On Not Understanding
You are unlikely to enjoy reading poetry, or doing anything else with it for that matter, if you feel you don’t understand it. The feeling of not understanding can make any reader feel less intelligent, threatening the ego in a way that blocks any possible pleasure. This occurs even to intelligent graduate students when they face the reading of difficult poems. (These students are especially vulnerable, in fact, since they have much at stake in proving themselves to be bright and capable.) In reality, everyone has difficulty reading difficult texts, and expert readers disagree quite a lot about the meaning of texts, even one that are not in this category. A seemingly simple lyric by Wordworth, for example, occasioned fierce debate about meaning and authorial intention that reverberated through academia for many years.
One way out of this dilemma is to begin with easier poets, who write in contemporary language in accessible ways about their own personal experience. After that, it is easy to expand one’s horizons more gradually with more challenging material. Poetry is a supreme exercise of the human intelligence, so it seems limiting to confine yourself to things to which you can easily “relate.” The ultimate experience of reading is to leave one’s self behind and explore new horizons, and sometimes that will involve the reading of poems that do not give themselves up so readily.
Another approach is to simply not to care quite so much about understanding. When we think about understanding a poem, we are envisioning a situation of getting the answer right to the question: what is the meaning of this poem? There is some examination looming in your future, maybe, where you will have to come up with a convincing answer to this question. But if you are reading poetry for pleasure, you won’t have to ever answer this question. There is no professor who will grade you, and your answers (or lack or answers) matter to nobody except yourself. There can be no wrong or right answers, in this scenario, because there is no institutional framework defining the legitimacy of particular interpretations.
In the larger scheme of things, any particular way of understanding any given text is going to be less permanent and meaningful than the text itself. In other words, Hamlet is going to be more durable than any particular way understanding of Hamlet. Even interpretations developed ten or fifteen years ago might already begin to look quaint, given the inevitable shifts in fashion in literary criticism. The ability to come with an interpretation that seems legitimate by the standards of contemporary academia, then, is not going to be a meaningful measure of “understanding,”outside of this academic framework.
The ability to paraphrase—express in other words, not those of the poem itself—what the poem is supposedly saying, is a specialized academic skill that you will need to develop for a career in literary criticism, but it is not necessary otherwise. When you think about it, a paraphrase is simply another text, in prose, that will inevitably be less compelling than the poem—more abstract, with duller language. Its only advantage over the original text might be its clarity or directness. Yet is seems a sterile exercise to come up with bland paraphrases of extraordinary works of art. Conversations about art can rise above this insipid level, of course, but only if they avoid reducing the work of art to some cliché.
You can also immerse yourself in difficult poem for long periods of time and not worry excessively about whether you understand them. What is needed is a quality of suspension, in which the mind does not seek to understand things prematurely or resolve all ambiguities. The English romantic poet John Keats called this “negative capability”: “it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This suspension of certainty is necessary in a poet, according to Keats, but it is also necessary in a reader of poetry—insofar as poetry is the practice of deliberate ambiguity.
There is a paradox here, though: the indeterminacy of poetic meaning is not a form of vagueness in which “everything goes.” It derives, instead, from uses of language that are extraordinarily precise, almost in a mathematical sense. Students preoccupied about guessing at the meaning the professor wants them to extract from the poem might also think—in contradictory fashion—that the meaning of the poem is completely up for grabs, that any reader’s interpretion is as valid as that of any other’s. They are correct, ultimately, but not necessarily in the way they think. Negative capability does not imply the absence of precise perceptions, but rather the absence of irritatedly premature judgments. You must allow yourself to perceive the words on the page just as they are, hear the sounds and rhythms, feel the power of the words and images. Paraphrase often fails to be interesting or compelling because it isn’t relevant to anything specific in the particular case at hand.
What is suspended by “negative capability, then, is not the full range of human affect, intelligence, and perception, but the spurious demand for easy or clear-cut interpretations. Imagine a petulant, literal-minded child talking to you like this: “So what is the meaning of this symbol? If you can’t tell me, then what are we doing reading this text?” This inner child often seems to be wanting something that will take the form of a translation of the poem into another sort of discourse, or an explanation that uses some other set of intellectual tools, derived from some other discipline, in order to account for the poem’s strange beauty. Perhaps El Greco had a defect of vision that caused him to paint his oddly elongated figures? Maybe the key to understanding Lorca or Tsaikovsky is their homosexuality? Of course heterosexuality can never be the interpretative key that opens up an author’s work! In the reductionist mentality, reduction only work in one direction.