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mfa related post and question

Alright. So. In Manguso's workshop we talked a lot about intent. Manguso said something about how when she was learning about poetry before college, everyone said that it was the highest art form in literature because it was like an empty basin, or that what we are going to mean by that is that it can mean anything to anyone. Manguso said she doesn't agree. That unless you are John Ashbery [and none of us are or will be, nor will we really discuss John Ashbery on this blog, please do that somewhere else, somewhere maybe where people care, or maybe after I've actually read some Ashbery] that a poem means something, and that it meant something to you when you wrote it, and that this is what we were going to discuss.
And alright so, my question to you, readers of this blog, whoever you are, is whatever follows this statement. The one I just made.

And so when you read how worried are you about what a poem literally means?

Because alright. Me, I use images in my writing. I use images to convey emotions. I do a lot of editing and rewrites to make sure that the images and language and emotions are as specific as possible. However, in terms of direct meanings, literal meanings, and in terms of intended symbolism, I really don't know. I genuinely don't care to think about it. I think it would be neat if one day some English major went through my, yknow, oeuvre, [yeah I'm keeping my face as straight as possible and it's not working, whatever, go fuck yourself] and charted the occurrence of images and the ways in which they occurred in order to correlate them symbolically.
I just. I so rarely worry what a thing really means when we start dealing with symbols and the idea of translating an idea. I understand what it means to me, and I attempt to understand the work on whatever premise it seems to set for itself, but and so I am asking you people out there, How much does this matter to you?

I was going to cut the last line of the first short adventure because everyone kept talking about the poem in terms of loss, and I wasn't certain that's the discussion I wanted. I am keeping the line however, and coming to terms once again with the fact that shit is going to mean whatever other people want it to mean once it's out of my hands.

I guess maybe let's have us a dialog:


DB said...

all poetry is rooted in tradition, even the most avant-garde has to come from somewhere, a reaction to the past or whatever. i think all poetry and art has "meaning." yes, the meaning while writing, the experience, the emotions.

we've been talking in class, and reading about, how poetry is the articulation of emotion as a linguistic reflection of the "natural world," whatever that means. whether a poem is simply to please or not, it still has meaning, i think.

sasha fletcher said...

no no no, it totally has a meaning. what i'm saying, i guess, is whether people need everything to mean a specific thing, or really, what they look for in terms of meaning.
is it important that everything have a literal translation?
that the images be very specifically assigned symbols?
how much abstraction will we settle for?
would we rather just have an emotion articulated for us or do we want it to be more specific?
the notion of allowing a thing to simply wash over you and settle somewhere in you, is this appealing?
if so why?
if not why?
i guess that's maybe more what i'm asking.

DB said...

i like the idea of letting it "wash over you and settle," etc.

i think the settling (for the reader) is where the meaning sets in.

but also, i think a good reader will not have much trouble understanding the writer's intent (whether that authorial intent be conscious or not).

i don't know. a lot what i read (and write) tends to allow for a fair amount of "abstraction." maybe "abstraction" is not the word. "liberties?"

as in words that may not logically fit with other words in a strict logical sense. blabbering.

i don't know. usually over time i edit those words down.

i don't usually care too much about "logic."

emotion i think is important. it's important for a writer to utilize language in a manner that engages the reader in that emotion, that offers a point of relatability, of pleasure in that relatability.

i try not to think about this when i'm writing, because i feel like if i do then whatever i write will feel contrived and fall flat.

sasha fletcher said...

the only thing i tend to think about when i am writing is what i am writing.
and then later i go through and see if the lines feel good or feel bad.
and if they feel bad i try and figure out ways to say them better.
but first i cut them and then read it without them to see if they even mattered in the first place.
it's really important to me that, although a piece means a certain thing to me, that it can be read in a way that makes it personal for the reader. that if they get what i am saying, that that is incredible, and it makes me really excited that i am not a total fuckup and am not hard to understand and that i can be understood. whatever. anyway. yeah.
i like things that can be read in different ways while still obviously maybe meaning something else.
i am ok with not understanding things.
there is just so much i don't understand.

davidpeak said...

DFW wrote in an essay that "authors are monkeys who mean," meaning that a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters could never account for the "meaning of a text's features because the monkeys could not have meant anything by their typing."


i'm a selfish reader. i don't read to impress any high school english teachers, so whatever i take away from a poem, or writing in general, whether it's the author's intention or not, is purely of the moment. might be different the next day or the next.

it makes me feel sad when writers argue with their readers about what their words mean. once it's done and out there and being read it's no longer in their hands to say.

sasha fletcher said...


Drew Kalbach said...

symbolism always felt wrong to me, somehow. like in a story how a bird can stand for nature. i don't like that. the bird is a bird. it's in nature, it's an object within the world, i has a context and a definition that are known. how can it be something that it isn't?

to me, symbolism is not so much a literal translation of one object standing in for another, but rather how an object in an interesting situation can evoke an emotional residue of something else.

so that bird, working with my definition, is not really nature, it doesn't 'stand for' nature, but rather evokes feelings relating to nature.

like dan said, and i know you agree sasha, to me it's all about emotions.

intention then is very difficult. a problem. the second we start talking emotion is the second we stop being concretely sure of anything. your emotions are never going to be my emotions.

that's why i don't like to say 'this object stands for this thing' but rather 'this object has a similar resonance' or 'emotional residue' or something less specific.

i think i lost myself there. still trying to work this stuff out. authorial intent is fucking tricky. symbolism is fucking tricky.

to me, the best symbols are objects in the world in unusual/surprising contexts.

Anonymous said...

If you think Ashbery means "anything," that is "anything to anyone," then perhaps you should read Ashbery before making comments about his work. With that in mind, before making any comments about anyone's work one ought to have read the work in question. Reading is a responsibility that the poet, young or otherwise, is obliged to fill. Knee-jerk/ill-formed ideas do nothing for you other than than cloud the mind with error.

sasha fletcher said...

dear anonymous,
what i said was:
Manguso said [...] That unless you are John Ashbery [...] that a poem means something, and that it meant something to you when you wrote it, and that this is what we were going to discuss.
I then go on to say that I haven't read enough Ashbery to form an opinion
['or maybe after I've read some Ashbery'].
Maybe I'm being a dick and defending myself. Whatever. I have no idea who you are, my teacher said that Ashbery is probably the only person we can't really assign a specific meaning to in terms of their work [Marjorie Welish, a woman with the ability to recite text nearly verbatim, and who has structured her class on the avant garde in order to give it the broadest possible view, in order to look at the avant garde from every possible angle before attempting to even try to say what it is or could be or was, anyway, Welish said the same thing, that Ashbery was a poet without any sort of assigned meaning, and she said it two hours before Manguso did, so yeah, sure. I'll go with them. I'm not a fan of what I've read. I am not in any way insulting Ashbery here anonymous. I am just saying what was said.]
And yeah, alright, I am discouraging a discussion on my blog that I'd be incapable of participating in. It's my blog. Start a blog and talk about John Ashbery, and how I'm an idiot. That's fine. I'll link to the post.

christian said...

here sasha, i responded to you in a long way:

Unknown said...

This type of dialogue is one of the things that makes an MFA program worthwhile. I'm jealous that you're in a workshop w/ Manguso.

Here's a link to an essay Manguso wrote on Russell Edson a few years ago - really worthwile, I think - this essay as well as Edson's poems, which inspired me to keep writing thru my early 20s when I questioned my own intentions all the time and had very few writer friends and little-to-no audience:

Also, a great piece about intention and meaning in art - david antin's "the noise of time":

All I'll say about meaning - I read and write poetry for the polysemy (my favorite word from grad school, next to "problematic"). Edson and Ashbery - two very different writers - are both masters of it.

See you at the dive.


Lucy said...


Is asking what a poem "literally means" the same thing as asking what is "the one true meaning" of a poem?

If so then I'd say it's really not a concern for me. Seems like you'd run into all sorts of problems- to start with, whose frame of reference is the "truth"- the author's or the reader's?

As a reader I try to hone in on what a poem means in a particular context. Usually mine. I do that because it's part of what makes poems fun to read. It's enjoyable. My context is probably different from the author's context, and I'll think about that, yes. Because that might lead to an interesting re-reading or re-evaluation of a poem.

But I don't (and I'm not sure this is what you were asking, but) automatically privilege one of those readings over another. And my default reading position is, of course, my own, so that's a kind of privileging, I guess. That's where I spend the most time with the most poems- where I know everyone's name and know where the cereal bowls are kept and don't have to ask. I like it there. If I didn't I'd leave. Or at least get new curtains. I just found out my curtains were recalled because the cords can choke babies, but I don't have any kids so I doubt I'll do anything. you see?

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