The author isn’t dead, she’s just wearing a new hat
My entrance interview for Oxford (SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t get in) included doing a bit of ‘blind’ close reading, something I fluffed in part by ascribing the wrong gender to the author. Of course had I read my Barthes by then I would have kept well away from any notion of the author’s biography, psychology, politics, sexuality, era or intention, let alone gender. But I was young and romantic and literal, and like all teenage girls obsessed with knowing what people REALLY MEAN and WHY they said that and like, WHAT’S going ON in their HEADS. Poetry was to me, the expression of somebody’s deepest emotions, and I wasn’t going to have any truck with this death of the author nonsense. Under pressure in my interview, I even struggled with the concept of adopting a persona in a poem, hence my gendered clanger.
Anyway, this all came to mind the other day at my writing group, when a few of us contributed poems that were, how shall I put it… uncharacteristic. I don’t know why – except in my case I had run out of things to bring that I considered fit for group consumption, and had resorted to an unloved, troublesome sonnet. We’re a small group and familiar with each others’ work, enough that we could probably identify it if anonymised (although if Barthes had his way we obviously wouldn’t…) The uncharacteristic poems weren’t SO wildly outré that we wouldn’t guess who wrote them, but it was good to see that we could still surprise each other. And as well as being different, these poems were also really good (even, in the opinion of the others, my troublesome sonnet.)
I think the lesson I took from this was that those ‘weird’ poems you write when you’re ill, or drugged, or drunk, or under the influence of a new writer or artist, or just as a random experiment in voice or form, and then hide away somewhere, might actually be some of your strongest work. Writing exercises that force you out of your comfort zone/rut are a standard way of trying on new poetic hats, but I think sometimes we’re too quick to discard them when they don’t seem to fit perfectly. The author might not be dead but s/he is not a single unchanging entity either. Trust your other hats!