It seems that most people who read poetry want to understand it. They want to be able to “get it.” If you’re at a table discussing somebody’s work, you’re likely to hear comments that focus on the meaning of the piece, comments that either (a) praise the unambiguous language as a direct line to the meaning of the work, or (b) seek to decipher the metaphorical and symbolic significance of the words.
It’s generally in the second case that we run into differences of understanding. It’s here that we enter into the uncertainty of interpretation. And it is here where we find the most complaints of inaccessibility, complaints that the work is not understandable, complaints that are based on a subjective ability to make sense of the words.
Open Your Arms
But it’s not necessary to understand a poem in order to enjoy it. If you are able to extract some sense of resonance with a piece, whether or not you understand it in the literary sense, whether or not you can articulate what it is about the piece that resonated with you or what the piece is “about”, then the piece has reached you at some level and therefore has been effective.
Everybody has a threshold of understanding beyond which they don’t want to go. I do indeed find some works to be – as DE Navarro so elegantly put it – “a pile of esoteric, obfuscating goo.” Other times though, I catch a thread of something that may be difficult to explain – or fully understand – but I have an intuitive sense that there’s something deeper, and I might just have to dwell on it for a while, maybe come back to it later. Or just let it be the sweet aroma of fog.
Dignity Of Understanding
As westernized human beings, we tend to be rational. We want explanations with those fries. It’s almost as if: when something can’t be explained, it doesn’t exist. Interpretations and explanations give us an opportunity to identify with a school of thought, to find like-minded individuals with whom we can form a collective. And frequently, in a sort of coagulating force, people are drawn to the interpretations of others.
But in the arts, unlike science, explanations – which are a form of rationalization and understanding – aren’t needed as much. Yes, sometimes they’re helpful, especially in the lecture hall, but in the end, the individual must decide what something means to them. Instead of handing out explanations as gospel from the creator (or more often, from the creator’s professor proxy), it’s healthy to our thought processes when we encourage the readers / listeners / observers to draw their own conclusions.
Most people don’t want to look dumb. They generally avoid that which they don’t “understand” or – in lieu of avoidance – passively accept the prevailing explanations and interpretations of their day.
But there is another way of looking at this. As with life, poetry is a vehicle for more than rational thought. It can propel us into the into the unknown, the unfamiliar. And we don’t always need to know where we are. We don’t always need to explain how we arrived there. Sometimes, it’s enough to simply realize – and marvel in the fact – that other worlds exist.