Let’s Talk Poetry: Not Understanding

October 6, 2013

Neil Carpathios

Contributing Columnists

Ironically enough, as a professor of poetry, I encourage my students to not understand poems. Too often, they have been trained to view a poem as a riddle to be solved as quickly as possible. They rush to get to the finish line and say, “I got it. It means this or that. Let’s move on to the next poem…” We have grown used to fast food and sound bites on TV. We live in a world that values productivity and speed at all costs. But poetry invites us to slow down. Maybe that is why in ancient Greece the poets were viewed as odd and dangerous, often cast out of society. As Ogden Nash put it: “Poets aren’t very useful because they aren’t consumeful or very produceful.”

However, poetry is wonderful precisely because it is one of the few things in the world that is not consumeful or produceful. It is not, nor should it be, a speedy assembly-line product. As T.S. Eliot wrote: “Genuine poetry can communicate without being understood.” The quote gives us permission to experience and enjoy a poem without necessarily having figured it out, logically. This is where many teachers kill the innate joy students have for poems. We grow up loving the playfulness and mystery of nursery rhymes, swept away by images and music, but at some point we are forced to analyze and decipher (i.e. we associate poetry with work). No wonder so many students develop a distaste for poems, and why so few of us read poetry.

Along these same lines is the following quote, by Novalis: “Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.” Or this one, by Archibald MacLeish: “A poem should not mean, but be.” Or this one by Maxwell Bodenheim: “For me, poetry is an impish attempt to paint the color of the wind.”

All of these nicely express how a reader of poems must untrain the brain from immediately pouncing toward problem-solving. To this day, when I see a magician performing a trick, I do not want to know how he does it. We have lost the child inside us. We are too much in a hurry to understand, to control, to possess everything.

When I read Emily Dickinson and she says she feels “zero to the bone,” I think I can feel what she means she feels, without understanding or wanting to understand completely. She is trying to express something with words that is beyond words. She is trying to “paint the color of the wind.” This is the magic of poetry. This is the pleasure of letting words have a life of their own. What a joy it is to feel beautifully lost in Dickinson’s mysteriousness, to NOT understand.

Address correspondence and poetry submissions to: ncarpathios@shawnee.edu or Neil Carpathios, Dept. of English & Humanities, Shawnee State University, 940 Second Street, Portsmouth, OH 45662. (740-351-3478).