[Milton-L] interpreting poems variously [was Satan etc.]

Hannibal Hamlin hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
Wed Nov 19 11:21:03 EST 2008


And if anyone thinks describing poetic ambiguity is about interpreting
"however one likes," read Empson's *Seven Types of Ambiguity*, which is
about as rigorous and meticulous (and brilliant) an example of close reading
as one can find.  *Seven Types* was published in 1930 and was Empson's first
work, developed while studying with I.A. Richards at Cambridge, and the OED
gives this as the first use of the word in the literary critical context.
The word "ambiguity," though an old one, tended to have a negative
connotation (doubt or uncertainty leading to confusion) until the New
Critics.  Puttenham uses "ambiguity" to refer to the classical
"amphibologia," which is a stylistic vice.  That said, one could describe
many familiar rhetorical figures -- paronomasia (puns), antanaclasis, zeugma
-- as species of ambiguity, where the term refers not to wishy-washiness,
but to the deliberate, simulataneous suspension of meaning between two (or
more) alternatives.  Perhaps we should think of "ambiguity" as akin to
"ambidexterity," which is not a handicap but a strength.

Hannibal



Hannibal


On 11/19/08, Sara van den Berg <vandens at slu.edu> wrote:
>
> The idea that controlled ambiguity of meaning is a constitutive
> characteristic of poetry was developed by the New Critics, and is
> exemplified in Understanding Poetry, an influential textbook published by
> Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks.
>
>
>
> Sara van den Berg
>
> On Wed, Nov 19, 2008 at 8:15 AM, Carl Bellinger <bcarlb at comcast.net>wrote:
>
>>  How widespread is the notion that poetry is a splendid thing (in some
>> part or in large part) because one can interpret it however one likes?
>>
>> When in English Lit. history does the notion that ambiguity of meaning
>> is a constituative characteristic of poetry first appear?
>>
>> -Carl
>>
>> ----- Original Message -----
>> *From:* Carol Barton <cbartonphd1 at verizon.net>
>> *To:* milton-l at lists.richmond.edu
>> *Sent:* Wednesday, November 19, 2008 7:46 AM
>> *Subject:* Re: Re: [Milton-L] Satan in Paradise Regained
>>
>>
>>
>> Salwa wrote:
>>
>> I was trying to catch up on my email when Jonathan's sentence caught my
>> attention.  This struck a nerve, because
>> students are always saying this and get upset when I try to gingerly point
>> out that their interpretation of a certain poem or poetic passage is just
>> not appropriate.   Just because some works are written in poetic form does
>> not mean that they can be *completely* open to
>> various interpretations, to  some, but not in any way that the reader
>> thinks.  There is something called "misreading," and I teach my students to
>> consider the poem in its historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts
>> before they can begin to attempt an interpretation, specially if it is a
>> work of early modern literature.  To illlustrate this point (which my
>> students still have a hard time understanding..how could I be limiting their
>> creative interpretations ?!), I use the ripple effect.  I forgot which
>> modern critic came up with this.  When a stone is thrown into a lake, it
>> creates many ripples starting from the center and spreading farther.  The
>> most relevant interpretations of a poem are analogous to the ripples close
>> to the center, and the most irrlevant (i.e. misreadings) are the ones that
>> analogous to the ripples farther from the center.  I have yet to convince my
>> students of this, without being accused of close-mindedness and not
>> accepting opinions that differ from me.
>> By the way, I write poetry too.
>> Best,
>> Salwa Khoddam
>>
>> Salwa, perhaps the thing to stress here is that poems are a form of
>> speech, and that speech belongs ultimately and uniquely to the speaker: only
>> he or she can know for certain what the intent of the communication was, no
>> matter how many others try to interpret it. Perhaps the best example of
>> valid (but actual) "misreading" is the very different interpretations
>> students have of Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz." Males tend to see it
>> as a young boy's delighted account of a giddy romp with his father; females
>> tend to see it as a frightening view through innocent eyes of what may
>> be unintentional but is nonetheless defacto child-abuse on the part of the
>> drunken father. Both interpretations are equally warranted by the poem
>> itself, and good arguments can be made for either case. Listening to Roethke
>> read "My Papa's Waltz" himself, the "correct" interpretation (from the
>> poet's perspective) is unmistakable. I will let you decide for yourself what
>> that means: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/18045. But my point
>> is this: no matter what we may think Roethke meant, and no matter how well
>> we can justify that opinion, ultimately and uniquely, Roethke "owns" the
>> poem, and his interpretation trumps any alternative.
>>
>> All we can do when the poet is not here to tell us what the
>> "correct" reading is, is marshal the evidence that supports why we believe
>> it means this or that. An interpretation of Roethke's poem that made the
>> speaker a young woman, or the action paternal incest, would be unwarranted
>> by the evidence. Any reader is entitled to say, "To me, it means . . ." and
>> to make of it anything he or she wishes--but without the subjective
>> qualification, a declarative statement that "the poem means" when made by
>> one scholar to another must be supported by evidence. A poem is a finite,
>> concrete thing, in that it is comprised--as you well know--of very carefully
>> chosen words arranged in a certain sequence of intelligible speech units on
>> a page. It is *not *open to any number of interpretations. Satan in
>> _Paradise Lost_ is not and never could be an allegory of Adolph Hitler.
>>
>> Best to all,
>>
>> Carol Barton
>>
>> ------------------------------
>>
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>
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-- 
Hannibal Hamlin
Associate Professor of English
The Ohio State University
Burkhardt Fellow,
The Folger Shakespeare Library
201 East Capitol Street SE
Washington, DC 20003
hamlin.22 at osu.edu/
hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
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