The Responsibility of the Reader

I came across a Twitter exchange recently on the subject of poetry editors’ sometimes harsh indictments of poet’s work and also the fragile reactions of some poets to having work rejected. This made me think a couple of things which I’d like to share here for anyone who’s interested.

One is the sheer confidence, the chutzpah we might almost say, of editors who are able find it in themselves to say ‘See this? This is a good poem. This one? Average. And this one here is complete rubbish’. This is worth spending a moment thinking about, because to an extent I can relate to poets who react in sobs to having their submission rejected and/or ripped into; there is no use pretending that when you criticise a poem you are not criticising the poet, you are, and so if you destroy a poem…well, let’s say there is at least a moral responsibility on editors to be kind in tone if not in content – this is why I baulk a little at the amusing rudeness of editor-critic-poets like Ian Hamilton and Craig Raine (although I have to say, the baulking does not diminish the amusement). However, my own experience of editorial comments has been extremely positive, rejections being either short and sweet, short and neutral, or short and constructive – all of which seem reasonable. And let’s face it, an editor should not be made to feel bad for rejecting a poem and saying why – in fact there is no reason why they should even give a reason – after all poems take up space in magazines; if someone turned up at my front door with a giant panda asking if they could leave it with me, I would like to feel I could turn them away without explaining why I didn’t want it in my house. Equally it would seem like an odd reaction on the part of the panda’s owner if they burst into tears on being asked to find somewhere else to keep their pet. But back to this editor chutzpah. First of all, I suspect you have to be a certain type of person to be an effective editor, constant and acute poetic doubt is surely inefficient if nothing else in the day-to-day running of a literary journal; but it is also likely that one of the reasons you set up your magazine in the first place is that you didn’t think that there was enough of the kind of poetry you liked out there and you wanted to help enable more poets who did produce the kind of material you like. Part of establishing a poetry magazine is, I imagine, setting out in your mind a fairly robust set of personal criteria for what constitutes ‘good’ poetry; this is subjective of course, but you’re not going to get far as an editor without it. You probably have a pretty good poetic education to start you off, either formal or informal, and it will not take long for the submissions to start rolling in and you will soon become one of the most prolific poetry readers in the country. You will have seen far more poetry by people of far more levels of experience and technical ability than almost any poets out there writing. You will become for want of another word, an expert – within the context of your criteria and your magazine, but an expert nonetheless. And this is when your confidence (chutzpah is unfairly pejorative) will start to build and you might sometimes find it hard to rein in the off-hand slights when writing rejection emails. As I say, my experience is that editors mange this pretty well.

Considering all this, I remember why I get frustrated with the label ‘gatekeepers’. Editors aren’t gatekeepers, they’re housekeepers, and they know what they want their house to look like inside, I don’t. Having said that, they are also the most valuable enablers that the poetry community has, and of course they have a responsibility towards our shared cultural space, as we all do; but that doesn’t mean accepting my poem just because I happen to think it’s the best thing ever written.

Thinking about the responsibilities of editors made me think too about ours as readers of poetry. It seems to me that there are two sets of responsibilities involved in the process of mediation which takes place in and through a poem. The poet has a responsibility to transfer a set of meanings-as-they-see-them out onto a piece of paper (or similar), once they have done that, their responsibility is over – their responsibility to the poem, that is – the poem is out there and a larger, more diffuse and difficult set of responsibilities take over, that is to say, the responsibilities of the reader(s) of the poem. In some ways it seems odd that the focus generally seems to be on the poet’s responsibility, as it is so soon over and represents such a tiny part of the life of the poem. I mean, granted without the poet’s discharging of their responsibilities no other would be possible, but this shouldn’t blind us to subsequent responsibilities. These are, I think, some of our responsibilities as readers of a poem:

To read the poem carefully (not skim online and take to the socials)

To read the poem carefully again numerous times

To consider when the poem was written

To consider who the poem was written by

To consider the context the poem was written in

To assume the poet was not an ill-intentioned, mendacious imbecile

To consider what the difficult bits might mean

To consider what presuppositions and prejudices we bring to the poem as readers

To consider that we ourselves might be the imbecile and the poet actually quite clever

To consider how the context in which we are reading the poem may affect our understanding

To try not to feel belittled by words/lines/stanzas we don’t immediately understand

To fight back irritation with a poet for writing something we do not immediately understand

To consider that the poet might be trying to do something different to what we think they are trying to do

To ask others what they think about the poem (and what they think the poem is about)

To reject or accept what the other person may say about the poem on a basis other than their status as a valued legitimising voice

To consider that we might learn from the poem

To be open to the idea that the poem might change the way we look a the world if we let it

To remember that poetry is not prose

Barthe’s Death of the Author surely has a concomitant Responsibility of the Reader, but while it seems that many are happy to agree meaning is constructed solely by the reader of a text – or that there is at least some kind of contract between writer and reader – they are also keen to point blame directly at a writer the  moment the constructed meaning doesn’t fit entirely and immediately with their already-complete-and-unshakeable worldview. Others claim, for example, that literature should be critiqued as a product of the social forces that gave rise to it, but they also seem ready to denounce writers whose (perceived) meanings refuse to dovetail with the reader’s understanding of the world.

I’m not saying that a poet should not be taken to task for homophobia, racism, sexism, fascism or whatever, but I am saying that any critic (editor, professional critic, student or general reader of poetry) should tick off an internal list similar to the one above before they get about their criticising. Most editors and professional critics are likely to do this already (I suspect that fewer students and general readers do). Just as the conversational onus should not always be on a speaker to speak in a certain way but also on a listener to upskill in order to be able to listen clearly to a variety of accents, dialects and languages, so the poetic onus should not lay solely with the writer of a poem but equally with its reader.

3 thoughts on “The Responsibility of the Reader”

  1. Rightly said, Chris. There is a danger I think of readers becoming more and more like consumers, thinking that their engagement with literature shouldn’t go beyond a “like” or “dislike” clic (in their gadgets or their brain), and that applies to some “professional” readers of poetry as well. The caring, curious attitude to reading you propose brings poetry’s fruits forth. Without it, there is no point in reading poetry at all!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Adriana! Thanks for commenting. Yes, I can’t help wondering when I read comments on Twitter how much some people just flick through poems just to pull out a nice line or two to tweet and tick the poem off as Done in their minds!


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