Reading Aloud Strategic Ambiguities in Poetic Texts

David Fishelov*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


This chapter presents several kinds of strategic ambiguity found in poetic texts that are known to be rich in ambiguities. The term ‘strategic’ is introduced to emphasize that these ambiguities are not accidental phenomena but are, rather, used to create certain effects. The focus is on the reading aloud of several kinds of linguistic and textual ambiguities, the considerations for different readings aloud linked to them, and the effect that specific readings aloud have on these ambiguities (e.g. does the reading aloud contribute to disambiguation?). First, the effect of reading-aloud-specific linguistic ambiguities, both semantic and syntactic, will be discussed, followed by an examination of two kinds of textual, poetic ambiguities: (1) enjambment, which creates a discrepancy between syntax and verse structure (e.g. the opening lines of Eliot’s The Waste Land). This poetic ambiguity inevitably presents a dilemma for those who want to read the poem aloud: should the performer ignore the line-ending and read the syntactic unit in a continuous manner, or should s/he respect the line-ending and signal it (e.g. with a small pause)? (2) A textual ambiguity that can be called a pseudo-parallel structure consists of a syntactic structure that implies semantic equivalence and a semantic ‘filling’ characterized by differences and contrasts (e.g. Pope’s “Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux” 138). Performers must decide whether to offer a reading aloud consistent with the syntactic equivalence or attempt to express the semantic differences. The chapter concludes with a discussion of overall textual ambiguity that involves the attitude of the speaker in the poem towards the addressee in the poem, and towards the subject matter of the poem, as well as with a description of different, legitimate styles of reading poetry aloud.

Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationStrategies of Ambiguity
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781000987805
ISBN (Print)9781032286914
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024 selection and editorial matter, Matthias Bauer and Angelika Zirker; individual chapters, the contributors.


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