Theory Teacher's Blog

Fishing for Communities: the “Conservative” Rock Song and the Poem that Isn’t

I wonder what it’s like to be a prominent scholar with a name that so lends itself to puns that it almost serves as evidence for his own philosophical innovation. When I say “fish” out loud in the market, one might think “dinner” (and perhaps Friday dinner if one is Catholic), but when I say “Fish” in a class on literary theory, one might think, “Oh, that guy I read for my class, Stanley Fish.”  And the avid reader of the New York Times, might even think, “oh, is he the guy who writes those snarky columns about higher education and famously pisses off both the right and the left?” If you’re a reader of my blog, you may recall my own angry reaction to a column he wrote way back in 2009, so for you, Fish might signify “that guy that Steve Thomas both teaches and makes fun of at the same time.” And the fact that the word F/fish might conjure up so many different ideas serves as a somewhat silly illustration of Fish’s philosophical point that all communication happens within specific contexts that guide interpretation. The contexts are social — and actively so — and therefore, he dubs them “interpretive communities.”

But how does this notion of “interpretive communities” in any way affect how we read? I usually wouldn’t waste space on the blog-o-sphere with a discussion of Fish’s theory, but it’s a snow-day, and classes have been cancelled, so I’m putting a few snippets of my usual Fish lecture on this blog today.

We can — and should — begin with hilarity.

The first time I ever taught Fish’s “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One” way back in 2006, the NY Times and other newspapers were giggling over a column published in the right-wing magazine The National Review about the “Top 50 Conservative Songs.” Since the list included songs by rock groups that were well-known to be anything but conservative (e.g., The Who, The Beatles, U2, etc., etc.), the list looks absurd, and many considered the list to be a desperate attempt by the conservatives to reconcile their ideological beliefs with their taste in music. The fall-out in the press reminded many people of Ronald Reagan’s attempt to use Bruce Springsteen in his re-election campaign and the many times liberal and left-leaning rock singers have sued politicians for mis-using their songs for political purposes. Democrats snickered to themselves that Republicans were obviously “bad readers” who didn’t understand the lyrics of the songs they listened to. We might jokingly title a response to The National Review, “How to Recognize a Conservative Song When Nobody Else Sees One.”

But we are begging the question of how one reads a song, so how do we? For example, Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A. ” might seem to be a patriotic song if you only listen to the refrain, which is why it has been used quite often in political campaigns to rally patriotic feeling. However, the rest of the lyrics tell the sad story of a Vietnam War veteran who can’t get a job — a chilling and dark critique of American culture. The meaning of the refrain is obviously ironic (tragically so) in light of the verses, and the juxtaposition of the anthemic chorus with the dark lyrics is the ironic tension that makes the poetry of the song work, the dark lyrics in poetic tension with the anthemic music. One might say the same thing about John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” where he says, “Ain’t that America, home of the free, little pink houses for you and me” in which the sarcastic muttering about pink houses questions the patriotism of the previous line. Hence, if one were to perform such a formalist “new critical” reading of the songs that I have just performed, which focuses entirely on the literary devices that create ironic tension, one would not be reading the poems ideologically. The liberalism or conservatism of the song wouldn’t be the point. But there are other ways of reading. Those who were merely die-hard fans of the artists interpreted the songs in an entirely different way, as part of the biographical record of the artists’ lives, so that each song was read through what the fan knew of the “life and times” of the artist. Knowing the political commitments of the artists means you know the message of the song. Their response to the National Review article was simply “how dare you say that about our beloved… [whoever]… whom we know so well.”

I have questioned the ideological reading of pop songs elsewhere in a blog post a few years ago about Nicki Minaj and Fun, but my real point here is to contrast “new critical reading” that emphasizes the rules of poetry and Fish’s reading that situates them within “interpretive communities” and social contexts. Because, contrary to liberal snickering at Republicans for so totally misunderstanding rather simple rock songs, I’d like to suggest that the “Top 50 Conservative Songs” might have a point if one begins with a different interpretive framework for evaluating songs. In the wake of the New Deal and an increase in government programs for the poor, the definition of conservative would include an opposition to government, taxes, etc. Any song that repeated that political “refrain” (pun intended) was furthering the conservative agenda, and therefore within this interpretive framework, the intentions and biography of the individual artist are irrelevant and so are the subtle ironies of each song conjured up by the dialectical counterpoint between the thesis of the chorus and the antithesis of the verse. The “refrains” of the songs repeat the “refrain” of a conservative political agenda, and in the social context of a party or political rally, that’s good enough. In fact, it might be the liberal attachment to a nostalgia about 60s social movements that interferes with their reading of a specific song’s content, and perhaps they are also ignoring how most people actually experience music (i.e., they experience it in a context.)

I think it’s easy to see different modes of reading when we are talking about pop songs — modes of reading that are new critical, biographical, ideological, and socially situated — and hopefully it’s not too hard to see that similar modes of reading might influence how we read poetry in a classroom. The point of Stanly Fish, however, is not to argue a relativist position where any interpretation of the song is as good as any other. Rather, he is suggesting that each “interpretive community” is using a set of rules for evaluating the poem, and within that community, reasonable people can revise and adjust their position, so that upon hearing further evidence, one might change one’s mind, so long as the new evidence fits the rules of interpretation. For instance, one might easily change one’s mind about Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” being a conservative song (given the sarcastic irony of the lines), but maintain that his other song “Small Town” is conservative, whatever Mellencamp’s intentions may or may not have been. It is important to remember that Fish is allowing for people to realize that they might have been wrong and revise their interpretations in the face of evidence. After all, most conservatives would readily admit the folly of that list of 50 songs in the National Review but still enjoy them.

How does this change our own critical strategies for reading a poem. Recognizing the social context within which poems are written, read, performed, and quoted can help us listen carefully to how a poet might play and tease that context to produce new results. If we agree that interpretive communities carry with them certain expectations and cultural norms, then we can also agree that a poet might intentionally toy with those expectations in order to produce emotional and political transformation. They might actively address and seek to affect “interpretive communities” that are complex and include multiple viewpoints. What is, in fact, missing from Fish’s fishy theory are two things: (1) how the norms of any social situation are possibly self-contradictory and multiple, and (2) how and why change happens (change of culture, change of mind, change of feeling, etc.) As for the first, every college student knows that the expectations of being a college student are to have fun and study hard, and that these two expectations conflict with each other, hence causing all interpretations of daily situations to be a negotiation between such conflicting demands. Thinking about this in a larger social context, a Marxist would note the inherent ideological contradictions within the interpretative strategies of much literary criticism. As for the second, from a historical perspective, Fish never gives us an analytical tool for accounting for why the poetry of the twentieth century looks so different from the nineteenth or the eighteenth (and this is precisely the sort of question that motivates scholars such as Raymond Williams to look for the political, economic, and social realities that push poetry in different directions.)

Let’s come back to Fish’s argument and see how his theory might help us actually read a poem, which is something he doesn’t actually ever do in his essay entitled, “How To Recognize a Poem When You See One.” Instead, he begins with something that’s not a poem but just a list of names on a chalk board, and he is able to get his students to perform a reading of that list as if it is a poem. For him, this proves his point about interpretive communities (which embeds the reading of literature in social contexts — an approach that makes sense to me, since I would agree with Fish that no poem has ever in the history of the world been composed or read outside of such a context.) But what if we began with a poem that kinda-sorta isn’t a poem, except that it is? Let’s take one of the most famous “poems” in American literature by William Carlos Williams that, when you read it out loud, sounds more like a note that your room-mate or spouse left for you on the kitchen table.

This is just to say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The poem follows no conventions of poetic verse — no rhyme or meter, no condensation of speech onto dense literary devices such as metaphor, synecdoche, allusion, or irony. As scholars have observed, some critics have tried to impose a meaning onto the text through their own idiosyncratic interpretive lens, but in many ways the poem resists such attempts at reading a deeper meaning into it — it’s almost hardly a poem, but rather a statement that is simply arranged on the page to look somewhat like a poem. The total lack of poetic devices and plainness of the language is surprising in its richness. What I might suggest is that what makes this poem so enjoyable is precisely that it playfully pushes us to revise our sense of why we like poetry. The poem also conjures up a somewhat idyllic domestic situation that draws attention to the hidden beauty of ordinary, middle-class life. The almost anti-poetic quality of the lines that seems to belie our expectations for poetry plays with a desire for simplicity. The language mirrors the content. Such desire for the plain and simple could be read in either a political context (i.e., the complexity of class conflict, considering the poem was composed in the midst of the Great Depression) or a classroom context (i.e., students exhaustion with the complex poetic style of modernist poetry at the end of a semester.) My point being, however one might criticize the poem, it is clear that one can only read and appreciate the poem in light of the context of literary history and the socially conditioned practice of reading poems with which the poem plays. My interpretation of the poem in some ways follows the approach of Stanley Fish to attend to the social context in which a poem is read — a social context that includes a consciousness of literary history — but revises Fish’s approach somewhat to focus on the playfulness of writing and the possibility for it to deconstruct itself in a way that is transformative of the interpretive community and our culture. After all, poets are fishing for readers, and the hook that catches us may be precisely the thing that pulls us out of the static that we feel is so much a part of our social context.

February 9, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment