Mr. Fish and The Incredible Appearing Poem

Lately I’ve been bothered with Stanley Fish’s Is There A Text In This Class; I’ve had the book for a while, and have read most of the essays long before that, but for some reason lately I’ve been picking it back up.  Mainly, I have been mulling over why I know, even if only instinctual – in my gut – why he is wrong on several of his ideas about poems.  

If you’ve never read it, or even gotten the brief summary of his arguments in that book, they are basically epistemological takes on why we can never really know what an author intends for a poem to mean.  Instead, we can only act as an “interpretive community,” meaning we can only form our own meaning; furthermore, because of the fluid nature of language over time, the author’s intent is inaccessible.  In turn – and I think this is where he really pushes my buttons the most – he implies that the idea of someone “creating” a poem (or anything else) is false, and instead they are things found, by readers. 

Now, this argument springs from a time when students of his walked into a classroom to find this written on a chalkboard:

Jacobs-Rosenbaum
Levin
Thorne
Hayes
Ohman (?)

He then told the class that the words were a poem (of religious nature), and asked them to interpret it.  What followed, of course, was a long academic b.s. session.  What is foremost wrong with this situation is the context of his experiment.  After all, he is a paid professor acting as authority figure, while the students are paying to be there, acknowledging the role of “learner.”  There is no control in his experiment, and already the deck is greatly stacked in favor of his argument. 

I will give him some leeway when he talks about poems being mere constructs of what we expect poems to be; in other words, how we know we are looking at a poem (in fact, the essay in particular I am referring to is titled “How To Recognize A Poem When You See One”).  This is actually something I consider and actively experiment with in my writing – in fact, numerous times I have imposed upon myself a deliberate avoidance of any contemporary poetry.  This comes from being disappointed with the majority of what I read in top-tier – or rather, “top-tier” – journals, coupled with a certain feeling of hindrance and influence upon my own concept of what a poem is.  What I mean is I felt that both my own and a more general concept of what a poem should look like has often gotten in the way of my ability to write one. 

So I will acknowledge that Fish’s idea of reader expectations creating poetic structure is indeed real; however, he doesn’t give the author any credit, as if they are unable to consider, experiment, and use that to their advantage.  This is precisely why my MA thesis contained photographs that were given titles, then presented as “poems.” 

I should add that I am not one of these people who think that “anything” can be a poem, nor would I typically think a titled photograph could be a poem – in fact, generally I would be vehemently in opposition to these ideas, as I strongly believe that things like “spoken word” and “poetry slams” are not poetry; nor do I believe in the idea of a “visual poetry,” which places like poetrymagazine.org have presented, and a term a few comic scholars have thrown around (and I am an advocate and participant in comic scholarship, though what that means is a discussion best saved for a later time).  Nor am I saying it’s something I can do and get away with, but no one else can; far from it. 

What I am saying (or trying to) is that the issue is certainly one an author can address and consider, and given their execution can be done successfully if put in the right context – through which intention is demonstrated.   It isn’t that I disagree with Fish’s assessment of poems as reader expectations, but rather I disagree with his assumption that therefore the author plays a passive role and cannot influence this process.  In fact, it is directly related to a recent post – and something I often think about – which is the necessity for writers to re-evaluate their concept of what poems are, and how they are approached by readers. 

For example, I can’t overstate how sad it is to see literally almost every single young (and old) aspiring writer come into a workshop with the idea that poems must somehow “not say” what they are trying to say, that communication to the reader must be hidden in poetics and/or obfuscated in an attempt to make them more “poetic.”  I remember one workshop where this woman had written a poem that the entire class had read as a light, humorous poem about a woman fumbling with her purse; the woman eventually broke into tears, and revealed the poem was a deeply emotional poem about her mother’s suicide.  And this misinterpretation wasn’t a matter of tone; instead, she had bought into the idea that she couldn’t just directly address the thing she was trying to address, and instead it had to be delivered in vague, symbolic language.  After she explained what the poem was “about,” my only suggestion to her was to “put in the poem what you just said to me.” 

My point in that story is that if writers can’t get beyond these concepts of what poems are, what chance to readers have?  Of course Fish’s argument will appear to seem valid when poetry is approached in the same cryptic manner that the more esoteric modernists have haunted us with; furthermore, I might argue that an audience of English majors might be the worst subjects to practice, and eventually dictate, poetic identification, as most are exhaustively trained in the analysis and “de-coding” of poetry that is anything but contemporary – but this is related to the flawed institutional separation of literary theory and creative writing, in which the practice of the former almost never interacts with the latter.  But this is a rant I will save for another rainy day. 

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