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The Escape From Coherence: An Introduction to Creative Reading  


Jeffrey Side  


The stimulus behind this article lies in a question, namely: What is the value of a poem if it does not enable one to identify personally with it to the extent that (to paraphrase Keats): it becomes a wording of one’s own thoughts? In other words, why should a person persist in reading a poem if it fails to prompt in their mind images and emotions that only they can have? This question, although seemingly naive, if treated seriously, leads to a much wider area of discussion: that of the relationship between the reader and the text. In academic circles this debate is hardly new and has, arguably, been the main motivation behind the development of most forms of literary theory—from New Criticism to Post-structuralism. This literary discussion was indirectly influenced by ideas that were present in physics during the first half of the twentieth century. Before that time the predominant idea in physics was that of  “naive realism”. Naive realism maintained the commonsense notion that physical objects existed independently of the senses. This view was drastically altered with the appearance of quantum mechanics, which maintained that the existence of physical objects were contingent upon the senses. The implications of this were that concepts such as “certainty”, “objectivity” and “truth” could no longer be understood as they previously had been.

This new paradigm had ramifications that were becoming apparent outside of scientific discourse. The arts, for example, drew heavily upon this new discovery; the visual arts jettisoned the practice of a purely representational visual aesthetic that had assumed the independent existence of matter. Literature, also, assimilated this new worldview into its aesthetic: as is evidenced in the work of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot’s early poetry. As the century progressed, a significant amount of poetry was demonstrating that it was unnecessary to describe physical phenomena and to express subjective mental states in terms of a stable authorial persona. Instead, we had an art form radiant in its verbal invention, fluid in its shifts in spatial and temporal perspective, capricious in its fragmentation, and liberating in its hermeneutical plurality. All of which, for the first time, threw open a challenge to readers to become actively engaged in the interpretative process, rather than to merely be passive observers to a work’s biographical, autobiographical or descriptive elements.

Nevertheless, these progressive developments in poetry have found themselves having to compete alongside a more critically approved poetry that is unremittingly retrograde in its aesthetic attitude. This attitude seeks to reduce the autonomy of poetic language and to focus attention upon phenomena. It is based upon the simplistic idea that reality exists outside of perception, and that the main function of poetic language is merely the delineation of this reality.  By doing this it has served to maintain a poetic aesthetic that is founded entirely upon an appreciation of only one function of poetic language: that of denotation. Furthermore, this poetry is incompatible with what we now know about the psychological mechanisms that underlie the process of reading, not to mention the reader’s active participation in the interpretation of what is read. In addition, such an approach to poetry is antagonistic to the various devices of poetic diction such as rhetoric, metonymy and synecdoche. It advocates a poetics that merely celebrates and affirms physical nature (as well as tacitly denying the validity of experimental movements that have been so paramount in the evolution of poetry). This has resulted in critiques of individual poetic works based solely on this criterion. We, therefore, have a situation, today, in which the majority of celebrated poetry is being written because of, and for, this critical sensibility—and the publishing outlets that reflect it.

Of this poetry Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain (in their Introduction to Other British Poetries Since 1970) write that,

in each case the typical poem is a closed, monolineal utterance, demanding little of the reader but passive consumption. Such a cultural vision has obviously been privileged not simply by the major publishing houses, but also by their attendant infrastructures of reviewing journals, “literaries” and other elements of the media. The “mainstream” is, for most of the United Kingdom population, for most of the time, the only perceptible stream.


This bleak analysis is born out by the following passage from Mathew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams’ Teach Yourself: Writing Poetry (1997):

Many people still think that high-flown, abstract words give greater resonance to their writing, but vagueness is always a consequence of using abstract words. We would go further—abstractions should be avoided because they verge on the meaningless. If you think of the word “sadness”, for example, all you get is a blur in your head. If, on the other hand, you ransack your memory and fix on an experience that was a truly sad one, and tell people about this experience, your listeners will not have to take your word for it that you experienced sadness. They'll know because you’ve shown them.

Here we can see enacted the aesthetic of the author as the final arbiter of meaning. Sweeney and Williams place value only on the poet’s feelings. The reader, for them, is merely a passive witness to the poet’s experience of sadness. No mention is made that perhaps the poem would be a better one if the reader were allowed to experience sadness as well. But Sweeney and Williams know that for this to happen abstract words would have to be used, and that the employment of such would limit the poet’s authority.

I have included this background material in order to put into context the main argument of this article. My main contention is that the meaning of any written text, but in particular poetry, is ultimately decided upon by the individual reader, either unconsciously or by volition. By “volition” I mean the conscious determination of the reader to decide upon any one of a number of associations the words and phrases of any given sentence suggest, and to choose this particular association as the constituent of meaning despite its being the less obvious or appropriate choice (in comparison to the others) given the complete denotative meaning the sentence’s lexis implies. This sort of practice is possible because the poetic text is without intentionality: both in the sense of having no meaning inherently, and of the impossibility of its having an authorial intent conferred upon it.

In his essay ‘From Work to Text’ (1971), Roland Barthes describes the author as not being the main producer of the text, or even in a position to be identified with it. He does not hold the commonsense view that the author is the controlling factor in the production of language for the text. He sees the author as a product of the text, whose presence is only one aspect, among many others, that comprise the text’s totality. To Barthes, literary texts are systems of meaning that are comprised of multiple discourses that are multi‑layered in their arrangement. Because this multiplicity is irreducible to a single fixed meaning, a particular reading of a text may elevate one aspect and privilege it as having a central meaning. Barthes views meaning as being engendered by language, and it is language and experience that engenders meaning. The potential for a literary text to produce a multiplicity of meanings is realised through the linguistic permutations available in the text, and subject to the reading context and the individual reader. Viewed in this way, then, a text has a plurality of meaning, and is open to repeated readings and interpretations.

This inability of the text as a source of stable and finite meanings is the reason that there has not emerged a consensus in literary criticism. Instead, the history of literary criticism is one of diversity and change; in which successive critics have offered radically different readings of the same work. The assumption that there is a meaning embedded in the text and that it can be discerned at a single glance (as if the text was a clear window through which meaning could be perceived directly, in some sort of total and categorical form) is simply not the case. When we read a text we are not, as Stanley Fish points out in his essay ‘Interpreting the Variorum’ (1976), “simply reading”. For Fish, “simply reading” is impossibility as it implies the possibility of disinterested perception: and, as we all know, perception is anything but disinterested.

David Bleich, in Readings and Feelings (1978) and Subjective Criticism (1978), champions the creative powers of the reader. He says that because ‘the object of observation appears changed by the act of observation, knowledge is made by people and not found’. He believes writing about literature should not involve suppressing readers’ individual concerns, anxieties, passions and enthusiasms because ‘each person’s most urgent motivations are to understand himself’. And as a response to a literary work always helps us find out something about ourselves; introspection and spontaneity are to be encouraged. Every act of response, he says, reflects the shifting motivations and perceptions of the reader at the moment of reading, and even the most idiosyncratic and autobiographical response to the text should be heard sympathetically. In this way the reader is able to construct, or create, a personal exegesis by utilizing the linguistic permutations inherent in the text to construct units of meaning constituted from a predominantly autobiographical frame of reference.

The bulk of modern mainstream poetry is no longer about reader identification but about author communication. These poems are written merely to convey the poet’s thoughts and feelings about a specific event, situation or place he or she has experienced. The poet is not necessarily concerned with whether the reader is moved or not by the poem, so long as he or she understands clearly the message the poet is trying to convey. This message may consist of some “important” insight gained from an experience, or it could be (as is usually the case) a jaded statement about some mundane aspect of contemporary life. In either case, it produces extremely poor poetry. 


copyright ©  Jeffrey Side  


Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry websites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.


He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.


His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.