The Interpretation of Story

First off, fellow bloggers and readers, I send my apologies for not posting in a week.  I’ve been back and forth with some sort of stomach bug/cold, so needless to say with my head in a fog I haven’t been up to creating much of any writing lately.  

Second of all, I’m going to talk about poetry-specifically regarding its interpretation.

Back in the days of big hair and boy bands (*cough* high school *cough*), I sat in my English class going over a poem.  The assignment was to read the poem, interpret the stanzas’ meaning, and then discuss the author’s true meaning behind it all.

Simple enough, I thought.  I mean, how hard is it to read ten sentences and repeat what the author said?  

We read the poem, and as I read along I noticed how sad the tone was.  The author mentioned missing someone, a specific woman, and how his heart felt empty.  He even questioned if this thing called love was a benefit to him.  All I could think of was how it related to my parents’ divorce-how I grew up knowing how much my mom missed the good old days with dad and how her heart felt so empty before she met my step-dad.  I never was much on poetry, but this poem struck a chord with me-the words were so familiar and I couldn’t help but connect them to my past and my mother’s hurt.

When it came time for the class to discuss the meaning to the poem, I was the first to speak (I was one of the unfortunate kids who sat close to the front.)  I offered what I thought was the true meaning to the author’s poem-he was speaking of a divorce, about how much he missed his wife and how hurt he was that she was no longer there.  I went on to say I thought the man was starting to question love itself-whether it was worth loving her because of all the pain she caused him.

After I finished my speech, I found myself surrounded by blank stares from my classmates and teacher.

“Why on Earth did you think this poem was about a divorce?”

Being the logical person that I was, I whipped out the poem and began reciting all the words the author used that clearly showed the guy was a poor, heartbroken individual who lost the love of his life.

Everyone looked at me and shook their heads.  When the teacher pulled out the “real” meaning of the poem from the textbook, my interpretation turned out to be the opposite of the author’s: he was talking about loving the woman, not losing her.

(And so began a career in high school that involved me completely misinterpreting every poem and story I ever read…)

At first I thought my misinterpretation as a sign that I was a terrible reader.  Perhaps that was true to a certain extent as I freely admit I’m not the best reader I could be.  My second thought was that the writer of the poem was a terrible writer-after all, if someone like me couldn’t figure out what the guy meant, who’s to say others wouldn’t have the same difficulty?  It’s his fault his poem wasn’t clear enough, right?

But as I’ve gotten older and have been in the writing business myself, I’ve found that both thoughts were wrong.  My misinterpretation wasn’t a sign of terrible reading skills-instead, it was a sign of me connecting to a story in a different way.  My misinterpretation also wasn’t a sign that the writer was terrible-rather, I would argue that he was pretty brilliant.  Yes, he had his own meaning to his poem.  But the beauty of his writing wasn’t the fact that he told a story about loving a woman-it was the fact that his story had multiple interpretations, maybe even multiple stories, depending on the person reading it.

Like other forms of art, the beauty of story isn’t that it takes characters and a plot and weaves them together in a well-told tale.  Instead, the beauty of story is found in the audience who reads it and connects what they read to a part of their life.  In truth, even after hearing the author’s meaning of the poem, I still stuck with my interpretation.  It was more personal and allowed me to connect to the poem in a way I’d never connected with any other poems before.  Wrong or right, that’s what I stuck with.  But that’s where the beauty lies-not in the fact that I learned what the poem meant, but that I learned what the poem meant for me.


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