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After reading Stanley Fish’s “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One,” I was able to finally come up with answers to big questions that have stood in my mind throughout this course. Before reading this text, I wasn’t clear of my position on debates regarding textual interpretation, authority & classification. After reading this piece, I was able to agree with some of Fish’s arguments and relate them to my own experience with reading and writing especially in this class.
Coming up with a clear conclusion was not easy, but I have tried my best to thoroughly explain my position throughout this paper. I think that even though different texts share commonalities, they still have specific features, which make them distinct from others; these features can be differently interpreted by the audience since they are not only affected by an individual’s sociocultural experiences, but also by the things that person knows about other backgrounds or those things they don’t even know about.
All these factors, help build a text’s meaning, but is it up to the audience to agree with the one intended by the author or create a new one.
At the beginning of his text, Fish includes an anecdote to extend his argument on the meanings of a text and explains how he sets out an experiment to his students. He had two different groups of students both with different concentrations; the first group was “interested in the relationship between linguistics and literary criticism” while the members in the second one were “confined to English religious poetry of the seventeenth century” (Fish 2).
He gives a list of names for both of his classes, but between the first and second group Fish only changes one thing: he draws a frame around the list and included “p.43” at the top. Fish told the members of the second class that what was on the board was a religious poem and asked them to interpret such. With no problem at all, the students were able to relate the names in the list with religious events, characters and definitions.
I think this experiment could serve as an example for one of the classification models R.B. Gill describes in his work “The Uses of Genre.” Fish’s observation is able to fit into the model of fuzzy sets and family resemblances where genres overlap and exact texts fit into not one, but different kinds of categories simultaneously. Gill argues: “Wittgenstein prefers to speak of family resemblances, which typically have ‘no single feature in common to all of them, though there are many common features overlapping’ (Philosophical 31-33; see also Blue 19-20)” (Gill 76). By being able to interpret the list and make it look like a poem, both the students and Fish himself, show how even though these genres seem to be two completely different categories, they still share some features in common. These similarities make texts and genres more flexible and overlapping which leaves a big space for the reader or audience to interpret it as they would.
One example I encountered with genre flexibility was during the past unit where we had to write a review of a text as if it were from another genre. I wanted to show how similar two genres could be even though they seem to be completely different, so I reviewed the Eagle’s song “Hotel California” as a memoir. It was surprising for me how easily I could handle the task because I realized how any text containing an autobiographical slant could be easily read as a memoir, but then I wondered: why aren’t they all categorized into the same genre? This question was not very easy to answer, but I found out that there are distinct features within texts that make them classify into one genre and not another. These characteristics are what readers expect to find in a text so we can say that readers play an important role in producing genres and in the process of text interpretation and categorization.
An example of cues that help an audience identify genre is also present in Fish experiment. The professor explains how his students from the second group were able to establish a structure to the supposed poem, which was actually, a list: “It was noted that of the six names in the poem three—Jacobs, Rosenbaum, and Levin—are Hebrew, two—Thorne and Hayes—are Christian, and one—Ohman—is ambiguous” (Fish 5). With this specific extract of “How to Recognize A Poem When You See One” we are able to see how certain features within the context of a text, help readers determine either a meaning or a structural pattern, but the problem as is that these cues can be interpreted differently.
In response to this argument, Fish will say that these interpretations are product of social and cultural patterns of thoughts that limit the individuals mental operations and “clearly have their source in a publicly available system of intelligibility” (Fish 14). What I think Fish is trying to say here is that all of our interpretations and the way we look at things come from the sociocultural background to which we belong. For example, the students from the second class were able to relate the words in the list to religious ones and even determine which ones were Hebrew-related and which ones were Christian-related with no problem. This was due to the fact that their concerns were exclusively literary and narrowed to English religious poetry of the 17th unlike the other group of students who were interested in the relationship between literary criticism and linguistics. Even though I agree with Fish’s idea that our own social and cultural patterns have a great effect on the way we understand things, I do not think it is the only thing that determines our standpoints; if it were like this, everyone in a same social and cultural circumstance would have the same interpretation for a same text and this is not what I have experienced yet.
When I was in 10th grade I took AP Spanish Literature and Culture; an advanced level course where we read and analyzed Spanish literature from the Middle Ages to the present day. As you can imagine, the people in the course (including myself) all went to the same school, knew the other people in the class, lived in the same city and spoke the same language. Therefore, I am able to say that we all shared very similar social and cultural backgrounds, but when it was time to discuss a matter presented in a text, we all had different interpretations; to some, a dead rose in a poem would symbolize how some of life’s most pleasant and beautiful moments come to an end while for others, the dead rose would mean the death of a young girl.
During this course, we all had different interests and in many cases someone had information about something that at least one of us did not know about. With this example, I am trying to show how sharing similar sociocultural patterns of thought as Fish describes, will not always lead to a same interpretation. I think that our personal interests in hand with the knowledge we have from other different cultures and social systems and even things we don’t know, also affect the way we unravel texts and build up a meaning for them.
Going back to Fish’s experiment I can think of how the facts the students knew about and the ones they did not affected they way they interpreted the list. For example, if his second group of students had known that the assignment was indeed a list and not a poem but that they still had to analyze it as a poem, I would have expected the results to be different. Maybe, the students wouldn’t have completed the assignment with the easiness in which they did because the differences that imply viewing something as a list or as a poem, would’ve been more obvious to them and therefore, identifying similarities could’ve resulted trickier and more difficult.
With these various existing interpretations and definitions regarding one single text, it is very difficult to come up with an answer to the question of who gives the text a meaning. I think, both the author and the audience play an important role in this process. For me, a text’s meaning separates in two branches: one containing the authors intention and the other one containing the audience’s interpretations where it does not matter if different audiences come up with different meanings (which is expected to happen). Since the author of a text is the creator of the work, they are who truly know what is it that they want to transmit to the world, or just to a specific audience, but the fact that they have in mind a specific meaning for their writing, does not mean that everyone else has to agree with this interpretation.
As my experiences have showed me, the meaning of a text is not something explicit by the author, so it leaves a lot for the audience to infer about what it could be and as I have showed in this paper, the inferences vary due to our sociocultural background, interests and knowledge or not on specific things. The question now may be to what degree do authors have to consider the fact that many people will not get the message they intend to or that they will interpret their work differently? Even though all writers have to keep this in mind, I think this depends on each independent author. In many cases, the writer’s intention with the text is never even mentioned at all and I can see this as a game or an experiment by the author to the audience where the writer wants to know who will agree with his position, test how many interpretations the text can have or just let the readers imagination flow.
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