Poetry I don’t understand

The other day I was reading this Keat’s poem “The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream”, I was thoroughly enjoying it but also understanding none of it. The rather long piece was chock-full of mythological references I didn’t get and the wording was archaic. I had an understanding of this being a very good poem, and certain lines did make me smile in delight, but overall I didn’t grasp a lot of it. I’ve had similar situations reading poems such as T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” I didn’t quite get the themes of “The Wasteland”, until I read up on them a little bit after finishing the piece, it doesn’t help that I read the bulk of Eliot’s revolutionary poem while waiting around grand central station, being hassled by people telling me, most likely fabricated, sob stories in an attempt to get me to open my heart and wallet to them. I’d still say I liked The Wasteland, but on some level I feel insincere making this claim seeing as I didn’t grasp a good amount of it.

I have the same feeling with movies but to a greater extent. Watching long and slow paced films like Solaris or Stalker, both by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, often feels a bit like a chore, even when I acknowledge them as being objectively well made. Solaris in particular is composed of absolutely gorgeous shots, yet throughout its duration I had to struggle not to check my iPhone for bursts of easy, ephemeral entertainment. At the end of these movies I’m not left questioning my sanity, as I hoped I would, but my intelligence. With complex poems I may not get what’s going on, but I’m not usually bored.

I don’t necessarily think it matters if I don’t get all of what I read, but I still worry that it makes me Holden Caulfield’s favorite word. Maybe I should be honest with myself, acknowledge my technology-fried attention span, and lay off the long movies, but I still derive a lot of pleasure from elaborate and cryptic poetry, so I’m going to continue to read it. Perhaps I’ll picture myself as a deep sea diver, surrounding themself with creatures they may not understand, but which they find fascinating all the same.

2 Replies to “Poetry I don’t understand”

  1. This same idea has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve always loved how poetry can have multiple meanings to each person, and it fascinates me what people can find in poetry, whether or not the author intended it. But sometimes I read a poem that completely confuses me, and I still love it. I’ve focused a lot on “meaning” this semester, not really thinking about how something almost foreign to me can be every bit as interesting. Sometimes my inability to understand something makes me want to figure it out. And sometimes I just like the fact that it’s odd, but still able to interest me.

    There have been times when I purposely didn’t allow myself to understand something because I wanted to see what it would be like to be unaware. I do this with song lyrics I’m unfamiliar with too. If there’s a line that I find hard to hear, I will try not to make out the words. It’s weird, but I do this because I want to know what English might sound like to foreigners. When I first started listening to Japanese (through music, anime, films, etc…) it sounded almost painful. But I adjusted over time, and now I love listening to it. Then when I actually studied Japanese, the sounds started to become words. Point is, I hear it very differently now, and that made me curious to know what my first language sounds like as pure sound and not actual words.

    So in short: I like things that make sense and also things that don’t make sense.


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