You Can't Just Make Stuff Up When Interpreting Poetry

by Tina Blue
December 11, 2003

          I am non-tenured adjunct faculty. (At my university we are called "lecturers.")  In my department we lecturers are evaluated each spring, on an exceptional / good / fair / poor scale, and whether or not we are rehired is determined by these ratings, as is our merit raise for the following year, if in fact such raises are permitted by the state's ever-tightening budget. Anything less than a "good" rating means no raise and even puts a lecturer at risk of not being rehired.

          One of the most influential factors in our annual rating is the student evaluations from our classes.  Another important factor is our class GPA.  In other words, if we give too many high grades, it will count against us.  But if we give too many low grades (and to most students these days, a "C" is equivalent to an "F"), our students might resent us, so they might not evaluate us as glowingly as we need to be evaluated to keep our jobs and have any hope for a merit raise.

          In addition to not being pleased with grades lower than they
, regardless of what grades they deserve, our students also don't like to hear any suggestion that they might not be as well-informed as the teacher in the teacher's area of expertise. Nor do they like to hear that their "opinions" are not pure gold and worthy of uncritical acceptance by their teacher.

          "I'm entitled to my own opinion!" they squawk if an instructor dares to suggest they might be mistaken in their interpretation of a text or an issue under discussion in class.

          I assume that students in math and science classes are a little less self-righteously belligerent than those in humanities courses. After all, it would be hard for a student to insist on his right to "interpret" an equation idiosyncratically. I also assume that even among humanities courses, some subjects produce this attitude in students more than others.

          Literature courses especially seem to evoke such declarations by students that they have a "right" to their own opinion.  And within the subject of literature, poetry above all is treated this way.

          A few years ago another lecturer in the English department, a skilled teacher with many years of experience (even more years than I have put in!), was dismayed to learn that she had been given only a "fair" rating.  She was actually called into the director's office for a dressing down over the flaws in her teaching.

          What flaws?  Well, apparently, there was only one, but in the eyes of our director, it was a biggie: She didn't let her students have their own opinions about what a poem meant.  Instead, she insisted that some ways of reading some poems were demonstrably wrong.

          Notice that she wasn't necessarily insisting that there was only one way to interpret a poem--i.e., her way--but that some interpretations simply cannot be supported by the evidence in the poem.

          That's the thing, you see. An interpretation of a poem is a kind of "argument."  You can't just make up any old thing you like and say that it is in the poem. You have to show where in the poem you find evidence for that reading, and also show how that reading is consistent with other details in the poem. A detail that
be read a certain way can't be read that way if said reading contradicts other elements in the poem.  And some readings will just be too darned far-fetched to even consider. 

          An example of the sort of way out there readings that we just
accept is the one a student of mine reported from his high school English class. Rather than suggest that her students didn't have a right to believe anything they wanted about a poem, the teacher allowed them to guess that the Duke of Ferrara in Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" murdered his wife by putting her in a bag with heavy bronze statues and drowning her.

          What evidence did they have for such a bizarre misinterpretation?  Well, they had figured out (correctly, of course) that the duke had his wife killed.  And the poem's last three lines mention a bronze statue of Neptune, the god of the sea:

          . . . Notice Neptune, though,
          Taming a sea horse, thought a rarity,
          Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Therefore, they "reasoned," since Neptune is a sea god the duchess must have been drowned, and the way it was done was by weighing her down with bronze statues.

          Good grief! Any approach to teaching poetry that allows for such nonsense is simply bad teaching. But according to the standard applied to my colleague, if she had tried to correct such a misinterpretation by her students, she would have been chastised for not allowing them to have their own opinion on the poem.

          When she told me about her run-in with the director over her student evaluations, I was appalled. I had not yet gotten any complaints about such things, but since I also correct obvious misreadings in my classes, what had happened to her could conceivably happen to me.

          So now I take preemptive action.

          Ever since hearing her story, I have taken steps at the beginning of every poetry class to convince my students that (1) as a teacher with over 30 years of studying and teaching literature, including poetry, I probably have more knowledge and expertise in the subject than my 18- to 21-year old students, though I am under an obligation, just as they are, to offer support for my readings, and to defend them against challenges, or change them if I cannot; (2) interpreting poetry is an argument
and requires evidence, plausibility, and consistency; (3) some readings can be shown to be wrong, and some readings can even be shown to be fairly certain to be "right," or at least far more plausible than others.

          I start off by announcing that I have never seen a football game and know not one single thing about the game.  It's true.  I don't even know what such terms as "first down" or "running back" mean, though I have heard them in association with football, so I know that they are football terms.

          Then I ask who in the class knows a lot about football.

          Since I get a lot of athletes in my classes, I will almost always have at least one of our school's football players in class.  At the very least, I will have someone who has played football on a high school team.

          Then I ask that student to imagine that we are at a football game together.  Something happens down on the field.  I say, "Oh, look!" and then describe what I think just happened.  But since I don't know anything about football, and I have no idea about what the rules are, I really don't know what's going on.  I'm not an absolute idiot.  I can probably figure out if it's going better for one team or the other--though I might be wrong about that sometimes, too.  But I certainly won't understand anything more subtle than that one team or the other is moving the football where it wants it to go, and that one team has a higher score than the other.

          "Now," I say to the student, "suppose in my ignorance I guess wrong about what is going on down there. What would you do?

          Of course he tells me that he would explain what was really going on and why I was wrong to think what I thought.

          Then I say, "But suppose I get annoyed when you correct me and insist that I have a right to my own opinion, and you have no right to tell me what to think?"

          Usually the student is too polite and too cautious to say what he is thinking, but it is obvious from the look on his face that he is thinking only an idiot would insist that her opinion, based on near perfect ignorance, is just as good as his opinion, backed up by years of knowledge and experience.

          Then I ask for someone knowledgeable about baseball. I usually have some members of our school's baseball team as well as some serious baseball fans. I know a little more abut the rules of baseball than about football, since I played softball as a girl.  But I am still pretty ignorant.  Above all, I know none of the statistics that mean so much to an avid baseball fan. 

          From what I understand (as someone who understands very little of the matter), statistics and history are very important in baseball. A lot of a fan's understanding and appreciation of the game depends on his knowledge of the teams, the individual players, and statistics within the context of the game's history.

          Then I draw what I hope is a telling analogy. I compare the depth of understanding such a knowledgeable fan would have with an English instructor's knowledge of the "players" in the tradition of poetry, as well as their relative "statistics."  Then I compare my very limited understanding of baseball, based on my experience playing softball as a child, to the student's own understanding of poetry, based on his having read a few poems in high school English, and maybe having written a few poems in a journal he kept in eleventh grade.

          I use certain poems to demonstrate the way a poem can be misread, and the way such a misreading can be corrected by
going to the text of the poem
and finding evidence to support or refute a reading.  I also use certain poems to show where readings can be ambiguous, and why such ambiguity might be exactly what the poet was after.

          For example, Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" evokes a response in many readers--especially among readers with little experience of poetry--that leads them to assume the poem must be about child abuse.  It is fairly easy to refute this interpretation, and yet there are words and images in the poem that prompt this response.

          Certainly, the charge of child abuse can be refuted by the boy's obvious delight in his wild waltz with his papa, the poem's playful ¾ rhythm, the jocular feminine rhymes ("dizzy" /"easy" [2, 4]; "knuckle/"buckle" [10, 12]), and the word "romped."  Even the mother, though she cannot "unfrown" her face, is trying not to frown, despite the noise and mess, the risk that her drunken husband might drop their son, and the fact that he has come home late and drunk (probably not for the first time) and is getting the boy all riled up before he goes to bed.  Her attempt
to frown suggests that she doesn't want to interfere with this playful interlude between father and son.

          But although the child's love for his father and his delight in the romp are obvious, those feelings are shadowed by an undercurrent of tension that is captured in the ambiguous connotations of some of the poem's words, phrases, and images: "The whisky on your breath" (1); "I hung on like death" (3); "such waltzing was not easy" (4); "The hand that held my wrist / Was
on one knuckle" (9-10); "My right ear scraped a buckle" (12);"You beat time on my head" (13); "clinging to your shirt (16) [emphasis added].

          The father apparently works hard all day, but then instead of hurrying home to his wife and child, he stops to get drunk at a bar. The image of his "palm caked hard by dirt" (14) indicates not only that he works hard, but that he hasn't even stopped by the house to get cleaned up before heading to the bars. And the fact that "The hand that held [his son's] wrist / Was battered on one knuckle" (9-10) suggests that he probably got involved in a barroom brawl while he was out.

     The father probably loves his son, but he doesn't seem to spend as much time with him as the boy wants or needs.  No wonder the child clings to him so desperately. It's not just that he is afraid this drunken man--so oblivious that he doesn't even notice the harm that he is doing to his son's ear, the kitchen utensils, or his wife's nerves--might drop him (he really might!).  It's also that he can't bear the thought of letting go of his papa, since he never gets to spend enough time with him. 

          Besides, although the wild romp is scary, it's also thrilling, and the boy is already a bit tipsy from the fumes on his father's breath.  He may also be rather "dizzy" psychologically, because his relationship with his father is so sporadic and confusing.  "Such waltzing," meaning not only the dance but also the relationship between the boy and his father, is "not easy" (4) for him, and even looking back on this happy childhood memory, the son's use of ambiguous words and images seems to hint at his awareness of this difficulty.

          Thus those students who immediately assume that this poem must be about child abuse are picking up on something that really is in the poem--not child abuse, but a kind of neglect and obliviousness to the child's needs that have produced an undercurrent of resentment that shadows this otherwise happy memory for the adult persona.

          A "child abuse" reading of this poem can be easily refuted, but the idea that the poem can be read as a purely happy memory doesn't account for the elements that lead so many readers to mistakenly find child abuse in the poem. Those elements are there, and as Roethke was a skilled, sensitive poet, we can assume that he put them there for a reason. In other words, the persona's own feelings about this memory are probably ambivalent, and that ambivalence is captured in the poem's use of words, phrases, and images that leave us, too, feeling a bit uneasy about the relationship between father and son.

          This poem also allows us to discuss the way a reader's own experience might color his reading of a poem to the point of blinding him to what is actually in the poem.  Some students are from families where one parent was often drunk and/or neglectful, and these students are more likely to be disturbed by the poem's words and images.  Even students with no personal experience of neglect or abuse by a drunken parent might be highly sensitized to such problems simply because these issues are foregrounded not only in the news and popular entertainment, but also in certain classes that they take in school.

          But such flawed readings based on idiosyncratic experience can be corrected for by meticulous attention to the details of the poem itself. I am not suggesting that a student's own experience is irrelevant.  In fact, I think that the uneasiness evoked in a student with personal experience of abuse or neglect by an alcoholic parent adds a layer of intensity to his experience of the poem, even after the misreading is corrected.  Furthermore, I believe that Roethke intended his poem to have the potential of creating just such a sense of uneasiness, though it should remain in the background, rather than in the foreground of our reading of the poem.

          My experience with this poem, as with many others, is that repeatedly returning the students' attention to the specific details of the poem and insisting that all of the details be accounted for allows them to reach a complex, layered reading that most of them find much more satisfying and convincing than their original misreadings, especially when the details that provoked their initial misreading are not suppressed or dismissed, but rather recognized and integrated into the more careful reading.

          Furthermore, they get to see me "arguing" for my interpretation, offering evidence, and responding to challenges with further evidence.  That is the model I want them to use when writing their own essays about poetry. I tell them that I am not allowed to just claim that a poem means this or that. I have to show where I get that interpretation, and defend my reading to the point where others can accept it as at least plausible--even if those others started out with a completely different idea about what the poem means. 

          And since I am not allowed to just make stuff up when interpreting a poem, they aren't allowed to either.

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