

pH
 

Juliana

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I think you can assess how well a person can interpret poetry (or wherever) but that that assessment should not be based on an agreed meaning (or, indeed, a person finding a particular poem to have value.)
Agreed! Grading should be about interpretation skills, not whether you can reach a standardized meaning.
 

Cathbad

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Agreed! Grading should be about interpretation skills, not whether you can reach a standardized meaning.
Also agreed. I have reviewed some of the "questions" and answers on the Georgia GED - which only made me angry. Whoever decided the "answers" was not a poet, and probably hated any piece of art not of the school of Realism. ;)
 

AnyaKimlin

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I spend quite a bit of time with poets. Several actually have their own books traditionally published and have won awards.

It's interesting to pull apart the poetry with the poet present. Everyone will give what it means to them and nine times out of ten the poet will shrug.
 

Abernovo

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I remember the joke about the pretentious art critic talking, unaware of the artist being able to hear them.
Critic: The choppy seas represent the inner turmoil, and those looming clouds, the social pressures to conform.
Artist (to friend): Nah, it was just a ******* stormy day, and I thought it would make a good picture.

It's true, some (much) art does have meanings, but that meaning can change from person to person, due to each individual's experiences. Once it's seen/heard/read/felt by someone else, it becomes interpreted, and that interpretation is not necessarily the same as that of the person producing the work. Even something as small as the 75-worder challenge entries can show markedly different takes on meaning, or appreciation. And that's as it should be.

Personal grumble: I also remember being told that my 'A' Level mock exam thoughts on Brian Friel's Translations (an incredible play) were not correct, as it was solely a commentary on contemporary society, with Latin references, so I shouldn't try to see analogies with Celtic mythology in it. My response may have been (deliberately) in a language they didn't understand, but required no translation.
 

Ihe

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If art is in the eye of the beholder, it's relative, and therefore binary testing makes no sense. That's just laziness on the part of the examining body. They simply didn't want to value each answer individually according to coherence and inner logic. A student should be able to plead their case as to their interpretation. If the justification is rationally sound, it should be counted as good.

To hear about this makes me grind my teeth.
 

Juliana

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It's true, some (much) art does have meanings, but that meaning can change from person to person, due to each individual's experiences. Once it's seen/heard/read/felt by someone else, it becomes interpreted, and that interpretation is not necessarily the same as that of the person producing the work. Even something as small as the 75-worder challenge entries can show markedly different takes on meaning, or appreciation. And that's as it should be.
I do non-fic translations (Portuguese-English), and have often thought about how difficult it must be to translate poetry - trying to remain true to the feel of the work without imposing your own interpretation! I went to a poetry reading last year for a friend's book; she's a sign language interpreter, so her poems were being simultaneously translated into ASL, so not only to another language, but another medium (visual). She was telling me later about poems written in ASL, and how hard they are to translate to written word. Very interesting.
 

R.T James

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I imagine this is why I was terrible at art classes. Actually come to think of it our little table was people nearly failing the class because we were all artists, but our method and thoughts did not fit the square hole the teacher was making.

I painted a picture with a tree in the dead centre of it just to prove a point. I passed but it bewildered her.... Funny how you can make a statement against somebody and they will just be confused.

So we nearly failed while a person just pumping out the same crap who didn't care got an A! Good on us for trying new and exciting methods and thinking outside of the box!

I love our educational system. It's such a farce it makes me so happy I went to a public school. But hey maybe one of these days the knowledge I learned of properly shanking, holding a knife, and knowing how to spot a drug deal from a mile away will come in handy!:mad:
 

Cathbad

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My ancestors are Irish/Cherokee on one side, German/Cherokee on the other.

I was either meant to be a Celtic warrior, or a Shaman!

Either way, I'm fine with it! :D
 

R.T James

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So much that is subjective is made to be objective in this society.

It's an elimination of a thought process.

We had numerous times were forced interpretation of another groups cultural aspects was expected.

Forcing people to go along with an idea otherwise it's wrong is a very dangerous thought process.

Once you eliminate that element of self realization or at least self recognition what are you left with?

Right a peg they hammered through a hole with mangled corners.

I learned early on in my education I was just there so the school could get 20k in funding. That's all they cared about was the money.

So when you only care about funding and money. The lack of education becomes apparent.

It's a problem.
 

sknox

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A poem should not mean, but be. Ol' Archie MacLeish said that one.

But let me reverse the proposition. Is it possible to have a *wrong* interpretation? I rather think so. If a student were to claim that Poe's The Raven is a metaphor for post-modern industrialization, I'd have to say the student is wrong. There may be lots of ways to hit a baseball, but a swing and a miss is still a strike.

So, if it's possible to be wrong, why is it impossible to be right?
 

Lumens

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How can a miss be a strike? :LOL:
 

Cathbad

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A poem should not mean, but be. Ol' Archie MacLeish said that one.

But let me reverse the proposition. Is it possible to have a *wrong* interpretation? I rather think so. If a student were to claim that Poe's The Raven is a metaphor for post-modern industrialization, I'd have to say the student is wrong. There may be lots of ways to hit a baseball, but a swing and a miss is still a strike.

So, if it's possible to be wrong, why is it impossible to be right?
I believe a person's interpretation of a poem is always right - for them. Even in your example above, if it's an honest interpretation, and he/she was not simply trying to please the Professor. In his (addled?) mind, that is how it struck him. He may be crazy, but he read the poem - which made it his. Who is anyone to say he's wrong?
 

Ihe

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As long as the answer is rationally justified, it should be counted as good. For that poem exercise, what should be tested is the informed analytical skill of which the ensuing result can take any shape or form. What should be evaluated is the process, not the answer itself. Forcing people to have a definite answer about a work of art is silly anyway, IMO.

If I feel anger at a painting that everyone agrees is full of happiness, my truth is still THE truth, and I cannot be proven wrong, because there's no such thing as an unacceptable emotion--it isn't a conscious decision. Everyone feels differently about things (different biases, backgrounds, culture, education, etc) so the interpretation filters used vary. Therein lies the power of art--no right or wrong. In the case of books, logic is a bigger thing because the work can literally tell the reader what it is about; it has the ability of clear self-definition that most other art forms do not. But if the story doesn't explicitly define the subject/metaphor, we can draw our own conclusions and will enjoy the story through that particular self-imposed lens. And if art's ultimate purpose is to be enjoyed, I cannot be proven wrong in how I choose to enjoy it. If it makes sense to me this way and thus I feel more intellectually connected to it, I am interpreting it right, no matter the consensus on its "correct" interpretation.
 

DelActivisto

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A recent FB conversation reminded me of this pet peeve.

What I'm about to say I believe applies to
all literature (and music), but especially to poetry:

Once you have written your piece and put it out there to the public, it belongs to each individual reader. No matter how you meant it, the meaning is now personal to each reader.

I long tutored in a variety of subjects, but mostly English and Math. When it came to poetry, I could teach what a phrase means, or what a colloquialism means or used to mean, or that this-or-that word might have multiple meanings. But I could not - no, would not - teach the meaning of a poem!

So it peeved me to no little extent that the English portion of the Georgia GED exam had a section on the interpretation of poetry - and yes, there were right and wrong answers. I'd tutored for years in Florida, but they didn't test on this.

Poetry is deeply personal. What I get out of a poem might bear no resemblance of what @Jo Zebedee gets out of it! To test on this is ridiculous! (And certainly, @BAYLOR will disagree with me on it's meaning! :p )

I prepared them the best I could, but made sure they understood that there were really no right or wrong interpretations of poetry. Only one of my over 100 students did not pass the GED on the first try (even though she scored high enough to pass each of the five subjects, her overall score was just a tad short). So I guess it wasn't a major problem.

Am I the only one who thinks the interpretation of poetry is something that should not be on a "Final Exam"?
I'm in total agreement. I believe poetry is something deeply personal. By nature, it's often written in such a way that various and sundry interpretations naturally spring to mind. I wrote some poetry pieces for my book, and for a poetry class in college a few semesters ago. We had critiques, which were fine, they were constructive and insightful - but what stood out to me is that each person interpreted them differently, often totally differently from what I was thinking when I wrote it. On several occasions, it helped me learn more about the other person, my poem, and myself, which made it a unique and intriguing platform with which to get to know a person.

To say that there would be a right or wrong answer on poetry interpretation is close to completely failing to grasp the importance of poetry and even story telling, in my opinion. To a great extent, I feel that this is simply another symptom of our education's systems desire to hammer out uniformity amongst students. "This is right, this is wrong." Students learn to pass tests, but not to learn or ask questions. Students learn to excel with grades, but not in life.

Better would have been if this test instead replaced the poetry interpretation with something more logical and scientific in nature if they wanted to test reading comprehension, which is what it sounds like they were actually aiming for. Therefore, something insightful, like a talk by Carl Sagan perhaps, from which complex extrapolations with a more clear "right or wrong" answer could have sprung.

It's sort of like religion. Everyone's religion is correct for them. Just don't expect me to agree. :)
 

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