Ground Rules for Literary Interpretation

Amittai F. Aviram

A poem is not a message but the imitation of a message (or of several messages) in a way that draws attention to the material of which it is made (sound, words, images, etc.) and to the paradoxes inevitable to any utterance if it were isolated from the ongoing exchange of communication between real people referring to a real world. The language of a poem is meaningful, like any language, but the point of a poem is not to convey meaning, but rather to play with the paradoxes contained within the meaningful language that a poem imitates. Interpretation provides an accounting for how the parts fit together to make the whole, and, in so doing, it aims to discover the paradoxical pattern of surprises governing the literary artwork.

1. Interpretation of a Poem: Basic Ground Rules.

a. Read the whole sentences and the whole poem. Interpretation is a matter of understanding how the parts fit into the whole and contribute to it, not a matter of taking the poem apart bit by bit. Parts are to be scrutinized as they appear in the context of whole patterns. If a sentence in a poem is long and complex, strip it down to its barest essentials to find out whither the sentence is headed, reducing the sentence to a mere skeleton. Then add the "meat" of the details back onto it, remembering the drift of the sentence. If the whole poem is long and complex, likewise, keep an eye for the principle units and features so that you can see the whole pattern first, before delving into the details. Avoid getting bogged down in the details, and don't lose the forest for the trees. (Avoid clichés, too!)

b. Every noticeable element of the poem is assumed to contribute significantly to the whole pattern of meaning. Thus no marked element is an accident--it is assumed to be part of an intentional aesthetic pattern. The contribution of each element can generally be appreciated if it is contrasted with an actually-occurring or imaginary and hypothetical opposite. Elements contribute to surprise insofar as they violate normative default expectations, so always look for what the reader might be supposed to expect and how the actual element differs from this expectation.

c. The elements constituting the poem are assumed sufficient to give the poem a coherent pattern of meaning effects. Any knowledge that must be supplied from outside must come from common knowledge that can reasonably be expected of the intended audience at the time and in the society of the poem's composition (at least). Research helps to reconstruct lost "common knowledge," but not to discover things which no reader ever could have known. Subsidiary point: if the poem was published, it is assumed to be a public artefact. "Common knowledge" therefore means knowledge for the general public, not private knowledge of the author and his/her close friends or family.

d. The poem is assumed to be metrical--i.e., to have some sort of describable rhythmic pattern. If no sound pattern whatsoever can be discovered, in any of the various possible rhythmic systems (stress-syllabic, stress, quantity, pure syllabic count), then and only then may the poem be pronounced unmetrical. "Free verse" is often metrical with a pattern of strong stresses (often consistently three or consistently four per line), or else a changing number of stresses per line, but using common types of stress-syllabic lines throughout.

In short: Poems are coherent, intentional, and sufficient; they are metrical unless proven otherwise.

2. Inferring the Concrete Situation.

Poems are imaginary speeches. Accordingly, the reader can usually infer--and usually needs to infer--the concrete dramatic situation that would provide the imaginary context for the imaginary speech. For instance, the poem by Emily Dickinson beginning "I cannot live with you" (no. 650) implies that someone--a suitor--has just asked the speaker to live with him--that is, to marry him-- and the speaker is declining this marriage proposal. Inferences of the dramatic context should be based upon evidence and logic of this sort.

For the interpreter, poems fall into roughly two kinds, hard and easy. These are not subjective categories based on how hard or easy you happen to find a poem, but genre classifications based on the degree of directness with which the dramatic context is either presented or implied.

The hard poem is like a riddle. (A riddle may be a hard poem.) The poem requires that the reader figure out, first, simply what is going on concretely. In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," for example, you must first figure out that the speaker is going to a party where he hopes to meet women, etc.--he does not tell you that directly.

The easy poem sounds as if it already says everything, and there's nothing more to say. It often (but not necessarily) tells a story, or else makes a direct statement. There are no very obvious discontinuities in the concrete sense of the poem. (There are often some breaks in logic, but they're very subtle.) Many of Langston Hughes's poems are easy poems in this sense. It takes a lot of work to get beyond the obvious with them--but, in fact, it is possible to do so.

3. Interpreting the Hard Poem.

Your first and most important job is simply to figure out what's going on--to solve the riddle on the concrete level. This solution is called the primary sense or plain sense. What, in the poem's imaginary world, is happening or has just happened to give rise to the utterance you are reading? (The Dickinson poem mentioned above is an example.)

You must then look back at the words of the poem. Given the dramatic context that you have inferred from the poem's actual terms--which work as figures of speech or as indirect hints--you must then explain what those particular signs imply about the dramatic situation that they make it possible for you to infer. Example: why does the speaker in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" dwell on the yellow fog, and why does he compare it to a cat? This line of questioning is a subset of the general question of how the parts fit to make the whole--here, the whole is the implied dramatic context, and the parts are the signs that imply it without setting it forth explicitly.

Thinking in this way will lead you to one or more secondary readings. These are ways of taking the solution to the riddle itself as a metaphor for some other thing. Here you have more liberty, but you must make a convincing case by drawing on the context of the poem itself and other things that would be accessible to any appropriate reader. If you have more than one secondary readings, you must explain how these are related on an abstract level. The "clues" to the "riddle" are a coherent pattern of metaphors for the concrete situation implied. What does this metaphor reveal about the concrete situation? In what way is it surprising? How does it differ from the concrete situation to which it refers? Thus what is the metaphor connoting about the concrete situation?

4. Interpreting the easy poem. (This is actually harder.)

In this instance, you know (or think you know) what the primary sense is. Now you must discover what it is a metaphor for. In order to do so, make the poem harder. Look for subtle details that might suggest something unexpected. Consider in what way the poem provides surprise, either in its elements or in the concrete situation as a whole. Then, how does this surprise differ from what we might expect, and what does the relation between the imaginary expectation and the actual surprise imply? Every successful poem must have at least some element of surprise--otherwise it would not succeed in keeping the interest of readers enough to be published and appreciated. So your task will be to find the element or pattern of surprise, and then develop a secondary reading based upon the comparison between the surprise and whatever expected element the surprise can be thought of as replacing.

5. The Deep Structure of Sense in a Poem.

Both the plain sense of a poem and the secondary reading of its metaphor pattern will, inevitably, conform in some way to a structure of paradox. The interpretation of a poem reaches a point of satisfaction and enlightenment when it can arrive at a sense of this paradoxical structure. Accordingly, in both hard and easy poems, the most useful device for the interpreter is to organize the terms of the poem--both the explicit terms and the images or ideas implied by them--in a structure. This is usually binary--two columns of opposing terms. The interpreter must figure out what the opposed categories are and lay the terms of the poem out accordingly. This is not the interpretation itself; it is preliminary work making a coherent interpretation possible. The two columns of the binary set will lead to a sense of paradox because of how they are related to each other. Very often, the interpreter will experience this paradox in the form of a moment of hesitation about which column to assign a given term to, because that term will work in either category--perhaps literally in one and figuratively in another, or figuratively in both--even though the two columns are opposed and therefore logically mutually exclusive. Other times, one can simply notice how the two columns, though opposed, imply each other's validity.

Often a poem has more than one system of opposed categories. These can be represented in a more complex chart with, say, two opposing labels on the top and two on the side, with the poem's terms distributed in the resulting four squares. It may be even more complex. Use your imagination here and remember that flexibility is essential for a good interpretation.

At least some of the oppositions in a poem often correlate with formal divisions, such as the divisions of quatrains or stanzas or the "turn" between the first eight lines of a sonnet (octet) and the last six (sestet).

6. Contexts.

The words of a poem mean something within the more general context of language. One can understand more by knowing more relevant contexts for the poem at hand and thus knowing what special meanings words, images, or statements may have in the appropriate contexts. Context also help to determine what normal expectations would be, and therefore provide the information you need to know what would be surprising--since a surprise takes place against the background of whatever is expected and would be unsurprising. Relevant contexts are of four types:

--The history of language. Get a sense of the historical period (or find out the date of the poem) and look up words whose meanings may have changed. Use the OED for this, watching for the earliest and latest dates in which a meaning of a word is attested. Learn the etymology as well, and see if it is relevant. Be sensitive to the provenance of the word--if it's English (from OE), Latin, Greek, Norman French, Parisian French, Italian, Native American, African, etc.

--The literary context. In concentric circles going outward, with the most relevant first:

Poems in the same series or collection by the same author, same date.

Other poems by the same author.

Other works by the same author.

Poems and other works by other authors of the period.

Poems and works from earlier times to which the poem at hand alludes.

--Especially: highly prestigious texts such as the Bible, the Aeneid, Ovid's Metamorphoses, or, later on, Shakespeare's works.

--The intellectual-historical context. Ideas that were current in the period and social milieu of the text, or earlier ideas to which the poem alludes.

--The social-historical context. Events of the period, especially political events and issues, social movements, social attitudes, ways of life, social structures (such as class relations, prevalence of poverty and wealth, means of inheritance, etc.), types of work, and social uses and connotations of literature and poetry.

7. Relevance of Contexts.

Beware of the "surface"/"deeper meaning" opposition. Context brought to bear on the meaning of the text must be relevant. They must either be the obviously relevant contexts listed above (other parts of the same longer work, other works by the same author), or you must argue for the relevance of the context on the basis of a pattern of evidence in the text. Beware of overinterpreting isolated signs at the expense of the whole text. Give priority to the overall structures of the text: the formal structure of its own order of elements, and the conceptual structure of its themes in systems of opposition and parallelism. These structures and the relevant contexts should produce a sense of the point of the text. Above all, avoid decoding. Remember that a poem is not a "hidden message" or an expression, whether direct or indirect, of the author's ideas, opinions, or feelings, but rather a kind of game involving the imitation of what could otherwise occur as a message (if it were embedded within a real exchange between real people and referred to a real world). The mistake of using irrelevant contexts, such a the author's biography, is directly connected to the mistaken expectation that the poem will bear a "hidden message" that must be "decoded."

8. The Point.

The "point" of a poem, in the special sense in which we shall use that term in relation to literary art, is equivalent to the point of a joke, which is the thing about a joke that makes you laugh. Just as, in order to enjoy a joke, you have to "get it," so, with a poem, there is something to "get"--the point. More technically speaking, the point of a poem is the principle paradox (or set of paradoxes) underlying the poem's coherent pattern of marked (i.e., surprising) effects. The poem's coherent pattern will in some way turn on a surprising paradox about the oppositions of terms mentioned in no. 5 above. When you discover this paradox, you have the point of the poem and the basis for a powerful interpretation.

Poems very often, though perhaps not always, represent some aspect of themselves--whether the nature of poetry in general, the nature of written or oral texts (or songs), music, or rhythm--or possibly the experience of the reader in reading a poem. This self-reflexivity, if you discover it, provides a neat way of access to the paradox underlying the poem's coherent pattern.

The interpreter's work is not finished unless he or she can answer the question, "What's the point of this poem?" If you have no idea what the point of the poem is, even after struggling with it for a while, go on to some other poem. It may well come to you later. In the meantime, find one for which you can come up with a point that is not simply a restatement or paraphrase of the obvious terms of the poem.

To review: Read the whole poem and read whole sentences. If these are long and complex, do not read them bit by bit, but strip off the details and form skeletal outlines for yourself. If the poem is "hard," figure out the concrete situation to which it refers; if "easy," notice marked elements. Organize the material into categories of opposition, parallel sets of opposed terms. Look for the paradoxical relations between these categories of opposition that make the poem's pattern work--those are the point. Keep an eye out for possible metaphors for some aspect of the poetic experience itself.

9. Common Pitfalls.

The commonest instances of unsatisfactory interpretation arise from the mistaken assumption at the ouset that the poem should be treated as a message or means of conveying ideas, opinions, or feelings. In the case of hard poems, an interpreter making this mistake will then find that the message he or she is seeking is not obvious--and will therefore invent a "hidden meaning," "decoding" based upon a "code" whose validity cannot be assured. In the case of an easy poem, the interpreter may feel that the "message" is so obvious that there is nothing more to say--and the interpreter therefore misses altogether the point that would make this poem effective as a poem, something worthy of appreciation, circulation, and rereading over the years and in many places and times.

The commonest pitfalls in interpretation may be classified by the impression they leave the reader, as either (a) underinterpretation or (b) "overinterpretation," or, better, implausible interpretation. These latter are generally either (b1) "outlandish" readings or (b2) "wrong-headed" readings.

a. Underinterpretation.

This involves simply repeating what the text says. In poetry, this means paraphrasing terms or passages; it does not include the necessary explanation of the concrete situation if the poem is a "hard poem"--elucidation of the concrete situation in a "hard poem" is part of good interpretation. In narrative prose fiction or poetry that narrates a story, underinterpretation involves plot-summary. Other types of underinterpretation include narrations of the author's life and expressions of appreciation--gushing over the excellence of the text and the genius of its author. These are all quite empty of meaning for the reader of your paper, since they bring us no closer to the point of the text.

The writing technique of padding sometimes accompanies the tendency towards underinterpretation, as a way of squeezing out the required number of pages. A favorite method of padding is quoting definitions from a dictionary.

Parody:

Sonnet Number 18 by the poet William Shakespeare is one of the greatest poems ever written by a poet who ever lived. William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon, a small town in England, in 1564, and he died in 1616. Not much is known for certain about William Shakespeare's life, but numerous facts about him are known. He was certainly a genius, as this poem clearly shows. For example, Sonnet 18 begins with the line, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" This means that he is comparing somebody to a day in the summertime. The summer is a nice time of year and is warmer as compared to the winter. According to the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), a sonnet is "A poem usu. of fourteen decasyllabic lines, properly expressing two successive phases of a single thought or idea." That is true of William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, which has fourteen lines of ten syllables each, which proves that they are decasyllabic lines. Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare will be remembered forever as one of the things that had made America great and continues to do so.

b. Implausible Interpretation.

b1. The "outlandish" reading is produced when you bring to bear upon the signs of the text a context for whose relevance to the text you have not argued (and cannot argue) based on a pattern of evidence (not an isolated sign) in the text. As a result, to get to the point of the reading, you have shifted your focus far away from the text.

Parody:

On the surface, Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 seems as if it were a mere comparison between the addressee and a summer's day. But a closer look will reveal the hidden meaning of the poem: it is a record of William Shakespeare's rejection of homosexuality and acceptance of heterosexuality. Although some people think the sonnet is addressed to a man, it is really addressed to a lady. The summer's day represents a man. The lady is "more lovely," which shows that Shakespeare is heterosexual. Furthermore, Shakespeare must have written this sonnet in order to prove to critics that he was the real author, and not Sir Francis Bacon, who some people incorrectly believed had written Shakespeare's works. Shakespeare's evident heterosexuality proves that he was not Francis Bacon, who was a known homosexual.

b2. The "wrong-headed" reading is produced by isolating a few signs from the text and building an interpretation out of these (or a single sign), while ignoring the coherency of the whole. It is called "wrong-headed" because the interpretation that results often clashes with clear patterns of meaning effects generated in the larger whole. Very often, the development of a "wrong-headed" meaning involves settling prejudicially on a particular meaning of a sign early in the text (either one possible element in an ambiguous term or the product of an irrelevant context), and thus making an early decisive error. Once you make this decisive error, you keep going, twisting other terms to fit the "wrong-headed" reading or else just ignoring them altogether, in an effort to preserve your initial premise. In every case, a wrong-headed reading involves interpreting a part at the expense of the whole.

Parody:

William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 shows Shakespeare's love of nature and his commitment to environmentalism. He compares the addressee to a summer's day, and makes many comparisons between his love and things of beauty in nature. This shows how he values natural things such as the "buds of May" (flower-buds). He prefers nature to be "untrimmed." By contrast, man is the "eye of heaven," because he attempts to dominate nature and play god. In the end of the poem, nature is life-giving, since clean air allows man to breathe.

To avoid these pitfalls, above all, remember that a poem does not work by passing along a message, whether overt or "hidden," but by playing with the paradoxes that emerge out of the game of imitating a message. Avoid the "outlandish" reading by making sure that any thematic contexts your are bringing to bear are made relevant by demonstrable patterns of signs in the text--and be sure to show these patterns. The plain sense of the poem's surface, concrete terms must generally take precedence over putative "symbolic" associations. Avoid the "wrong-headed" reading by keeping an open mind for multiple possible hypotheses as you read the entire text several times, before you settle on a particularly suitable hypothesis that seems best to explain everything, the parts as well as the whole, the small details as well as the larger units and form. Generally, larger patterns are more important than smaller units in the process of arriving at a coherent and defensible interpretation. Always start from the whole and, after turning your attention to the parts, return to the whole to make sure that your interpretation makes good and consistent sense. The test of your idea of the point of the poem is that it should explain what it is about the poem that makes it powerful, fascinating, delightful, and poignant. Do not look for a moral precept or a political platitude; look for the pattern of surprises and the paradox that motivates it. Morals and politics may provide contexts within which the terms of the poem would make sense to contribute to the poem's game, but they are not the upshot of a poem, since a poem is not a message.

© 2001 Amittai F. Aviram — all rights reserved.

Ver. 13 January 1999


This page last updated Thursday, May 6, 2004 by the author — amittai dot aviram at gmail dot edu. © 1999 by Amittai F. Aviram.