The real reader should be curious

This post was originally written on 20th May, 2010
Lorrie Moore

Today, Paris Review tweeted a quote by the short-story writer Lorrie Moore: “If one loves stories, then one would naturally love the story of the story.”

I agree with Moore and I think what she said is true about poetry as well. If you read a poem and like it, you would naturally want to know the story behind it. If you are not curious about that story, that means you do not like the poem enough to care.
Every poem has an impetus. It must be inspired by something: a person, an emotion, a story, a thought, a dream, a smell, a kiss, a sound, an argument, a yearning, a death, whatever. The poet can tell you the origin of a piece of work. The poet must know. This should apply to every form of art, not just poetry: painting, film, music, photography, sculpture, etc. — every art piece has an origin and the creator must know it.
And the real reader should be curious. Or else? S/he is pretending. S/he is a fake and does not know a damn thing. Even though the reader’s desire to learn more may be frustrated (and in some cases this desire can never be sated), curiosity is the making of a good reader.

Roland Bathes 

As a practising poet (if I may call myself this), I am reluctant to side with New Criticism. But while I think the living author’s story should be heard (and solicited), I also strongly believe that once a piece of creative work is finished, it takes on a life of its own. The work no longer belongs to the creator and it is open for any number of interpretations.

Thus, the ‘origin’ of a piece, intimate to the creator, becomes one aspect of the work and does not necessarily contribute to its definitive explanation.1 The ‘origin’ has to give way to the ‘destination’ — the reader. The author is now dead, the work is alive, and hurray, the reader is born through the imaginary vagina of the page. As Bathes says in this essay, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”.

Trained partially by postmodern theories and texts, I agree with Bathes. But to be honest, I am not willing to die for a careless reader.
1Read the articles on A Cup of Fine Tea and you will know what I mean. We want the writers to tell us the story of their piece, but we also gladly welcome different or even ‘deviant’ readings.

4 Responses “The real reader should be curious” →

Bob Wood [Link]
May 20, 2010
A live reading usually provides a pleasant context for poems, a story of the poem, but there are so many kinds of poems that it is hard to generalize. Confessional poems explain themselves. Ekphrastic poems have obvious sources. Haiku should not be expanded–otherwise what’s the point?

alf [Link]
May 21, 2010
Some compelling stories have pretty mundane origins, and it’s the writing that makes the story. Especially true of poems.

Gontran [Link]
May 21, 2010
I prefer Nabokov’s view to Barthes’s:
“Up a trackless slope climbs the master artist, and at the top, on a windy ridge, whom do you think he meets? The panting and happy reader, and there they spontaneously embrace and are linked forever if the book lasts forever.”

theforc [Link]
June 3, 2010

I’ve enjoyed your article a lot. However, I disagree with two of your arguments. First, an artist can very well create a worthwile piece of art without any specific “origin”. A female writer for example can write a good book from the point of view of a man; without needing to defend accusations of being fake or not knowing a damn thing, as you put it.
Secondly, text-focussed interpretation and fidelity to the author’s “impetus” are not mutually exclusive. It’s often illuminating to interpret a piece of art without any background knowledge; from the text/picture/film itself. And then, in a second step, compare your findings to authorial intention, origin of inspiration etc. The author needn’t die, for the reader to interpret the text independently from its origins.
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One thought on “The real reader should be curious

  1. I am inclined to agree
    That there is a seed story
    That gives birth to writing
    At least with my own poems

    At first I was not so sure
    But recently I put up
    A list Of my poems
    Alphabetized on my blog

    I then went through them
    One by one
    Checking them
    For mistakes and formating
    But with each one
    I could remember
    What led to my writing the poem

    A dream perhaps
    Or maybe another poem
    All seemed to have a spark
    That impelled me to write

    Some of the time I gave clues
    To what these sparks were
    But sometimes not.

    Still I also see these poems
    As having a life of their own

    One of my poems speaks to this
    In 'Fair warning about these poems'
    ( http://bit.ly/b0uxyF )
    I speak of my poems
    Talking to each other
    And sharing their feelings.

    This leaves the other issue of
    Where do the poems
    Themselves come from

    Some would say the 'Muse'
    Though that seems like saying
    It's a Mystery

    Perhaps that's a good enough answer
    Since we can always look deeper

    This is the beauty of mystery
    Which like dreams,
    Always give us
    More to discover.

    yamabuki

    Like

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