Poetry essay: Explaining poetry: the author, the reader, or someone else

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ve probably noticed a recurring category is poems with explanations.  These are poems written and explained by M. Sakran.  There are over one hundred on this blog.  M. Sakran also has a self-published eBook available for purchase called Understanding: poems with explanations.

Having explained poems raises an interesting thought: What’s the difference between who explains a poem?  What’s the difference between an author explaining their poem, the reader of a poem thinking about what it means or a reader reading someone else’s explanation of a poem?

This idea sometimes comes up with art.  Does an artwork mean what the artist says it means?  Does it mean what each viewer thinks it means?  Does it mean what some third party says it means?

Each of these points of view has pros and cons in terms of explaining poetry, but each has value in explaining.

The author

Obviously, from the abundance of explained poems on this blog and the eBook of them, M. Sakran sees value in an author explaining their own work for readers.  There are a number of reasons for this.

First, the reader actually learns what the author meant.  While readers can come up with their own ideas and while they might hear the ideas of others, there is a sense that they never know if they are really right.  No matter how rational or thought out the explanations are, there is still always a bit of uncertainty involved without knowing what the author really meant.

This issue is solved when an author explains their own work.  Readers know exactly what the author meant.  The symbolism, metaphor, form elements and so forth are all explained.  A reader can truly understand what a particular poem meant.

Second, having the author explain their own work can be a great learning tool.  A reader can read a poem and think of what they think it means.  While this has value by itself, it has more value when the reader has something they can check it against.  A reader can find out how well they really understood a poem.

Third, when an author explains their own work, it means the true meaning of the work comes through.  With poetry, art, music and other creative endeavors there is the problem that can sometimes occur that readers, viewers or listeners don’t understand the work as the author intended.  They miss the message that was sent and may see messages that aren’t there.  While there is value in personal interpretation, it can cause an issue if an author had something specific they wanted to get across.  It can be frustrating to an author to feel like they are saying one thing, but consumers of their work are hearing another.  When an author explains their own work though, this issue is solved.

Despite the benefits of an author explaining their own work, there are some downsides.

First, it can take away from a central component of poetry – the idea that each person sees something different in a poem.  While each reader can form their own interpretation, when they find out what the author really meant, that aspect is gone.  The idea of creative thinking is stopped.  An aspect of discussion is gone.  It’s almost like when a magician explains a trick – the idea of trying to figure out how it was done disappears.

Second, while an author can explain their own work, they might not always do so completely.  There can often be subconscious elements in poetry.  An author may have included things that have symbolism and meaning and may not have even realized it.  Having someone else explain a poem though, can point these things out.

The reader

Interpreting poetry is something that can be central to reading poems.  While some poems are overt and clear in their meaning, other poems have more subtly and obscurity.  Even seemingly simple poems can have layers of meaning hidden within them.

Interpreting poetry might be an exercise you do in a class.  The class reads a number of poems and then goes line by line trying to understand what the poems truly mean.  They may include outside information such as historical information, information about the life of the authors or information about word meaning.  The idea is in some way to expound upon the symbolism.  It might be similar to when a clause in a contract is explained in plain language.  A one sentence clause might take five sentences to explain what it means.

There is a lot of value in a reader explaining poetry they read to themselves.

First, as mentioned above, having readers get their own meaning from poetry is a big part of the idea of poetry.  It’s like art in a way.  In some regard it is supposed to be different for each person.  This idea can be enhanced when a reader explains a poem for themselves.  They can get a better understanding of what they think a poem means and get more out of the reading experience.

Second, when a reader explains a poem to themselves, it can be a good learning exercise.  A reader learns to look into a poem.  They learn to see symbolism and metaphor.  They get experience seeing form elements.  They learn how the different pieces of a poem fit together.  This experience can improve a person’s ability to read poetry and also improve their ability to write it.

While there is value in a reader explaining poetry for themselves, there are some downsides.

First, as mentioned, a reader, without information from the author, will not ever know if they were correct in their interpretation.  It can be like taking a test, but not getting a grade.

While some may argue that being “correct” in interpreting poetry isn’t the idea of poetry, there is value in it if a reader wants to understand an author’s intention.  If a reader wants to understand what a poem “really means”, at least from the author’s perspective, then explaining it themselves can leave this unfulfilled.

Second, when a reader explains a poem for themselves they bring their own history and perspective to it.  What symbolism a reader sees in a poem, and how they see it, is influenced by the life of the reader.  Readers will see different things and see them differently depending on their history, where they live, their education, their age and so forth.

While this may be seen as a good thing in terms of the idea of each reader seeing a poem differently, it could also be seen as something that distorts the meaning of a poem.  In a sense, a reader is bringing bias into their explanation of a poem.  Their view in some sense is clouded.

Someone else

Readers of poetry sometimes can read explanations of poems written by someone other than the authors of the poems.  Some examples of this might be things like:

  Reading a review of a poetry book where the reviewer writes about the meaning of certain poems in the book.

  Reading a book that explains the poetry of a poet.  This might be seen with older or more well-known poetry.

  Reading or hearing an explanation of a poem from a peer, like in a classroom setting where the meaning of a poem is being discussed.

Getting these perspectives can have value for a reader when they try to understand what a poem means.

First, a reader gets an outside perspective.  They can read an explanation of a poem from someone else’s point of view.  Through this, they might discover symbolism and meaning that they might not have found or thought about on their own.

Second, if the reader is reading an explanation of a poem from someone with a good deal of experience writing about poetry, such as a poetry reviewer might have, they can not only get a different perspective on the meaning of the poem, they might get a more skilled one.  If a person regularly writes about poetry, they might develop skills in its interpretation.  A reader can benefit from this, in addition to the outside perspective.

Third, an explanation from someone else might help a reader enhance their own explanation of a poem.  A reader can take what others say about a poem, combine it with what they may have thought on their own, and develop a fuller explanation of a poem.  A reader can also combine multiple outside explanations of a poem for this same benefit.

While outside perspectives on poetry can be beneficial, they have some downsides.

First, they can influence how a reader reads a poem.  When a reader reads an explanation of a poem, they might have trouble reading and understanding the poem “cleanly”.  They might have trouble seeing and interpreting the poem without the explanation they read in the back of their mind.  They might have trouble seeing it without that perspective influencing what they think.

Second, reading an outside perspective of a poem might influence a reader not to explain the poem for themselves.  They might feel that since they read an explanation, there isn’t as much reason to think of the poem’s meaning on their own.  This can mean that a reader misses out on the experience that comes from thinking about what a poem means.

 

When it comes to understanding poetry, there are a number of perspectives.  A reader can read an author’s explanation, someone else’s or develop their own.  All of the perspectives have benefits and downsides.

If a reader wants to get the most from understanding poetry, they might be best served by combining the perspectives.

A reader could read a poem and think about what it means for themselves.  After that, if available, they could read an explanation of the poem from someone else.  This might exist already for more well-known poetry.  If there isn’t an explanation available, a reader could find a peer to read the poem and give their perspective.  Finally, again if available, a reader could read the author’s perspective on the poem.  Obviously this exists for many of the poems on this blog, as well as those in M. Sakran’s eBook.  It might also exists for other poems depending on what the authors did.  A reader might be able to find a book where an author explains their poetry, they might find some explanation of poems on things like blogs, or they might find explanations of poems in author interviews.

If a reader combines their own perspective, outside perspectives and author perspectives on poetry they can learn more about poetry interpretation, how to read poetry and how to write it.  When they put the perspectives together they can see poems in a way that they may not have with just one perspective.  In a way the perspectives can be more together than they were apart.

If a reader combines perspectives on poetry meaning, they can come to a fuller understanding of poetry and a better appreciation for it.

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