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This report is taken from PN Review 201, Volume 38 Number 1, September - October 2011.

Ozymandias on the Piccadilly Line Neil Powell
Everyone reads poems differently. Readers know this: when we read a book or an article in which some learned person explicates a poem with which we're already familiar, our two likeliest responses are astonishment ('I never thought of that') or exasperation ('That's not what it means at all'); only rarely do we feel that our fellow reader has got it exactly right. Writers know this too: the intelligent friend with whom we share a newly written poem is very likely to miss some point with which we were especially pleased or to comment on a detail we'd barely noticed.

That seems incontestable, yet so does this. An ordinarily educated reader can say why some poems are better than others: such judgements will be partly 'a matter of opinion', a phrase always used as if opinions aren't worth having, yet they must also be based on what we already know about the way poems work. This knowledge gives us the authority to praise or to censure, in the course of which we might want to talk about diction, imagery, syntax, form, metre, rhyme, and so forth. As someone - I think it was John Wain - once said: literary criticism may not be an exact science, but it's a great deal more exact than most people allow. So it is. And though this doesn't mean that there's a 'right' way of reading a poem, it does mean that some readings may be more plausibly supported by argument than others. A ...


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