Interpreting poems

As someone who plays a lot of art songs, I am constantly faced with issues of poetic interpretation. Is there a right or wrong interpretation of a poem? What would it mean for an interpretation to be right or wrong?

One could say that an interpretation is right if it accounts for every detail in the poem, and does so in a way that is the simplest possible accounting of all of those details. If an interpretation either does not account for every detail, or it contradicts a detail, or another interpretation accounts for all the details in a simpler way, then it is a wrong interpretation, or at the very least incomplete.

That’s all well and good, but is that really a useful definition? For example, suppose I have an interpretation that accounts for every detail of the poem. How would I actually know that it accounts for every detail? It might just account for every detail I have thought of, and someone else might be able to point out another detail that it does not account for, or worse, a detail that it contradicts.

So, while, theoretically there could be an interpretation that satisfies all those criteria, I don’t see any way it could really be said that a given interpretation is the correct one, or that a given interpretation is a wrong one. After all, a so-called wrong interpretation, one which is contradicted by some detail, might actually be vindicated by the discovery of another detail which removes the contradiction.

Let’s explore what I think is the actual root of this problem. It seems to me that any definition of “correct interpretation” is ultimately trying to capture the notion that the correct interpretation is the one the poet had in mind. This is an issue not just in poetry, but in all kinds of art, music, writing, etc. I would like to challenge the notion that the poet’s interpretation actually has any more validity than that of anyone else.

You might say “it’s his/her poem, of course it should be up to him/her what it means!” What do you even mean by “mean”? If the poet wishes to express him/herself directly, he/her could do that, instead of writing a poem. I think there must be a distinction here between “what the poem means” and “what the poet means”. The latter would be a feature of the poet’s own psychology, but the former is a more complicated matter. A poem is not a conscious being, and does not have its own intentions. It is a collection of words, which can evoke meanings in the minds of its readers. Those meanings can agree or disagree with each other, they can change over time, they can take into account some or all of the details of the poem, they can take into account details the poet was not aware of. They can be the result of a misunderstanding of the poem, or of a greater understanding of the subject matter than the poem itself suggests.

How can you say that any of these interpretations is the “correct” one?

Why musicians should have opinions

As artists, should we always have opinions? Why do some people have opinions and some don’t? Should everyone have an opinion, or should we leave opinions to those who have enough knowledge and evidence to back up those opinions? Are those opinions ever right or wrong?

When I was a little kid, I was taught that some statements are facts and some are opinions. And the distinction given was that facts were statements that could either be true or false, but opinions were statements that were dependent only on someone’s feelings. For example, it is a fact that the sky is blue, but an opinion that blue is better than red. I’m sure this is something that was taught to you as well, so I need not elaborate on it.

I am often struck by the idea that opinions can be either right or wrong. After all, if they are dependent only on someone’s emotions, how can they be right or wrong? Either blue makes me happier than red, or it doesn’t. At least, if that’s how we define “better” in terms of colors.

The idea I would like to entertain is that opinions are not right or wrong, but they are also not unimportant. Opinions are fundamentally what we must have if we are to consider ourselves artists. That is what it means to be an artist, to be a performer: to have an opinion, and express it. If we are not expressing an opinion, what are we doing?

So many people seem to believe that the purpose of art is to make people happy, to make them sad, to convince them of something, to achieve technical perfection, etc. But I don’t think that’s it. A performer may hold those viewpoints, but I think that is missing the point. The point is that it is up to the artist to decide what the purpose of the art is, and to express that.

This article, for example, expresses my opinion. The only reason I’m writing it is because I have this opinion, and I would like to express it. Is it possible that I am wrong? Perhaps so. Perhaps the purpose of art is not to express opinions. Perhaps the world would be a better place if teachers told their students what to do, and the students followed that blindly.

But I don’t really believe it would be. I believe that what artists must always do is form opinions. Those opinions must be formed constantly and without fear, because that is what it means to be an artist in the moment, without concern about the past or about the future. This is basically what we do.

Some of those opinions might be well thought-out, and some of them may not be. Some may be foolish, some may be the product of years of experience. This concern cannot stop us from expressing those opinions, however. It is an ongoing process of discovery, a constant exploration of what it means to be human.

So that’s what it comes down to. As artists, we figure out what it means to be human, and we try to express it. My humanity cannot be right or wrong. It is dependent entirely on my experience in this very moment, the way I react to things as they happen. My emotions and reactions are not planned out in advance, censored to see if they make sense or not. They are real and they happen as they happen. As an artist, it is my job to figure out what those are and express them.

Students are often completely resistant to this idea. They assume that they do not know enough to do it correctly, and it is the teacher’s job to tell them what to do, how to express, etc. I don’t believe that it is ever too early for the student to begin to get in touch with that inner source that is responsible for true expression.

Teachers are often guilty of encouraging this attitude. Yes, a teacher may be more mature than the student, may have more experience, may understand to a greater degree what the composer may have intended. But those are minor details. At no point should the student be relying on the teacher’s wisdom as a substitute for his/her own ability to express. The student must discover what the music means to him/her, even if it is “wrong.” The expression of music becomes meaningless if it is meaningless to the artist.

Of course, this is all my opinion, and you may disagree with it. But this is my opinion at the moment I am writing this article, and there is nothing I can do about that. My opinion may change tomorrow, or next week, or in 20 years. So it is with music, or any form of art. If I were to write anything that is other than what my actual opinion is, I would be dishonest, and there really wouldn’t be a point.

So, what happens if I really don’t understand the music I am playing? Should I not play it? I’m not exactly sure that question makes sense. The music means something, it has to. Upon listening to it, upon playing it, I have a reaction to it. That reaction, whatever it is, is my honest reaction, and it is what I need to tap into in order to interpret the piece. As I get to know a piece, my reaction may change. I may learn more about the piece, I may learn more about the composer, or about the style, but always my reaction is my reaction, and my understanding is my understanding.

Thus, to all musicians, I urge you to discover for yourselves how you understand music, and always have an answer to that question of what it is you want to express. Anything less than that is not being truthful to your audience.