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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Understand This

I'm now on page 444 of Moby Dick, with just under one hundred pages to go. (If you are keeping up with this kind of useless information.)

Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times recently interviewed former poet laureate W. S. Merwin, eliciting this reponse among others," I think it's unlikely that a really good poem is going to be a bestseller. For one thing, people read them wrong. When people say, "I don't read poetry because I don't understand it," I think, "Do you understand your sandwich? Do you understand combing your hair?"
What's all this about understanding? You read poetry for some kind of pleasure you can't quite put your finger on.

That's the end of the quote.

There are things I need to understand, and things I don't, and furthermore there are things I need to not understand. Poetry can be all of those things. There are things I need to enjoy, and things I need to suffer, and poetry can be both of those for me too.

But I have to disagree with W. S. Merwin about understanding combing my hair. Women do, for the most part, understand combing their hair. And there are occasionally sandwiches that I understand too. And some that I don't. And almost all of them I enjoy (I am a sandwich fiend, if you must know).

And that's all.


Mari said...


Jessica Goodfellow said...

I've been thinking about this understanding business, and how I really feel like I do understand brushing my hair. I can explain brushing my hair too, but it has nothing to do with my feeling I understand it. But then again, W. S. Merwin probably meant to pick two examples that most people feel neutral about, but I am passionate both about sandwiches and brushing my hair. And poetry too. So probably I am confusing things due to my passions.

Speaking of sandwiches, we wanted to go to a Subway sandwich shop (the chain, you know) but had heard they were using vegetables tainted with radiation from up north. So my husband called up the shop we were going to, and made some poor minimum-wage-receiving employee stand in the walk-in freezer and read to him from the boxes of each vegetable concerning where they were from, as in: the green peppers are from Oita, the lettuce is from Fukuoka, etc.

Dishonesty in packaging is sometimes a problem here, particularly recently, so this does not mean we got untainted vegetables, but we went and ate our sandwiches. This is the passion, the understanding of which I refer, which has nothing to do with explaining. I cannot explain why I went to Subway and ate that sandwich, but I understand it.

On the other hand, I can explain a poem without understanding it, and also understand a poem without being able to explain it, and all combinations of understanding and not understanding paired with either being able to explain or not being able to explain can be applied to my relationships with various poems.

So perhaps I once again fail to fully explain W. S. Merwin's point. But I understand it.

Mari said...

Jessica, this is another blog post (a sequel to the first)...

I love your anecdote about going to Subway and your husband's persistence re verifying the origin of their vegetables. My father worked in a deli as a young man and is also passionate about sandwiches. He always said messy sandwiches taste better than neat ones. That's a metaphor, I think, for many things in life...

Here's to understanding/not understanding/letting go of the need to understand/not understand.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Messy sandwiches rule!