"Puff, the Magic Dragon" and the Value of Literary Analysis

Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary responds to the urban legend that his song “Puff, the Magic Dragon” is an extended metaphor for drug use. He then mockingly applies the critical lens of drug metaphors to The Star-Spangled Banner, before the group launches into “Puff.”

During the song, we see a montage of people in the audience of all ages singing along; the unspoken message is clearly “Don’t analyze, just enjoy.”

I wonder if I can use this in my literary criticism class. This won’t be the first time that a work that was created by an artist who had one particular vision in mind was taken up by a group of people who saw something different in it.  Should we just accept the Coca-Cola commercials that try to make an iced beverage part of wintertime Christmas rituals? (Ever wonder why Santa wears red and white?)  Should we accept what the recording industry tells about the technology behind file-sharing — that because it can potentially be used for copyright violations, the technology itself should be illegal?  Should the ancient Romans have accepted their bread and circuses without troubling themselves to question the motives of the politicians who supplied their entertainment?

I don’t at all mean to suggest Paul Yarrow has any sinister motives (well, except for that incident with the 14-year-old fan back in 1970); rather, I’m gathering notes for my “Literary Criticism” class, for which I expect I will have to overcome some resistance to the value of theoretical readings.

Any group of specialists will have their own jargon, their own methods, their own shortcuts, their own sense of identifying the boundaries of received knowledge, and their own threshold for noticing where what looks, to an outsider or beginner, like a simple concept (such as “the author’s intended meaning”) reveals great gaps that invite further exploration: By “author’s intention,” do we mean the author’s intent when he wrote the first draft, the author’s intent when the poem was first published, the author’s intent when he agreed to censor certain passages in order to get it a wider printing, or the author’s intent when he changed a few words years later when re-publishing the work in an anthology, or the author’s intent when a reporter tracked him down years later and asked him some questions about the poem in question?

I do point out to my students that lit-crit isn’t “anything goes.”  There are more *possible* interpretations than *probable* ones, and Occam’s Razor reminds us that even the *probable* interpretations are not always *necessary*.