Understanding: Optional

“I don’t quite understand about understanding poetry. I experience poems with pleasure: whether I understand them or not I’m not quite sure. I don’t want to read something I already know or which is going to slide down easily: there has to be some crunch, a certain amount of resilience.” –  John Ashbery

Poetry Night at Fergie's Pub in Philly.

Poetry Night at Fergie’s Pub in Philly.

There was a time I would finish reading a poem and scratch my head, like, “Huh?” only to realize later, in a few minutes, perhaps a few weeks, that something touched me–an image, a feeling, or simply the idea of it just made me smile. I’m finding that understanding poetry is kind of like understanding life. Spend too much time trying to figure some things out and you’ll drive yourself crazy.

Leonard says that poetry need not be understood to be appreciated. That’s not an easy concept to grasp for anyone with a relentless need to understand even the most inane doings of life. I mean, your first instinct wouldn’t be to hug a two-hundred pound St. Bernard who just peed on your foot regardless how snuggly he appears wagging his tail at you and drooling.

Learning to appreciate irrespective of understanding requires a level of trust, and letting go–letting go of preconceived expectations about what an outcome should be and trusting the source, the medium, the art. In other words, resist your hard wiring, that which you’ve been conditioned to expect or believe. Matthew Fox says that when you develop the ability to let go, you can see the world as it is and choose a course of action without reactive judgement or projecting or overreacting. It’s like watching an artist or athlete engaged in a genre or sport you know nothing about and finding beauty in their talent, performance, emotion–their joy.

Appreciating life irrespective of understanding its every facet broadens your world. It enables you to experience things that enrich life. You might take a class in something you never believed you’d try, or have a conversation with someone with a completely different world view than your own.

Or maybe you will even read a poem, have no idea what it means, and really like it. It might even change your life.


About Jim Brennan

Jim is a Philadelphia-based writer, author, poet and editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal.
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3 Responses to Understanding: Optional

  1. Sophie33 says:

    Two weeks ago, we had a local poem night. It was great! We enjoy it very much & my dad writes poems.


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