It’s taken me some effort to learn how to appreciate poetry. I can make broad statements about liking books and music without having to like all books or all music, but with poetry–for whatever reason–it’s been more difficult.
However, as someone who would also say he likes math, opening a book of poems and seeing this has immediate appeal:
This is from R. D. Liang’s Knots, a book of poems about “the patterns of human bondage.” I like this. It gives me that “this looks crazy and I want to understand it” feeling.
That feeling is everywhere in math, though it has nothing to do with liking numbers or concepts: It’s a love for the notation itself, the joy of getting to move towards increasingly strange symbology as you understand more.
And reading Knots feels much the same — up to a point. My fascination thus far is wholly with its notation (e.g. the cryptic use of brackets, the strings of random numbers) and the structures in the book itself (e.g. its syntax — the “knots”). Try this one, for example:
Jack sees that
Jill does not know
Jack does not know what
But Jack can’t see
why Jill does not know
that Jack does not know
what Jill thinks
I’ve been reading these poems for the last few nights and I’ve still yet to get much closer to appreciating the subtleties of what Liang has to say about human psychology. (To me, the poem fragment above is not so much about “knowing what others know” as it is about learning how to parse the sentence to read it.) In some sense, I’m hung up solely on the way it’s presented rather than on what it means.
So I’m curious: When is it okay to not want to understand? (Or is it always okay?) Is “understanding” a poem something different from understanding other things?