We all influence art, even if we’re merely passively consuming it. That’s the central idea of the poem above by Guggenheim fellow and poet Tony Hoagland from his collection What Narcissism Means To Me. Centered upon the blues standard “Two Trains Running,”1 the piece tracks the different interpretations of the song that Hoagland accepts over time. (You’ll have to trust me on this, but based upon the rest of Hoagland’s work, I think it’s safe for us to conflate the speaker and the author. I mean, just look at the book’s title.) As he progresses through life and meets people with differing opinions, he decides that the song is about trains, then sex, then Jesus, then death.
His opinion changes the first couple of times due to the persuasion of other people. The first is an unnamed “somebody” and the second a fellow named “Mack,” each of whom brings a different perspective on the song. Thus, their different interpretations of what the song’s images represent is likely due to some difference in the two people as individuals. It’s impossible to say what, but differences in things like age, knowledge, and opinions influence the way that an audience member views an artistic work. It’s like looking at the same object through different colors of glass or from different distances: the thing itself doesn’t change, only your view of it.
But his final change in opinion doesn’t come because of external forces. Instead, his interpretation of it changes due to experiences he himself has had, primarily those of loss. These experiences clearly color his revised evaluation of the song’s lyrics, as death is undoubtedly the greatest loss one can endure. This is one of the great truths about viewing art: nothing exists in a vacuum. Any analysis of art is subjected not only to the particular proclivities of the person involved but also to the whole of their knowledge and experiences.
2. Since I brought up Hoagland and music, I feel obligated mention his exceedingly controversial poem entitled “Rap Music.” You can see him read it here. Since its publication this piece has earned its writer accusations of racism and heaps of scorn. Other, better writers have already discussed it ad nauseam, and it would take a couple more dozen paragraphs to properly discuss, so we’ll just save it for another time. Suffice it to say I don’t think the poem itself is racially prejudiced, though some of the thoughts its speaker has unquestionably are. At least, that’s my opinion of it today. (It seems to change every time I read the poem.)