A number of years ago, I sat in on a reading by the poet Gregory Orr. Gregory Or was then (and is now) a favorite poet of mine. In fact, he’s a favorite writer of mine. He was maybe five or six pieces into this reading when a conversation struck up between two of the other gentleman in the room. Sitting behind me, I heard one of them saying, loudly enough for me to hear,
“I don’t understand any of this”
I’d definitely heard that about poetry or about poems before. I’ve probably even said that even as an English major and someone who writes poetry.
“I don’t get it”
So, that’s not the remarkable part of the story; to say or hear “I don’t understand this poem or poetry.” What was notable was that the person he was talking to gave that moment of pause and said…
“Actually, not everything is meant to be understood.”
This need or desire and me to understand is, in essence, an expression of control. When I talk about “getting” something, when I talk about “understanding” something, part of what I mean by that is that I have a kind of power over it. Part of what good (if not great) poetry does is it disorients me to my own language; the words I normally would use to identify, name, pin down and control the world around me. Great poetry gives me the opportunity to get an attitude over my own life; to re-orient myself and my perspective to be, in fact, charmed again by the life I’m actually living.
And while you will not find in me an enemy of liberalism on the whole, what you will hear me say is that a strict literalist understanding of life, scripture, relationship, and humanity steals from me the sacred joy and gift of being named in my life.
See. when I name myself or a name my world, I generally do so (unfortunately) in a posture of power and control and in usefulness. All the while, near the heart of my being, is the desire to be more than useful
to be more than understood
and more than powerful too, in fact, be loved
And to be Beloved
is a thing I can only be named
from outside myself.
Deeper than that:
To receive that Title from someone else, from a culture, or from God, requires me to be in a position of powerlessness requires me to be in a position in which I don’t get to understand I simply get to receive
Poetry primes the spirit,
primes the mind,
loosens to grips I have
on the language
by which I will control
and postures me to actually become
someone who can be loved.
and is that not the thing in life that is simply wider, deeper, stronger, and better than any form of understanding: love
One of the great tragedies of religious culture and religious practice is the propensity to lean towards literalism. Bot because literalism is an enemy in and of itself; it’s simply a limited way to understand the language by which we talk about humanity and the divine and history and relationship. Some things, yes, should be understood. But only in the service of posturing me to love my world better.
The need I have (and desire I have) to understand the world around me should always be subservient to the deeper desire to love my world. To understand you should not be my goal; To love you well should.
And yes, sometimes when I don’t understand you and I don’t understand “why you are the way you are,” it can be more difficult to love you. On the other hand, sometimes the desire to just “get you” is too small a goal; I don’t get the great joy of discovering and learning and having to expand in order to receive you as you are.
And that is the call of great poetry; to pause long enough to listen to the pattern, to the rhythm, to the placement and the choice of the words on the page or uttered by the author’s mouth.
That I would open myself up
to a different understanding
of the same word
that I might receive that word
might receive that reality
on a deeper level
in a different way.
And if I can do that with language
then maybe I can do that
with the people around me.
Culture is usually formed and shaped and solidified by the words we use to identify the lines between people; I’m here you’re there and this is our relationship.
Poetry takes those words and sometimes unpacks them and sometimes unpacks us with them. That we might look around our lives and inside ourselves and say something more like this:
“I don’t understand and that’s probably not just OK; that’s probably good. Because I’m not here to ‘get it…
I’m here to love well.’”
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