When a Poem Isn’t Just a Poem…

A tension often belies the relationship of the writer and the reader. Some authors are vehemently and vocally opposed to certain interpretations of their work, while still others refuse to even read reviews or criticism of their stories, novels, or poems. Authors even go so far as to directly interfere with interpretations: William Faulkner famously added an Appendix years after the initial publication of his novel The Sound and the Fury in which he narrated the lives and actions of the characters after the novels events, saying it was the “key” to unlocking the novel; Vladimir Nabokov claimed in an interview that, at the conclusion of his novel Pale Fire (one of the most widely read and interpreted novels of all time), its narrator, Kinbote, commits suicide; Steven King released a “Complete and Uncut” edition of his novel The Stand twelve years after its initial publication, updating the setting from 1980 to 1990 and including hundreds of pages of material that was not included in the original printing. This kind of authorial intervention obviously dramatically changes and invalidates many interpretations of a work; generally speaking, it is a riposte to scholars and readers who the author feels “just didn’t get it” the first time.

But is this correction of the text ever necessary? In my opinion, it’s completely illegitimate. When it comes down to it, a story or a poem is very much a work of art. The work, like a painting or a sculpture, only gains meaning when viewed or read. It requires a reader, with a unique set of experiences, from a unique background, and with a unique perspective to read it. An artist loses his ability to “fix things” after a work has been published; it is the equivalent of a painter repossessing a canvas from display just to repaint it more to his liking. While still connected tangentially to a time, a place, and a person, in reality, works of art exist largely independent of their creators.

While an author may have made deliberate choices about the content of their work of art, many of those ideas are equally subliminal (we are, after all, products of our culture, of our circumstances), and a reader with a different perspective from the author has the potential to reveal a more nuanced reading of a work than the author himself. While I hear the frustration beneath the often heard exclamation by friends or professors that “Sometimes a poem is just a poem!” I think it is, at best, reductive in its dismissal of the reader entirely. A poem is only a poem if it doesn’t have a reader. A poem is a work of art when it touches the experience and emotions of its reader.

As part of the fiction panel for this year’s issue of The Long River Review, the stories that ended up in the magazine were works of fiction lush with meaning and interpretive possibilities. In fact, I don’t think we all were in agreement about the meaning or significance of our favorites, but the stories resonated with us at varying timbres and frequencies. What we ended up with was a symphony of stories that we know our readers will enjoy as much as we did; even with their own, different perspectives and experiences.

So in the future, when a writer or a fellow reader tells you that you “didn’t get” what a work was about or that “you missed the entire point of the story,” don’t worry about it. No matter who they are, they don’t have the final say about what a work means to you: you do. As reader, after all, you are doing half of the work.

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