Why Is Poetry So Difficult to Understand?

Leonard Cohen performs in 2012 in Paris.

Photo by Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

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Answer by Stephanie Vardavas, student of human frailty:

The main obstacle to understanding poetry, whether you are talking about Keats or Shelley or Whitman or even Leonard Cohen, is our ingrained tendency to be very literal in communication. We often speak and write in extremely literal terms, because we want to make sure we are understood. So when communication is incoming, we look at it the same way and try to extract its literal meaning.

This doesn’t work with poetry. Great poetry is not literal, almost by definition. As art, it shows us a higher truth that is expressed in a nonliteral, nonlinear way, a way that is completely original to the artist who has composed it. So the very first thing you have to do is try to tamp down your desire for literal certainty when you encounter poetry. Just read it quietly, then read it aloud, let the words roll around in your mind for awhile, enjoy it as an artistic experience even if you can’t extract meaning from it, and don’t beat yourself up.

One of my favorite examples of this kind of thing is Leonard Cohen’s song “Alexandra Leaving.” I could listen to that song for three hours a day for a year and never be able to tell you exactly and definitively what the hell it is about. But it’s beautiful and evocative, and that’s enough. It is based on “The God Abandons Antony,” a poem originally written in Greek by C.P. Cavafy.

Leonard Cohen and his collaborator Sharon Robinson took this and made it even less literal by turning it into a poem/lyric about a woman named Alexandra. It is a gorgeous meditation on love, loss, and change, but it would be a terrible shame to try to interpret it as if it were prose.

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