Authorial Intent versus revisions

Alright, it’s 4:30 AM, I’m not sure why I’m awake, let’s do this.


So the question of authorial intent has been plaguing me all semester. I personally prescribe to the “death of the author” ideal—once you put something out there, your intentions really don’t matter. What you intend may be completely lost within the poem itself because you didn’t express yourself clearly enough or a few words had unintentional meanings. I know a few of my poems where no one picked up on what subtext I wanted conveyed. I’m okay with people not getting what I intended, but the question is, how do I move on from there with revisions?


In cases where authorial intent is so far off from what is actually written, is it better to try and make it more explicit in the poem, or go with the direction people got more of a message from? Is it a sign that I should write two different poems, one with the original intent, one with what people thought? Is it a sign I should take a breather and try some different material until something makes itself clearer?


Carey McHugh tackled the issue of authorial intent when she visited us. She said she really didn’t see people getting different views as a problem, as obviously not everyone is going to have the same experiences, and will approach material differently. This is the view I try to take with other people’s work, but can’t seem to apply to myself. Is it a case of sort of “letting go,” acknowledging that how your audience takes your poem is out of your control?

2 Replies to “Authorial Intent versus revisions”

  1. I don’t know if this is weird, but I generally enjoy other people’s readings of my poetry more than my own. The messages they pick up can sometimes be so insightful for me, because it gets me to look further into myself to see what I was feeling when I wrote the poem that may have clouded my message. I love to hear about the many different narratives at play in my work, especially when I only saw a couple myself. As for the revision process, it’s very freeing to let go of a specific reading or message you wanted to express in the poem to focus on the craft and the form. Happy revising!

  2. Rachel,

    Really interesting question. I think that there are lots of variables that go into this revision decision (heh) process. I think that, amongst other things, it depends largely on: who you are as a poet, why you are writing the poem, and what you are hoping to say in the poem and how explicitly you are hoping to say it.

    I think that all of the options you mentioned above are completely valid! For myself, I go back and forth. Some poems are very content and narrative based and I want for a singular message to connect through everyone’s reading of it. Other poems, especially ones that are less narrative and more sound or image based, are more about conveying a feeling or singular moment/image. Oftentimes I find that the less narrative poems are the one’s written about myself or distinctly from my own voice, as it feels easier to communicate things about myself in a more fluid and less singularized way.

    I think that you could even do all of the above things that you mentioned in the middle paragraph for one poem, in order to find out which one works. To add a few things to that list, I think that titles can be a great way to convey intent or meaning or narrative to a poem that isn’t super explicit. Also, I am always super into those little artists statement blurbs that follow certain poems in Fishouse, the clarity and oftentimes conversational qualities of them as existing outside of the poem really inform my reading of the poem in such an exciting way, like I’ve been told a secret, so perhaps you could add a few of those to your poems?

    Hope this was helpful,

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