To interpret a poem, it seems to me, boils down to an effort of paying attention to what is ‘uncanny’ and singular about the poem (a surprising alliteration, an unexpected rhyme, etc.), to what is ‘familiar’ (the relation we establish between the poem and our previously acquired knowledge), and to the necessity of not becoming bewitched exclusively by the virtues of what is ‘uncanny’ or of what is ‘familar’. Following that effort, we can only hope that that attention may help clarify why “À Clausura do Bussaco” is a sonnet and not a villanelle, or why the lines “Para bailar la Bamba / Se necesita una poca de gracia” remind me of Saint Augustine.
Whenever I read a poem a number of things pop up in my head. Some of them seem to share obvious similarities with it (e.g. other poems), but there are others that spring to mind, out of the blue and for no discernible reason, and yet seem to bear no resemblance with the poem whatsoever. In the case of Ritchie Valens’s song, the word “gracia” reminds me of what Saint Augustine wrote about Divine Grace; and, while it is true that it’s not absolutely necessary to be familiar with Augustine’s ideas on that theological concept to interpret the song’s lyrics correctly, it is also true that being acquainted with those ideas may help us understand why you need “una poca de gracia” to dance La Bamba.
It shouldn’t stand to reason, though, that understanding why we remember something about another thing is a fool-proof method to understanding either. I may very well understand that the line “A naked man who bragged about being naughty” reminds me of fleas (because when I was a child I caught fleas from a dog named Naughty), without that helping me interpret the line properly, and that it might be wiser to start by figuring out whether the word “naughty” is there purely to rhyme with the next line - and not to remind me of a particular moment in my life, or to make me reflect about the perils involved in children playing with animals or, to an even smaller degree, so that I may adopt the most recent theory in Animal Studies as the best interpretative method for that line. It is therefore paramount that we correctly consider the interpretative virtues of associations that arise in any reading, so as to understand when they may be of assistance, or a nuisance.
When I read a poem, I try to pay attention to it, coming closer to and distancing myself from it while I move closer to and further away from myself, i.e. from my previously acquired knowledge. When I write about a poem, I try solely to describe the result of that effort, so often tortuous and pleasurable, in an organized and hapless manner, in the hope that my words might say more about it than about myself.
Translation by Bernardo Palmeirim
Jorge Almeida is finishing his PhD at the Program in Literary Theory, at the University of Lisbon. He writes dandy literary reviews for the Portuguese newspaper Observador.