Some literary theorists believe that any work of creative writing possesses no fixed or final meaning. The old school of thought that purported that there was only one, so-called correct way of interpreting a piece of writing is diametrically opposed to the belief of these theorists, who are referred to as reader response theorists. Within the category of reader response theories are several different methods of obtaining that meaning, but in general the theories all contain the concept that meaning is created somewhere between the author, the reader, and the text. In other words, meaning is found somewhere between what the author implies, what the reader experiences, and what the text inspires. Using a few different approaches to reader response theory, this essay will examine Rosanna Warren’s poem “Daylights” in an effort to demonstrate some of the theories as well as to try out several different possible interpretations of the poem.
One reader response theory uses what is called a cognitive-processing model. Under this model, readers are given a plan or model that will help them explore a work in order to eventually create their own interpretation. For example, under this model it might be suggested that the reader write down possible motives that lie behind the actions of a particular character in the piece being studied. If the motives are not easily understood, the reader might first write down a series of questions that, under a second or closer reading of the work, might later be answered. For example, to be specific to Warren’s poem, the reader might ask questions such as these: Why does the speaker of this poem begin with the words “So the sky wounded you”? How could the sky wound anyone? What is it about the sky that could be piercing? Is it the brightness of the sun? Does it have anything to do with the title of the poem: “Daylights”? And why does the speaker seem to infer that the person in this poem feels safer in “readable gray” and by the end of the poem that the person in the poem feels “grateful, by God, / in the grit gray light of day?” What is it about light that appears to bother the person in the poem? Why would light bother anyone?
When using reader response theory to interpret a poem, it can be rather liberating to know that there are no concrete answers, but at the same time it can be a bit threatening. Some readers might find that it is not always easy to trust the initial thoughts that pass through their minds. Or it might just be hard to grasp them. It’s also hard to forget the fact that the author of the work must have had some very specific ideas for writing the piece in the first place. A reader response theorist might suggest that readers allow the images that the author has created to work on their thoughts, to trust the effects and power of the poem. What is important about the poem is the significance that it arouses in the reader. And to help readers grasp their thoughts while reading the work, to help them create a list of questions to ask of themselves, some theorists have suggested the following steps. First, read the work (in this case, the poem). Take notes on the parts of the poem that are bothersome, the parts of the poem that cause a reaction. For example, one reader might find it bothersome when Warren writes “glass shard flying from liquor store window smashed.” Here is a person, walking “humdrumming along,” when all of a sudden she hears glass cracking, sees a young kid running off “zigzagging the crowd,” hears the storeowner yelling. This is a startling scene. There is uncertainty. There’s been a crime. Violence has been committed, and there is a chance that more violence could follow. The person in the poem more than likely feels threatened. Some readers might find this section bothersome or unsettling. But not all readers will react to this scene. Nor will all readers react in the same way. According to reader response theory, that’s the way it should be, because each reader brings different experiences to the text. However, the mere fact that something is bothersome to someone might mean that that particular part of the poem might also be one of the more interesting parts of the poem, and therefore the reader should pay more attention to it. This is the part of the poem where the reader might learn the most because this is the part that affects the reader the most. The next suggested step is for readers to define what they don’t understand about the particular piece. For instance, Warren writes in lines 6–7, “Those Grecian dreams / endure even New York.” Some readers might ask, What is a Grecian dream? What things have difficulty enduring in New York? What does New York represent, especially in contrast to Greece? These questions might require a little research for some, but others might already have some ideas about Grecian culture or the lifestyle of New York. And still other readers might rely on an intuitive sense, fed by images...
(The entire section is 2023 words.)