While in no way being an expert in aesthetics, I thought I might apply my favourite university-based pastime to my usual poetry ramblings before the former stops supporting me and I feel the weight of the latter’s inability to pay. So, here goes, some Poetic Philosophy!
Art’s a bit weird, isn’t it?
Regardless of the form, art will change its meaning depending on the style, the format, the setting, the audience, the vibe, the words, the pictures, the colours, the performance, the tone, the key, or the mood you’re in that day. The meaning, many would say, exists only in the subjective experience of each and every audience member. The same performance, for instance, can have a thousand different meanings in a night – regardless of clarity or intention.
This mirrors a famous aesthetic and philosophical sentiment popularised by Roland Barthes. The author’s intentions and their view of their own art is irrelevant to the meaning of the piece itself. What is important in a discussion of meaning is not the author – their history, identity, motivations, or beliefs – but rather the impressions the work they produce has on its audience.
There are a whole lot of reasons why this view of meaning is very appealing. However, I think it runs into trouble when interpreting autobiographical art. And of course, I am, as always, talking specifically about performance poetry. Shocker.
Earlier this week, a poet friend of mine had a performance of theirs reviewed in a way which wildly misrepresents not just their poem but their personal and political stances on identity. A piece of desultory, sarcastic satire was interpreted and reported as a sincere part of the poem’s sentiment. When they asked me about whether they ought to ask for it to be corrected, my immediate response was yes. There seems to be something wrong with an interpretation of personal poetry which is so contrary to the actual and evident performance of the poem.
But, what would Barthes have to say on this? Well, Barthes seems to hold that the poet has no authority over the meaning of their work, regardless of how inadequately it is interpreted. Why, then, do I have the overwhelming feeling that my poet friend would be within their rights to ask for the review to be changed to reflect their intentions?
So, I’m going to talk about why I think intention matters, sometimes. That “sometimes” is really important. I am not saying that as long as the author has good intentions, a poem’s content can’t be shitty or offensive or potentially harmful. Unchecked ambiguity is the fault of the author. It is their responsibility to detect, avoid and atone for it. To see a wonderful example of a poet accepting this responsibility in a case of ambiguity with no malintent, have a look at this blog post from Katie Ailes. A fantastic poetry blog which we will return to later…
Another “sometimes” we might consider the audience over author would be in the case of genuine interpretation. I have seen this in the responses to my own poetry. A big part of my work has involved, from my point of view, an exploration of friendships and non-romantic love. Very frequently is this theme acknowledged, and many of my poems have been interpreted as straight-up romantic love poems. When this happens, I may feel a need to explain my intention, but I don’t feel I wield the power to correct someone else on their experience of the poem, just because I wrote and performed it. What you get from art comes from what you bring to it, and most of the time that is okay.
However, there is a particularly special case I would like to make in terms of performance poetry which I think violates this general principle. A paradigm example of this comes again from Katie’s blog. In an enlightening piece on the performing body, Katie describes the problems that occur when a person’s identity as it appears on stage, to the audience, does not match with their actual identity. The case refers to Katie performing a poem about her personal experience with “body image issues… being a larger woman and cultural politics around fat” and how this was perceived as “inauthentic” by an audience who had the poem presented to them by “a medically average-sized woman”. A fact separate from whether those experiences were real and were had by Katie – which they were.
I believe this is a case where the poet’s identity has to have a role in the meaning of the poem. To side with the audience’s interpretation of this poem as inauthentic would be to erase the genuine experiences that the author is describing in light of factors irrelevent to the assessment of the poem. This is to say that I feel we have good reason to pay attention to the author’s true identity in cases where the art they create is a direct representation of their own lived experience, and deny the audience their interpretation insofar as it fails to reflect the author’s true identity.
While the main thrust of this article argues; “even if the author’s dead, at least the poet made it,” I feel there is still a lot to be said for audience interpretation. A poem, painting, play, novel, or song can legitimately be seen in a thousand lights by the same person on different days – and that’s kinda why we love these things! But, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that we can’t be wrong in our interpretation. Sometimes the author knows best.