Understanding poems


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Thread: Understanding poems

  1. #1

    Understanding poems

    I write poetry myself and often have an understanding of other people's poetry. However, it's also the case that a lot of other people's poetry goes whooshing over my head and I haven't a clue how to unpick them. I sometimes wonder if I might think too literally.
    Sure, sometimes I feel something from the poem if I go with the flow and avoid dissecting the words too much, but whenever I sense I'm starting to get a handle on it, along come some poems that leave me feeling brainless.
    Suggestions are welcome (other than getting a brain transplant).
    Thanks


  2. #2
    There are many poems I do not understand. So you are not alone

    Sometimes understanding though is not that important to me, sound, flow, emotion, music, rhythm, choice of words, wordplay, it all can make a poem worth reading to me.

    I know that my own poems aim to paint an image, with in itself simple words, but I also do not aim for easy understanding. I write for myself primarily, but it does have to make sense in some way. It's not easy to describe or explain in what way.

    Ask yourself the question: why should a poem be understood. I think (my personal opinion of course) that the best poems are those where many people start to discuss about its meaning. Because everyone finds a different truth or meaning in those poems.

  3. #3
    Understanding poems — Feeling poetry.

    I don't think poems are supposed to be understood. They might have and overall intent in flow, but it is not to be understood as much as it is to be felt. That the author provides imagery and active verbs to create an inner feeling within the reader or listener to have that experience in the intent of the poem. That intent is never told in the poem for it would kill the real intent in the poem leaving the poem empty after it was read or heard. Just like a movie doesn't explain itself. While creating the emotion in another; the poet actually leaves them moved by the poem in such a way that they live the poem's intent as their own feelings. So they are having the poet's experience as their own. It's kind of like watching a Horror movie that leaves you haunted after leaving the theater. But with poetry the author/poet plays with all kinds of emotions that deal deeply with the complete gamut of life experiences from brith to death.

    So I see poems are something to be felt and not really understood until you actually live the experience while experiencing the poem; that the poem is presenting a definite emotional concern as its intent. The problem for the poet is to be able to write it without saying it at all. So that the readers get sucked into their own experiences while reading the poem. The poet is providing the catalyst for their real experience. Now that's an art. Then the poem stands on it's own merit and it doesn't need understanding; it only needs to provide an experience though its presentation as an intent through some sort of storyline. It can be short or very long. But the reader comes out the other side being reestablished through their own personal experience that the poet wants them to have. That's tricky, for the reader can get lost in the poem. It is not so unlike: looking at an abstract painting, or a piece of sculpture, or even listening to a piece of instrumental music for that matter. You end up being marked by your own experiences due to the art form; because of where the poet's/artist's work has taken you on it's presented journey. It not so much about the poet dumping their feelings or emotions on the reader as it is making the reader have the poet's feelings within themselves. That takes skill. I can remember reading a poem by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney about his mother's death. He takes a white hair off of her black coat taken from the closet and goes to the fireplace to throw it aways and it rises up the chimney. Now when I read that the hair on my arms rose up. Now that's feeling the poem's intent. He built the poem around that event. That was epiphany. That's what the poem should do when it is felt. If the writer wants you to have an upset stomach; you should come out of the poem wanting to vomit. Then you have their experience. If you come out of a poem angry it should be the writers intent to stir anger in others. Just like Picasso's Guernica should make you feel the horror of war. At that time cubism was new to the world and it was haunting to view in its blacks, whites, and grays as utter death scenes compiled together.

    This is why workshops are good, for you get to see through other creative eye briefly through comments and suggestions. Whether there is agreement or not; is totally up to the author of the poem. Always without any exceptions the author owns the work. In the end the poem stands on it's own merit or it doesn't at all. The publisher reads it and gets it, or they don't get it at all. It's really that simple. You feel poems when they are read or heard. In hearing live poetry you get the aural sensation of poetry. Which is the true media of poetry; it is a media of the voice as heightened language to be heard not just spoken. This confuses many. It can also be dramatized which just increases the feeling sensations into a dramatic range of concern. Like a Shakespeare play. Or a Eugene O'Neill play, like "The Iceman Cometh" about pipe dreams: a wonderful modern poetic play. Just my thoughts as a poet.

    a poet friend
    RH Peat

  4. #4
    RHP, your post certainly struck a chord with me because I have more than once remarked that I seldom write poetry because my prose is my poetry. As someone who has never studied poetic forms I do not comprehend how some apparently formless strings of words are regarded as poetry, but maybe it is the dualism of content and effect that you describe that characterises them. This is how I have regarded my mainstream prose fiction. Indeed I appended to the title of my solitary novel the words "(about something else)" as a clue. With a prose story the reader is lulled into assuming that the literal story that unfolds is the sole objective of the work and it takes a more astute reader to recognise the unmentioned processes that it induces within their mind. In the case of poetry there may be no literal story present and the words may indeed just whoosh over the reader's head.

    When I sent a hundred page extract from my novel to a professional reader for comments he told me that it was "an easy read" but his other comments indicated that he hadn't grasped from that extract the underlying processes involved. As I was paying for his service I couldn't afford to have him read the entire work, so I could see why he didn't understand it. I also sent the entire draft work to a friendly university lecturer in English literature in America, a person very skilled at reading and appreciating, rather than writing, literature. He actually read the whole work twice for free and observed that he enjoyed the second reading even more than the first, so I had met Oscar Wilde's declared requirement that a story wasn't worth reading at all if it wasn't worth reading more than once. Evidently he had discovered that there was indeed "something else" within the words apart from the self-evident story. He also grumbled about having to create a course on Spenser's The Faerie Queene, which I understand has a number of allegorical levels. He'd far rather teach his students how to appreciate the nuances of Shakespeare's works.

    I suspect that readers of prose works can almost always assume that they have experienced what was intended in them even if in reality they have only scraped the surface, whereas a poem may superficially present very little to them at a similar level and therefore appear perplexing. Hence readership of poetry is likely to be more restricted than of prose. So my prose actually is my poetry, but in a way that many readers might not even notice.

    There is another current thread running discussing the use of ambiguity in prose, to which I have contributed, and I see a parallel between that one and this in that both address the possibility that a reader may get entirely and irretrievably lost in the work if the writer does not balance his style against the perceptiveness of his intended readers. I consider one's target reader to be the most important character that a writer should imagine.

    I recollect an incident during a training course on personal communication skills at my office many decades ago. The tutor said that anyone attending a meeting should declare their reasons for attending it, but one listener objected to that suggestion. He said, "How can I hope to achieve my objectives if I tell people what they are?" We all agreed that it was a good point, but we were all computer systems developers used to using deviously complex logic to achieve our ends. I get the impression that some poetry can be equally devious.

    I doubt that my novel could ever be a success commercially because, as with poetry, I wanted to get the reader to share deeply in the feelings of the characters, which were in the opening stages of the story ... utter boredom. Er, that's a problem in itself if the writer succeeds though, a difficult problem to overcome and a candidate for "tell, don't show" perhaps.
    Last edited by JustRob; August 14th, 2019 at 09:58 AM.
    'Sharing an experience creates a reality.' Create a new reality today.
    'There has to be some give and take.' If I can take my time I'm willing to give it.
    'The most difficult criticism that a writer has to comprehend is silence.' So speak up.

  5. #5
    The poetry police like things in order and rules are there to keep it academic..the poetry hippy likes to be a bit weird..out there stuff an is open to all sorts..my fav one is the obscure Luvy who sees their words and meaning that transcend mortals understanding an makes them feel like the gods of words an meaning...
    The only one who can heal you is you.




  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by JustRob View Post
    RHP, your post certainly struck a chord with me because I have more than once remarked that I seldom write poetry because my prose is my poetry. As someone who has never studied poetic forms I do not comprehend how some apparently formless strings of words are regarded as poetry, but maybe it is the dualism of content and effect that you describe that characterises them. This is how I have regarded my mainstream prose fiction. Indeed I appended to the title of my solitary novel the words "(about something else)" as a clue. With a prose story the reader is lulled into assuming that the literal story that unfolds is the sole objective of the work and it takes a more astute reader to recognise the unmentioned processes that it induces within their mind. In the case of poetry there may be no literal story present and the words may indeed just whoosh over the reader's head.

    When I sent a hundred page extract from my novel to a professional reader for comments he told me that it was "an easy read" but his other comments indicated that he hadn't grasped from that extract the underlying processes involved. As I was paying for his service I couldn't afford to have him read the entire work, so I could see why he didn't understand it. I also sent the entire draft work to a friendly university lecturer in English literature in America, a person very skilled at reading and appreciating, rather than writing, literature. He actually read the whole work twice for free and observed that he enjoyed the second reading even more than the first, so I had met Oscar Wilde's declared requirement that a story wasn't worth reading at all if it wasn't worth reading more than once. Evidently he had discovered that there was indeed "something else" within the words apart from the self-evident story. He also grumbled about having to create a course on Spenser's The Faerie Queene, which I understand has a number of allegorical levels. He'd far rather teach his students how to appreciate the nuances of Shakespeare's works.

    I suspect that readers of prose works can almost always assume that they have experienced what was intended in them even if in reality they have only scraped the surface, whereas a poem may superficially present very little to them at a similar level and therefore appear perplexing. Hence readership of poetry is likely to be more restricted than of prose. So my prose actually is my poetry, but in a way that many readers might not even notice.

    There is another current thread running discussing the use of ambiguity in prose, to which I have contributed, and I see a parallel between that one and this in that both address the possibility that a reader may get entirely and irretrievably lost in the work if the writer does not balance his style against the perceptiveness of his intended readers. I consider one's target reader to be the most important character that a writer should imagine.

    I recollect an incident during a training course on personal communication skills at my office many decades ago. The tutor said that anyone attending a meeting should declare their reasons for attending it, but one listener objected to that suggestion. He said, "How can I hope to achieve my objectives if I tell people what they are?" We all agreed that it was a good point, but we were all computer systems developers used to using deviously complex logic to achieve our ends. I get the impression that some poetry can be equally devious.

    I doubt that my novel could ever be a success commercially because, as with poetry, I wanted to get the reader to share deeply in the feelings of the characters, which were in the opening stages of the story ... utter boredom. Er, that's a problem in itself if the writer succeeds though, a difficult problem to overcome and a candidate for "tell, don't show" perhaps.
    Rob

    What you say about "your own" prose holds true to great novels. Two great American novels come to mind right off, Melville's Moby Dick and Twain's Huck Finn. (Melville's novel is said by the poet Charles Olson to be projective, as a poet he was experimenting with projective verse. You might want to read some of his Maximus poems). And in Melville's Moby Dick, if you read the section where the cook is talking to the two crew-members on deck at night; you can actually see a poem's metaphor in what the cook is saying to the two hands on deck when the cook is comparing angels to sharks. *read it; you'll be shocked; it is just like a long poem. It's is a powerful poetic statement about the religion of Melville's time also. And Moby Dick has long been argued to be a representation of God. Which the evil Ahab is obsessed with killing. It's Queequeg the Polynesian harpooner that kills the white whale, He opens Ishmael's eyes which indirectly saves his life. He's the primitive in the bunch. Only the young man, Ishmael survives in the end to tell the story.(1st person.) It's based on a true story told to Melville by a sailor off a whaling ship as one of 3 survivors of the wreck ship concerning a white whale. The whale did ram their ship and it actually followed them across a greater part of the pacific ocean. There were 3 small harpooning vessels left but the whale ends up destroying two of them. The last one ends up in Australia with the first mate navigating.

    The mighty Mississippi River is God in Huck Finn. So Huck is coursing on the river of God. Sounds like the "word" In the beginning there was the river and the river was God, as an interpretation the word as the Logos. The river is also the journey of life. The return home is self realization. Huck becomes a man, he crosses the threshold to leave the boy as the lost child behind.

    So your best novels do have a lot of meat beneath the surface. Catch 22 is another that reeks with underlying depth to it. The writing is rich in that sense. You can easily put yourself in Yossarian, Huck, or Ishmael. Note none of these things are said directly in the novels. They symbolically arrive in the reader's consciousness to be interpreted. So keep writing with more depth. It's solid ground that you're after that holds many levels of feelings together as a single unit. I always write for 2 or 3 levels of knowing, sometimes even more.

    The thing is that your experience with the people that read your book or parts of it; each sees something different. That's because of the multilevel in relationship to their own personal understanding about the experience of life. It's like the difference of an adult and a child reading Huck Finn. Each is going to get something very different from the depth of the writing. The more experienced person will see more. I would guess teacher who saw more was older than the first person. He had more reading under his belt, and he read for depth opposed to just the surface storyline.

    Many have accused Joseph Heller of being all over the place with Catch 22. But then the main character is all over the place trying act nuts to maintain his life and sanity. Now that makes a storyline scattered to some extent and somewhat bazaar. It's a hell of a story. Twain had to take Huck Finn to England to get it published; it too has a scatter storyline by just making the trip down the river. Again 1st person. The "I" is not the author. Huck is the American spirit of that time. Who makes moral and ethical judgements for himself. He raw goodness while the town folk are devious. There's a lot of depth in that book. First published in 1884. And twain's humor can't be beat. This makes Huck real in the world at large going down the river.

    Ken Kesey was told his novel "one flew over the cocoa's nest" was a fluke. It was the only novel he had written. Then he writes: "sometimes times a Great Notion" and proves he's the writer that first novel shows as well. Again a lot of underlying depth in both this books. So what you're talking about is not new to the novel form at all. Poetic prose does exist and it's different from a prose poem as well. Keep writing.

    a poet friend
    RH Peat

  7. #7
    Global Moderator Squalid Glass's Avatar
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    As a poet and an academic, I feel like there is happy middle ground. Poetry can be enjoyed for its musical and spiritual elements while at the same time being appreciated for its substance and technical prowess. I think learning more about literary criticism is one way to better understand poetry in general. Having a lens with which to view a poem makes it easier to contextualize and, ultimately, understand it.
    "I don't do anything with my life except romanticize and decay with indecision."

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  8. #8
    Do we understand instrumental music? Do we understand an abstract painting or an artistic photograph? In this case, the word “understand” is misleading... as if the music should convey some message or the painting should point us toward the food court or the photograph should tell us something about the weather.

    Meaning is not only derived from rational “understanding.” Poetry is not a “language” that offers a specific set of interpretations for given symbols. When we listen to music we gather meaning through “mood” or “tone.” An abstract painting offers meaning through its use of space and the juxtaposition of shapes and colour. An abstract photograph has the power to lead us toward a reinterpretation of perception.

    The confusion with understanding poetry comes from our association between words and meaning. We understand words as a method to transfer information through the logical structure of language, to instruct or to tell a story. A poem may tell a story but that is not what the poem is “about.” We need to be able to look beyond or beneath the surface layer of the story to what emotional associations the reader might make in the unconscious. It often takes several readings of a poem to grasp its context. Each reading allows a deeper view into layers of meaning. What’s important is to avoid thinking too much and just absorb.

    Poetry, as all art, offers meaning in the interaction between the work and the viewer. It offers the viewer (or reader) an opportunity to create their own meaning as a response to the work precisely because the work is not didactic (is not a singular, overdetermined message). Meaning is created in the space between the work and the perceiver which allows the reader/viewer to bring their own experience to the event and create meaning through epiphany by associating images in the work with their experiential reality. Open ended expression like poetry is particularly adept at this juncture. That is why Ron Peat says that a poem should never explain its intent. In doing so, it kills the artistic experience by robbing the reader an opportunity to create their own meaning in that interface between the work and the viewer. That is where the “art” happens.
    Last edited by TL Murphy; August 15th, 2019 at 05:13 PM.

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