Ironically enough, given the topic of my last post, I have been sidelined from this blog for a while because I've been painfully sick wth what my oncologist thinks (but doesn't know) are new chemotherapy side effects. But I am better now, and I am back. Happy reading.
Politics, history, biography all inform and sometimes even deform art (style can be seen in one sense as the scar history leaves on art, what Adorno calls a hardening against the pressure of suffering), but they enter into art as artistic materials, and are transformed within it. And art speaks back to these things; it is not merely subject to them. To treat art as a social or economic or historical epiphenomenon is to strip it of its identity as art, and of its liberatory potential. This is why I am an adherent of what Adorno calls immanent critique.

The reader always brings him or herself to the poem, and must do so; there is an interaction, an almost interpersonal transaction. (I do believe that poems have, that language has, a kind of agency, an intentionality, if only the sedimented intentions of all those who have used those words, inhabited that language--language is always stained with its use.) The poem, like the musical score, only comes alive in its performance, if only its mental performance in the mind of the reader. In both cases, there is always room for interpretation. But there are also parameters defining the limits of a legitimate or a plausible interpretation. One cannot play notes that simply are not in the score, or ignore notes that are--at least, one shouldn't.
Partly because of own sensibilities, partly because most of my teaching experience has been with students who believe that a poem is or means anything you want it to, and partly because the dominant contemporary trend for some time has been to read literature as a social symptom or ideological document, I always insist on the text: the final appeal is to what's on the page. I don't know where else one would start, or end.
As for the question of the relationship of art to politics and the social, politics, history, biography all inform and sometimes even deform art, but they enter into art as artistic materials, and are transformed within it. They condition but they do not determine the nature or value of art. And art speaks back to these things; it is not merely subject to them. To treat art as a social or economic or historical epiphenomenon is to strip it of its identity as art. In How to Read a Poem, Terry Eagleton points out that "if we read Oliver Twist for historical information about Victorian workhouses, we are not reading the work as fiction" (35). It’s also to denude art of its liberatory potential. As Eagleton writes, “Simply by existing, poetry fulfils a utopian function, testifying to a form of life which would be less in thrall to labour, coercion, and obligation” (58). This is why I am an adherent of what Adorno calls immanent critique.
Art, good art, art that lasts, art that speaks across barriers of time and class and race and gender (and I know much art does that, if only because it has for me), isn't just a reflex of ideology or social circumstance. Otherwise it couldn't outlast or live outside its social context. And unlike Tennyson's "Ulysses" and "Tithonus," or Browning's "My Last Duchess" and "Fra Lippo Lippi," there are many nineteenth century poems that haven't outlasted their time, for numerous reasons. Has anyone read Edwin Arnold or Felicia Hemans lately?
Art emerges from and is conditioned by its social context, but it isn't determined by it. If it were, we could never read the work of other periods or other cultures. At its extreme, it would mean that that works by someone of a specific gender, race, class, culture, or time period couldn't be read by anyone who didn't share those identity parameters: men could never read work by women, white people could never read work by black people, etc. Ultimately, that viewpoint leads to solipsism: no one could read anyone's work but their own, since no one can ever share or even fully understand anyone else's experience. To reduce art to its social context is to strip it of one of its most valuable properties, the capacity to make connections across boundaries of space and time, culture and identity.

Originally Published: March 14th, 2008

Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...

  1. March 14, 2008

    Reginald writes: ". . . I always insist on the text. . . ."
    With this I agree, because I feel this is the only valid place where all poets can find
    a common ground. So, since there are many ways to make a poem, for a reeder
    such as myself some special knowledge may be required in order to understand
    certain texts. Therefore, what it comes down to for me is: how willing am I to
    acquire that knowledge I need when I am faced with a text I cannot on my own
    understand. There are some creations, textual or not, I sense are special
    even when I don't "understand" them. There are others I have to spend time
    with. There are others, still, I say "oh well" to, maybe five or ten years from now.
    Brian Salchert

  2. March 14, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Reginald, I find myself agreeing with you on most things, and I admire your articulate good sense.
    But I don't think you go far enough in your analysis of the meaning of "the text". In your reading here, the text is a kind of magic vessel, a Holy Grail - the bearer of poetic beauty and meaning which transcends its particular time & place. This is like Mandelstam's "message in a bottle" to the "ideal reader of the future". And I accept that concept of the poetic text. Dickinson, Whitman, Melville & so many others have sent us such messages, over great distances.
    Nevertheless it seems to me that the reason these texts outlast their time is not simply because their beauty overwhelms their circumstances. It's because they GRAPPLE, more intensely than any other texts, with the very particular moral, existential & political realities of their immediate moment. The relationship between immediacy and universality is essentially dialectical (as the famous passage from Stevens' "Of Modern Poetry" emphasizes). The poem is (in part) a kind of psychic medicine - because it is, in some sense, a personal working-out of this dialectic - a conjunction of opposites.
    And I think this notion of the poem as crucible, again, relates to the question of the status of the text. The text in this sense is not simply a magic container of eternal values, but rather a transcription of an act of engagement - a dramatic GESTURE, whose total aesthetic form is precisely in-utterable, un-speakable. In Stevens' terms, the "cry of its occasion".

  3. March 15, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Dear Henry,
    Thanks for your comment. But you are reading assertions and assumptions into the piece that are simply not there.
    I never wrote or implied anything like that "the text is a kind of magic vessel, a Holy Grail - the bearer of poetic beauty and meaning which transcends its particular time & place." The word "beauty" never appears in my piece, nor do I write of the text as "a magic container of eternal values." The piece says nothing about art's beauty overwhelming its circumstances. My citation of such Marxists as Theodor Adorno and Terry Eagleton should make clear that I make no apeal to such mystical/mystified notions and formulatlons.
    I make clear that art grapples with social and historical circumstance when I write that "art speaks back to these things [history, society]; it is not merely subject to them."
    I make a point of not saying why or how some works outlast their contexts (nor do I ever use the word "transcend").
    Yours is an interesting comment, but it is not in any way a response to my piece. As I have said before and will undoubtedly say again, I would appreciate it if people would respond to what I actually write, and not to what they imagine me to be saying, or simply to their own preoccupations.
    I have no wish to have an argument about this simple statement of fact, nor will I engage in any such argument.
    all best,

  4. March 15, 2008
     Troy Camplin, Ph.D.

    Perhaps that's the problem: that "beauty" was missing from your piece. Henry, on the other hand, talks extensively about beauty -- though I suspect he doesn't know he is. From your comment it seems you mistakenly think that beauty is the merely pretty -- decoration or window dressing. Which shows, sadly, you don't know what beauty is at all.

  5. March 15, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    If there is any basis for Troy Camplin's rather insulting comment, it is in his head and not in anything I wrote. I simply wrote that, contrary to Henry Gould's assertion/assumption, I did not bring up the question of beauty in this post. How Mr. Camplin manages to derive all his other conclusions, including the impressively condescending close of his comment, from this simple statement, is quite beyond me.
    I find it impressive and, yes, sad, that immediately after my appeal that people respond to what I actually write rather than to their own fantasies and presumptions, someone proceeds to do exactly what I have just decried.
    If anyone is interested in my thoughts about the question of beauty, which was not the topic of this post, I refer them to my essay "Notes Toward Beauty," to be found in my newly published essay collection Orpheus in the Bronx and in my blog post of the same title.

  6. March 15, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    Reginald writes: "Art emerges from and is conditioned by its social context, but it isn't determined by it. If it were, we could never read the work of other periods or other cultures."
    The first sentence contains an idea I've expressed myself, Reginald, and I do think it's true–up to a point. My reservations are based on wondering if the difference between "conditioned" and "determined" isn't one of degree rather than kind. Your second sentence treats it as one of kind: "we could never read" the work of previous generations if it were "determined" by social context. This is simply false. With access to enough information about the society (let me be more expansive and say "the culture") in which any work was produced, we can read it and probably understand it. That does not make the work artistically valuable, of course.
    My reservations on this issue affect the way I understand your assertion that lasting art "speaks across barriers of time and class and race and gender." I wonder if it does; that is, I wonder if it does in terms of the artist's intention. I happen to love Shakespeare, but I often wonder if I'm grasping Shakespeare's intentions. The more I know about Elizabethan England, its political and religious conflicts, its language(s), and the cultural references commonly understood by its people, no doubt the better I understand what Shakespeare meant to mean. And yet...: Readers in every period since Shakespeare have understood him differently. (Is this not true?) So–are the earlier understandings invalid? Do our understandings of writers evolve into ever finer, ever more accurate readings, or merely change depending on the color of spectacles each period provides for its people to read through?
    Or is there something "eternal" in a great work of art that "speaks" to everyone, everywhere, in every time?
    I would like to share your confidence in that eternal something, but my sense of history tells me that understandings evolve (but do not necessarily improve) according to the cultural context particular readers inhabit. The fact that great art not only survives but thrives on that evolutionary change is what makes it great. Beyond the artist's cultural context, beyond even his or her own intentions, the great work of art manages somehow to be radically open. You're right that it can't mean just anything, but it is essentially fluid. Somewhere A. R. Ammons writes that "water runs / but the ripple / dwells." A great work of art is a ripple, not a marble monument; it doesn't persist as itself, but reaches beyond its author's experience and intentions: it is a flexible lens that lets us see into unexpected depths of our own experience. How it does so is as much a mystery to the author as it is to the reader.

  7. March 15, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Dear Joseph,
    Thanks for your comment. I don't think that we are in disagreement. I do think, however, that you have misread much of what I wrote.
    I never so much as mentioned the author's intentions; I never mentioned authors at all, only texts. 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, or what the author thought about that. Certainly, I can't imagine how I could fathom Shakespeare's intentions, or how, if I could, that would usefully illuminate his plays. In Keats's words, the poet is no one.
    As I wrote, I return to the text itself. I agree that to fully understand a Shakespeare play (if such a "full" undersanding is even 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. But again, that is a matter of the text, not the author.
    As for the work speaking across barriers of time, race, and gender, I never specified what it speaks. That will, of course, change from context to context. As I wrote, the text is always an interaction between the reader and the text, and to a certain extent the text is recreated in each interaction, on both the individual and the social level. But there are bounds to that transformation. Macbeth will never be a play about the joys of fox-hunting, nor will Moby Dick ever be a novel about the domestic tribulations of an unhappily married couple.
    And I never used the word "eternal," nor would I. I don't know why people keep bringing it up.
    Thanks again for writing, and take good care.
    all best,

  8. March 15, 2008

    Careful, Reginald, you don't want to tangle with a Doctor of Philosophy, for it is they who know true beauty.

  9. March 15, 2008
     Arthur Durkee

    Your comments about solipsism echo similar arguments I have found myself making for quite some time. Art is both subjective AND objective. If it were not both, it would either be completely determinative of meaning with no ambiguity (objective), or it would become solipsism (subjective), even, dare one say it, masturbatory.
    I don't think one can divorce the artist or the art they make from the times in which they live. But at the same time, there is a universal thread of human experience that all great art taps into, which makes it eternal and timeless. Great art endures, which is one thing that separates it from ephemeral, topical art, which includes most political art. Most such art is like political cartoons: pithy and important and witty, and even brilliantly insightful, in the moment, but forgotten later on. It is art of the moment. There IS a place for art of the moment, I think, but it is rare for such art to endure. Sometimes that's the luck of the draw, or the resonance that the artist built into the art, that echoes down through time.
    In terms of the reader always bringing something to the poem, that is undeniable. One need only look up how often clashing interpretations are the root of critical arguments. Ask any cop how subjective "eyewitness" accounts can be.
    In fact, this can be a good thing, this subjectivity. There is a thread of aesthetic criticism in traditional haiku, for example, in which the reader is expected to "complete" the poem, by bringing their own experience to the poem, which is often very concrete and momentary. What makes a great haiku eternal is that readers continue to complete the poem with the resonances from the experiences of their own lives.

  10. March 16, 2008
     Henry Gould

    my comment above was based on two statements of yours " 1) "I always insist on the text: the final appeal is to what's on the page", and 2) "Art, good art, art that lasts, art that speaks across barriers of time and class and race and gender (and I know much art does that, if only because it has for me), isn't just a reflex of ideology or social circumstance."
    From these two statements I extrapolated the position I attributed to you - that is, first, this notion of the masterful poetic text, which outlasts its particular time & place (Mandelstam's "letter in a bottle"); and second, the idea that art in general somehow transcends its circumstances.
    The point of my comment was to emphasize a slightly different position, ie. : the art which outlasts its own time & place is, paradoxically, the art which is most immersed & engaged, agonistically, with the actuality of its own time & place.
    And I supported this position with the argument that poetry & poetic form cannot be reduced to the masterful text. Rather, poetry is a form of dramatic gesture, which the text merely adumbrates.

  11. March 17, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    Reginald, I must have been very unclear in my response. I was reacting to nothing more than the two sentences I cited and the idea of “speaking across time.” More than anything I meant to add my thoughts to yours. But since you’ve decided to fuzz up the idea of a text speaking across time – “I never specified what speaks” is kind of cagey, don’t you think? – let me just try to clarify what my sense of things. And let me advocate for the author’s intention.
    It seems to me clear that a great poem (let’s narrow the field here) does speak across time. As a result of cultural evolution (including language, social norms, shared historical and artistic knowledge, and shared assumptions about the world), its intended meanings may become blurred or inaccessible. There are parts of Gilgamesh whose original sense has been lost; there are whole traditions utterly lost, as Richard Wilbur notes:
    Dream fluently, still brothers, who when young
    Took with your mother's milk the mother tongue,
    In which pure matrix, joining world and mind,
    You strove to leave some line of verse behind
    Like still fresh tracks across a field of snow,
    Not reckoning that all could melt and go.
    Talk about the impact of history! Nevertheless, the great poem that survives does speak. Where its language no longer speaks (nobody speaks Sumerian or Akkadian, or Old English, for that matter), its structure does – and I mean its “deep structure”: the complex of images, tropes, musical and narrative gestures, etc. that the author embedded in the text. (The author can only embed the elements made available by his or her culture, of course.) Like stones on the river bottom that create Ammons’s ripple, these deep structures are more permanent than the onrush of evolving human cultures within which the poem takes shape for each reader. They are what “speak across time,” through the veils of translation and the thickets of scholarship.
    I should add that I think these structures themselves are affected by the currents of time, and some–like the poems of the Etruscans–are obliterated by it. So nothing is “eternal” –a word I regret using in my response.
    So. Let me return to the author’s intention.
    I mean “intention” in its broadest sense–that is, it comprises both conscious and unconscious aims. You say we can’t “fathom Shakespeare’s intentions,” and if we could, doing so wouldn’t “usefully illuminate his plays.” Surely you don’t believe this. Surely the primary purpose of reading any work is to understand its author’s intention (again, broadly conceived), in the hope of better understanding our own. If you do honestly believe what you’re saying, then I’d like you to explain why you bother to write your poems; more to the point, why do you revise them, obsess over them, feel haunted by them, until you’ve worked them into an adequate form? That, at least, is how my own poems develop.
    Anyway, I’d merely argue that we owe the authors we care about the duty of intentional engagement. If they’re going to speak to us, we have to bring them our questions: we have to inquire about their intentions and look to their texts, their lives, and their historical periods – and, of course, our own honest responses to their work – for help. Otherwise it’s all just a frivolous game.
    Take care, my friend–
    Joe H

  12. March 17, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Dear Joseph,
    Thanks for your thoughtful and eloquent comment. I think that we do in fact disagree, but I will try to clarify my position. (How odd, to have "positions." But I guess I do.)
    I don’t want to engage in a ridiculous comparison, but whatever the author's intention, mine 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. There’s also an intentionality to language, to the work, because of the accretion of previous writing has its own existence that invariably conditions whatever new work is written–and the new work, in turn, modifies what comes before it, or at least how we read it. (This is part of Eliot’s argument in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”) I think that 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 skiing in Vermont. I prefer to trust the poem’s intentions over my own, because language knows better than me, knows more than I do.
    Shakespeare is a particularly bad example to point to if one is arguing for authorial intention as central to the work, since his plays are so various, contain so many disparate personalities and viewpoints and whole realms of experience, that it would be impossible, and pointless, to say anything more than “Shakespeare’s intention was to show us an incredibly wide range of human experience and human behavior.” And understanding historical context, which can be helpful, is not the same thing as understanding the author or his intentions.
    So I must disagree when you write that the main purpose of reading is to fathom the author’s intentions. If that were the case, 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. 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 as clear as possible. A lot of writing for me is about swerving away from myself (perhaps a version of Eliot’s escape from personality, an idea with which I know you disagree), about trying to connect to something larger than 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.
    Looking at texts this way, as texts, as aesthetic objects, isn’t frivolous at all. 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. As you point out, it’s hard to fathom the intentions of the author(s) of The Epic of Gilgamesh. And yet we can still read it, historical and textual lacanue and all.
    I was perhaps being cagey when I wrote that I hadn’t specified what the text communicates through time, but it was in the interests of avoiding the idea Henry Gould attributes to me of the poem as a vessel or a vehicle of a static and predetermined, let alone “eternal,” meaning. I do think that how and what a text speaks does change over time. I also think, as I wrote, that there are limits to that process, limits inherent in the text itself.
    Take good care, and thanks for reading and commenting.
    peace and poetry,

  13. March 17, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    >>>I never so much as mentioned the author's intentions; I never mentioned authors at all, only texts. 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, or what the author thought about that. Certainly, I can't imagine how I could fathom Shakespeare's intentions, or how, if I could, that would usefully illuminate his plays. In Keats's words, the poet is no one.
    Much as I hate to expose myself to the already endlessly rehearsed & answered counterarguments Walter Benn Michaels & Steve Knapp's "Against Theory" automatically generates, I wanted to ask if you've read it. Their defense of the discovery of authorial intention as not the grounds of but synonymous with textual interpretation seems -- & here I out myself -- unanswerable to me. What else could we possibly be arguing about when we argue about the "meaning" of a poem than about what the poet intended it to mean? Naturally (& trivially), you cannot "fathom" Shakespeare's intentions, if by that you mean achieve certainty about what he had in mind. But no one's ever said interpretation involves certainty -- there are disagreements about what texts mean precisely because no one has access to the poet's intentions beyond the arguments they can construct on the basis of the text. Since the essay & Michaels & Knapp's replies to their critics (almost all of whom entirely missed the point of the piece) are widely available, I won't bother to carry on a defense of it in this forum. But it does seem important. (It also seems to me that something like Empson's (& many others') briefs for semantic density contain an important challenge to intentionalism, though not an unassimilable one.)
    But the poet is not no one. Zizek was here (at the U of C) last week, & I heartily endorse his contention that "cogito" is the last subversive academic term, the terrain that requires defending (though not, needless to say, simply in the sense of returning to a version of what Jameson calls the "bourgeois monad ego," which was always a straw-man anyway) against the nauseating ennui of relentless deconstructions of the self. Let us entertain the notion that the poet is some one, if only to challenge what has become a stale orthodoxy! When I hear "Je est un autre" I reach for my Ambien.
    Best, as always --

  14. March 18, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Hello Michael,
    Thanks to for your eloquent and impassioned comment. It's nice to see someone here get excited about ideas, and channel that excitement into intellectual discourse and not in some other, less productive, directions we have seen here in the past.
    I think that I address much of what you say in my most recent response to Joseph Hutchison, which I don't think had yet posted when you wrote your comment.
    Though I have of course heard of it, I have not read Against Theory. I have, however, read and loved Empson, and his work is a good demonstration of the fact that the text's intentions exceed and supersede the author's.
    When I write that I can't fathom Shakespeare's intentions, my focus isn't on the difficulty of doing so or the impossibility of certainty about them. I don't know his intentions at all; despite the fact that biographies have been written about him, we know almost nothing about Shakespeare at all. I think this is a good thing, because it makes us focus on the texts themselves, the plays and the poems. I can't know Shakespeare, and I don't care, because I can know the plays, and that's what matters. (Without the plays, would anyone care who Shakespeare was? For us, "Shakespeare" is a set of texts.) I don't see how not knowing his intentions impedes my ability to interpret his plays. In some ways, it makes it easier to do so, by, as I just wrote, forcing us to look to the play to answer our questions.
    Perhaps I'm misunderstanding you, but I can see no reason why asking what a poem means must mean asking what the poet intended. Why can't it mean asking what these words in this order are doing, how these words in this order are working together to produce an effect in the reader? What kind of whole do these parts make? These are the questions I ask when reading and interpreting a poem. The author is no more necessary to that process than God is to the process of understanding how the universe works. If anything, he or she (the author or God) can be an easy shortcut that obviates the necessity to seek the answers to difficult questions, or to ask them at all.
    Take good care, and thanks again for reading and commenting.
    peace and poetry,

  15. March 18, 2008
     Don Share

    Is the "intentional fallacy" can of worms due for a reopening? I like, though don't necessarily endorse, Empson's remark that “To say that you won't be bothered with anything but the words on the page... strikes me as petulant, like saying 'of course I won't visit him unless he has first-class plumbing'” (Argufying, 1987, 125) OK, it isn't like that at all, but I do endorse a scrap of Empson's marginalia:
    "... the poet may mean more than he knew - easily may not want to tell. No reason for not asking."
    He was reacting against Wimsatt's famous view that the poem is not the critic's own and not the poet's ("it is detached from the author at birth," Wimsatt said, "and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it," ... to which Empson responded, "But both author and critic are part of the world."
    Or as Auden more famously said, "The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living."

  16. March 18, 2008
     Henry Gould

    I see. "Permanent", or "across time", etc. are acceptable. "Eternal" is ruled out.
    My sense of these comment streams is perhaps too informal. In my own comments I was using "eternal" loosely, as a synonym for these other terms, not as some kind of mystical attribute.
    In comments about the (Mandelstamian) artistic vessel, I never used the terms "fixed" or "predetermined". I was attempting to draw a sharp contrast between two notions of the poem : one which understands it as primarily a textual container of aesthetic values, and another which views it as primarily a dramatic form of response to the poet's particular time & place.
    Such a "particular time & place", of course, and necessarily, will also manifest some of those perennial and deep-layer realities, which remain fairly stable beneath changing social events & circumstances. In fact it might be said that one of the central motives of the poet's meaningful acts is to synthesize the two.
    Whether we find the meanings in poems to be (authorially) intentional or unintentional, central or peripheral - or a combination of the two; whether meanings change or not over time; whether there is an aesthetic aspect (beauty) which adapts to changing conditions of reception, and outlasts them - all these things are obviously worthy of debate & investigation -
    but let me cut to the chase, and reiterate the point which you, Reginald, seem at pains to dismiss and marginalize here. As I read the general logic of your argument, it is a defense of the aesthetic over the socio-political. The poem would not last through changing circumstances if its aesthetic dimension - as captured in the text - did not somehow surpass or "transcend" (I know that's not YOUR usage - I just can't think of a better term) those timebound circumstances. "Art" is a category neatly divisible from "history", "politics", etc.
    I am arguing, in contrast, that the weight of immediate circumstances is inseparable from the aesthetic form itself. In other words, we continue to marvel at Shakespeare, or Whitman, or Dickinson, for example, because they each found ways to bind together, inseparably, the sub- or supra-historical (perennial) aesthetic element (the beauty) of poetry, with the very particular actuality of their time and place. It's this binding contemporary realism - under "the form and pressure of the time" - which differentiates living poetry - "a local habitation and a name" - from academic exercises, anachronistic historicism & literary imitation (always in thrall to, overpowered by, those "enduring texts").
    It's an inherently dialectical, paradoxical process. The poetry which outlasts its time is that which is most OF its time.

  17. March 18, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    Reginald wrote: "I prefer to trust the poem’s intentions over my own, because language knows better than me, knows more than I do."
    This statement puzzled me because I've said the same thing to students about "trusting the poem." But I've never gone so far as to say that "language knows better than" the writer–which goes to the heart of our disagreement about authorial intention. Aside from the implicit deification of language, which I think is groundless (language doesn't "know" anything and can't have intentions), this idea robs the writer of a reason to write–unless one simply enjoys taking dictation for Language (or the Muse, or the Archons, or the Archetypes, or one's Thetan, or...).
    Regardless of French-fried philosophy's attempt to erase the author, writers pick up the pen in order to express their feelings and ideas. (At least the writers I care about.) Of course, unconscious feelings and ideas get expressed as well, and it's perfectly legitimate to engage those as we read; but as I wrote in my earlier post, they are still part of the author's intention, broadly construed. There may be many other good reasons to read, but I don't see how any reader can pretend that the author's intentions are irrelevant. They are always the substance and the structuring motive behind the work.
    Which brings me back to my initial puzzlement. It has led me to realize that "trust the poem" is misleading advice. Better advice would be: "Trust your intentions–all of them, conscious and unconscious." Is this not the foundation of all artistic creation? And if it is, why shouldn't it be the basis of all creative reading? Not the end-all and be-all of reading, of course–but surely the foundation....
    Thanks as ever for your challenging thoughts!
    Joe H

  18. March 18, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Hi Joseph,
    I guess that we will have to agree to disagree, though I do think that there is quite a bit in my most recent response that you didn't account for in your subsequent response. But we don't have to look at everything in the same way.
    With regard to Don Share's comment, the idea of the intentional fallacy is one of the most valuable legacies of the New Criticism.
    Dear Henry,
    1) Nothing is eternal, not even the universe.
    2) Obviously any work is of its time--how could it not be? There's no such thing as a "timeless" object, in the sense of an entity that exists outside of time--I have certainly never said any such thing. Works of art that last, last through time, not outside of it. Part of what makes them last, as I have written more than once, are the continued interactions with them of successive readers, both individually and as social formations.
    3) The works that are most of their time are exactly the works that are most bound to their time, most inseparable from their context. When that time ends, when that context changes, they lose their power to speak. Those are the works that don't last, that are too time-bound, too determined by their context
    4) Works that last are works that are both of their time (an unavoidable condition for anything in this world) and that reach out beyond their time, that, as you have written, grapple with questions (very much including aesthetic questions) that recur generation after generation, and that do so in a manner that allows for changing answers and perspectives over time. This is, I think, a point on which we agree.
    5) In the realm of art, I do indeed defend the aesthetic over the socio-political, just as in the realm of politics I defend the socio-political against the aesthetic (the playing at politics in which so many who have responded to posts of mine engage). I see no benefit in the confusion of realms. Art is not politics and politics is not art.
    Thanks again to everyone for reading and commenting. Take good care.
    peace and poetry,

  19. March 18, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison
  20. March 18, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Well, Michaels & Knapp's argument is to some extent an answer to Wimsatt & Beardsley's "Intentional Fallacy" essay -- & tho what we usually take away from the latter is that biography & the author's beliefs about his own work are irrelevant to textual criticism, their appeal to linguistic norms & the effective realization of intention within the poem is hardly the sort of thing you're defending here, Reginald.
    Michaels & Knapp's point is that by attempting to discover what Shakespeare's poems mean you just are attempting to discover what he wanted them to mean: there's no difference. Indeed, whether you know anything about Shakespeare is completely irrelevant. You're still, in interpreting a poem (or any text), trying to come to a position on what the author meant. "Since language has intention already built into it," they write, "no recommendation about what to do with intention has any bearing on the question of how to interpret any utterance or text." The only question is whether to interpret: if yes, then you're interested in intention.
    Michaels & Knapp rely on Searle's speech-act theory to produce an account of language whereby it is impossible to imagine it or interpret without imagining or interpreting an intention behind it. Indeed, Searle has conclusively proved that no account of linguistic norms that ignores intentionality is coherent. Every time you tell Henry or someone else that they didn't understand what you wrote, you're making my case for me. The poem may be a different kind of linguistic construct than the blog post (God, I hope so), but if it is language it is governed by intention (some poems, not being language -- I think of Dada -- are clearly intended not to be "understood") qua public utterance.
    The truth is that there's actually no controversy here, as Michaels & Knapp's demonstration of what we count as language shows: check out their thought-experiment (or thought-parlor-trick) about Wordsworth on the seashore. Everyone already agrees that to discover meaning is to discover intention -- they just haven't followed their own logic closely enough.
    This is not meant to be snide. I hope I don't sound like some Operation Rescue convert or something. And, as I say, I want to leave room for semantic density of the Empsonian kind. But Empson himself was hardly an anti-intentionalist (& thanks for that quotation from "Argufying," Don; I'm going to have it tattooed on my ass). But this essay fairly transformed the way I understand what I'm doing when I read.

  21. March 18, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Reginald, I apologize for seemingly beating a dead horse here, but I love the swordplay of debate, and you are a difficult opponent.
    I realize you are trying to make things simple for me by numbering your points. My disagreement, then, is with your points #3 and 5.
    Regarding #3 : perhaps underlying this disagreement are differing views on the nature of historical time. You seem to regard it as a kind of clock-like, indifferent flow, much the same now as in 2000 BC - a kind of steady succession, which it is art's vocation to transmute. (Again, of course, these are MY words, MY polemical paraphrase of your position as I read it).
    I, on the other hand, understand historical time as a kind of unfolding drama. And the challenge to any free person lies in the attempt to reach - by way of the virtue, talent and skill - the vital CENTER of contemporary time : this "center" or marrow of history being somehow aligned with or akin to the fulfillment, the end, the culmination of time itself.
    The notion of art being merely "bound" to its time, rendered trivial by its own topicality, is an approach which divests history itself of any inherent meaning. It makes impossible the idea of a quest for the center of one's time, which it seems to me is related to the idea of "greatness" in art (or any other kind of endeavor).
    Regarding #5 : needless to say, your Aristotelian valuation of art in terms of aethetics, and political activity in terms of politics, is correct in the realm of abstract analysis, and usually prudent in the realm of practice. I say "usually" in reference to the often-sloppy and misguided attitudes of both poets & critics when they enter the gray area BETWEEN art & society, poetry & politics. Usually, in most cases, in that particular gray area, most of us prove to be out of our depth. But great art and heroic activity of any kind aspire, as I say, to that so-called "vital center" : and in the center, all things converge. This is what I'm referring to when I talk about the "paradox" of the most lasting art being the most OF its time : it is simply the greatest art, because it has aspired to seek, and to some extent found, that molten core of historical meaning.

  22. March 19, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    By the way, anyone who appends "Ph.D." after his name is automatically disqualified from being taken seriously; it's almost as bad as insisting people address you as "Doctor." I can't imagine what would possess someone to voluntarily place himself in the company of Henry Kissinger, but I hope it's not catching.

  23. March 20, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    For those who have been following this discussion thread, my new Harriet post, "On the Intentional Fallacy," incorporating some of my responses to comments here, takes up the question of authorial intention at greater length and in greater depth. I encourage all who are interested in this topic to read it.