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"A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things. By means of words can a man deal with the world on equal terms. And the word is sacred." -N. Scott Momaday

    In class on Friday, we earnestly discussed the meaning of the poem "The Word Plum". As we looked at the imagery presented by the poem, several people suggested that the word "plum" perhaps did not mean the object "plum" but rather was a metaphor. Others, however, argued that the word "plum" simply stood for the small, purple fruit. In my Native American Literature class, we are looking at various works of Native American authors. Throughout our study, we have commonly found a debate between the value of written and spoken word. Perhaps what the Native Americans deemed written could be equivalent to simply the word "plum" referring to the fruit. Spoken word, though, accompanied by voice inflections and subtle undertones, is analogous to "plum" standing for more than just a plum. 

    The Native American authors continually promote the use of spoken word and remain suspicious of written word. However, critics like Sontag, if we follow this train of thought, feel that the written word, merely the word appearing on the page, separated from other ideas or meanings, has value. How do we, as English students, come to determine for ourselves whether the power of a word stems from solely its definition or from the various associations, ideas, and images it represents?

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  1. Unknown User (ebw1)

    I think words, if words are signifiers for particular things in our universe, really mean different things to each person respectively. The word plum may mean a lot more to an ardent fan of plums versus someone, like me, who has never once bitten into one. I think the same goes for words like 'love', 'happiness', 'garbage'; they all mean something drastically different and unique for each person. I think the original post is asking if words have an objective quality, to which I think poetry is a valuable forum to consider this idea. (I would also suggest, for a more ancient reference, Plato's dialogue Phaedrus, where Socrates and Phaedrus discuss the dangers of the written word.) Poetry is concerned with language evoking meaning. However, that meaning is unique for each recipient of the poem. If you're a poet, it is almost counteractive to think about the audience while constructing the poem because it'll drive you nuts fairly quickly trying to tactfully insert intended meaning/feeling into a poem. There is no way to evoke objective meaning with language; the recipient will never feel the same way the distributor was feeling while they were delivering the language, written or spoken, but we might be able to get relatively close. I think it is necessary as humans to continually trade and share each of our interpretations of language in hopes of maybe finding some continuity between what we're all feeling about particular stuffs. Language binds us legally, historically, and emotionally. It can be very beautiful and a poet ought to write down that beautiful stuff for everyone to have a chance.

    That said, language is also one giant snafu and most of the time it just complicates and deconstructs meaning into some lethargic whatever-recess in the more abstract cocoons somewhere inside of our consciousness. Wittgenstein, man.

  2. Unknown User (mrb21)

    In my philosophy class, we have spent the past few classes talking about the definition of words as the beginning of the science of philosophy. As Socrates believed, there is a known definition for every word - it may just take us a long time to find that definition. For example, we now know the definition of water (pure water) - two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen atom. However, some words (such as knowledge) are so abstract that we currently have no definition for them that is true instead of simply nominal. And yet, despite what Socrates says about the true definition of each word being found, there is another man named Protagoras who says 'Man is the measure of all things'. This, I believe (not to knock Socrates) is the truth about words. Water means something different to an ardent sailor versus a seasick hydrophobe versus a studious chemist. Words have different emotional definitions for each person, different memories and social connotations that cloud the true definition. Like Eric, I agree that words are measured by the person reading them, and thus the poem means something different for each reader. There is nothing simply objective about language and literature - bias destroys that possibility. So in that respect, the power of a word stems from its emotional definition for the reader.

    But this raises another question, about whether we should critique art. If we all have a different definition of each poem, should we bother critiquing it? Few, if any, of us will actually grasp the specific meaning that the author brought to the piece because it is unlikely we have all the same emotional connections to each word that the author had when he or she picked that word. Yet, is the author's desired meaning what the work of literature should actually mean? Can a work of art mean many different things? Can we all be correct in how we interpret a poem, even if we all interpret that piece differently?

    My answer is yes - a work of literature can be looked at from what we perceive to be the author's point of view. But a work of literature can also be seen from our own perspective and even if the meaning we get from it is completely different from what the author meant when it was written, it can still be correct. A poem is so completely ambiguous and abstract - so completely its own identity - that it can take on hundreds of meanings all different from one another.

    Is the author's meaning the only meaning?

    1. Unknown User (ebw1)

      Meghan, I think that the answer to that final question is in the previous paragraph. ". . . a work of literature can also be seen from our own perspective and even if the meaning we get from it is completely different from what the author meant when it was written, it can still be correct."


      I think one of the major problems for young fiction writers is this thing where you're consistently worrying about whether or not you're doing what you're intending to do. When I read a great book, a book that, for me, means a lot, I am so amazed at how the author has this spooky ability to enter into my psyche and make me look up from the page saying, "My God, that's me." I don't know if this is correct. I think that, at least in my experience writing fiction, it's incredibly difficult to get anything done and on the page if I'm worried about whether or not I am being insipid or mean or judgmental or anything at all. It's an important lesson because I think I have reason to believe that most great authors are only concerned with what they have to say and if it works, then it's time to celebrate. A lot of times when I'm finished with a two hour freewrite, 95% of what I wrote is trash, but that 5% is what makes it worth it because I felt like I actually said what I wanted to say. If my reader gets it, if the reader seems to understand where I was coming from, then that's just added bonus. I'm not sure we should be trying to focus on what the author was feeling, but more on how we feel when we read the thing.

      1. Unknown User (mrb21)

        Eric - I, too, love to write and find that what my audience/readers get from my writing and what I thought I had written are two separate things. I would propose that for poems, the most abstract of literature (that I can currently think of), it matters less what we think the author intends and more what the poem means to us because poems are so short (comparatively) and dynamic that they take on many meanings. Longer works, I think, display the author's intent more clearly. For example, in an entire novel we are likely to glean what the author's bias towards the focus of the novel is. Similarly, I think in plays it is important to recognize how the author wants us to feel as part of the clarity of the work. But poems, so short and frequently ambiguous, allow more leniency in what is a 'correct' interpretation than novels or plays. It doesn't mean that what you glean from a novel is wrong if it doesn't match what the author thinks - just that in a novel you're more likely to get lots of hints over time of what the author thinks and their intentions in writing the novel, and therefore you're more likely to come closer to the intended interpretation.

        This, actually, gets me thinking about one of my favorite fiction writers, Ellen Hopkins, who writes novels through poetry. I think that, despite the abstract nature of each 'chapter' or poem, there is such a collection of them with common themes and a movement toward a climax/plot that we don't necessarily see in poems. That movement toward a clear goal is what allows us to glean information about how the author thinks, or at the very least, how the author wants us to think.

        When we read literature I think it is important to at least think about how the author might have been intending when writing the work but, especially for more abstract pieces, understand that we don't really know how they were thinking and therefore the only concrete interpretation we have is our own and how we viewed the piece.

        Do you think that our ability to glean the author's meaning when writing the work of literature changes for different types of literature, or different levels of ambiguity? Should it change?

        One more related question - do you think plays (that you are seeing, performed) are more or less ambiguous? Because while you have introduced auditory and visual media through which to add inflection, you have the director and the actors' interpretations that filter the playwright's words before they even get to you. I wrote a play that was performed, and I directed, stage managed, and acted in it - so it was very much controlled by my interpretation of my own work and how I saw it. Yet, if the play had been directed, managed, and acted by someone else could it take on an entirely different meaning according to their interpretations and biases?

  3. Unknown User (bbc5)

    I've only just read over the following conversation, but in the spirit of "They Say/I Say," I think I'm ready to butt in.  As you have both already acknowledged, certain words mean certain things to different people.  Of course, you can certainly look-up the standard definition of a word in a dictionary and see for yourself what that word means in plain old black and white.  Where the debate seems to arise from, however, is what kind of connotations that particular word holds for different individuals.  In regards to poetry and literature, you've both already acknowledged that we can either interpret the poem as to what it means to us or as to what the author sought to imply through his/her writing.  Both of these trains of thought are perfectly acceptable for analyzing a given work of literature, and there's nothing wrong with pursuing literature in this fashion.  What I'd like to propose, however, is that there is a third method to go about examining a piece of literature: using the narrator's or character(s)' perspective in that particular work to draw conclusions about the narrator/character(s) themselves.

    As readers of literature, it's important that we draw a fine line between what the author is saying and what the narrator is saying.  In some cases, the author may, in a sense, distance him/herself from the work by allowing the narrator to take over and lead the reader through the poem/story.  In other words, when we read a poem or a story, we need to understand that it's not always the author who is addressing us, but rather a separate narrator or character with their own ideologies, thoughts, and emotions.

    In order to demonstrate this idea that an author can pass the reigns of storytelling (or poemtelling, for lack of a better word) over to a fictional narrator or character from the author's own imagination, I would suggest reading this following story featured on a few months ago: "Grit on wry: A dinner with Elmore and Peter Leonard."  In it, renown crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard reveals that he often resorts to his characters in order to move a story along.  Taking a more passive role in the storytelling process, Elmore allows his dynamic characters to assume control of the story.  Their dialogue and actions have little to do with Elmore's personal beliefs; rather, these characters are self-contained entities with their own thoughts, rationales, and personalities.

    The same can be said for a poem; we do not always now whether it is the author speaking or a separate narrator speaking.  What we can do is use context clues in the poem itself and do some background research on the author to find out if the poem matches up with the author's own beliefs.

    Cheers to happy reading.