Levels of understanding?

I really like her work although I don’t understand a word of it.

From an email yesterday, batting around my head today. I’m guessing that we’re talking about levels of understanding here and that this statement actually means something like: I couldn’t stand up and explain the meaning of her work to a roomful of people, but I like it because I understand it on a sub- (or supra-) explanation level.

There has to be some level of “understanding” involved, otherwise, how could there be liking, right?

I think I’m seeing something like this more and more in my critiques of poems lately. Getting a little less wedded to exclamatory wtf!? commentary like: Hey, a minute ago your pancake was smoking blue curls off a griddle and now it’s stuck steaming upside the dark side of the moon?? What’s with that, O creepy obscure writer of disconnected doggerel whom no-one will read beyond next week?

Seeing more of: No idea what this means, but I like it.

If I stop and ask Why? the answers are nebulous: It sounds right. It looks right. It feels right. Maybe even smells right, or tastes right.

Does liking have to be articulatable to be credible?

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

3 thoughts on “Levels of understanding?”

  1. It was me who wrote that! Hey, who knew?

    I was talking about an experimental poet whose work is more visceral, symbolic, referential, than the average. She charts her own waters, so to speak, and so the language one has to use to explain one’s appreciation has to be appropriate, and that appeciation will generally have to be expressed after much analysis. It’s a question of translation, or even of articulation, of the effects her work produces, rather than a strict question of analysis of techniques, etc.

    It’s rather like the way I felt upon first reading The Waste Land by Eliot. The surface is not easily comprehensible. However, the images and language and sounds he uses resonate in areas far beyond the conscious, or even literate, brain.

    This is where poetry marries art and music and moves us in ways we can’t articulate.

  2. “This is where poetry marries art and music and moves us in ways we can’t articulate.”

    Yes. This is the interesting part. It’s a murky part — how do we find commonalities – how do we know they even exist – where we can’t articulate? Thanks for making me think about this.

  3. I’m inclined to think that it need not be so. Many poems, especially those considered avante garde are so specialized that in order to penetrate them the reader usually needs some kind of inside knowledge. That said, I don’t think that a thing needs to be understand in order to be enjoyable, or even meaningful. There are, for example, many lines from poems by Matthea Harvey that I adore but I don’t understand.

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