Some years ago, I spent a very pleasant morning in a bar in Madrid talking to Joan Margarit, the Catalán poet. There are two particular images he used in the conversation that I remember. (Note that it was some eight years ago, we were speaking in Spanish, and I no longer have the notes I made at the time. So, the following is my take on what he said rather than direct quotation.)
Joan described poetry as being like a musical score that the poet writes; and he described the reader as the musician who then “interprets” the piece. (Note that in Spanish, the verbs interpretar can be used to mean “to play” music; it seems to me that it adds slightly more depth to the more common tocar.)
The reader, like the musician brings his own level of skill to the performance, as well as his own experience, knowledge and and preferences. For the musician, I suppose that might include which instrument he chooses to play, but for the reader it certainly includes cultural background and references, language skill, prejudices, expectations and preconceptions.
In general, the poet isn’t there when the reader reads the poem. He can’t be there explaining what he intended, what he was thinking of, why he chose that specific word or line break etc. Once the poem is in the readers’ hands, it is his to interpret and perform as best he can.
So, in the same way that a piece of music performed by any two different musicians will result in a different experience, the poem becomes a new and unique piece each time it is read.
(I said Joan used two images I wanted to talk about. The next post should deal with the second.)