Sunday, January 14, 2007

"I Don't Understand Poetry"

I’ve been thinking about people who say they don’t understand poetry. That’s like saying you don’t understand music. It's such a diverse genre, there is no one definition for it, and besides, you don't have to understand it in order to have an experience. The mystery itself is something to love, and in living the questions, surprises can occur.

I want to tell people, when you’re reading a poem and you come across something you don’t “get,” stay with that feeling and see what it tells you about your experience of the poem. Don’t interpret obscurity as a “Do not enter sign,” but rather as an invitation to let go of control and step into something larger than you.

Poetry makes sense the way dreams and symbols make sense… or don’t. The willing suspension of disbelief is essential. Be aware that you are entering a fun house and expect to be disoriented. After a while, you will see that the poem makes its own sense.

Poems don’t require the same kind of linear reading as novels or stories that have plot. To read a poem, you must first soften—not sharpen—your mind. Reading a poem is less like waking and more like falling asleep.

When I questioned him further, the man who recently told me he can't understand poetry revised his statement. "Actually, what I mean is, there are certain poems that I love, but I don't know how to critique them intelligently." Start with a poem you love. Love will teach you more than any book or lecture. Love is more enjoyable, more sensual, more essential. If you follow your love of the poem into its depths, you will begin to "understand" in a way that you can apply to other poems.

A poem is not a locked box waiting for you to pry off its lid. It's a city where you can learn the language if you stick around long enough.