This essay appears in Fish's famous book Is There a Text in this Classroom? Many of the ideas in the book were considered more radical when the book was published than they do today.
Fish's main point in this chapter is to illustrate that literary interpretation, or, in fact, any act of interpretation, is socially constructed. We interpret the way we do because we are embedded in communities; interpretation is not an isolated, individual act. It is informed by what Fish calls "shared ways of seeing." As an example, Fish points to his student, William, who is anxiously raising his hand in class. Fish asks the rest of the students what this means. They tell him it means William is seeking permission to speak. How do they know that? How do they know this student is not anxiously indicating the ceiling is ready to fall, or, as in elementary school, seeking permission to use the bathroom? They know because they are part of a community that interprets the sign of a raised hand in a certain way.
Fish takes a list of names he has put on the board and tells his class it is a poem. They therefore "interpret" it as a poem. This leads Fish to conclude,
Interpretation is not the art of construing but constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them.
A poem is not simply objectively "out there" in the universe. It is what a group of people decide is a poem. This, for Fish, collapses the dichotomy between subject and object: subjects, like classes of students, create objects like poems and then interpret them according to social norms they have internalized. To Fish and others like him, this elevates the act of interpretation and makes it very important.
Fish's point is that meaning is the product of interpretive communities. His central example, the list of linguists that his religious poetry class interpreted as a hieroglyphic poem about the path to heaven, is used to show that literary meaning is not inherent in a text, but rather the result of how a reader interprets that text. Such interpretations, Fish argues, are not the product of any one person; they are the result of readers (consciously or unconsciously) applying a set of socially agreed upon rules to the text. In the context of the poetry class, students had learned the "rules" of such poems and their interpretation was simply an application of those rules.
Fish takes this point further, however, and argues that these operations are not limited to literary texts but all interpretive activity. That is, he suggests that "understanding"—recognizing what a "class" is, for instance, and what sort of behavior might go on in a class—is also the result of socially negotiated meanings. The implications of this notion are profound; as Fish points out, "One can respond with a cheerful yes to the question 'Do readers make meanings?' and commit oneself to very little because it would be equally true to say that meanings, in the form of culturally derived interpretive categories, make readers."
Stanley Fish, in his essay "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One," is conducting an experiment in practical criticism, in the manner of I. A. Richards, to challenge standard assumption made in literary criticism concerning the nature of poetry. Fish had, in one class, written a list of names of contemporary critics on the blackboard, arranged vertically. It struck him as an interesting experiment to ask the students in his next class, one on seventeenth-century religious poetry, to interpret the list of names as though it were a poem. The students obliged, and created a "reading" of the list that much resembled their reading of the poems they had been studying in the course.
The point of this experiment was to serve as a practical demonstration of a claim that Fish makes in many other essays, that what defines a poem and creates meaning is not something inherent in the text but rather the conventions and expectations generated by interpretive communities. Rather than there being "poems" as existential entities, what constitutes poetry for Fish is a set of interpretive practices.