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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 569 Response

Reading Poetry

with Boris Kokotov

Boris Kokotov’s “Poetry Reading at a Local Library” appears in this issue.

What common mistakes do the audience’s questions illustrate?

One Review Editor remarks that the questioners in the audience all seem to have agendas of their own.

[Boris Kokotov] Of course, folks in the library have their “own agendas” — different from Ramon’s and from each other’s.

Ramon’s agenda is embedded in the poem. But the discussion at the meeting shows there are more than a single interpretation of events. The saleswoman and even the lobsters also have their own understanding of what “really” happened.

The poem, beyond Ramon’s intentions, has wider meaning. Basically the poem is recreated every time somebody reads it. And because this is a “story inside a story,” the poem’s author appears to be just one of the characters — a subject for meta-story interpretations.

[Don W.] Thank you for the response, Boris; it shows a generous spirit!

Not to be picky or anything, I would note that one of the audience flunks the first of the four questions of literary criticism — indeed, of reading in general: “What does the text say?” He substitutes “crabs” for “lobsters.”

The second question — “How does the text say it?” — is the essence of the “middle-aged woman’s” question, namely why the poem describes a commonplace scene that the reader can readily visualize. Ramon has to remind her that poetry begins with the commonplace but doesn’t end there.

The audience explores the third question — “What did the text mean in its own time?” — by asking the author what his motivations and perceptions were. In fact, the most interesting question is that of the “older man”: “Why did the narrator lie to the saleswoman about what he will have for dinner?”

But mostly the audience concentrates on the fourth question: “What might it mean to us?” Two questioners appear to worry that the narrator is more polite to the lobsters than he is to the seafood clerk. And the “young girl” objects to “A pity they cannot sing” as being hypothetically unfactual. Ramon reminds them politely that the poem does not necessarily reflect what the readers would do in the same circumstances or what they happen to believe.

It is true enough that a poem — or any work of literature — is recreated every time it’s read. But what does that recreation accomplish? Does the reader’s reaction have a source in the work? If so, we have something in common and something we can talk about. Or does the reader merely talk about himself or herself? That may or may not be interesting; in any event, it’s another topic.

Copyright © 2014 by Boris Kokotov
and Bewildering Stories

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