Currently I’m working on a poetry chapbook centered on a common theme that pulls in bits and pieces of what’s been going on in my life. For me, it’s emotional purging, but I also plan to seek publication for it as well.
Last week I wrote a poem and put it on this blog; however, I took it down because this poem is included in the poetry chapbook. But there are a few words in the poem that read, “vile, like men,/hot fingers ready to brand their prey.”
This isn’t me wanting to talk about sexism and social justice issues. I want to talk about interpretation, and why a writer’s intentions aren’t important. My intention with that line was both to alert men AND poke fun at some aspects of feminism. I wanted the line to alarm men so they could think that they aren’t that way, that I’m sweeping a broad brush across all men. I also wanted to slam parts of feminism that make men feel this way, then invalidate those mens’ feelings by calling them selfish. After all, feminism is notorious for sweeping dirty floors with a broad brush. So those were my intentions with what I’d written. No one lambasted me about those lines, by the way. One of my followers simply asked a harmless question that reminded me that my intentions don’t matter. This goes for any type of writing, but I think it’s far more crucial with poetry, as poetry opens itself up for more interpretation due to the nature of how poetry must be written to separate it from a short story or novel or whatever.
Some elite writers out there will tell you that the best writing causes people to come up with the same interpretation, but that is a ridiculous notion. The best writing allows many interpretations, many discussions that can transcend generations. For example, I’ve taken literature classes with students who have analyzed things the professor could never even think of. These were good analyses with valid points. Usually what we read was from authors already deceased. Yet, some professors will tell us, “You can’t know what the poet was thinking because that poet is not alive for you to ask.”
Does this matter, though? No, it doesn’t. Once the poem is out there for everyone to read, the poem no longer belongs to you. The poem belongs to everyone to dissect and analyze as they please. With the words from the poem I mentioned above, you’ve probably gathered your own interpretation before I even spoke about what I meant. Hopefully your thoughts were different. Differing thoughts spark conversations that may never have been held about a piece of writing. These conversations can affect a change among people, be it good or bad.
Writing has saved lives because of different conclusions. Someone who has had cancer is going to read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars differently than someone who has never had cancer. It’s the same with every piece of writing in existence. Life experiences shape the conclusions people make about a piece of writing. This is what makes great literature.
Here is a poem that drew many conclusions from a poetry class I took last quarter:
“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams
“so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
The biggest question often asked about this poem is, “What depends upon the red wheelbarrow?”
A lot can depend on that red wheelbarrow. You need a wheelbarrow to move around stacks of wood. You need a wheelbarrow to shovel hay or manure in it. You need a wheelbarrow for a lot of things. This was the interpretation I had when I first read it as a senior in high school. I still think it’s a valid one. After all, A LOT does depend upon a wheelbarrow. Yet, there is one interpretation academia often wants you to draw from it. The poem is one sentence, so the poem itself depends upon each word, each line, each stanza, in order to complete the entire sentence. The poem basically depends upon itself to be complete. This is a valid conclusion, too. Who knows how many other interpretations out there readers have gleaned from this? Hopefully many.
Thus, your intentions for writing what you did don’t matter. Readers’ experiences are going to shape how they read a particular thing, so it’s silly to even try to sway readers toward what you yourself meant when you write something. All you can do is hold that conversation and hope it deepens the discussion of what you’ve written. This isn’t to say you don’t need intentions when you write. This is to say that you shouldn’t expect everyone else is going to read your poem the same way. After all, without intentions, you can’t even write.