“I think poetry is for you weird guys”, a friend of mine who’s a mathematician once said to me, and to be sincere this got me laughing out loud. I didn’t expect such from him, as he’s also really good at what he does.
Why do people not understand poetry? They actually could, but not when they think they can’t. They think that the face-level meaning they get from poetry is nothing compared to what they should have understood, they misconceive the essence of poetry.
Different people will have different things to say about this topic if they were asked, but as much as I have come to see, people find it hard to understand poetry because:
1. Poetry is not a one-size-fits-all work
One reason people may find understanding poetry quite hard is that poems are not usually written for everyone. As a matter of fact, research has shown that works of art like poetry are basically for small audiences. The poet either doesn’t have the world in his mind or he just can’t speak the language of the world.
To write something everyone will flow with, one has to use a universally simple diction and write without conforming to restrictions (which is part of poetry). Since this isn’t possible, it is reasonable to think that people in the same boat with any given poet (or his work) will relate better to such works.
It happened to me. A few months ago when I met an American poet online, we decided to assess each other’s works and neither of us was able to give a correct interpretation of what the other had written. We are ourselves, poets. You can imagine.
To analyze her poem, she had to tell me about certain disagreements on the enactment of a bill in the country, and I told her how I perceive the universe as a world of lies, to properly interpret the poems we shared. A lot made sense after this.
But one thing is certain, if I’d been an American, I would have a better understanding of that work than I did before she explained it to me.
2. Wrong perception of what poetry is
Formalism school of criticism must have been right after all, by suggesting that we interpret words based on the writer’s words without considering extrinsic matters.
I think this is also important in poetry interpretation as a way to nullify the long-lived tale that poetry is supposed to be difficult— a mentality held by both readers and some poets.
Consequently, readers who may have gotten a clear picture of a poem looking at face value may be forced to think that some mysterious significance lies behind those literary words, colors, innuendos, etc., even when it is seldom true.
Over the years, this has been a major problem why more people do not understand poetry.
3. Poets may intentionally obfuscate things
No, I’m not in any way saying that this is what poets do or that it is a good practice. It remains a fact, nevertheless, that poets, especially modern-day poets, are fond of the habit of intentionally hiding the message of their works by deploying rodomontade languages or circumlocutions. While this may be fine enough to feed their ego, we must realise how it can throw readers into bafflement.
By and large, this is another way in which the wrong perception of the nature of poetry is affecting us.
Also Read: 30 Poetry Synonyms
4. The concise nature of poetry
Not far-fetched; see this from the perspective of summarising. When a composition is summarized, it may not be as informative as the original piece. Thus, being precise may obscure supposed interpretations.
Remember that a poem contains that which can be contained in a broader piece type, say— a novel for instance. This may mean referring to a country seeking freedom as a caged bird or connoting violence as red, etc.
5. They don’t usually entertain readers
The best purpose of literature has been said to be entertainment. So even when forced, people won’t resonate with those works of art that are not of interest to them. Not necessarily works that make people laugh, but those that carry their audiences along. Fine aesthetic distance!
Poetry too can entertain —as much as it does at times— but because it is not the kind of genre that describes or narrates in hundreds of pages, it usually has a serious tone, mood, and atmosphere, and is direct to the point.
Examples of Poems That Are Easy To Understand
Basically, when this is said, we are referring to poems with simple dictions, and there are innumerable such works, ranging from Maya Angelou’s The Caged Bird to William Blake’s The School Boy, Lighter by AGE, The Pulley, Vanity by Birago Diop, The Dining Table, and so on.
By the way, one of them is mine, and if you don’t mind I’d like us to examine it as we wrap up this content.
LIGHTER by Aderemi G. Emmanuel
(I wrote this short poem a few years ago, but I thought of including it in this piece for analysis, so that some points earlier examined as the reasons people find understanding poetry difficult may be accentuated)
1. When a black blind building
Lacks light, you are excluded.
In the state of darkness,
Lighter is a highness.
2. A man with an eye
Is a kite
In the land of the blind.
So also is lighter in darkness.
3. Guess what? My Nation,
You are the lighter amid other Nations.
Not only that I belong to thee,
I’m content being with thou.
The diction of this work is straightforward. Oh, yes, it’s my work but don’t worry I won’t be sentimental in talking about it.
Because of my choice of diction for this work, the fact is that it would be taken for granted by some scholars. It may appear like something written by an unseasoned poet or better still one that isn’t really in for business.
By choosing a quite difficult-to-interpret diction, litterateurs with the wrong perception think that all efforts to make the work original and factual must have been mortgaged to it. Do you suppose this is true?
When I started to make poems (out of ideas that will pop spontaneously in my head), I got myself a mentor—an English literature expert. From him, I learned that only the poet of a poem can give the work its actual meaning.
Consequently, I’m of the view that whatever is learned from a poem is the reader’s takeaway (and may have been influenced by the reader’s own world) for reading.
To interpret poems at face value is not a crime, even though it is always better to resonate with what’s written. But when you can’t ask questions or you can assume you’re not the right audience for such works.
[I also want to hear from you. Are there any personal reasons you think understanding poetry is hard? I’d appreciate hearing from you in the comment below]Share