What the poet meant to say
Many years ago, more years than is polite to mention, I was a college student. I was a math major with a minor in physics and just short of one in dramatics. Naturally I hung out with people from the English department.
English majors, at least English majors in my time, tended to have literary ambitions. I have been told that nowadays the literary ambitions of English majors are restricted to block lettering protest placards. It may be so or it may be that rumor lies. Be that as it may, I was a member of a circle of would be writers and poets who used to sit around in the student union, drink coffee, and exchange their latest effusions.
One day I passed around a poem I had written. This was no ordinary poem. The first line read “I hate Man.” The whole was a denunciation of humanity, its works, and its foibles. The effect is appalling.
Naturally I passed it around in one of our afternoon coffee sessions. One of the readers, a sweet young thing, was duly appalled and asked in horrified tones, “You don’t really feel that way, do you?” Before I could answer and reassure her that I was not in fact a monster of depravity, another broke in and replied, “I think what the poet meant to say was …”
I have no idea what she thought the poet meant to say; I was entranced by the unconscious audacity of telling the world what the poet meant to say when the poet was in the audience. I can only suppose that she was trapped in the interpretative mode, that years of interpreting literature in classes had created an inflexible reflex.
Still, there was some justice on her side. Isaac Asimov once related an amusing incident that happened to him. He had heard that a local college was offering an SF course and that one of his stories was the subject of the current unit. Curious as to what they had made of it, he sat in on the class one day as an anonymous auditor. He was amazed to hear the thoughts and interpretations that were produced in that classroom that day. Afterwards he introduced himself to the professor and remarked that the interpretations he heard had nothing to do with what he had in mind when he wrote the story.
The professor replied in much these words, “Thank you, Dr. Asimov. It is a great pleasure to meet you, and I very much enjoy your work. Tell me, though, whatever makes you think that you are more qualified than anyone else to say what your fiction means?”
The point is well taken. The words we make, be they written or spoken, are no longer ours once they are written or said. At most we may have a copyright; however the meanings are supplied by the readers and auditors to make of your words what they will.
Even so, my interpreter pushed the envelope.
This page was last updated December 1, 2005.