Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Poet Answers Standardized Test Questions About Her Poetry – Incorrectly.



I must alert you to an awesome piece by poet Sara Holbrook on HuffPo, where she explains that Texas used two of her poems for middle school standardized tests.


  • receives an email from a distressed teacher who doesn’t understand the answers
  • discovers poor formatting that adds to the confusion
  • finds the questions in question
  • cannot, ultimately, answer them

The narration of her thought process going through the questions is also delightful.

At one point, she writes:

Parents, educators, legislators, readers of news reports: STOP TAKING THESE TEST RESULTS SERIOUSLY

Idiotic, hair-splitting questions pertaining to nothing, insufficient training, profit-driven motives on the part of the testing companies, and test results that simply reveal the income and education level of the parents.

All very fair. But then a bit of intentionalism to finish it all off!

My final reflection is this: any test that questions the motivations of the author without asking the author is a big baloney sandwich. Mostly test makers do this to dead people who can’t protest. But I’m not dead.

I protest.

Whoa – okay. Now the little dose of philosophy:

She definitely thinks she has the final word on how her poetry is interpreted! But like, does she really? Maybe she’s a good poet but a bad interpreter. (I’ll admit that the questions and answers do in fact seem a little silly. And I’ll be the first to throw down about how terrible standardized testing is.) But in principle, there’s no reason to think that just because she can’t answer the questions, they’re bad questions. Right? What do you guys think?

Go read the whole thing on Huffington Post.

Image credit: t-shirt design via Fashionably Geek – sorry little birdies, it looks like it’s sold out! :'(


  1. If the questions are about the motivations of the author, then surely the author’s thoughts are important. If we’re to say that author tried to say one thing but instead said another, or at least that we got a different message, then indeed the author may be wrong. However, if the question is asking for what message the reader got out of the poem, then it’s a terrible multiple choice question in the first place since any answer is correct.

  2. While standardized tests may not be the best way to ask questions about poetry, there is — in principle — no reason that one can’t ask good questions about poems. And there is no reason — in principle — to believe that poets are the people best suited to answer those questions.

    Poets may know what they intend in writing a poem, if they have an intention. Even so, there is no reason to believe that a poem means what the poet who writes it intends.

    Charles Dodgson, lecturer in mathematics and logic at Christ Church, Oxford, provided an account of this issue in his description of a conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. Dodgson (under the name of Lewis Carroll) wrote:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

    Going further, Mr. Dumpty acknowledged that there is a problem in paying the wages of words that must do a great deal of work: “When I make a word do a lot of work …” he said, “I always pay it extra.”

    It could be that the poet in the case of this standardized test just wasn’t paying the words in the enough for the work they were expected to do in the particular poem.

    More seriously, I don’t see why a poet’s intention should define the meaning of a poem. William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley raised the issue of what they labeled the intentional fallacy in their famous 1946 article. The problem of the intentional fallacy is the claim that a work actually realizes the creator’s intention, or, indeed, that the creator’s intention has anything to do with the effect the work has for those who read or respond to it. Nothing much has changed over the past seven decades. This idea has been the subject of significant critical and philosophical debate since then. I don’t see why the rest of us should ask the poet what a poem means. I see no poetic right to protest.

    We can’t say that the author doesn’t know or understand a poem. Neither can we say that the author defines its meaning for anyone else. A poem, like any speech artifact, may have meanings in any of the ways that a speech artifact can mean. The four senses of medieval exegesis offer a reasonable though incomplete way to analyze a poem. What did it mean to the person who wrote it? What did it mean in its time and context to those to whom it was addressed? What does it mean to us now? What can it mean to a future audience?

    The difference between a poetic text and the historical texts and Bible texts subject to hermeneutical and exegetical analysis is that each of these questions may have even more answers. None of the answers or all of them may be reasonable.

    In Ars Poetica, Archibald MacLeish concluded that

    “A poem should not mean
    But be.”

    Then again, who said that he’s right?

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