As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I had to take a seminar to learn how to be a “writing intern” in the Humanities Core. This involved writing fake comments on fake student papers and pretending to read books about pedagogy. At one point we were asked to identify what was wrong with various claims in a student essay. The problem with one claim, about Patroclus as I recall, turned out to be that the student had framed the claim in terms of Homer’s intentions.
This was interesting: a New Critical no-no had been elevated to the status of a pedagogical given. It was supposed to be obvious that the appeal to authorial intention was always and everywhere to be avoided. Now, I hold very little against the New Critics, who were supple and intelligent readers of poems, and Wimsatt and Beardsley’s original brief against “The Intentional Fallacy” remains one of my touchstones of twentieth-century literary criticism. But it’s not as if there’s no controversy here. Because I’d actually done the reading for a different class, I knew that the instructors of this seminar were ignoring the difficulties posed by bodies of water that begin spontaneously to quote Wordsworth.
In 1982, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels shook up the bottle city of literary theory when “Against Theory” was published in Critical Inquiry. It’s a stunning and intricate defense of intentionality whose thesis is that it’s simply a truism that when we ask what a text means we are asking after its author’s intention. Theory is therefore superfluous. But what everyone remembers is the wave poem.
“Suppose,” Knapp and Michaels say, “that you’re walking along a beach and you come upon a curious sequence of squiggles in the sand.” These marks, on closer inspection, prove to spell out the first stanza of Wordsworth’s “A slumber did my spirit seal.” Naturally you will assume someone inscribed the words there, probably with a stick. But then a wave comes in, you retreat, and when it recedes you see that the first set of squiggles has now been joined by a second, which prove to be the second stanza of the poem. At this point only two possibilities present themselves: either there is some agent producing these marks by invisible means (some scientists in a submarine are testing a new beach-poetry ray) or they have been produced purely by the chance operations of natural forces. But if the marks are not being produced by an intentional agent—this is the kicker—then, say Knapp and Michaels, they are not language. The marks, although identical to the marks that make up Wordsworth’s poem, bear only an accidental resemblance to words. They are not, in themselves, words, because words must be produced by beings who know how to use words and intend them to express meanings. Therefore our discovery of words’ meanings is identical with our discernment of their author’s intention.
There’s a lot more to Knapp and Michaels’ argument, but my reaction to this part of it remains what it was when I first read it: no wave is ever going wash up a couple of stanzas of Wordsworth by chance. Knapp and Michaels recognize this, of course: it’s a thought experiment. But my response registers an intuition about the utility of thought-experiments for making judgments about the real world. Whenever I hear that a train is going to run down five hapless people unless I pull a lever, in which case it will run down only one hapless person, I want to know what those people are doing on the tracks in the first place, why I can’t just yell at them to get the hell out of the way of the train, and how exactly I managed to get myself involved in some ridiculous ethical drama in a train yard when I haven’t been near a train yard in years.
More to the point, and less flippantly, as much as I admire and do in part believe Knapp and Michaels’ thesis, as a poet I have my doubts. This is because I have myself written poems in which someone (sometimes I as a later reader) has noticed meanings that I did not intend, whose plausibility seemed so right that I couldn’t help adopting them as part of my own understanding of the poem. You might reply that I intended the meanings unconsciously, but I think Knapp and Michaels’ definition of intentionality excludes the very notion of “the unconscious” a fortiori. (If there’s an agent intending something, that agent must be aware that she is intending that thing; otherwise the definition of “intention” becomes so attenuated that anti-intentionalist arguments could easily assimilate it without giving much ground.)
My own sense is that I didn’t intend those meanings, at all, when I wrote them, but later they made so much sense to me that it was as if I had intended them. Perhaps as if is as much an intention as any other. Perhaps as an author I have the right to postdate my intentions. One way to reconcile my experience with Knapp and Michaels’ intentionalism would be to take seriously the ancient perception of inspiration (inspīrāre, to blow or breathe into)—the god-breathed word. There’s a coy allusion to Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” in the particular form Knapp and Michaels gave their thought experiment (after all, it could have been any natural forces that accidentally begin quoting one of my least favorite Wordsworth poems—asteroids could have pounded the marks into the surface of the moon)—to the distinction Stevens makes between the singer as “the maker of the song she sang” and “the summer sound … and sound alone” of “the dark voice of the sea.” But I’m with Ashbery, in his own wave poem:
As with rocks at low tide, a mixed surface is revealed,
More detritus. Still, it is better this way
Than to have to live through a sequence of events acknowledged
In advance in order to get to a primitive statement. And the mind
Is the beach on which the rocks pop up, just a neutral
Support for them in their indignity.
… By so many systems
As we are involved in, by just so many
Are we set free on an ocean of language that comes to be
Part of us, as though we would ever get away.
Michael Robbins' first book of poems is Alien vs. Predator (Penguin,March 2012). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Harper's, Boston Review, and elsewhere. He reviews books regularly for the London Review of Books, Poetry, The New York Observer, and several other publications . Michael received his PhD in English from the University of Chicago. Read Robert P. Baird's interview with Michael here.