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Stanley Fish’s “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One”

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Stanley Fish, in his inductive essay “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One”, argues that the process of “distinguishing” certain “features” of an object follows “the act of recognition”. Fish offers such conclusions from a short anecdote, which illustrates an analytical response of a group of students to five names he writes on a board. The students, who focus on Christian symbols and Biblical allusions, spontaneously analyze and extract meaning from the list. The story exemplifies Fish’s theory that “all objects are made not found”. Fish also concludes that interpreters “find” poems, not by the poem’s “distinguishing features”, but by the knowledge of poems the interpreters possess; he believes that “interpreters do not decode poems; they make them”.

The differences an interpreter sees in certain objects result from the “different interpretive operations” he or she performs and not from “something inherent in one or another”. As Fish states, the interpreter derives this knowledge of operations from “a publicly available system of intelligibility,” or, in other words, from sources of education, such as books, teachers, and “producers” of literature. The interpreter’s thoughts, in essence, are the products of the quality, quantity, and focus of the source of intelligibility. In absence of this “public source”, an individual’s interpretation becomes prone to objectivity and subjectivity since his or her “meanings” of a text become independent of those of the “social construct”.

Fish’s theory that “all objects are made”, “not found”, through “interpretive strategies” arouses skepticism as to its validity during certain circumstances. The theory itself explains that interpreters of poetry “make” the poem, that students “make” the assignment, and that they create such objects through the “source of intelligibility”, or the interpretive strategies of a public source. In other words, an individual’s knowledge, which he or she gains through public resources, allows him or her to identify an object by merely believing that the object exists as a certain identity, not by the qualities the object possesses.

The contradiction arises as Fish generalizes his belief that “no one of us wakes up in the morning and reinvents poetry”. If the term poetry replaces the “object” in his theory, then interpreters “make” poetry through interpretive strategies. Hence, the interpretative strategy defines “poetry” and, according to the theory, humans redefine, or reinvent, the term “poetry” following each “recognition.” The theory allows humans to classify anything as being “poetry”. By utilizing “distinguishing features” to identify some objects, in his case “poetry”, interpreters may prevent this constant redefining of terms, which tends to lead to ambiguity.

In attempt to prove the validity of his theory, Fish employs an example where his students “make” poetry from a list of five names. By introducing the list as a “religious poem”, Fish disproves his own theory that “objects are made not found”. No need exists for the students to determine whether the list is a “poem” or, in fact, “a list” because Fish clearly announces the object as a poem. In doing so, Fish begs the question as to whether the students truly “make” the poem or merely analyze it as he advises them to do so. Fish also implies that “all” of his students “make”, or identify, poems. However, this division argues that “all” students know what a poem is, when, in reality, it is likely that many of the students in the group do not contribute to the analytical discussion or identify the object as poetry.

According to the theory, if certain students interpret the object differently as being a “list” or “assignment”, then the analysis of the poem pertains only to the certain few that “make” the object a poem. By classifying the object by its distinguishing features before “recogniz[ing]” the object, the students may realize that the names form a mere list rather than an evocative poem. Such instances refute the universality of his theory and imply that the use of “distinguishing features” to recognize an object may prevent interpreters from deriving ambiguous identities for the object.

In his article, Fish also presents the idea “it is not that the presence of poetic qualities that compels a certain kind of attention but that the paying of a certain kind of attention results in the emergence of poetic qualities.” Fish concludes that interpreters can determine any distinguishing features of a poem if they choose to “see” through a particular perspective. To support his idea, Fish explains how his “students”, once “aware that it was poetry they were seeking”, “began to look with poetry-seeing eyes, that is, with eyes that saw everything in relation to the properties they knew poems to possess.” Here, Fish refers to his student’s analytical response to the list of names; the group forms a meaning and discovers many poetic aspects.

However, this example illustrates the logical fallacy composition; Fish assumes that since his class evaluates the list, all of society can also perform this task. Moreover he states that in analyzing a poem “you will attend to the presence of alliterative and consonantal patterns, and you will try to make something of them.” Again Fish exemplifies how in the search for poetic techniques one cannot fail. In his insight, however, words such as “will” and “always” imply invariability, the impossibility of failure, and thus, invalidates his argument, once again, through the fallacy of generalization. Overall, Fish’s illogical support for his theories and ideas makes the essay unconvincing.

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