Roland Barthes

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How can we apply "The Death of the Author" by Barthes to a poem for instance?

We can apply the ideas in "The Death of the Author," by Roland Barthes to a poem by attempting to interpret the poem without reference to or regard for the author's intentions or personal history. We must not think of the writer as the authority on the text simply because he or she wrote it. We must analyze the poem as it stands on the page, separating it from its creator.

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French literary critic, Roland Barthes, argued that any study of literature should avoid chasing an author's intentions or personal history in the search for the text's meaning. If we do look to the author to tell us how to interpret the text, then we necessarily limit the text's interpretive possibilities. We must, therefore, avoid or ignore the author's own opinion on the meaning of the text, or—at the very least—treat the author's interpretation of the text as only one of the myriad possibilities for interpretation. Further, Barthes argues that to use the author's own biography in our search for textual meaning imposes additional limitations that amount to a kind of narrative tyranny. The author writes the work, but it is up to the reader to interpret it based on the text itself and its language.

We cannot know, just from the text, what the writer may or may not have intended, and we can only assess a text based on what it actually accomplishes. Therefore, when we read a poem, it is best to ignore what we may know about the poet and his or her life, and to take the text on its own terms. What poetic elements are employed? To what effect? Is some unity or fullness of meaning achieved?

In Billy Collins's poem, "Introduction to Poetry," a speaker—apparently a teacher—describes the way he wants his students to treat a poem. In part, he says,

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
This is a good suggestion for how to apply Barthes's ideas to poetry. Acknowledge the poet as the creator of the poem—giving him or her a quick wave—and perhaps noting the time period during which the poet lived and wrote, and then move on, attributing no more meaning or significance to the author than anyone else.

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