Literary theorist Stanley Fish once wrote a famous essay about found poetry entitled How to Recognize a Poem When You See One. You can read it online here.

In short, Fish taught a class on linguistics and left the names of the next reading assignment on the board. He told his next class, who were studying religious poetry, that it was, in fact, such a poem, and they proceeded to provide an astonishingly rich interpretation of it as such.

In the essay, Fish claims to have repeated this experiment with other classes and got the same results. He also insists it's something that would succeed with any list and any type of poetry.

To me, this is an interesting but enormously destructive exercise. Because if you can find rich meaning in any type of list, it rather calls into question the value of writing any kind of poetry in the first place. Fish himself seem to realise this when he says

To many, this will be a distressing conclusion, and there are a number of arguments that could be mounted in order to forestall it.

He proceeds to attempt to rebut these arguments, but never returns to the question of whether or not it is, in fact, a "distressing" conclusion. Instead, his argument becomes a postmodernist one about destroying the boundaries between subjective and objective.

If Fish is right in his observations, how do we go about saving the value of composed poetry? I would be particularly - but not exclusively - interested in opinions from Fish himself on this subject.

  • Do we know whether Stanley Fish actually performed this experiment, or just said that he did? And would a professor other than Fish obtain the same result?
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Apr 2, 2023 at 10:59
  • 1
    @PeterShor If you read the essay, Fish claims to have performed it several times. Given that he names one of the students in his class, it seems very unlikely he'd have made it up. I am more dubious about his claim that it would work with any class and any collection of words and he doesn't offer any evidence in support of that.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Apr 2, 2023 at 11:22
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    Students were instructed by their professor to apply a style of interpretation to a text, and were able to do so. I think that says more about the style than the text. Surely some of them must have noticed that it looked very much like a list of names. If they didn't comment on that (and Fish doesn't mention it if they did), then they are just trying to please the professor, and go along with his game. Did any of them think it was a good poem?
    – Evene
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 5:09
  • Clarification request: when Fish says 'distressing to many' he means distressing to people who think that the meaning is already there in the poem for the reader to discover. Are you asking how to reassure people who think that? And are you asking as a reader or a writer of poetry?
    – Evene
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 6:18
  • @Evene I'm asking from the POV of a writer of poetry, and the reassurance I'm asking for is that there's value in constructing poetry for interpretation if readers can find value in interpreting random words. Again, what I'm looking for particularly are academic responses to Fish's problem.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 7:49

1 Answer 1




Clarifying the Question

(i.e., turning it into a different one I'd prefer to answer)

You ask:

If Fish is right in his observations, how do we go about saving the value of composed poetry? I would be particularly - but not exclusively - interested in opinions from Fish himself on this subject.

To begin with, "if Fish is right in his observations" is a pretty big if. Assuming that Fish is right is begging the question. Further, what does observations mean here? One can concede that Fish correctly observed that students of 17th C. religious poetry trained in identifying Christian symbols could find those same symbols in an arbitrary list. But the rest of his essay is not observation; it is extrapolation. And perhaps it's the fallacy of hasty generalization , where broad conclusions are asserted on the basis of rather small sample sizes. How sure are we that the magnificent argumentative edifice Fish builds rests on solid ground and not on fallacy? Many scholars and students would not agree that Fish's conclusions follow from his initial observation.

In a comment, you specify:

the reassurance I'm asking for is that there's value in constructing poetry for interpretation if readers can find value in interpreting random words. Again, what I'm looking for particularly are academic responses to Fish's problem.

But this, too, is begging the question. In fact, there are two questions being begged here: "there's value in constructing poetry for interpretation" and "readers can find value in interpreting random words". What does value mean in either or both of these contexts, the creative and the interpretive, anyway?

Rather than assuming that (1) we know what Fish is up to (2) he is right (3) this threatens something valuable and (4) Fish and/or other scholars in his wake can and have provided reassurance that said valuable thing is still valuable, let's try to first, understand what Fish is up to, and second, see how far his argument holds water. We can then assess where we are with regard to the question of value.

What is Fish Up To?

Fish is one of the leading lights of a school of literary theory and criticism called reader-response criticism. Until around the mid 1930s, literary critics assumed that the task of criticism consisted in unearthing and explicating the author's intended meaning. The New Critics of the 1930s and later argued instead that a literary work was a self-contained artifact that made its own meaning independent of the author's intentions. Beginning in the late 1960s, reader-response criticism claimed that the literary work by itself did not make meaning—the reader did. Without a reader who actively engages with it, a literary work is meaningless.

The relevance to Fish's essay of this potted history of 20th C. critical approaches should hopefully be clear. Fish is claiming that a trained and engaged community of readers is required for a poem to have any meaning. He claims that without such an interpretive community, a poem would not even be recognized as a poem rather than, say, an arbitrary list of names. Fish argues that the act of recognizing, reading, and making meaning of a poem depends on the reader's participation in an interpretive community. The community gives the reader the tools to recognize and interpret literary works, and the validity of those interpretations is in turn determined by the norms of the community.

The New Critics insisted that the work of art had an objective meaning, one that inhered in itself. One objection to reader-response criticism is that the meaning of a work of art would become entirely subjective, depending on the particular reader. But Fish argues that the interpretive community makes the subjective/objective distinction irrelevant. A poem doesn't have an objective meaning in and of itself; nor is its meaning purely subjective, whatever the reader makes of it. The meaning of a poem, and even what constitutes a poem, is a function of the community, not of an individual. Fish's argument is not "a postmodernist one about destroying the boundaries between subjective and objective". On the contrary, he says that the debate about whether meaning is objective or subjective is wrongheaded, because meaning can be constructed only communally.

The entire essay is a polemic, arguing for a certain kind of understanding both of what makes a poem a poem, and of how we make meaning of poetry. Fish is countering both the New Critical claims that a poem can be objectively meaningful, and the accusation that reader-response criticism makes all interpretation subjective. As such, the essay should be approached with a hermeneutic of suspicion rather than of faith. Instead of simply agreeing that Fish is right, we need to ask: is his argument correct? How have others responded to it?

Is Fish Right?

One way to approach this question is by asking: Is

Ohman (?)

a poem? Fish's manœuver is not so very different from Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, where a "found" artifact becomes a work of art simply because it is claimed as such. The debate around this list echoes the debate that ensued when Duchamp ascribed the status of sculpture to a plumbing fixture. So why not agree that this list is a poem, in the same way that critics nowadays tend to agree that "Fountain" is a sculpture?

Another way to explain Fish's claim that meaning rests on the existence of interpretive communities is to consider language itself. There is no objective reason that the word tree should refer to the botanical entity with roots, branches, and leaves that's outside my window right now. But if I decide that because words don't have objective meaning, I'm going to call it a glarph, well ... language isn't subjective either. Language functions only within the context of a community of speakers. Fish's claim that poems likewise have meaning only within the context of an interpretive community of readers makes sense.

This might provide some reassurance to those who wonder about "composed poetry". Sure, insofar as a poet assumes a community of readers and constructs a linguistic artifact with that community in mind, the poetic endeavor isn't futile. Artists post Duchamp have continued to paint and sculpt, and poets post Fish to write. Art and poetry have not been just found and repackaged objects. Inasmuch as poets see themselves as part of a community of writers and readers, their constructed or composed works are significant as such within that community.

But Fish takes matters farther. He questions the very idea that there is any such thing as art in itself, as opposed to its being packaged or understood as such. He argues that "all objects are made and not found, and that they are made by the interpretive strategies we set in motion" (p. 331). Not all that reassuring, then.

How have Other Critics Responded to Fish's Argument?

Others critics have disagreed with Fish. From a pedagogical perspective, Keith Wilson of the University of Ottawa argues that in order to train students to join the interpretive community, i.e., read poetry in a way that the interpretive community will accept as valid, we have to a priori assume the existence of a poem as such:

In short, at the most basic point of engagement we have to acknowledge the authority of the poem as an independent artifact with is distinct from a community recovery of meaning. ... At some level, however humble and literal, that collection of words says something about which a statement of fact can be made, a statement that stands independently of any meaningful application of the term "interpretive community," a statement that is not negotiable and that a careless reader may have to be introduced to somewhat laboriously. (p. 209)

The justice of Wilson's argument can be seen in reconsidering the question of Duchamp's "Fountain" vs. Fish's "Jacobs-Rosenbaum". Curators would immediately recognize a urinal, and would debate its status as an artwork; whereas Fish's students would not have had the context to understand the list, and so would not debate its status as an artwork when told it was one. When Fish relies on their very lack of knowledge to demonstrate the workings of an interpretive community, the move does call into question the enterprise of interpretation itself: are the students' readings valid or not? How do we even determine that without appealing to an ur-text that preëxists their interpretations?

I might say that their interpretations were nonsense, because the list is not a poem. Fish would argue that the only way we know whether or not something is a poem is by what the interpretive community says about it. He would argue that asking whether "Jacobs-Rosenbaum" is actually a poem is a categorical error, since without the interpretive community, we can't say either way. But as Wilson argues, without asking that, we lose the ability to ask what it is that the interpretive community is interpreting, and therefore, what constitutes valid interpretations. Any artifact is a valid topic of interpretation, and any interpretation is valid.

Gerald Graff of Northwestern University makes much the same point. He also says that by denying the very existence of a poem outside of an interpretive community, Fish straitjackets the interpretive possibilities of the poem:

Fish's way of putting the argument that readers "produce" meaning assumed that once we acknowledge the institutionally conditioned nature of reading, we have to discard the very concept of a text existing prior to our interpretations of it. This reasoning forced Fish to the very strange conclusion that no text can invite its readers to interpret it in some ways rather than other. To say that there is no object of interpretation prior to its construction by an interpretive community is tantamount to saying that no text can ever resist a determined reader. It amounts to a proclamation of interpretive infallibility. (p. 110)

Graff proceeds to take a hilarious swipe at both Fish's current contention and his earlier work. A world where Fish were right about how interpretation works would be one:

in which no reader could ever approach a text with a theory in mind only to discover that the theory does not fit that particular text; in which no one who initially expected a poem to be complex could discover that such complexity is lacking; in which no one who initially expected a text (or other object) to be a poem could decide that it is some other kind of text (or object). Fish in effect posited an interpretive world in which no reader could ever explicably experience surprise. This was an odd turn of events if you knew the earlier, so-called affective stylistics phase of Fish's critical career, during which it seemed as if, for Fish, readers of literature never experienced anything but surprise. (p. 111)

Graff moves from challenging Fish on rhetorical and logical grounds to epistemological ones:

To adopt a Kantian form of speaking, we might say that the assumption that interpretations may be predetermined by what they purport to be interpretations of is a precondition of thinking coherently about interpretation. In Wittgensteinian terms, this assumption is built into our language game—I would add, into all the language games we know to have been actually practiced. In either vocabulary, the notion of a text prior to interpretation is something we presuppose rather than something we could ever prove, for any attempt to prove it would already have to presuppose it before it could start. (p. 112)

Graff continues with astute readings of Fish's essays, spotlighting contradictions in their arguments. Graff draws on the work of Robert Scholes, an earlier critic of Fish's, to conclude that Scholes

points the way toward a less misleading model for reconciling what readers bring to texts with what they discover in them. (p. 114)

Sadly, I have not been able to find a non-paywalled copy of Scholes's essay.

The point of citing Wilson, Graff, and Scholes, however, is that Fish's views about how we identify, read, and interpret poetry are not universally accepted. Over the last 50 years or so, there have been trends in literary studies, such as reader-response criticism and critical theory, that undermine the existence of literature as a distinctive object of study in itself; but most scholars, teachers, and indeed, readers of literature tend to presuppose its existence.

Assuming the existence of literature as a distinct category from other textual or interpretive artifacts does not foreclose questions its value. Indeed, Fish would deny that his argument negates the value of literary study. Nor does pointing to flaws in Fish's argument ipso facto mean that literature is inherently valuable. We are left with the paradox that Fish would deny the a priori existence of a category such as "literature" outside an interpretive community, but would still consider literary study valuable; on the other hand, assuming the existence of such a category still leaves us with the question of what constitutes literary value. One might take comfort in the observation that considering many if not most non-piscine literary scholars and critics presuppose the existence of literature, their very practice demonstrates that all of them presuppose the value of studying literature too.


Fish, Stanley. "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One." Chapter 14 of Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980. Retrieved from archive.org, 4 April 2023.

Graff, Gerald. “Interpretation on Tlön: A Response to Stanley Fish.” New Literary History, vol. 17, no. 1, 1985, pp. 109–17. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/468982. Accessed 4 April 2023.

Scholes, Robert. “Who Cares about the Text?” Novel: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 17, no. 2, 1984, pp. 171–80. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1345017. Accessed 4 April 2023.

Wilson, Keith. “Let’s Hope There Is a Text in the Class: Stanley Fish and the Profession of English.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 16, no. 3, 1986, pp. 206–12. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3194900. Accessed 4 April 2023.

  • This is an exemplary answer, thank you. I still think Fish's argument is essentially postmodern in nature tho :)
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 15:56

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