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the everyman memoirs

The official blog of author Tali Nay.
JUN
07

Torturing Confessions out of Poetry

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I typed the word "stopping" into google search this morning, and the first thing that came up was "stopping by woods on a snowy evening." Which, incidentally, was exactly what I was looking for. What a tribute to Robert Frost that is. Impressive. The poem has been on my mind since having a conversation with my brother the other day. He's in college and was expressing frustration over professors who insist upon a "right" meaning or interpretation of a piece of writing. I know what he's saying, and I can see both sides of the argument. It seems narrow-minded (and presumptuous) for us to assign a single meaning to a poem or story, but, then again, authors usually do have a particular meaning or theme in mind when they write. Especially these short mediums.

The first poem that came to my mind was Introduction to Poetry (Billy Collins), because it captures this frustrating sentiment perfectly; the idea that sometimes we just want to read poetry, revel in it, delight in it, relate it to our own lives, draw our own parallels. But in an educational setting, it's all about the meaning. The right meaning. I can remember several times in my college years when I suggested meanings or interpretations and was told, "No, he/she didn't mean that." Most times I was probably just wrong, but I also think that we can't assume we know everything about why authors say the things they do. Speaking of Billy, we were once given an assignment in a poetry class to take a certain poem of his and make an assumption based on the contents of the poem. It's the poem with the beautiful description of introducing a child to the moon, followed by the suggestion--if your house has no child--to "gather in your arms the sleeping infant of yourself." The description that follows, that of a sleepy infant-in-arms, struck me as painfully sweet. The assumption I turned into the professor was this: "Billy Collins has no children." To which the professor actually scoffed, claiming it was simply not possible for a childless man to describe so perfectly the limp and lolling head of a sleepy baby. As a childless person myself, I can tell you that this professor overestimates the difference between experience and circumstance.

So back to Robert Frost. I once heard a professor tell of a particularly unique student interpretation of Stopping by Woods which claimed that the narrator might be none other than Santa Claus. There are details in the poem (snow, nearly the darkest evening of the year...think about the timing of winter solstice, the "small horse," miles to go, etc). The poem is not about Santa, but the student got full marks on the paper, which, as I pointed out to my brother, is how I think writing ought to be approached. Your interpretation might be wrong, but especially if you can make a good case, your opinion is still valid and should be heard. These types of dialogues and questioning are healthy, keep us open to new ideas, and make literature that much more accessible. And isn't that the point?