If a Poem is Beyond Our Reach, Then How is the Human Mind Any Better?

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From Keesey’s Introduction to Chapter 3:

“Assuming, as both critics do, that the poem as independent object is beyond our reach, they argue with some force that no other focus is really available.  Even so, the wary reader may wonder why their extreme skepticism about our ability to understand poetic objects should seem so relaxed when it comes to our ability to understand perceiving subjects.  For in such studies, readers must become, in turn, perceived objects, and objects quite as complex as poems” (137). 

I have a hard time accepting either idea of the focus being placed on this “ideal reader” or on specific readers.  It seems to me like we know just as little about the reader as we do about the poem itself.  As the quote I chose points out, it simply shifts our focus from the complex poem to the complex person.  If we base our interpretations upon actual, real readers, how can one be sure that what this reader cites as their reactions is the truth?  In other words, how do we know they are not lying about it, how do we know they even realize what their reaction was?

 Furthermore, if we are going base our criticism upon a real person who read the story, I think it would be extremely easy to get sidetracked with the psychological aspect.  And if we became distracted by this, our focus would shift more and more from the field of literature.  I don't view this potential shift toward psychology as a good thing, since after all this is literary criticism.    

I do see the hypothetical “ideal reader” as a better answer in that this concept allows the critic to stay concentrated on the literature and what it does, instead of what the reader does to the literature.  Yet, at the same time, I don’t think it’s good to analyze things from the angle of an “ideal reader,” since I think that literature can appeal to and connect with readers who are not experts on “the conventions of seventeenth-century poetry” (137) or some other such thing.

 I guess what it comes down to for me, is that I like the reader-response criticism that deals more closely with the text itself, yet at the same time I see the “ideal reader” as flawed.  I think that everyone does react to literature to some degree because of their past experiences in life and in literature.  And I think that each time we read a work, we have a new experience with it.  Yet, at the same time I still think that there is a certain realm of possible interpretations which a text allows. 

Read what others think about Keesey's Introduction to reader-response criticism. 

3 Comments

Katie Vann said:

Greta I share some of the same feelings about reader-response criticism. Going into this section, I thought for sure this would be one of the sections I would enjoy and understand more because I always think it's impossible for anyone to try to find the right interpretation when so many people would read and interpret a work in several different ways. However, after reading this section, I felt that reader-response criticism was something you could add to other types of critcism, but taken alone it appeared very weak. It just seems there is just oo much that needs to be taken into account when using this criticism, especially the different types of readers and their reliablity as you mentioned above.

Greta Carroll said:

Katie, yes, I definitely agree with you. I thought I already had a clear understanding of reader-response criticism before I read the reader-response articles for the week, but boy was I wrong. I mean, I understood the general idea of it, but I never thought about how important it was to define who or what exactly, “the reader is.” I mean Iser provided me a sort of compromise in his essay between “the ideal reader” and “the historical actually existing reader,” which you can read my commentary about Iser’s article at:
http://blogs.setonhill.edu/GretaCarroll/2009/02/the_best_of_both_worlds_minus.html. Yet, I definitely agree with you that with all this doubt about who the reader is, it makes reader-response criticism a lot more complicated and a lot weaker than I originally thought it was.

Katie Vann said:

I tried to use reader response for my paper this weak, and I thought it was the weakest so far of my casebooks (not that any of them were strong anyways). I just find it difficult to apply what we are learning to writing a casebook or our final paper.

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