Toward an Essay on the


Toward an Essay on the Interpretation of Poetry

Tom Abbot at GoodForm blogged the following poem, among other interesting entries.

A Poem by Robert Frost My friend Steven Riddle (Flos Carmelli) has piqued my interest in poetry. He has posted some good information on how to read poetry that has helped me to see that even I can appreciate poetry.

Anyway, I decided to do a little searching on the web last night for some poetry and I came up with this one by Robert Frost courtesy of The Robert Frost Web Site:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Afterwards Mr. Abbott asked whether it was proper to treat a poem as a riddle to be solved. In his comment box, this was my answer:

Play with the poem as the poem suggests. If it has for you a puzzle to unlock, then work at the puzzle. If it has a sound to repeat, repeat the sound.

Reading poetry is personally tailored experience. There may be those who have rules and requirements about how you go about it--but the best way to go about it is the way that gives you not just enjoyment, but the great joy of encountering a wonderful work. Frost is a great poet to start with. His lines are lucid, clear, uncompromising. His meanings not always at the surface, sometimes wisps and suggestions.

The poem has engaged you and has suggested to you a riddle. Entertain that aspect of the poem--obviously it has interacted with part of who you are, and speaks to you in the depths. Great art should do that.

Afterwards, Tom blogged a possible interpretation of the poem. He asked whether he was on-target. The following two entries were my replies:

Unless you are the poet in question and you are commenting on how close someone came to your intention, it is sheer pretension to comment on someone else's interpretation.

Interpretation is the interaction of the individual with the poem. In a sense, to paraphrase Harold Bloom, in interpretation the poem reads you.

If what you find is consistent, logical, and satisfying, then one need nothing more from it.

To give you my notion of what the poem is saying (and this is NOT definitive)--I see it as the nighttime lament of the Agnostic looking for God.

He says, I know darkness. I have walked in it again and again. I have walked in the rain and walked beyond any sign of human civilization.

I've looked down the saddest city lane (and seen clearly the evidence that God does not exist)and realizing this hid my face from the person who was seeking to find what I knew.

I have stopped walking at the sound of an interrupted cry--but not one that called me back. etc.

The ambiguity of the time is simply still not knowing--desiring to believe, but in the face of growing evidence not being able to decide to believe.

I'll comment on another reading in the next post.

Now I'll give you a second possible reading, almost diametrically opposed to the first. We'll call this the "St. John of the Cross" reading. (Highly unlikely, given Frost, but very likely considering Steven)

I know the nights of purgations, the darkness of wandering seemingly alone, in penance, in rain. I have wandered far from the things that hold me bound to Earth. I have seen the saddest city street of my soul, a street I am so ashamed of I cannot explain. I have stopped the sound of my feet and heard and interrupted cry. But I am so far called beyond all earthly things, that this temptation does not draw me back from my continual seeking.

At an unearthly height (thus approaching my beloved God) I see the clock against the sky that is neither right nor wrong because I am detached from it. It does not need to mean to me--wrong or right makes no difference to the reality I am experiencing--the dark night of the soul.

Now, given Frost, this is a fanciful interpretation of the work. But the point is that a poem means a million things to a million different readers. And in this case at least a million and one to a million readers, because I have two ways of seeing it.

If you gave me another ten minutes, I could probably come up with yet another possible meaning for it.

That is the joy of good poetry. It has many levels and many possibilities. You read here the man with something on his conscience. I read both the Agnostic and the Mystic. I think elements of the poem can be used to support any of these interpretations.

I would offer for your interpretation the significance of the clock being neither wrong nor right is the sudden realization that you need an alibi and don't know on what to base it.

Ultimately, the joy of poetry is the world that it opens up the the dedicated reader. There are great depths in truly great poets. In lesser poets (among whom I would rank Lord Byron) are tremendous pleasures of language and image.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 12, 2002 7:11 PM.

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