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On the Intentional Fallacy

By Reginald Shepherd

Many of the comments in response to my most recent post revolved around the question of authorial intention and its importance or even relevance to the reading and interpretation of a work of verbal art, so I have decided to explore the question in greater depth. This post incorporates some of my prior responses to comments on that earlier post into an extended discussion of the matter of authorial intention.
One of the greatest legacies of the much-maligned (mainly by people who haven’t really read them) New Critics is the separation of the author and the text. When I read a poem, I read the poem. I have neither the desire nor the ability to discern an author’s intentions. I care about what the author wrote, not what the author thought he or she was writing. Even if one thinks of a work in terms of its author, if what mattered most to a writer was what was in his or her head, there’d be no reason to write anything, since one already has access to the contents of one’s own mind. One writes because one wants to produce something separate from oneself. I can’t imagine how I could fathom Shakespeare’s intentions, for example, or how, if I could, that would usefully illuminate his plays. In Keats’s words, the poet is no one.


To fully understand a Shakespeare play, if such a “full” understanding is ever possible, which is questionable, one must at the least understand what the words in the play meant at the time and to understand the literary, cultural, and historical allusions and references. If one doesn’t know that the phrase “chimney-sweepers” in the lyric “Golden lads and golden girls all must/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust” from Cymbeline refers to dandelions, much of the passage’s meaning will be missed, though its beauty remains even without its meaning. (Meaning isn’t everything.)But that is a matter of the text, not of the author. Understanding historical context is not the same thing as understanding the author or his intentions.
Whatever the author’s intention, mine, yours, or Shakespeare’s, if it’s not manifested in the work it doesn’t exist, not for a reader, not in any literary and not merely biographical sense. The work of art is, in part, an objectification of intention, and to the extent that the intention is objectified, it’s no longer the author’s. “The problem of intention arises from the fact that the author’s declared [or private] intention as to his design or meaning are one thing, and his achieved intention—the actual intention or meaning framed within the work itself—quite another thing, even when the one and the other happen to agree or coincide” (Robert W. Stallman, “Intentions, Problem of,” Princeton Encyclopedia of Princeton and Poetics, Enlarged Edition, 399).
I rarely sit down to write with a particular intention, except to write a good poem; I almost never sit down intending to write a poem on a particular topic, theme, or subject, though I sometimes have an idea of the kind of poem I want it to be, that is, of its formal shape. But even then, the poem usually takes its own direction. Words, phrases, lines, and images come to me, though obviously I work and rework the material given to me. In many of my poems I am assembling and manipulating lines and phrases I’ve accumulated over a period of time that seem to go together: writing the poem is my way of figuring out how they go together.
I’m sure every writer has had the experience, sometimes frustrating, often exhilarating, of the work taking off in a completely different direction than that which he or she “intended.” As Jack Spicer said in the Vancouver lectures, you might start out wanting to write a poem about the Vietnam War and you end writing a poem about skating in Vermont. Perhaps other people’s poems do what they tell them to, but mine rarely do. In any case, I trust the poem’s intentions more than my own, because language knows better than I do, language knows more than I do. It’s certainly been around longer than I have. As William Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, coiners of the phrase “the intentional fallacy,” write in their famous essay of the same name, “The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge” (“The Intentional Fallacy,” The Verbal Icon).
“Language, which permeates our minds and obeys not the laws of things but its own laws…has an organism’s power to mutate and adapt and survive, and exacts obligations from us because no heritage is more precious” (Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, 123). There’s an intentionality to language, to the verbal work of art, because the accretion of previous writing conditions whatever new work is written, and the new work, in turn, modifies what comes before it, or at least the way that we read it. As Eliot writes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “what happens when a new work is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it…the past [is] altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, 38, 39). This also means that how and what a text speaks changes over time. But there are limits to that process, limits inherent in the text itself.
The fact that a poem doesn’t embody authorial intention doesn’t mean that it can’t be misread, in the sense of misunderstanding the words and their relationships to one another, syntactic and semantic. When a student tells me that he thinks that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71 (“No longer mourn for me when I am dead/Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell/Give warning to the world that I am fled/From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell”) is spoken by a dog, he is not misreading the author’s intention but misreading the actual words of the actual poem. Again, this is a question of the text, not of the author.
Different forms of discourse follow different sets of rules. In an essay (this essay, for example), a grant proposal, an instruction manual, or a love letter, intention is indeed crucial if not paramount: it’s my intention to convey information or a point of view to a reader, and if I fail to do so, then the piece fails as writing. (This leaves aside the possibility of an audience misreading or misunderstanding the text.) Such writing is purposive, meant to achieve some goal—it is a means to an end. But to what end is a poem the means? Of course there are didactic and even polemical poems, but a poem is hardly the most efficacious way to inform or persuade. The primary purpose of poems isn’t to convey information, at least in that instrumental sense.
This extended passage from “The Intentional Fallacy” (from which I have quoted more briefly above) sums up very well the central questions of interpretation and intention:
“There is a difference between internal and external evidence for the meaning of a poem. And the paradox is only verbal and superficial that what is (1) internal is also public: it is discovered through the semantics and syntax of a poem, through our habitual knowledge of the language, through grammars, dictionaries, and all the literature which is the source of dictionaries, in general through all that makes a language and culture; while what is (2) external is private or idiosyncratic; not a part of the work as a linguistic fact: it consists of revelations (in journals, for example, or letters or reported conversations) about how or why the poet wrote the poem—to what lady, while sitting on what lawn, or at the death of what friend or brother. There is (3) an intermediate kind of evidence about the character of the author or about private or semiprivate meanings attached to words or topics by an author or by a coterie of which he is a member. The meaning of words is the history of words, and the biography of an author, his use of a word, and the associations which the word had for him, are part of the word’s history and meaning. But the three types of evidence, especially (2) and (3), shade into one another so subtly that it is not always easy to draw a line between examples, and hence arises the difficulty for criticism. The use of biographical evidence need not involve intentionalism, because while it may be evidence of what the author intended, it may also be evidence of the meaning of his words and the dramatic character of his utterance. On the other hand, it may not be all this.”
If it were the case that one’s primary goal in reading is to discern the author’s intentions, one could and should simply bypass the text and go ask the author, if possible. But presumably the author writes in order to create things that are not himself or herself. “The evaluation of the work of art remains public; the work is measured against something outside the author” (Wimsatt and Beardsley, op. cit.). I obsess over my poems in order to make them as close to perfect aesthetic objects as I can, not in order to make my “intentions” clear. A lot of writing for me is about swerving away from myself (a version of Eliot’s escape from personality), about trying to connect to something outside of and beyond myself. I want my poems to exist independently of me, to be new objects in the world, like paintings or sculptures, not expressions of myself or my intentions. Obviously my self, my feelings, my thoughts, and, yes, my intentions are part of the material that makes up those objects. But if the poem is successful, they are just that: artistic material. If the poem is not successful, then it becomes a mere personal document. In that case, perhaps, authorial intention is the main interest, but that is the worst case scenario. “Once the work is produced, it possesses objective status—it exists independently of the author and of his declared intention. It contains, insofar as it is a work of art, the reason why it is thus and not otherwise. The difference between art and its germinal event is absolute” (Stallman, 399).
My interest in a poem isn’t in the author (though certainly some authors have led lives that were interesting in themselves, sometimes more interesting than the work, in general we only care about an author’s life because we care about the author’s work), and an author’s biography won’t explain his or her work. If it does, that indicates a failure in the work: it’s not fully realized if it needs to be completed by biography. In work that lasts, what lasts is what remains after things like the author’s intentions have faded away. It’s hard to fathom the intentions of the author(s) of The Epic of Gilgamesh, yet we can still read it, historical and textual lacanue and all.
The importance of intention for the author and the significance of intention for the reader are two entirely different things. However important his or her intention may be to the writer (it may be the whole reason he or she wrote the poem), that doesn’t mean that it’s important for a reader. What the reader has is the text, nothing more, nothing less. However one conceives of the text’s relationship to its author, in relation to the reader the text must do all the work, has to give the reader everything he or she needs for a complete experience. If it needs to be supplemented by biographical information, it is to that extent a failed text. As Wimsatt and Beardsley write, “If the poet succeeded in doing it, then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem—for evidence of an intention that did not become effective in the poem” (op. cit.). The text is, or should be, a work of art, and it must be able to stand on its own in the world without the crutch of the author to support it, like a painting or a statue. To close with Wimsatt and Beardsley’s words, “Judging a poem is like judging…a machine. [RS: William Carlos Williams called the poem a machine made out of words.] One demands that it work. It is only because an artifact works that we infer the intention of the artificer.”

Comments (49)

  • On March 19, 2008 at 11:43 pm Brooks wrote:

    The poet does come off as an inconvenience in these, Eliot’s impersonal terms, (which I happen to subscribe to myself): “the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.”
    It is as if nothing in the writer maters, and to an extent, I completely agree. For me, nothing ever springs into being entirely done. I see the process of writing a poem as listening to it and following it, rearranging it (like you mention). I have a feeling that a lot of poets treat it this way; however, I don’t deny that there is, as Jung says in “On the relation of psychoanalytical psychology to poetry,” a second class of “literary works, prose as well as poetry, that spring wholly from the author’s intention to produce a particular result.” There are some poets who completely know what their poems are about and where they are going before they even begin writing. And although I can’t, with complete certainty right, now cite one, I think that has to do less with the existence of such a poet and more with de-emphasis on the importance of authorial intention.
    It is not completely fair to exclude intentions from readings and to suggest that a text be solely responsible. Of course it might be difficult to fathom Shakespeare’s or Keats’s intentions, but don’t you think knowing them could open up not only a text but your own possibilities as a poet? If I could know what was going through Pound’s mind when he wrote The Cantos, I’m sure it would illuminate my reading (anything would help). Of course there is the difficulty of all these poets being dead, but we have so many great living poets, and I love hearing about their thought processes – I think there is a kind of reading that can happen in between an author and a text. It is interesting for me to hear a poet say, “well actually, I meant this…” And although I would answer “… But it’s not there,” that information would certainly change the way I read the poem.

  • On March 20, 2008 at 1:05 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Ah, Reginald. Arguing for “The Intentional Fallacy” without even attempting to refute Michaels & Knapp is like arguing for “Verbal Behavior” without attempting to refute Chomsky.
    Best,
    mr

  • On March 20, 2008 at 1:57 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    OK, here goes. One argument you make has been made several times before against intentionalism, & Michaels & Knapp demolished it twenty-five years ago. The argument is that “Whatever the author’s intention, mine, yours, or Shakespeare’s, if it’s not manifested in the work it doesn’t exist, not for a reader, not in any literary and not merely biographical sense.” This is simply not true, for cases of failed intention are not only possible but extant & discernible. Perhaps I meant to write a sincere love poem, but the poem turned out to be bathetic or unintentionally comical. In such a case, it is often a trivial matter to determine what my intention was, & to enumerate the various ways in which the poem failed to manifest that intention. On a more complex level, Michaels & Knapp write that “To think . . . that only the poem & no other document should count as evidence of the poet’s intention is . . . consistent with the thesis that intention is necessary.” We could have no biographical evidence about the poet whatsoever & it would remain the case that we are trying to discover his or her intention when we interpret the work. Or it could be the case that every single poem was written “by a universal muse” (M. & K.’s example), about which nothing could be known, & the necessity of intention would remain untouched. The point is not & has never been that we need to KNOW the author’s intention for CERTAIN: such knowledge is impossible even when the author is standing right there, eager to answer questions. The point is rather that interpretation is simply the action of PROPOSING ARGUMENTS that the author’s intention was such & such. That we can’t be certain is the reason people can disagree about one another’s interpretations.
    The key issue is that poems are made of language, & as Searle & others have shown (see Searle’s Intentionality), there is no such thing as language without intention, & no such thing as meaning except meanings that someone — necessarily the speaker — intended. If you or I came upon a scratch in the sand that uncannily resembled a word, but it was obvious that it was an accident of natural processes, I daresay neither of us would be tempted to ask what it “means.” No marks mean anything of any kind unless someone intends them to, & what they mean is what that someone intended by them.
    As Michaels has argued elsewhere, Wimsatt & Beardsley’s appeal to historical knowledge — it’s important to know what “vegetable” meant in seventeenth-century English if we are to correctly interpret the poem — contains a refutation to their own anti-intentionalism. For the reason we think it matters what the word meant at that time is that the poem was written by Andrew Marvell, who wrote in the seventeenth century. But if all that matters is the words on the page, “if the author’s intention is only relevant as a cause of the text & does not determine its meaning,” why shouldn’t a consistent formalist say that the seventeenth-century meaning of “vegetable” is just another part of the author’s intention & shouldn’t prevent us from interpreting the word in its twenty-first century sense? If we care about the fact that the author used a particular set of rules of language, then we’re admitting that we care about what the author meant to say. “If we don’t care what he meant, the rules he used are just one among many possible sets of rules, & our preference for them will be utterly arbitrary. . . . The point might be put more generally by saying that if (like Wimsatt & Beardsley) we assign the author’s intention a merely causal role in the production of texts, the question of what language a text is in & the question of what language it was written in are not the same question. . . . Absent the appeal to some author, there’s not only no way to decide what language a text is in, there’s no reason to think of it as actually being in any particular language. The fact that we can interpret ‘vegetable’ according to the rules of seventeenth-century English doesn’t mean that it’s in seventeenth-century English — we can also interpret it according to the rules of twenty-first century English, & we could make up a language . . . & interpret it according to the rules of [that made-up language].” In short, if you care about the fact that the poem’s in seventeenth-century English, you care about the fact that it was written in the seventeenth-century, which means you care about what the author THOUGHT THE WORDS HE WAS USING MEANT, which means you care about what he intended them to mean. I’m sorry, but the only reason to care about historical definitions of words is if you realize that the author intended one meaning (the one the word had at the time) & not another (the one it has now). No matter how you slice it, that means you care about intention, & when you interpret a poem (no, no, class, this word means this, not this), you’re making a claim about what the author intended the words of the poem to mean. This is why I say that everyone already agrees that to interpret the meaning of a poem is just to try to discover the author’s intention.
    Nor will it do to say, well, it’s the public meaning of the word “vegetable” in the seventeenth-century that’s at issue, not the fact that Marvell intended it to have a meaning everyone else at the time agreed it had. Michaels: “We treat interpretive controversies precisely as controversies over what somebody meant by a word rather than as controversies over what the word means. No one ever thought that the old debate over whether Wordsworth’s ‘A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal’ was a pantheist poem could be resolved by looking up its words in a nineteenth-century dictionary — which is just to say that no one ever thought that the dictionary definitions of ‘rocks’ & ‘stones’ would tell us whether they were inhabited by some kind of living spirit.”
    This is barely to scratch the surface of what’s wrong with your arguments, Reginald, which as I predicted are precisely the arguments everyone always trots out against intention, & for that reason are precisely the arguments Michaels & Knapp (& Searle & others who work on speech-act theory & ordinary-language philosophy) have spilled so much ink to refute. The core of the problem is, to return to “Against Theory” (which here draws on Searle), “Intention cannot be added to or subtracted from meaning because meanings are always intentional; intention cannot be added to or subtracted from language because language consists of speech acts, which are also always intentional.” As I said before, Reginald, you prove this every time you tell someone that he misunderstood what you wrote. By that you mean simply that the meaning you intended is the REAL meaning of your words. You cannot have a string of graphemes & phonemes in a recognizably grammatical pattern without intention, & the only thing that string could mean is what the person who wrote or uttered it intended it to mean. If a computer runs a program that produces grammatical sentences at random, we do not ask what those sentences “mean,” for we know the computer cannot “intend” anything by them.
    The ridiculous notion of a fundamental disconnect between “art & its germinal event” has been demolished repeatedly throughout the literature on intention, & I think it something of a shame for anyone with a legitimate interest in these matters not to familiarize himself with that literature.
    Best, as always,
    mr

  • On March 20, 2008 at 2:40 am K. Silem Mohammad wrote:

    Doesn’t much of the difficulty around the problem of authorial intention go away when we clarify what we mean by “intention”?
    I have to point this out to my students all the time. For example, we’re reading a sonnet by Shakespeare, and I ask for a paraphrase. A student comes up with something that works grammatically (more or less), but is clearly not what Shakespeare/the poem, in a manner of speaking, “intended to say.” Now the student caught in the error might, if clever, and if familiar with the concept of the Intentional Fallacy, object that we can only tell what Shakespeare “intended to say” on the evidence of the poem; so how, he or she might ask, can we say that a reading is “wrong” if it can be made to work according to the rules of grammar and lexical meaning? Well, you and I know that the answer is obvious: Shakespeare’s sonnets, like all poems, don’t exist in a vacuum. Some of the information necessary to understand them can’t be gotten entirely from a reasonable familiarity with the English language. One also has to know about certain early modern idioms, be able to pick up on literary and cultural allusions, spot nods to the practice of contemporaries, etc. All of this is a way of getting at what Shakespeare “intended.” He intended, in this sense, that “choirs” in Sonnet 73 (“Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”) should refer to the platforms on which choristers stand in church, and not to the singers themselves. We can tell that he intended this by reference to period usage, the context in which the passage occurs (dead tree boughs are compared to the choirs), and so on. Or, I could say, we can tell that this is what he meant. But the two terms get used indiscriminately, and of course “meaning” itself is far from unambiguous.
    Then there’s another, more general sense of “intention,” as for example if we were to ask, “What were Shakespeare’s intentions in writing Sonnet 73″? This question is hopelessly vague, as it could be answered in any number of completely different ways, all of them equally true (or false). He intended to impress the person to whom it was addressed, or to make him feel guilty? He intended to write the fifth (or ninth, or twelfth, or forty-eighth) best sonnet in the entire cycle? He intended to make his readers feel a certain specific, melancholy way about seasons, sunsets, and fireplaces? These are all theoretically possible, and all essentially imponderable. Or, even if they weren’t imponderable–say, if we found a diary in which Shakespeare wrote “I wanted to make people feel sad about old age and death and love”–it hasn’t really told us anything concrete, or at any rate anything we couldn’t figure out for ourselves. It would only really be remarkable if his stated intention was so radically different from what most readers perceive it to be that the discrepancy caused us to reexamine everything we thought we knew about the way the poem, or at least part of the poem, worked. For instance, if he had written in his diary “I wanted to write a poem that would make clear once and for all how dangerous untended fireplaces can be,” we would have some serious exegetic work in front of us. But already, by framing intention in this way, I have steered us back toward its more local, practical sense: that of the author’s expectation that certain words placed in a certain order will convey pretty much the same information to a wide span of readers. And as I have said, it makes perfect sense to ask about the author’s intention, or intended meaning, in this way.
    Appeals to authorial intention, then, are only fallacious when made in an incoherent fashion. It’s reasonable to ask, “What did Shakespeare intend us to understand by this complex, possibly corrupt clause in this particular poem?” It’s less reasonable to ask, “What were Shakespeare’s intentions in writing the Sonnets?” The latter is unreasonable because it’s fuzzy and nearly meaningless, or because it’s a muddled version of the legitimately intriguing question “Why does this book exist, and how did it come to be written?”
    Frank O’Hara provides a more recent example of a poet whose poems are greatly enhanced by biographical information, and by knowledge of certain specific contexts that could come under the heading of “intention.” Try explaining the lines “and I don’t know the people who will feed me” or “buy / an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days” “or leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT” from “The Day Lady Died” to a roomful of students who know nothing about the poetry art and music scene in New York ca. 1959 without touching on the exact meanings, nuances, and implications that O’Hara intended. Clearly it is possible to come up with meanings for these lines that work out of context, and just as clearly, the poem takes on more resonance the more you learn about the actual contexts.

  • On March 20, 2008 at 8:19 am Henry Gould wrote:

    As often seems to be the case, Reginald, you offer a clear summary of what has become pretty much the consensus view in 20th century poetry criticism.
    What I’m interested in, however, are the lacunae, the blind spots in the consensus view.
    The New Critics’ emphasis on the intentional fallacy seems to be one of the bricks in their construction of an image of poetry as a free-standing, autotelic verbal artifact. There are other ways of thinking about the poem, however.
    The word “intention” seems loaded to me. it brings to mind the gap between intention and result (“The road to hell is paved iwth good intentions”, etc.).
    As you say, the poem is always a result of an unpredictable symbiosis between the compositional aims of the poet and the verbal materials – a sort of “more than the sum of its parts” situation, similar to what happens in a good debate or conversation.
    But it seems to me there is a middle ground, in the poem, between intentions and results – and that is the work’s “argument”, its main theme. The poet’s intention gets changed and revised in the labor of composition itself – but the will-to-express and the will-to-communicate result in some kind of argument nevertheless. (And if no argument or theme emerges, then the negative arguments of the critic will take its place — ie. that the poem is weak, the poet displays a lack of control over (or understanding of) the materials, the poem is meaningless, etc.)
    When we explore the logic of a poem’s argument, it is impossible not to retrace – provisionally, hypothetically – the poet’s own logic of presentation, the poet’s motive for using this word and not that. It’s not a matter of excavating irrelevant or inaccessible biographical information : it’s rather a process of recapitulating, in the act of response, the intellectual and aesthetic choices which have been made : of getting into the “mind” of the work, recognizing the signals within the phenomena.
    It seems to me that the New Critical concept of the poem as autotelic verbal artifact lean too far in the direction of a kind of impersonal materialism. As Mandelstam put it, “the word is Psyche”. Poetry is suffused, pervaded with personality, consciousness, gesture, and expressive intention. One shouldn’t allow the derogatory sense of the term “intention” to obscure the presence of the active, informing spirit of the artist in every aspect of the work.

  • On March 20, 2008 at 11:35 am Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Dear Michael Robbins,
    I will ignore the rather condescending tone of your comment and attempt to address your main points.
    a) You have now said twice that I must unknowingly believe in the importance of authorial intention because I complain of being misread, but I make a distinction in this piece between poems and other, more purposive forms of discourse. This essay is instrumental–its purpose is to convey information and a point of view. It is indeed governed by its intention. Thus it is legitimate both to ask whether it successfully achieved that intention and to say that others have misread it. Poems operate by other, less instrumental or performative (in Lyotard’s sense) rules. Again, this is a point I make in the piece, but which you have ignored.
    b) All language is intentional, because it is the product of human thoughts and actions. Words do not appear on the page by accident. This is both so obvious and so general as to be trivial. It tells us nothing about how to approach any given piece of language.
    So yes, I agree that intention does matter in that sense: the writer intended to put these words together in this order, and this combination of words has a denotative sense it is safe to assume was intentional on the part of the author. But that’s simply a matter of certain words in certain combinations meaning certain things and not other things. This doesn’t take us very far in “reading” the poem in the sense of interpreting it (as Allen Grossman writes, decipherment is not understanding).
    c) You have repeatedly asserted, and have quoted Knapp and Michaels saying, that to interpret a poem is to ask after the author’s intentions. But you have not presented what I would consider an argument for this position. Simply to repeat an assertion is not to argue for it. Why is interpretation always already a matter of searching for the author’s intentions?
    d) In The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner actually does argue that in terms of Symbolist or post-Symbolist reading, it doesn’t matter that we know what “chimney-sweepers” means in the passage from Cymbeline that I discussed, and that the passage can be even more resonant and evocative if one doesn’t know the then-contemporary meanings of the words.
    e) It is exactly the then-public meanings of the words we are looking at that we are investigating when we ask what a word “meant” at a given time. And if an author is using a word in a purely idiosyncratic sense, that sense will either become clear in the textual context or the usage will simply be a stumbling-block. Even if an author says “This is what I meant the word to mean,” as Hart Crane did in his famous explication of “At Melville’s Tomb” for, as it happens, Harriet Monroe, that will not make the word mean what he wants it to mean. The passage from Knapp and Michaels you quote:
    “Absent the appeal to some author, there’s not only no way to decide what language a text is in, there’s no reason to think of it as actually being in any particular language. The fact that we can interpret ‘vegetable’ according to the rules of seventeenth-century English doesn’t mean that it’s in seventeenth-century English — we can also interpret it according to the rules of twenty-first century English, & we could make up a language . . . & interpret it according to the rules of [that made-up language]”
    sounds to me like sheer nonsense. And again, asserting something, however forcefully or repeatedly, doesn’t make it true, and I see no reason to bow to Knapp and Michaels just because they wrote an influential essay. Again, I have not read it, but from all you have written about it and quoted from it, I vehemently disagree with it, and furthermore find their reasoning sloppy at best.
    Take good care, and thanks for reading and commenting.
    all best,
    Reginald

  • On March 20, 2008 at 12:05 pm Don Share wrote:

    Fodder for discussion, if not food for thought:
    1.) I was with a bunch of Derek Walcott’s students some years ago during a visit by Thom Gunn. Derek had primed them for the visit by having them memorize the magnificent “My Sad Captains” – dutifully done. Derek then had the group recite the poem in front of T.G., who seemed non-plussed. After this, Derek (uncharacteristically, I thought) prompted the students to describe what they thought was going on in the poem. Gunn sat silently and rather impassively as the discussion ensued, after which he politely thanked everyone and said, “It’s very interesting to hear what you thought I had in mind. I didn’t have any such things in mind – but it’s quite good to know what you got out of the poem.” I could not tell whether he said this with pleasure or irritation, or both, or neither, or out of sheer tact.
    2.) In the famous recording of Yeats reading “Lake Isle of Inisfree,” made late in his life, he comments about the phrase “noon a purple glow”: “I must have meant by that the reflection of heather in the water…” – as if he couldn’t recollect his own intention!
    3.) I’ve seen Geoffrey Hill at readings begin by saying he would not explain the poems, after which he explained a great many references in them.
    4.) On an NPR interview with John Ashbery, he had to explain, regarding a poem about a visit to Nova Scotia, that he had never been to Nova Scotia.
    5.) Lastly, the March 2008 issue of Poetry is full of ostensible authorial intention, consisting, as it does, of interviews with poets about the poems published in it. When Ange Mlinko explains that her poem, “Conversion Comedy,” is addressed to a particular Episcopal priest, and relates to books by Rene Girard and James Alison, well, you read the poem a different way than you would not knowing such things. The discovery of such facts is entirely incidental – arising from the accident of my asking a few questions – but not inessential. Does the poem survive without the biography of the poet? Apparently. Did it come into existence without it? Of course, not, and this is not trivial. You can hear her talk about some of this on our podcast.
    I’ve compiled this ragbag only to be suggestive, and to let both Wimsatt and Empson rest in peace.

  • On March 20, 2008 at 12:33 pm Simon DeDeo wrote:

    Where would the end of Blade Runner be without the Pathetic Fallacy? I like the Intentional Fallacy for similar reasons.
    I’m not up enough on the heresiology of New Criticism to join in with Michael and Henry, but my favourite close readers spend a lot of time talking about intention; at least, if not intention, then “choice” — the rhetoric of “poets making the choice to do” X, to do Y, with sound and syntax and semantics. And as a critic I do it too — the moments where poets choose to do X but it ends up doing Y are some of the most interesting things to talk about.

  • On March 20, 2008 at 12:34 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    To put it a bit more succinctly, & out of the three a.m. mist where these things actually matter, a poem either is subject to the rules of language or isn’t. If it isn’t, then I’m free to interpret “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world” as “meaning” (when translated into a medium that follows the rules of language) “I ate a pink zebra because it was zapping me with porno.” Or, more precisely, if a poem isn’t subject to the rules of language, “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world” means exactly nothing at all.
    If, on the other hand, a poem is subject to the rules of language, then the only thing it can mean is what it means according to those rules. And one of the conditions of meaning is that the speaker of an utterance intends certain meanings by it & not others. If I say “When I said ‘I like bowling’ what I intended those words to mean is ‘The Poetry Foundation has lots of money,'” then I’m clearly not following public rules of language (or any rules, since “public” is tautological there). On the other hand, if I say, “I was being sarcastic when I said ‘I like bowling,'” we have a clear case of the way in which meaning depends upon intention. No language exists without intention — if something is said, someone intended it. And since it’s clear that the meaning of any utterance depends upon intention (among other things such as dictionary definitions), it’s clear that if a poem is subject to the rules of language, its meaning & hence its interpretation depends upon intention. Just try to think of an instance outside a poem where intention is irrelevant. If you can’t, please don’t try to explain to me how a poem is just different, because it either means something or it doesn’t, & there just isn’t any other arbiter of meaning besides intention. Indeed, I’d love to hear someone propose a reading of a poem which he or she thinks is the right reading but also thinks is not a reading the poet intended.
    Best,
    mr

  • On March 20, 2008 at 12:39 pm Simon DeDeo wrote:

    PS: Kasey, have you seen Janet’s list?
    http://www.humanophone.com/comments.php?id=322_0_1_30_C

  • On March 20, 2008 at 1:04 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Sigh. Reginald, you write, “Why is interpretation always already a matter of searching for the author’s intentions?” If you’re not actually going to read & consider what I wrote, I’m not going to bother debating you. The answer, as I’ve repeatedly stated, is that if a poem is subject to the rules of language, then its meaning is determined by intention. (You refuse to think through this logic, though if you would read carefully, you would see that it is spelled out in my last two posts. I’m not going to repeat them here, but they certainly contain more than baseless assertion.) You agree that this is true for every form of language besides poetry, which is exactly the sort of misty-eyed vatic nonsense that leads to these discussions in the first place. As I said before, either a poem is subject to rules of language or it’s not. I’m well aware of Kenner’s argument, as is Michaels, who cites a number of other like instances. At least Kenner’s being consistent, even if his position undermines itself through his blithe acceptance of other intentionally-derived meanings within the same passage. Your use of terms like “purely idiosyncratic,” which means nothing without further elucidation, is indicative of your refusal to engage the logic of these arguments. As is your repetition of a false distinction between “informative” & “performative” instances of language, which you claim I ignore, even though your own piece’s reliance on the definition of “chimney sweeper” demonstrates that you yourself ignore the distinction when it pleases you. Let’s see: I can’t possibly misread a poem, because it’s performative, therefore when Shakespeare writes “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” I’m free to interpret those lines as meaning “My Porsche is burning.” Or, if I want to be charitable & interpret them as meaning that the speaker’s girlfriend’s eyes do not require the false fire of courtly poetry, then it turns out that it doesn’t matter that that happens to be precisely the meaning Shakespeare intended them to have! If you want to ignore everything that’s been written against your position in the last twenty-five years, be my guest. But I will have to decline to take you seriously.
    Best,
    mr

  • On March 20, 2008 at 1:15 pm Don Share wrote:

    I hadn’t seen Reginald’s responses when I was posting above.
    About e.), the exchange between Crane and Monroe is wonderful – I wish I had the ability to reproduce it in its entirety, but this awaits the project of digitizing our back issues. For now, here’s just an extract – and note that Crane uses the very words “my intentions in the poem” – and also anticipates elliptical poetry by almost 80 years!
    “Your good nature and manifest interest in writing me about the obscurities apparent in my Melville poem certainly prompt a wish to clarify my intentions in that poem as much as possible. But I realize that my explanations will not be very convincing. For a paraphrase is generally a poor substitute for any organized conception that one has fancied he has put into the more essentialized form of the poem itself.
    At any rate, and though I imagine us to have considerable differences of opinion regarding the relationship of poetic metaphor to ordinary logic (I judge this from the angle of approach you use toward portions of the poem), I hope my answers will not be taken as a defense of merely certain faulty lines. I am really much more interested in certain theories of metaphor and technique involved generally in poetics, than I am concerned in vindicating any particular perpetrations of my own.
    My poem may well be elliptical and actually obscure in the ordering of its content, but in your criticism of this very possible deficiency you have stated your objections in terms that allow me, at least for the moment, the privilege of claiming your ideas and ideals as theoretically, at least, quite outside the issues of my own aspirations. To put it more plainly, as a poet I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations at the cost of limiting my subject matter and perceptions involved in the poem.
    This may sound as though I merely fancied juggling words and images until I found something novel, or esoteric; but the process is much more predetermined and objectified than that. The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority, and that to deny it is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past.”

  • On March 20, 2008 at 1:44 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    The Hart Crane quote provided by Don suggests some middle ground between Michael’s & Reginald’s positions.
    If the poem’s language is, as Crane & Reginald suggest, primarily expressive-performative, then it is in some sense irreducible to analytical paraphrase. In other words, no one, including the poet, can completely spell out the logical argument (with all its corollary intentions) which will make the poem transparent. There IS no such prior framework or abstract equivalent. The poem’s meanings are elusive and generative, rather than fixed. (Mandelstam wrote somewhere, something to the effect that “if a poem can be paraphrased, the Muse has not spent the night, has not ruffled the bedsheets”.)
    In this context, the poet’s intentions only go so far. In fact, the poet’s intent could be compared to a sort of algorithm, which, when applied, takes on a life of its own.
    So, yes, Michael, all language use is intentional, all meanings motivated. But to write a poem is to enter the whirlwind. I intended to throw my paper airplane in a certain direction, but…

  • On March 20, 2008 at 1:54 pm Simon DeDeo wrote:

    A possible aid to discussion: my hastily constructed (yet completely deterministic) poem invulnerable to the intentional fallacy.
    http://rhubarbissusan.blogspot.com/2008/03/poem-without-intention.html

  • On March 20, 2008 at 2:27 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Michael Robbins:
    Since you have been unable to make your points through reasoned debate (you have simply repeated assertions without providing arguments or evidence–and no, extended quotes from Knapp and Michaels don’t constitute either, unless someone appointed them god when I wasn’t looking), you now resort to further condescension and insult. I am disappointed in you, as you have in the past provided much thoughtful commentary.
    It is sad that you have now so lowered yourself. Sad, but not my problem. This “conversation” is over.
    Reginald Shepherd

  • On March 20, 2008 at 2:55 pm Boyd Nielson wrote:

    Dear Michael and Reginald,
    Be still my giggling heart.
    This is what happens, Reginald, when you enter into an argument with academic specialists about something that has come to define their specialized status (especially after you open yourself to criticism from those specialists by berating people who dismiss the oh-so-maligned New Critics without having read them). And this is what you get, Michael, when you try to get traction by citing an article and assuming familiarity with a set of arguments that most people really couldn’t care less about. You might as well go over to the NYT blog and start arguing about Obama and Wright by trotting out Žižek. (In other words, you might be right, but big friggin’ deal.)
    Michael is right to say that these arguments were hashed out long ago, in far more interesting ways, in the pages of Critical Inquiry (and elsewhere). We’re all better off going to read them there instead (and I say this with more sincerity than I can probably now make sound credible). But if you want an answer to your question, Reginald, about why it is that “to interpret a poem is to ask after the author’s intentions,” then you should realize that the problem lies in that very phrase. You’re still assuming that there is a gap between the interpretation of intention and the interpretation of meaning. Knapp and Michaels’ whole point is these two things are not two separate processes that can be added to or subtracted from one another. You don’t interpret a poem by asking after the author’s intentions, in other words; you interpret a poem by interpreting the author’s intentions. Or to put it more precisely, when you’ve interpreted a poem you’ve already interpreted what you think the author intended (whether you think you’re doing that or not and whether the author would agree with you or not). The interpretation of intention isn’t something that can fix or verify the interpretation of meaning; it’s rather identical to that meaning. So, to pick up on an example above, someone might think he can interpret “vegetable” in a poem without the context of a speaker’s intentions because of the word’s perceived meaning, that is, because he thinks he already knows what the word means in the text he’s reading. That assumption is a mistake. It substitutes general intelligibility for local intelligibility, or, to put it another way, it unknowingly relies upon the accretion of local meanings that have become so securely affixed to or associated with signs that these meanings seem inseparable from the signs themselves. But since associated meanings are merely generalizations from utterances in specific contexts, these associations cannot predict or determine the meaning of any particular utterance precisely because they are determined by particular utterances. Without the intentions of speaker, one can only describe or list the meanings that have been associated with a sign, but one cannot determine what that sign means in any specific context; hence, when one interprets “vegetable” or “please shoot me” or “oh god, not again” one is not only already interpreting intention but one has no choice but to interpret intention, even if that intention is so deeply assumed that it is taken for granted. The whole point of Knapp and Michaels was to demonstrate the triviality of theoretical arguments that try, as they put it, to govern interpretations of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general. Probably evidence of that triviality has been demonstrated here (perhaps more forcefully!) by our wasting our time arguing about these things, in this particular forum, than we as participants of this thread would want to admit.
    best to all,
    B

  • On March 20, 2008 at 3:21 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Well let’s see. I have repeatedly said that all language use is intentional, & I have provided repeated examples of how this is obviously the case. I have then asked whether poems constitute a special case of language use such that their meanings somehow escape the rules by which all other cases of language use operate. You have said they do. I have demonstrated that if that is so, then there is no arbiter of meaning whatsoever for poems. No one denies that there is a difference between poems & other uses of language: what counts is whether that difference inheres in intentionality. You can say that none of that constitutes an argument, but the only part that might be open to that claim is the premise that all language use is intentional, which is what I have attempted to demonstrate throughout my posts & is the specific claim for which I provided sources, particularly Searle, in which you might discover proofs that this is the case that rather obviously exceed the scope of this arena. But I have asked you to think of an instance of language use that is not intentional, excluding trivialities such as computer-generated sentences, & you have chosen rather to opt out of the ” ‘conversation’ ,” such as it is. If I got testy, it is possibly because I have been grading papers for what seems like seventeen straight hours, but also because it seems to me mere wilfulness to enter into a debate that has been going on for decades, to presume to pronounce upon the truth of said debate, but to decline to actually read or argue with any of the proponents of one side of that debate. I don’t think Michaels, Knapp, Searle, or anyone else constitutes an irreproachable authority on anything. I think, rather, that a responsible person will attend to the positions they have staked out if he or she is concerned with actually discovering what has been said & thought about intentionality rather than presuming that he or she is already in possession of all the knowledge necessary to judge the matter acutely. If that seems bizarre, I throw up my hands. I apologize if I have seemed condescending & insulting. I intend to be neither, as I do indeed respect you, Reginald. I’m simply frustrated, & it shows. Anyway, take care.
    Best,
    mr

  • On March 20, 2008 at 4:21 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    x-post w/ Boyd, who is as usual completely intelligible on these matters. thank you for that articulate post, Mr. Nielson — glad to see us on the same side of something! (my reply will appear in a forthcoming issue of Chicago Review.)

  • On March 20, 2008 at 8:20 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    I won’t belabor my opposition to your argument, except to say that I come at this issue first as a writer, and only secondarily as a reader. As a writer, I cannot imagine anything justifying my own poetic efforts except the extent to which the language on the page expresses my intention. Without intention, writing is an empty game, an intellectual form of craps or pickup sticks. I surely accept the fact that readers may read for other reasons, and that their motives are beyond my control, and further that future readers (should I have any: unlikely!) will surely read my poems differently than readers do today. This is the common fate of all writers. The New Critical emphasis on text over intention is useful to some extent, but it’s a fantasy to think of it as the whole story or to imagine that it doesn’t ultimately do violence to the attempt of readers to achieve a deep understanding of any writer’s work.

  • On March 20, 2008 at 10:11 pm Brian A. J. Salchert wrote:

    What if a maker of poems produces and keeps a text which remains mysterious to that maker
    even though by the act of keeping it/ that maker assents to whatever intentions can be found
    in it? Last year, during most of which I was 66, I produced a greater variety of texts than I had
    in any prior year because I was allowing my unconsious to freely birth possible poems. But I
    want to enter this waste-of-time conversation–and it may well be a waste of time–by sharing
    some quotes before I proceed.

    The first four are from Reginald’s post:
    “One writes because one wants to produce something separate from oneself.”
    However messed with, a language construct is an artifact.
    As to how separate that artifact is from its maker/ depends.
    It could be antithetical to its maker.
    “The work of art is, in part, an objectification of intention, and to the extent that the
    intention is objectified, it’s no longer the author’s.”
    “. . . I trust the poem’s intentions more than my own. . . .”
    So do I, usually.
    “However important his or her intention may be for the writer
    (it may be the whole reason he or she wrote the poem),
    that doesn’t mean that it’s important for a reader.

    Stanley Kunitz: “The poem comes in the form of a blessing.”

    John Ashbery: “But we don’t know anything.”

    Many have said that poems attempt to reveal that which is unsayable.

    The following can be searched out at the audensociety.org by going to the archives
    and clicking on Newsletter 17 (Auden on “Tradition and Experiment”), a WEVD
    University of the Air “The World of Books” interview by William Kennedy
    hosted by Vernon Brooks on December 24, 1951:
    Auden: “. . . E. M. Forster quoted a lady as saying
    ‘How can I tell what I think till I see what I say.'”
    Auden: “Obviously, in one sense, every poem, if it’s any good, is a unique object.
    In that sense it is always an experiment and I can’t imagine writing without imagining
    that one is trying to solve a particular problem. . . . I cannot imagine why you should
    want to do it otherwise.”
    Auden: “. . . you have to think about making something as well as you can and
    in that is contained things which on the whole you think are important to say,
    or you believe to be true. You cannot really think about other people. I mean
    you produce this child and let it go out into the world
    and if it is popular, it is.”

    Okay. It may be a fault in me, but I do not have a definable style.
    And here he is: the Fool. Sign in please. Brian A. J. Salchert

    So, Brian, why are you here?

    I don’t understand what you mean by “here”; but this is the
    “What’s My Problem?” program, isn’t it?

    Yes. Are you a poet?

    Uuuhh–

    Have a seat.

    If you give me an axe or a saw I will gladly halve one.

    Oh! so you’re a pundit.

    Could be. I used to be “the ghost in the dumpster” but one day when I was not in
    the dumpster, someone took the dumpster away.
    – – – End of skit – – –
    One of the poems I wrote last year is plain and formal, but its first four lines
    came as they are into my consciousness. The title this poem has remained
    hidden until after the poem was completed. To me it is a multiple-I poem,
    with one possible I being a bird, a second being another person, a third
    being me, and a fourth (which came somewhile later) being God. Most
    readers, I suspect, will consider it trash; but I have kept it because it is
    mysterious to me.
    “To Those I Am One With”

    I am a thing
    of wish and wing
    very few know,
    and fewer care to;
    yet I am here
    in trees and seas
    very few know,
    and fewer care to.
    It does not matter
    what I say, or which way,
    very few know,
    and fewer care to.
    And so I abide,
    in a light of night
    very few know,
    and fewer care to;
    and ever I shall: still,
    from house and hill,
    where very few know,
    and fewer care to.

    2007-04-10

  • On March 20, 2008 at 11:25 pm Francisco Aragón wrote:

    Regarding the Thom Gunn anectdote, which I enjoyed reading.
    I can’t imagine he made that comment with anything approaching irritation. The person I studied with at UC Berkeley in the mid 80s was a generous teacher who never took himself or the “business of poetry” too seriously. He was both a refreshing and matter-of-fact presence in the classroom. My inclination is to believe that he was genuinely interested and, perhaps, both flattered and amused at by the various readings his poem was eliciting.

  • On March 21, 2008 at 6:14 am Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    On the question of the author-function and its significance (in both senses) to the reading and meaning (the interpretation) of the text, I direct readers’ attention to Michel Foucault’s essay “What Is An Author?” and Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author.” Though both are too sweeping and over-insistent on their points, they cut through much of the verbiage that has been expended in this discussion on the importance of authorial intention.
    I may write another blog post on these essays. On the other hand, who knows what I’ll do?

  • On March 21, 2008 at 7:58 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Funny, I started out by criticizing Reginald’s recap of the “Intentional Fallacy”. But the more I read Michael, Boyd & Joseph, the more sceptical I become of their alternatives.
    According to Reginald’s I.F., the supposed intentions of the author are irrelevant to the understanding of the poem. Meanings inhere in the work itself, or they are beside the point.
    According to Michael & Boyd, the poem’s meaning & the author’s intention are perforce identical. To interrpet meaning is to interpret intention.
    The actual difference between these positions appears to be a very thin film indeed. In both, we go to the poem, not the author, for the object of our interpretive pursuit.
    The question becomes one of agency. To what extent is the poet in command of his or her materials? When we try to understand or appreciate a poem, is it necessary to go beyond “what does this mean?”, and ask, “what is the poetr trying to say?”
    It seems to me that this issue would arise only if and when the reader is stymied : when there is some resistance or block in the poem’s transmission and reception. We are resisting full appreciation of a poem – we begin to question the author’s intent. I would think most of us are familiar with this situation. Why would this happen?
    Let’s suppose three factors : 1) the poet’s compositional intentions; 2) the verbal medium (the language); and 3) the compositional process.
    As I see it, the poet, in writing a poem, starts with #1, and enters into a sort of contract or interaction with #2 and 3. According to Joseph, this contract is one of complete control. Writing poetry is an attempt to fulfill my intentions. If chance or other factors enter in, it becomes merely a trivial game (“pick-up sticks”).
    My own view (based on experience also) is a little different. The poet is a blind bumbler, a dreamer, a person supremely negative-capable. The intentions may be vague, the command of the medium uneven at best. Yet the poem comes off. How? Because the intention, though seemingly confused, is actually correct – and the compositional process itself comes to the rescue. This is Taoism, perhaps; negative capability; Hart Crane’s notion of composition; the Muse. (Perhaps the intention was simply to sing, and this is the poem’s ultimate meaning too.)
    When a poem fails to win us over, usually the intention was trivial (be it ever-so-supposedly serious). Because the intention was trivial, the Muse never comes to the rescue. The poem is a belabored, awkward jumble, or a glib piece of facile sleight-of-hand – in the end, we remain unmoved.
    So it seems to me that Michael’s and Boyd’s presentation of poetic meaning is rather reductive. There is indeed something which sets the production of poetic meaning and effect apart from standard language usage. Poetry is not so transparently interpretable as they suggest, since the “intention” of the work is not easy to define (we assume we know the author’s intention – yet the work’s ambiguous obscurity suggests that we do not.). There is no direct path from the art-work to its “meaning”. Just as the poem’s origin is rather unaccountable, its meanings are elusive, open.

  • On March 21, 2008 at 10:10 am Matt wrote:

    “As a writer, I cannot imagine anything justifying my own poetic efforts except the extent to which the language on the page expresses my intention. Without intention, writing is an empty game, an intellectual form of craps or pickup sticks.”
    First of all, Mr. Hutchison, there’s no need for hostility toward craps or pickup sticks. Both have provided me with hours upon hours of wholesome, fulfilling entertainment. As a matter of fact, I host weekly tournaments for each game in my living room–“Wednesday Craps Night” and “Pickup Sticks Saturday”. We have lots of fun. (“We” being myself and a few of my shirts on hangers, draped over chairs to simulate friends.)
    Besides, is there really such a thing as unintentional writing? Even if you’re just copying a page from the phone book, it’s your conscious decision to do that, right? It’s not as if you “intended” to brush your teeth, but accidentally copied a page from the phone book instead. No one says, “Whoops, I wrote something. Darn it, I meant to polish my Etruscan vase, but instead I applied ink to paper in the shape of letters and words.” Nobody says, “Oh jeez, look what I did–instead of driving to my local adult bookstore to price-compare French ticklers, I stayed home and allowed my fingers to apply pressure to the keys on my computer keyboard while Microsoft Word happened to be open. Consarn it all! What have I done?!”

  • On March 21, 2008 at 1:05 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    p.s. I wasn’t very precise in the last paragraph of my previous comment.
    What I was trying to say was that the argument of Boyd/Michael/Joseph, which I would summarize as MEANING = INTENTION, gets a little bit fractured if the actual source or location of intent is rendered ambiguous. And if one accepts the notion that true poetry can emerge even from a poet who is, to some extent, improvising – adapting to the direction which the poem itself seems to be taking, following the poem’s own gravitation or inertia – then both meaning and intention become more like a shifting magnetic force-field, than something fixed & denotative.
    “Who am I? Not an upright stone mason,
    Not one who raises roof beams, not a mariner:
    A double dealer am I, with a double soul.
    I am night’s friend, I am day’s vanguard soldier.”
    (O. Mandelstam)

  • On March 21, 2008 at 1:15 pm john wrote:

    Language has a tendency to exceed intention.
    Therefore, intention is only ever partial.
    Poetry might be defined as a linguistic experience that hopes to exceed authorial intention.
    * * *
    A poem doesn’t “mean,” it provides an occasion for an experience.
    Fa la la la la, la la la la.
    Its meaning is part of the experience, but only part.
    I can surmise that the author of “Deck the Halls” intended to simulate and stimulate an experience of merriment with the line, “Fa la la la la, la la la la.” That experience cannot be boiled down (“reduced”) to a meaning. Its success or failure has to do with the conjunction — or lack thereof — between the author’s experience desire/repertoire and the receptor’s.
    The same is true of denotative language. Every word has a host (“heavenly”?) of associations and etymological root-ball clinging to it. The tricky slicky slippery part of this is — everybody’s host of associations is different. (“As a professional linguist it is my belief that everybody speaks their own language” — Jack Spicer, poet and linguist, paraphrased from memory.)
    I agree with Henry that there’s a thin film between Michael and Reginald’s positions. I think Boyd’s diagnosis as to how such a conflamma resulted from such a filmy disagreement is right on. But Michael’s rhetoric lapse helped fan the flames. I believe him when he says that he intended no disrespect, but surely he is aware that beginning a conversation with a sigh — “Ah, Reginald” — occurs in a culture where sighing connotes condescension, however affectionate and generally respectful the sigher may feel toward the sigh-ee. The language — “ah” — exceeded Michael’s (conscious?) intention. (Al Gore got seriously nailed for sighing in those debates 8 years ago.) The condescension may have resulted from Michael’s feeling that his professional turf was being encroached upon. He’s presumably still reading and is free to answer. And — the slippery part — maybe in his cultural experience, sighing does *not* connote condescension. But surely he’s come across examples where sighing is condescending?
    It’s those connotations — tone of voice, allusion, incommensurate experience — that vex questions of intention. Reginald and Michael seem to agree here.

  • On March 21, 2008 at 2:36 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    Two notes, the first for Henry Gould. I just wanted to point out that in other posts (responding to earlier Reginald posts) I broadened the idea of “intention” to include unconscious intentions. In no way do I consider writing poetry to be a matter of “complete control”; it is an exploration, a process through which one discovers what one feels and thinks. Of course unconscious elements find their way into the poem, and these can make the poem feel absolutely right and mysterious to the author.
    The second comment is for Matt. I lost too much money at craps in my youth to be interested in dropping by your place on Wednesdays. Pickup Sticks Saturday sounds like a blast, though….

  • On March 21, 2008 at 3:53 pm Boyd Nielson wrote:

    Dear Michael,
    Well, you know what they say about a stopped clock. (I’m not sure which one of us is the clock.) But, in view of our past disagreements, I doubt we’ll be in this position again any time soon.
    Dear Henry,
    It’s probably not accurate to lump us together as part of the Boyd/Michael/Joseph complex. If you want to call the argument something, you should really say Knapp/Michaels (that is, Steven and Walter Benn), since the argument is theirs. It’s a technical piece, it’s been contested, and it’s over twenty-five years old. (The essays that Reginald refers to above, from Barthes and Foucault, are even older. I feel as though I’m in a new kind of VH1 episode: “I love the age of theory!”) If you want to take a look at the literature, it’s there for you. I have no interest in persuading anyone on this thread, since I see little or nothing at stake. And while I take your point about fractured intention and ambiguity, Knapp and Michaels address similar arguments made by Paul de Man. Actually, de Man made a career talking about problems of intention and reference. I’m sorta fond of his famous Archie Bunker example from “Semiology and Rhetoric.”
    cheers,
    B

  • On March 21, 2008 at 3:59 pm Jonathan David Jackson wrote:

    Dear Reginald,
    This open note is my way of recognizing the deep importance of your contributions and to wish you continued wonder, wellness, and even wile! One of the best tools of survivors is beguilement and by beguilement I mostly mean cunning). But the connotation of trickery is warranted too (more on this later). I am a survivor and, in the best meaning of the word, you are too. My reflections here may shift the ground a little under the debates that you and other discussants raise.
    My deepest artistic engagements with texts and with other media never involve generalizations about what should be aesthetically. I am suspicious of social and theoretical absolutes. I see great credence in your views about the fallacies of authorial intentions. When I teach introductory poetry and fiction courses (as I have off and on since 1994) I encourage my students to examine the structures, style, grammar, syntax, and diction of the text itself–its internal work–rather than imposing meanings that ignore the text’s formulations.
    At the same time, having read the commentaries collected in the University of Chicago Press’ classic Against Theory (by Steven Knapp, Walter Benn Michaels et al) and many other related debates, I also see the importance of arguments to the contrary. Moreover, I see a need to trouble the very notion of “intention” and “meaning” in ways that haven’t yet been touched upon in this particular conversation.
    Rather than only being interested in textual meanings, I am also interested in what I’ll call (for lack of better descriptors) subtextual meanings, subtextual intentions, and intentional trickery. Artistic survivors often usesubtextual meanings, subtextual intentions, and intentional trickery to aim toward, engineer, and effect transformations in their work that address the ways in which their place within the writing and reading public is marginal or socially suspect.
    The subject matter of some of my creative writing (working class people; abused people; people involved in illicit acts like prostitution may be so outside of the lived experienced of some poetry writers and readers that they simply do not have any access to the range of meanings and intentions that may be evident in the work’s formulations on the page.
    In a way that is different than a consciously experimental writer who is aware of the difficulty or possible unintelligibility of her or his invention, I too am concerned that the experiential ground of my subjects and structures challenge theoretical absolutes about how we should think about form, intention and meaning.
    There are stated intentions that are helpful as I engage texts. Those intentions are when an author speaks about the decisions of mind that lead or led to her or his formal and structural choices.
    I have had students who say that it is their intention to write in a way that aligns them with what they think is an au courant literary trend and my question to them is always this: What does the individual poem or series of poems need? I say, Rather than choosing a school as a means to develop a reputation for yourself, interrogate the reputation of the poem itself as you wrestle it out of you.
    Then there is another class of intentions and meanings that involve the politics of address in some poems. To talk about this class of intentions and meanings I have to refer to some of my poems and to my creative process. WARNINGS: People who are indecorous enough to have a blanket, absolute, unalterable problem with rhyme and non-free verse prosody in all poems should stop reading now. People who are opposed to poems about illicit practices of prostitution and drug use in which Tiny (and not I) was involved should stop reading now.
    When I was much, much younger I had a friend who everyone called Tiny. Besides her name only these few points by way of description may be necessary:

    • née Ronny Shelton
    • 1965-1992
    • Seamstress, gender illusionist, thief, hustler.
    • 5’4, pneumatic, long, soft, brittle wooly hair.
    • Clipped, hushed cadence.
    • Always questioning.
    • Reefer, PCP, heroin, crack, coke powder.
    • Virus, hospice, fire, smoke.

    Around 1996 I started writing a series of elegiac epistle-poems addressed directly to Tiny (poems-as-letters). Tiny was literally haunting me—appearing to me in sweaty dreams; nagging me each time I heard that another old acquaintance had passed away of AIDS. Most of all, her way of speaking–her phrasing and the way she spoke in seemingly endless contradictions and paradoxes, interminable language of the streets–would appear in my ear in sonic flashes.
    So I started talking back to her in poems like this one, poems that reveal memories of a kind of life that one only knows about if you lived it as Tiny and I (to a lesser extent) did. But, the life lived is, as you aptly put it, an objectification that I tried to work for in the broken, fractured metrical scheme of the poem–a broken scheme that owes itself to the survivor-speak or the trickster-speak of so many of the working class or outsider environments that I have experienced firsthand.
    Murile’s at the fire escape.
    Smoke gives her wings.
    Hanging, flying—she’ll try
    anything. Winnie’s got Boat,
    says, It whores your emotions:
    Glam one minute then
    you’re having an abortion.

    This is where you go
    to count money: long pink
    halls, half-mannequins,
    the old Hecht’s department store
    pigeon droppings and hairpins
    and a roof where you all make fire.
    Winnie says you’re rich without
    money, full without food,
    and cops on the stroll? No new
    news—wigs like helmets, like they
    do any good. You have friends
    but don’t trust them, liquor
    but no food. Can you count
    without fingers? Is the money
    always good? Winnie’s man-name
    is Herman. Murile’s is Sam.
    You? Shoot—were you ever
    a man? Then Murile: What’s
    the matter, Tiny? And at first
    you don’t answer. You’re cold,
    yet afire—alert, but drunk on gin.
    Then you are screaming, I love
    you. I hate you, over and over again.
    ~
    I aim for the problem of sub-meanings and sub-intentions to play themselves out on multiple levels: biographical narrative and the inherent fiction that comes with configuring the life of a beloved; gender; poverty and the conundrum poised in the expression “rich without money/full without food”; and the way contradictory, paradoxical communication arises from these problems…I have wondered whether the particularity of the experiences invoked in the poem may be mitigated if I talk more about my process, and indeed, my intentions…and I do have intentions even though they have evolved and shifted as I have brought these poems to the page.
    These same problems are raised in this poem, also elegiacally addressed to Tiny:
    Did you see
    somebody clock her? Did you hear
    somebody spook her? When he found what she was
    did he try to undo her? Did the glint of the knife
    light the alley-parked car? Did anybody see
    her in the Brass Rail bar?
    Will you turn again tonight?
    Will anything sell? When it starts to rain
    will the sky drop hail? Must you watch around corners—
    go left not right? Will you still split
    the walk until it is light
    then 6 AM: hit the diner—chatty girls:
    stains on your skirts, loose heels, flat curls:
    burns under wigs where your hair was shorn—did anybody
    hate Winnie? Where did she go wrong?
    Anymore coffee?
    Anybody heading
    home?
    ~
    The life that Tiny led was one of continual subtextual meanings and willful trickery. I am all-too aware that most people are hostile (just plain old hostile) and I must speak in a way that depends on my resilience, my hard-skinned-ness, my cunning and my trickery. I must write to Tiny in a way that she would understand–even using rhyme and fractured meter–while setting up other intelligible avenues for other readers. The very fact that Tiny is dead and I am addressing the departed is a trick in and of itself. This last poem, also addressed to Tiny after her death, continues the problems that I describe here:
    You were the first person
    who did not tell me I was ugly,
    head cocked like a sparrow
    in the stairwell of the library
    where you taught me how
    to rob old glassy eyed men—
    the kind that hunt children—
    the kind who give big money.
    Books are found where harm
    resides and children are grackles
    in a belfry when the high chime
    rents. Take half-love, you said,
    cause it never comes full.
    Then all your lessons rush back:
    Stay small. Stay a color. Stay
    a canary. Stay a scent. Hide
    your feelings. Every feeling.
    Hide your money. Every cent.

    ~
    I think, Reginald, that absolute theoretical pronouncements are problematic. The all-too human problems of finding meaning from our work and the work of others is far too volatile for complete, dogmatic certainty about the way every poem should be read or every poet’s or reader’s aims should be understood.
    We live in a terribly, terribly socially stratified world—stratified in still deeply divisive ways. Sometimes it is a matter of the surface indicators that seem to mark us—our color or the partner who we love or from whom we find sexual pleasure. Sometimes that stratification is even more ridiculous, a measure of the hatred and annoyance that people feel against poets who have the nerve to deploy rhyme in their poems or poets who have the nerve to write narratives in their poems (or poets who do the opposite, if there is such a definitive opposite).
    In the face of these complex stratifications and divisions I learn more when I encounter people speaking directly about the individual poems that spring out of them or the specific poems and specific poetic processes that beset them in their reading lives. I would have NEVER learned to value the inventions of Language poets and many other experimentalists (and I use this label advisedly) if I did not read their own explanations of their intentions in their prose theories and commentaries.
    Sometimes we need to hear intentions declared even while we know that such statements of aim and method are hardly to be taken as the be-all/end-all of our reading of poems. When these statements of aim and method come from those outside of some establishment or another they have the potential to make us all more generous readers and writers.
    I do think that generosity is an experience worthy of us all.
    In celebration of you!
    Jonathan David Jackson

  • On March 21, 2008 at 4:58 pm Don Share wrote:

    Francisco, thank you for your thoughts about the Thom Gunn anecdote, which strengthen my feeling that I had seen a living example of a poem’s reception – with the poet actually present!

  • On March 21, 2008 at 5:15 pm Arthur Durkee wrote:

    There’s my intention, if any, when writing the poem. (Most of the time, I operate on instinct, and have no idea what I’m doing till later.) (Side note: That this seriously annoys poets who are more purely intentional with their poems, and demand that the poem do what they want it to, is another discussion.)
    Then there’s the intention, if any, a reader reads into the poem. What they think the poem was intended to do, what it’s about, why it matters.
    The latter may or not not overlap with the former. I find fuzzy-set theory to be useful here: You don’t always know what are the full contents of the set, but you know where it’s boundaries are, and you have a sense of where sets overlap and combine.
    Honestly, I find math theory to be a lot more useful in discussions about creativity than I do 95 percent of literary-critical theory. Lit-crit theory is just so disconnected from concrete reality, most of the time. (Perhaps a function of academia’s general disconnect from reality.)
    The truth is, none of this matters a whit. Not even what I think. If the poem doesn’t connect with the reader, viscerally and intellectually, in their guts and in their mind, then it’s all moot, because it’s not a poem that has succeeded in what poetry does. (Which IS more than mere communication. But what that “more” is remains open to debate.)
    The poem has to stand or fall on its own merit—which is the one arena in which the text is all that matters, as the New Critics postulated. This is where they were correct, even if nowhere else: if the poem isn’t a stand-alone work of art, no amount of theory matters, or will save it. The poet’s biography cannot save the poem, if the poem is just bad—and this is where the fallacy of intent in political poetry is always mistaken, because even if one agrees with the poem’s political message (intent?) there’s no saving it if it’s just a bad poem.
    Intent never guarantees quality, ever.

  • On March 21, 2008 at 5:16 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Well, the sigh was really along the lines of mild exasperation, since in the comment thread that started all of this, I had already brought Knapp/Michaels into the discussion, & I just found it rather, shall we say, remiss of Reginald to write an entire post on intentionality in which he continued to ignore the central statement on the matter since the New Criticism.
    But enough. Knapp/Michaels is available for those who are interested. I will say only that Foucault & Barthes (actually two extremely different essays, addressing very different conceptions of the author-function) & in particular de Man are also exhaustively dealt with in the relevant literature. One point I would like to clarify is that I don’t actually think Knapp/Michaels are completely correct, I don’t think they wipe the floor with de Man, I don’t think Wimsatt/Beardsley or Foucault are full of it. It’s that I think they are all worth reading & arguing about, & throughout this exchange my central contention has been that reading one side of an academic/artistic debate will get you about as far as Buffalo, after which you’ll need to hail a cab.
    This is, however, the first time I have been compared to Al Gore, & I sincerely hope it will be the last — it’s a sure sign that I’ve overstayed my welcome.
    Best to all & sundry, no matter our disagreements,
    mr

  • On March 21, 2008 at 6:03 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    One last (I promise) quick note to Arthur: “Against Theory” is called “Against Theory” for a reason. It is that the authors are arguing against theory: “If we are right, then the whole enterprise of critical theory is misguided & should be abandoned.” The obvious countercharge is that they are actually producing their own theory, but their main point stands: theory is grounded in the attempt to solve problems that are in fact not real, due to a failure “to recognize the fundamental inseparability of the elements involved.” The debate over the relation between intention & meaning, for instance, is not a debate a theory can resolve, because there is actually no debate. The terms are inseparable. It is as quixotic to insist that interpretation can only be arrived at through appeal to intention as to deny that intention plays any role in meaning. For intention & meaning are, for reasons rehearsed above by me & Boyd, the same thing. It follows that literature does not stand in need of a theory of interpretation.
    Best,
    mr

  • On March 21, 2008 at 6:35 pm john wrote:

    Michael,
    sorry if the comparison offended. I intended no disrespect; I thought Gore stumbled rhetorically at that moment too, but I put a lot of energy into trying to persuade Nader-leaners to vote for him.
    department of picking nits: go back and check it out. the first two words of your very first comment on this thread are, “Ah, Reginald.”

  • On March 21, 2008 at 8:03 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Boyd,
    I enjoy & appreciate your & Michael’s contributions to this topic. However, this kind of jaded tone which you employ – “I love the Age of Theory!” – it’s over 25 yrs old! etc. – “it’s technical, & it’s available” – etc. – this condescension, as John put it –
    it seems a bit of a rhetorical ploy on your part, since it was you two in particular, not Reginald, not me, who brought up these ancient academic source texts (Knapp/Michaels). Yes, Reginald’s “intentional Fallacy” is even older – but he provided some context, some evidence as to how these sources are still relevant. You & Michael imply that simple age & technicality add weight to your arguments. However, issues we’re bandying about have plagued writers & poets since the time of Plato if not before.
    Certainly, it sounds, on the face of it, as though “Against Theory” offers a rich & challenging perspective. But just because an argument has been made (in “the literature”, no less) which equates meaning with intent, and just because it was done 25 yrs ago, is not such a powerful argument in itself. (Reginald already pointed this out.)
    Knapp/Michael’s project to dismantle Theory wouldn’t necessarily dissipate the conundrums – the pragmatics – of poetic composition per se. For about 20 yrs or so I’ve been fulminating against theory myself, since I consider poetry’s philosophical “false friends”, from Heidegger to Derrida et al., to be using poetry for their own ends, and debasing it in the process. But global Theory is one thing; the contradictions of intention, impulse & artistic impersonality are well-nigh irreducible, & have been with us since a long time before the advent of de Man.
    But you see “nothing at stake”. Your concept of literary theory seems oddly positivist : these issues have been dealt with authoritatively in “the literature”; Science advanceth, and faltereth not; all these questions have been resolved; nothing is at stake. . . sorry, but I think Reginald, John & others have offered some pretty substantial challenges to the Meaning = Intention Theory of Poetry, which you’ve been urging upon us, sarcastically, on the basis of sheer Authority.

  • On March 21, 2008 at 11:02 pm Arthur Durkee wrote:

    “If we are right, then the whole enterprise of critical theory is misguided & should be abandoned.”
    And yet some continue to propose theory after theory. Ah well.
    The bottom line here—and this is another arena in which I find myself in frequent argument with the formalists and other -ists of every stripe, not excluding the LangPoets—is that theory is and always should be descriptive rather than prescriptive, It comes after the fact. If theory is used to dictate art-making it becomes just another ideology. Theory is useful as reporting—noting trends, noting tendencies, patterns, analyzing content as though data-mining. But theory is useless for telling me how to do what I do as a poet, and even worse for telling me why I do it. (Or why I should be doing it.)
    After a point, literary critical theory *should* be abandoned. Because it’s fun, it’s a nice hobby or game, but it actually doesn’t help one as a poet.

  • On March 22, 2008 at 12:30 am Boyd Nielson wrote:

    Dear Henry,
    I enjoy your contributions too. But I didn’t bring up anything. I merely tried to clarify what had already been brought up. Take it or leave it. Does that, in turn, justify the vague aggression of your tone?
    For instance: “Your concept of literary theory seems oddly positivist : these issues have been dealt with authoritatively in “the literature”; Science advanceth, and faltereth not; all these questions have been resolved; nothing is at stake. . . the Meaning = Intention Theory of Poetry, which you’ve been urging upon us, sarcastically, on the basis of sheer Authority.”—and so on and so forth with distorted paraphrases and scare quotes. See: I can call out condescension too. Shall we have another round?
    You accuse me of being jaded and sarcastic yet you ask me to argue with you about an article that, so far as I can tell, you haven’t bothered to read. That’s fine. The truth is I’m not at all upset that you or anyone else here could wake up tomorrow doubting the central claims of “Against Theory.” Sorry if you want or expect more in the way of dispute.
    B

  • On March 22, 2008 at 1:59 pm Bobby wrote:

    Michael,
    Here’s an example for you of “a reading of a poem which he or she thinks is the right reading but also thinks is not a reading the poet intended,” one I actually used last year in a class:
    “Canto LXXIII” is one of the poems that Pound wrote in Italian during WWII. The poem speaks in the voice of a Dante-like person waking in “the black air,” i.e. in Hell. He meets the spirit of Guido Cavalcanti, who denounces Roosevelt and Churchill and Eden as “bastards and small Jews / Gluttons and liars all.” Cavalcanti goes on to tell the story of a Rimini girl who, we’re told, had been raped by Allied soldiers and who days later led a troop of Canadian soldiers into a minefield that blew them all up, herself included. The poem ends “But what girls! / what girls, / what boys, / wear black!”
    On any standard reading of this poem–intentionalist, biographical, whatever–you have to say that this is a poem that is a bit of propaganda for the Fascist regime. (Incidentally, the story of the Rimini girl had been published in the Corriere della Sera during the war and was a complete fabrication.) There is no hook in the poem that would allow one to argue that Pound was somehow being ironic–he meant what he said about Roosevelt and Churchill and [Anthony] Eden.
    And yet readers familiar with Dante’s Inferno–and I know you’re one of them–may remember that the spirits whom Dante meets in hell do not always tell the truth–many of them don’t. In fact most of them don’t understand what landed them in Hell and so they end up, by way of a kind of compulsion complex, repeating the things that caused their downfall. Thus Francesca appeals to Dante in the name of love, thus Ulysses defends his decision to sail to the South Pole in the name of virtue and knowledge. (John Freccero talks about this in an essay called “Infernal Irony.”)
    Read in the light of this knowledge about the Inferno, Pound’s poem takes on a new, more interesting cast. Pound’s Cavalcanti sounds a lot like Dante’s damned, and so one can come to interpret the poem as damning itself. I suggest “the poem” as the agent here because we know what Pound intended for the poem (and we know that he never read the Inferno a la Freccero). Call it cosmic irony if you want, or Pound’s unconscious, or whatever, but to my mind there’s no doubt that the “right” way to read the poem is something other than the “intended” way.
    (And lest this kick over another hornet’s nest of fury about Pound and fascism, let me add posthaste that my students had no difficulty holding in their brain these facts: that “Canto LXXIII” was written as a piece of Fascist propaganda, and that reading the poem in another way than Pound intended does not cancel or absolve or excuse the first fact.)
    All of which is to say that for me the problem with Michaels and Knapp’s argument is that while they give good reasons why a consideration of intention is necessary to the interpretation of literature, they don’t give good reasons why it should be sufficient. Me, I’m with Derrida–there goes the other hornet’s nest–when he says that in his view of interpretation, “the category of intention will not disappear; it will have its place, but from this place it will no longer be able to govern the entire scene and the entire system of utterances.” (This is the thing that Searle seemed never able to wrap his head around.) Considering the author’s intention should be a part of criticism; I just don’t believe it should be the only part.
    Bobby
    P.S. I also think you let yourself off the hook too easily by calling computer-generated poems trivialities, especially when the question is intentionalism. (To my mind they give the lie to the beach marking example.) But I’ll save that rant for another day.

  • On March 22, 2008 at 5:29 pm Brian A. J. Salchert wrote:

    Almost always I find I agree with Arhur Durkee/ as when he asserts “. . . theory . . .
    always should be descriptive. . . .” even though it is likely/ most never will
    support that assertion; and so I believe
    a maker’s materials can
    generate an aesthetic which governs their use in specific instances, and yet
    also believe a stated or unstated predetermined aesthetic can govern how
    a maker uses materials; and that, therefore, an exceptional work of art
    can be produced both intentionally and unintentionally, though the latter
    relies more on intuition than on logic. But neither approach cancels
    the other–not among humans anyway. After all, humans are fallible.
    About poem-making, Paul Valéry said: “A poem is never finished,
    it is only abandoned.”
    Both what’s intended and not intended persist; and because
    change pervades human experience and because every observer
    sees/feels what’s observed differently, there is no final way to know
    the fullness of either. This doesn’t mean making an effort to more
    fully appreciate an artifact is without value.
    As to meaning and intention:
    from my point of view
    they are not the same.
    Say I make it known to you:
    “I intend to close this door.”
    Say your response is: “Why?”
    If I do not answer your question, you can
    only guess at what my closing this door means.
    Brian

  • On March 22, 2008 at 6:59 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    But, Bobby, that’s clearly a misreading of the poem, no? An interesting one, but no one’s denying that creative misreadings are possible. It’s just that you can’t say that’s what the poem means; as you say, it’s “reading in the light of.”
    And computer-generated poems don’t trouble the intentional thesis because there clearly has been intentionality in their programming. The programming is intentional, but of course the computer doesn’t “mean” anything by its lines: the intention was to have them generate something randomly. Likewise, MacLow’s or Cage’s aleatory practices realize poems whose interpretations are clearly derivable by intention: it’s just that, in their case, the intention was to produce a poem by chance, & they didn’t “mean” anything in particular, because they didn’t know what lines would be produced beforehand. Not “meaning” anything in particular is a form of meaning, one that you must intend.
    Anyway, no fair ambushing me here. Let’s talk this over over coffee or something. Cuz now I’m really Audi, from this thread at least.
    Best,
    mr

  • On March 22, 2008 at 10:25 pm Arthur Durkee wrote:

    If you’re going to bring aleatoric procedures, or indeterminacy, into the mix, a la Cage, then it’s important to be very clear what is intended and what isn’t. The problem of intention here is about WHAT is intended, and how intention is both protected and subverted.
    What Cage intends in a piece like “Indterminacy” or “Variations IV” is to remove his own taste from the process of performance and composition. (His own ego-based choices about what he likes and doesn’t like.) But this isn’t random composition, or true chance. It is also a process of allowing the surprising and unexpected (in terms of sound but also silence, and non-sonic events) into the time-frame of the composition and performance. The end result of that is to open the ears, to open the time-frame to possibilities neither planned or intended by the composer. Cage delighted in listening to performances of his work wherein he could be surprised.
    Something I’ve found that almost all lit-crit writers get completely wrong about Cage, perhaps from not having read his books or actually performed his compositions, is that it isn’t really all about chance. The performer isn’t making random sounds at all. The performance events have been pre-determined, following strict rules, which are intended (yes, intention) by the composer to be followed strictly once they have been laid out.
    Once the decisions are made during the process of preparing the performance, they are meant to be followed precisely and accurately. It is not really up to the performer to make changes “on the fly” in many pieces, but to follow the rules.
    Cage often expressed dissatisfaction with performances wherein the performers took “chance” to mean that they could do anything they wanted to. But they misunderstood that they did not actually have complete license to do whatever they wanted—because, bluntly, the whole point was to remove personal taste from the creation of the music, including the performer’s personal taste as much as the composer. This creates a level playing field in which sonic events are as value-neutral as possible, without typical ideas of meaning and intention in play.
    So, in fact, Cage’s intention in his music was NOT to remove meaning, but to allow new meaning that Cage himself had not intended, but was there to be found.

  • On March 23, 2008 at 12:44 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    P.S. And if you want readers to interpret their poem in “their own way,” then that is your intention. And if you want your aleatory poem to make a statement of anti-intentionalism, then that’s a form of intention too. That Brian thinks his closing example actually illustrates anything about intention is indicative of how ill-read in the subject most people are. Everyone thinks up all these counterexamples, as if they prove something, without bothering to discover all the times identical counterexamples have been proposed and refuted. And that’s fine. But it’s a strange way to carry on an argument. As for Arthur’s comment that theory should be abandoned because it’s not useful to poets, I can’t imagine thinking that the study and analysis of literature matters only insofar as it is of use to poets. As if no one could be interested in it for its own sake, or as if only poets are its intended audience. Or as if only poets matter. I write poetry too, we all do. But of all the possible reasons for believing the enterprise of critical theory should be abandoned, I can’t think of many that attend less closely to what purposes the enterprise was rather nobly trying to serve.
    OK, OK, I swear by the ghost of Frank O’Hara that this is my last post in this thread. Jay-Z and Michael Jordan are poor role models for the blog comment stream retiree.
    Best,
    mr

  • On March 23, 2008 at 12:08 pm john wrote:

    Bobby,
    That Derrida quote is right on the money, and the reading — not misreading — of the Canto is terrific.
    I would add in defense of your reading that Pound partially recanted the Cantos in the last finished Canto, Canto CXVI, with the phrase, “my errors and wrecks lie about me.” Earlier in the same Canto (as you know), he had mentioned, “Muss., wrecked for an error.” Echoing the same words, we can imagine that Pound perceived his error to have been Fascism (though he still admired Muss.), including anti-Semitism. He also explicitly recanted his anti-Semitism in an interview with Allen Ginsberg around the same time, which indicates that Pound may have included anti-Semitism in his own vision of his errors.
    Michael,
    Are you excluding the possibility of unconscious intentions in poetry? That would seem counter not only to “the rules of poetry,” but to “the rules of language”! Not to mention human behavior!

  • On March 23, 2008 at 12:55 pm john wrote:

    Michael,
    if you want to converse with people who are not experts in your field, it is bad manners to upbraid them for not becoming experts in your field before conversing with you.
    Your answer to Brian amounts to: Why are you talking to me when you haven’t read the same books that I have? You didn’t actually say anything intelligible or useful to him.
    Do you “intend” to come off as a person with bad manners?
    I don’t find the equation of intention and meaning, as presented by you, at all useful. It seems to entail a redefinition of “intention,” and your presentation of it seems internally self-contradicting. You seem to allow that some poets “intend” readers to generate their own meanings from their writings. How could the “intention” and the “meaning” then be the same? I believe you that you believe that intention and meaning are the same in this case too, but it makes no sense to me. You seem to be insisting on redefining common-coin vocabulary and putting them into specialized slots, and then getting huffy that not everybody recognizes the slots!
    A lot of academics in the humanities seem to specialize in these para-neologisms. When people get huffy that the whole world hasn’t adopted their subtle, apparently nonsensical redefinitions . . . well, sir, good luck!

  • On March 23, 2008 at 2:11 pm onward wrote:

    If anyone actually IS interested in reading in the most current debates around intention and interpretation of works of art (including poems), the book to look at is Paisley Livingston’s Art and Intention: A Philosophical Study, which usefully synthesizes recent accounts and offers its own.
    You might also might take a look at Jerrold Levinson’s generally appreciative but also critical review of same, which defends the distinction (crucial for this discussion) between categorical intentions (intentions to make a particular kind of thing) and semantic ones. On Levinson’s account, categorical intentions are logically prior to semantic intentions: the categorical intention to make a poem (as opposed to a history, say) determines in advance that the meaning of the poem will not simply be identical with the meaning of its sentences, and provides directions (embedded in the history of the genre) that guide readers toward the particular ways in which non-sentential meaning are formulated and (thus) can be read.
    The point here isn’t to shame people who haven’t “done the reading.” The point is that these are debates that have been conducted in systematic ways (and are ongoing), and so pointing to Barthes or Foucault is likely to be a way of confirming what we would like to think, rather than a way of thinking.

  • On March 23, 2008 at 4:12 pm john wrote:

    Ms. or Mr. Onward,
    The distinction between “categorical intention” and “semantic intention” is indeed useful and germane. Thanks!

  • On March 24, 2008 at 1:39 pm Brian A. J. Salchert wrote:

    I read certain posts and comments
    mainly because I want to learn.
    So perhaps I should keep my thoughts to myself,
    but here I didn’t.
    Therefore, yes, thank you: everyone.

  • On March 24, 2008 at 4:28 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Brian – Please don’t keep your thoughts to yourself, on anyone’s account. I apologize for the tone of my comments, & hope to continue reading yours. It’s a wonderful thing, to have these conversations among people who actually care about poetry & its place in the world.
    Best,
    mr

  • On March 24, 2008 at 6:51 pm Brian A. J. Salchert wrote:

    Michael – “By the ghost of Frank O’Hara” I was not seeking any apology.
    Heck, even though I have often done things I later wish I hadn’t,
    I one day simply decided I no longer believed in apologies.
    You should read some of the negative things I have written about myself.
    The brain doctors I’ve conversed with about me think I’m fine; but
    I see myself as one who’s a bit unhinged, a Prufrock type, and so on and so on.
    The challenge is to always act in such ways that make it impossible to later feel:
    Darn, I wish I hadn’t done that. Yah, easier said than done, as they say.
    One poet blogger told me last year that he thought the sometimes heated
    arguments in comment streams between those who care about the topic
    being discussed are good events rather than bad ones, and that neither I
    nor a blog owner should be bothered by such. Freedom of speech.
    I don’t know. Guess I had better stop. Am sensing the ghost of Frank O
    is standing behind me, and’s about to bop me.
    Fear not, however, about my ceasing to comment.
    Best to you,
    Brian


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, March 19th, 2008 by Reginald Shepherd.