Blessed if I understand

For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
– From “The Wreck of the Deutschland” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

My travails with Donne as recorded in my previous post, and, more especially, a Facebook conversation I subsequently had regarding that post, raise some wider interesting questions on how we understand poetry, and, indeed, art in general.

My own academic background is in science and mathematics, and, at least to the levels I attained, understanding in those areas is a very precise thing: each symbol in each equation or formula is precisely defined, and the relationship between these precisely defined symbols is itself precisely defined, and the scientific mind is trained to understand each of these things precisely, so as to leave no room for ambiguity or uncertainty. Even where the formula denotes uncertainty – the famous Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg, say – there is a precisely defined limit on the product of the uncertainties involved. When trying to absorb anything of a mathematical nature, to come to an understanding, one has to understand precisely what each of the elements means, and then understand, again precisely, how they come together, and relate to each other. Now, clearly, this is not the way we take in poetry, which, as T. S. Eliot once said, is something that can be appreciated even before it is understood. There are a great many poems that I love greatly, that haunt my mind, but which I would be at a loss to explain in clear terms: like this poem by Yeats, for instance. Unlike Heisenberg’s formula that puts limits on the product of the standard deviations of the momentum and position of a particle, there seems no limit here even to the myriad uncertainties. Could I explain what is meant by the “gong-tormented sea”? No, not really. It seems to make its impact not at the level of consciousness, exposed to light and to precision, but rather at some mysterious subterranean level of the mind.

All of this makes it difficult to talk about poetry. To define precisely each term, and explain how everything fits together to cohere into a whole, seems to be missing the point. And yet, merely to say how wonderful it is without expanding on what it is that makes it wonderful seems mere pointless burbling.

It is at this point that a scientifically trained mind unsympathetic to the claims of poetry is likely to ask how, if understanding at a conscious level is not the point, one may distinguish between poetry and gibberish. The cynic may say there is no difference, but that won’t do: Yeats’ “Byzantium”, no matter how obscure, is a work of art, and a very great one at that, whereas a few random words and phrases that I may put together is unlikely to be, and there must be some reason for this. Nonetheless, a poem is not a mathematical formula, or a crossword puzzle awaiting a solution: obscurities in a poem are to be absorbed, not explained away, as any explanation is likely to be facile and reductive. Some years ago, I confessed on this blog that I was still “puzzled” by Moby-Dick, but even as I was writing this, I knew I was meant to be puzzled – that, paradoxically, if I wasn’t puzzled, that could only mean that I hadn’t taken it in at all adequately.

Bearing all this in mind, I have to ask myself whether my confessed befuddlement with Donne’s poetry is but an indication that I have been approaching it wrongly – whether, indeed, my desire to “understand” is itself misplaced, and an unfortunate by-product of my scientific background. Although I am not entirely sure on the matter, I am inclined to think not, as my puzzlement relates not to that which lies hidden deep below the surface, but to the surface itself. My puzzlement is not akin to my wondering what the White Whale represents, but, rather, to my not even getting in the first place that Ahab is hunting the White Whale. In short, my lack of understanding, so far, is on a very basic level – too basic, indeed, even to be recorded in a blog that, I like to flatter myself, is sophisticated and cultured. Or something like that.

But I trust that it won’t take me too long to get to a level where I can, at least, grasp the surface. And then will come the really difficult bit.

7 responses to this post.

  1. I’m not exactly sure what this means, but it has remained with me from the first time I read the novel–

    “The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”
    ―Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness–


    • It’s an enigmatic work, isn’t it? The nature of the horror that is at the heart of the darkness is all the more powerful for not being spelt out, because of the implication that it can’t be spelt out. I often think that the finest poetry hints at and communicates that which our language is not capable of directly articulating. The passage you quote seems to indicate that Marlow’s story is indicative of something that is greater than itself. the image is certainly a very powerful one.


  2. Eliot was right. Good poetry has a way of telling us what it’s about before the more specific meaning becomes clear. To riff on Fred’s comment, there are tensions, yearnings, funks, joys, and so on that are common to everyone but more prominent in some people or on certain occasions. A poem illuminates these hazy human halos in ways that seem magical and give rise to the sense of a free-floating soul. The reactions that take place in the brain on reading poetry (or listening to music or meditating on a painting) are quantifiable and predictable and can therefore be manipulated by a magician like Yeats or Donne. However you look at it, it is still more miracle than handiwork, but the handiwork is what generates the moonshine which allows us to contemplate the misty halos of our existence.

    I have a (very) old textbook titled Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. Great book. I couldn’t have explicated a poem to save my life in high school, so when my daughter got to that unit I dug this out of the garage and studied it so I could help her. My brain has had a few upgrades since high school (I’d say it’s running on XP now), and I found that by scanning poems I could clue into all kinds of business going on in the poem. It also gave me an appreciation of the genius–and I mean genius–of great poets.

    On the other hand, there is just no unlocking a poem if you don’t have the key, and that is frustrating. My daughter and I hunkered down over a short Robert Frost poem and were completely stumped. She was supposed to write about the central images in the poem, neither of which was anything we had ever heard of. We did some research and discovered that one was a flower and the other a spider. So far so good. But it took more digging to discover the color and state of both, central to understanding the poem, because it wasn’t obvious–it was something Frost would have observed but was totally outside of our experience. This kind of obscurity is almost inherent in poetry, and is one reason most people don’t like it.

    If you like teasing out the details, the pay off is huge. If the specifics aren’t important, then it’s like listening to a great pop song when you can’t understand what the singer is saying–it still gets you on an intuitive level.


    • On the other hand, there is just no unlocking a poem if you don’t have the key, and that is frustrating.

      Indeed – that’s the very point, I think! I don’t expect to “understand” if, by “understand”, one means understanding it a one would a mathematical formula. But there are times when, as you put it, one doesn’t have the key – one doesn’t know the direction in which the poet is leading, and so, one can’t follow. the only way for me to get to know Donne is, I think, simply to keep reading and re-reading, and pondering on what I have read, so that my mind absorbs something of the way his mind must have worked.


    • I have, incidentally, written about specific poems on this blog – here, and here. It’s something I’d like to do more often, but I do feel very diffident about it.


  3. Posted by alan on April 15, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    “each symbol in each equation or formula is precisely defined, and the relationship between these precisely defined symbols is itself precisely defined, and the scientific mind is trained to understand each of these things precisely, so as to leave no room for ambiguity or uncertainty.”
    Is Einstein’s mass the same as Newton’s mass, or has it just been redefined in relation to other things?
    I think that there is a bit of tail chasing going on in Science as well, but as long as the equations work then only philosophers care.
    In the case of poetry there is no empirical consequence, except for its very limited sales I suppose, and I don’t really care that much if I can’t figure out why it works.

    The only kind of poetry I can pick apart is very simple and child-like, and we’ve discussed this before. I think I can also see fashions in simple poetry:

    one of Steinbeck’s poetic (ish) interludes in the “Grapes of Wrath”:

    “Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of your hand on the gear-shift lever; listen with your feet on the floor boards. Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses”

    reminds me of Auden’s ‘The Night Train’, which is virtually contemporaneous:

    “Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
    Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
    Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
    Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands”.

    but something like this extract from Wallace Steven’s “The Man with the Blue Guitar”:

    “That I may reduce the monster to
    Myself, and then may be myself

    In face of the monster, be more than part
    Of it, more than the monstrous player of

    One of its monstrous lutes, not be
    Alone, but reduce the monster and be,

    Two things, the two together as one,
    And play of the monster and of myself, ”

    although for some bizarre reason I like some of this stuff, probably due to a lack of taste, I have absolutely no idea what the author is on about and I probably never will.


    • Well, the basics of physics – time, mass, length, etc. – are all undefined, so I suppose, as you say, there’s a lot of tail-chasing going on. But I do like your dismissive rejoinder that “only philosophers care”. The problem with me is that I am a would-be philosopher: by that I mean that I care – that I do not see the value of physics or of mathematics as being limited solely to the utilitarian; however, despite my caring, as soon as philosophy gets beyond the basics, my brain starts to hurt, and though I care, I am unable to follow. I am a bear of little brain.

      I’m not sure why you put down your liking for the Wallace Stevens poem to “lack of taste”. I too like the poem, and, also like you, I’d be at a loss to explain why. but i really don’t like to leave it there, for if one does, then all one may say about it is “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it”, and I cannot think of a conversation more pointless. If one is to talk about poetry at all, one is to go beyond that. This is why I find it so difficult to write about poetry.


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