Inspiration and Interpretation: Why the Name of Your Thought Matters

In today’s period 4 and 3 Borges discussions, a point was brought up that made me write the words interpretation and inspiration on the whiteboard. I never did get around to elaborating, so let me do that here.

When you read a text (any body of literature, be it poem, play, short story, novel, etc.), your default setting is to interpret what you’ve read. As a result, you may end up calling every thought you have about a text an interpretation. This becomes most troublesome when you read poems or plays, where the writer’s objective may be to make you feel something or think about something.

The default to interpretation is most problematic when you are reading poetry. If you have ever had the experience where you grew defensive about your interpretation of a poem, there is a good chance that the problem wasn’t with your thinking, but with what you called your thought.

Here’s what I mean: Let’s say you read “Cat in an Empty Apartment,” by Wislawa Szymborska. Objectively speaking, the poem isn’t about a cat. But at the moment you read the poem, your cat just had kittens, and for some reason, you are flooded with love for your cat and can’t resist writing about how much you love your cat.

If you call this thought your interpretation, you’re going to give yourself a lot of unnecessary stress. Your teacher will accuse you of making simplistic connections, you’ll trot out the old narcisstic “but that’s what the poem means to me” crap, and the result will be that you reinforce for yourself the erroneous notion that nobody can say that someone’s interpretation of a poem is wrong. (If this is news to you, you’re welcome).

Now if you call your thought inspiration, then you’re going to start making sense of things. Simply by beginning with, “The poem inspired me to think about ______,” you give yourself license to use that moment of interaction with a poem as a means to making meaning to something relevant to you.

Who knows, at some later time, you may return to “Cat in an Empty Apartment” and see that it gives you a way of thinking about the image that compelled Wislawa to write the poem in the first place.

Bottom line: reading literature should be an act of making meaning, and meaning, as our discussion pointed out, can be something you feel but can’t necessarily articulate, or something you interpret and can clearly articulate. One kind of meaning is not superior to another (unless, of course, you’ve been assigned to analyze a poem, an activity that involves only the dispassionate brain).

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