Communication before Understanding

Communication before Understanding

Orpheus and Eurydice by Edward Poynter (1836-1919)

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,

Our peace in His will

And even among these rocks

Sister, mother

And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,

Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.

—from Ash Wednesday by T. S. Eliot

Last Wednesday I revisited T.S. Eliot’s long poem Ash Wednesday, an old friend. I read the whole poem out loud to the children. I wonder if it was the first time I’d ever read it out loud. I must, surely, have read it out loud before, but back in college I wasn’t quite as big a proponent of reading aloud as I am now, so I can’t be sure.

I probably first read Ash Wednesday when I was a junior English major at UD doing my Junior Poet Project on T. S. Eliot. I read his complete works that year, over and over and over again. Each poem probably a dozen or more times. I’ve been re-reading Ash Wednesday ever since. For the last 20 years or so. Not every year, perhaps, but often enough.

There are passages in the poem that I adore, bits and pieces that speak to me. But after twenty years of pondering it and reading it and loving parts of it, I still don’t think I understand Ash Wednesday. I don’t think I know at all what the poem “means.” And I may never know. I fully expect to be reading it for the next twenty years. The next forty. I expect different lines will speak to me at different times and in different ways. I expect sometimes flashes of insight will come like lightning and sometimes images will haunt me like ghosts. Words and phrases will ring in my ears, will linger like ear worms. The poem is like a living, breathing thing. Like a person. An enigma. A mystery. But not a puzzle to be solved.

I do not know who the Lady is or who the veiled sister is or if they are the same person or different people. I do not understand what the leopard means. I’m baffled by the turnings of the stairs. I find it an annoying poem in some ways because such great swaths of it don’t make any sense to me and don’t speak to me at all. But then there are all those bits that do and I cherish them.

No, I do not at all think I know what it means. Nor do I think I have to know what it means to enjoy reading it. Even the bits that don’t make sense.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.

It seems to me that in schools these days, and perhaps even in popular culture at large, we’ve mostly got poetry all backward. People think— because they were taught to think so in school— that poems exist to be understood. And when they do not understand poems they think they don’t get poetry and that they don’t like poetry. And so they come to the saddest conclusion ever: That poetry is too hard and that poetry has nothing to say to me.

But really this is backwards. Poetry exists not to be understood so much as to be enjoyed. It exists not to inform but to enchant.

When we try to force intellectual, rational, understandable, paraphrasable meaning out of a poem, we often miss what it is the poem has to say. And we are impoverished because poetry does have something to say to everyone. When a friend tells me she doesn’t get poetry, she don’t like poetry, it makes my heart hurt. And I want to probe and probe and find out, like the Selfish Giant interrogating the wounded child: “Who did this to you?” Who killed the joy of poetry in you? Who made you think this horrible thing?

Am I getting repetitive, riding this hobby horse of mine? I keep coming back to this topic because it seems so important to me and I feel like I can never say it enough. Because I keep having the same conversations with people who “don’t really like poetry.”

Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:”

“If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

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And this brings me back to at article I’ve been pondering for a while now, and a conversation that I keep coming back to over and over and over again in many forms. Is the human brain hardwired to appreciate poetry? Science Daily asks.

“In 1932 T.S. Eliot famously argued, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” (Eliot’s essay on Dante, from 1929, included in Selected Essays.)

“In a recent article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Professor Guillaume Thierry and colleagues at Bangor University have demonstrated that we do indeed appear to have an unconscious appreciation of poetic construction.”

Oh not my brain, a friend wryly claims. I don’t like poetry.

I push back: I don’t believe you. You don’t like rhythmic language or rhyme, assonance or consonance, or alliteration? You have no appreciation at all for the sound of language? You don’t think some words sound better in some orders than in others? You’re never moved by a line of Shakespeare? (I know she’s been an actress.)

No, really, it turns out that what she dislikes isn’t poetry. What she dislikes is studying poetry.

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The experiment is actually pretty interesting. Take a bunch of Welsh speakers who don’t know anything at all about a particular native poetic form. Construct random sentences that either follow the rules of the form or deliberately violate the rules. Ask them to rate the sentences as good or not good depending on whether they sound aesthetically pleasing. But it turns out htat the interesting point isn’t how they rated the poems, but what happened before they even rated them.

“The authors also mapped Event-Related Brain Potential (ERP) in participants a fraction of a second after they heard the final word in a poetic construction. These elegant results reveal an electrophysiological response in the brain when participants were exposed to consonantal repetition and stress patterns that are characteristic of Cynghanedd, but not when such patterns were violated.

Interestingly the positive responses from the brain to Cynghanedd were present even though participants could not explicitly tell which of the sentences were correct and which featured errors of rhythm or sound repetitions.”

Did you catch that? Did you? The positive responses showed on the scan happened even when the participants weren’t sure which sentences were correct. They responded instantly to the more pleasing sound. It wasn’t a conscious choice, but an immediate, physical response to stimulus. Hardwired.

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“Of lovers. . . 
Who think the same thoughts without need of speech
And babble the same speech without need of meaning.”

T.S. Eliot: A Dedication to My Wife

The Science Daily article begins with a quote from my favorite poet, T.S. Eliot about poetry communicating before it is understood. I remember reading that before. In fact, I’ve been looking for that Eliot quote for a while. I first encountered the idea during my undergraduate days when I was reading and researching Eliot, but I couldn’t at all remember where he said it or the exact words. However, even without remembering the exact quote, t’s been a foundational principle for me when reading, writing, and teaching poetry, that the sound of the poem, and the appreciation of that sound, comes long before an understanding of meaning.

And this is the danger that most teaching undermines because it tells students that unless they understand the meaning, they are doing it wrong. Some of my favorite poems, I still don’t understand really, after reading them for years and years. Even poems I’ve had memorized for decades. But it’s the sound that enchants me. The sound and the images. The patterns of language and the pictures it creates. Meanings come slowly, sometimes like flashes of lightning. But they aren’t really The Point.

“Just as the poet may begin (as Eliot himself said) with a rhythm or an image which precedes any conscious meaning or intention, so the reader may begin by responding to the rhythm or the image before being aware of anything that could strictly be called meaning.”
— Martin Scofield in T.S. Eliot the Poems

What I call ‘auditory imagination’ is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality.

—T.S. Eliot, “Matthew Arnold,” The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism (Faber and Faber, 1933)

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Now Eliot is quick to suggest that we only begin by responding to rhythm or image, that the communication of poetry does compel us to seek meaning. And that is very true in terms of how I respond to poetry, even as I’m enchanted by sound and image, I want to know what it means. I keep re-reading Ash Wednesday in part because I am trying to piece together the meaning, to dig deeper, to understand it more.

But in terms of pedagogy, how we teach poetry, too much emphasis has been put on the interrogation of meaning and not enough on the enjoyment of the language that is prior to meaning. And one of the great failures in poetry instruction has been that teachers have failed to communicate to students that it is ok to have unresolved questions. That even as we seek for meaning, we have to be comfortable with ambiguity. We might not find answers to all our questions, and those open-ended questions are not failures of understanding. If I fail to come to a definite conclusion, if I question a poem and am still puzzled about it, that doesn’t have to detract from my enjoyment of the poem nor does it mean I am a failure as a reader.

I still don’t know why Emily Dickinson uses the word “only” in her poem, To Hear an Oriole Sing. I still love the poem, though. Maybe I won’t ever figure it out. Maybe the wondering is the point. I have a sort of intuitive hunch about the word choice, but I can’t quite articulate it to my satisfaction. And I think on the whole I prefer poems that stay in that sort of interpretive limbo. My favorite poems, in fact, might very well be those ones that I still have questions about. They’re the enigmas, the puzzles, the little mysterious boxes that line the shelves in the library of my mind, teasing me with their secrets.

And perhaps, sometimes, that’s the kind of poetry that makes people think they don’t like poetry? Maybe some people are uncomfortable with the lack of resolution. They want answers and boxes. But I’d argue that there is still plenty of poetry for those people as well. Poetry that is straightforward, that is clear and playful but communicates meaning in a more lucid way. Not all poetry is difficult. For every T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound there is a Billy Collins or Ogden Nash. (And I love them too.)

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Dana Gioia echoes many of these same ideas in his delightful essay Poetry as Enchantment:

. . . poetry is a universal human art. Despite postmodern theories of cultural relativism that assert there are no human universals, there exists a massive and compelling body of empirical data, collected and documented by anthropologists, linguists, and archeologists, that demonstrates there is no human society, however isolated, that has not developed and employed poetry as a cultural practice. [. . . ] Cognitive science now suggests that humans are actually hard-wired to respond to the sort of patterned speech that verse represents. Like the songs of birds or dances of bees—but on a higher level of complexity—poetry reflects the unique cognitive capacity of the human mind and body.

I like thinking of poetry like bee dances and bird calls, something that reaches into the depths of who we are and how we are. Rhythm is fundamental. The sounds of language and the music of language reach into a part of ourselves that is before conscious thought, before speech almost. Something primitive, primeval.


THE UNDERLYING MUSICAL NATURE of poetry is a primary reason why, as T. S. Eliot observed about Dante, ‘Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.’ Poetic language expresses itself as a totality, not as a transparent vessel for conceptual content—just as music and dance express meaning in ways that are physical and sensory rather than analytical.

I was just delighted that this long lost quote came at me from two different directions in the same week Such serendipity. Like this blog post was meant to me.


“Poetry proffers some mysteries that lie beyond paraphrase.”

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Gioia’s essay is worth reading and re-reading. He says everything I want to say but more eloquently.

He’s especially insightful about how the teaching of poetry got into the mess that it is now. He traces it to the difficulty of modernist poetry which demands a lot of work from the reader and to the critics who wrestled with it:

“As the twentieth century progressed, some of the most brilliant minds in the history of English-language letters began to wrestle with the early Modernist classics. (There were parallel critical vanguards in Russia, Germany, France, and other countries.) Literary intellectuals noticed some of the ways poetic language operated, especially in the most compressed, allusive and challenging texts—works such as Eliot’s The Waste Land or Pound’s Cantos. Gradually they developed interpretive methods as subtle as the texts they analyzed. They also disliked certain aspects of their own education in poetry, especially the sentimentality and moralizing of their Victorian-era instructors. These critics strived to create a more objective, rational, and coherent way to understand and teach poetry.”

The critics accomplished a lot and their contributions were important to the study of poetry, but unfortunately there was a fallout for the way poetry was taught at all levels. 

“Classroom instruction gradually narrowed to a few types of textual analysis, increasingly taught to students with limited experiential knowledge of poetry. Coursework focused on critical dissection and conceptual paraphrase of printed texts. Academic success depended on the student’s ability to replicate these forms of analysis in written work. Needless to say, this process represented a radical departure from the pedagogy of half a century earlier, which had been more eclectic, performative, and auditory. The new methods may have produced more sophisticated teachers of poetry, but they reduced the appeal of the art to most students.”

The biggest problem is that it forgot why we students should learn poetry.

“In its attempt to train everyone in the specialized techniques of professional academic study, it mistook the basic goal of literature courses in the general curriculum. The purpose of literary education is not to produce more professors; its goal is to develop capable and complete human beings.”

Students, even in elementary school, are being taught poetry as if they were future professors of poetry, as if they needed to understand how to analyze poetry in order to understand and appreciate poetry. 

“When analytical instruction replaces the physicality, subjectivity, and emotionality of performance, most students fail to make a meaningful connection with poetry. So abstracted and intellectualized, poetry becomes disembodied into poetics—a noble subject but never a popular one.

Teachers, and thus students, mistook the study of poetics for poetry itself. What we do to poetry is as if we were to study birds only by dissecting them, but never, ever got a chance to see a living bird fly or to hear it sing. Imagine learning how all the anatomy fits together and hearing lectures on bird song and learn about the aerodynamics of wings but never knowing the magic of watching a sparrow hop across the back step to peck up seed we’ve scattered, never watching a titmouse dart across the yard or hearing a robin singing its territorial song or spying it pull up a worm. Never knowing the joy of the first juncos of winter or the first robins of spring…. ornithology would be a boring, dead subject unless it were first preceded by nature study.

And so it is with poetics. Unless we first love poems for their song and their surprises, for the dancing words and the soaring images, unless we have heard them and spoken them and clapped with them and sung with them, unless they’ve haunted us and spoken to us. Unless we have the experience of the words coming unbidden because they match the experience. Unless we first love poems, why should we at all care about analyzing them?

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But how do we undo the damage, how do we rediscover the enchantment? Gioia has a fairly simple remedy which I endorse:

“My first suggestion is to recognize the power of enchantment in teaching poetry. The best way to engage the imagination of students is to augment critical analysis with experiential, performative, and creative forms of knowledge. Memorization and recitation should be restored as foundational techniques. Bringing students the pleasure and exhilaration of poetry is necessary before the analysis of it has much relevance to them. There should also be creative forms of engagement such as writing imitations, responses, and parodies, or setting poems to music. Students need to have more experience listening to poems aloud, even though that takes up finite classroom time. Reading poetry silently on the page (or aloud in little snatches) as part of textual explication is an incomplete introduction to the art. It is drab and bloodless like viewing the masterpieces of Cezanne and Van Gogh in black and white reproductions. One sees some wonderful things but also misses something essential. Like song or dance, poetry needs to be experienced in performance before it can be fully understood.

Second, critics, scholars, and teachers need to recognize and respect non-conceptual forms of knowledge, which are fundamental to all literature, especially poetry. There are physical and sensory modes of meaning embedded in the rhythms, images, and verbal texture of verse, as well as emotional and intuitive movements in the structure of poetry. These are often difficult elements to summarize in abstract terms, but their resistance to conceptual paraphrase reflects the limitations of criticism not the limits of art. If we ignore or marginalize the physical and sensory power of verse, we lose precisely the magic that connects poetry to most people and thereby restrict its appeal.”

I seem to recall reading an interview with Billy Collins in which he said he made all his students memorize and recite a poem. So that they at least have one poem by heart. I think if I were to teach a class in poetry, or even a literature class that had a poetry component I’d made that an assignment for sure.

And this reminds me once again that I want to do more poetry with my kids. More memorization and recitation.

“You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again?

T. S. Eliot. from East Coker

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  • I also hate studying poetry. But then that morphed into hating poetry itself. Like math. Math is quite beautiful and is all around us. How could anyone hate math? Why? You need math! But education has bashed all these precious things into dust to make it easier for us to absorb and educators are all surprised that we don’t eat it all up.

  • I don’t like poetry.

    Just kidding! But it might be fair to say that I don’t get poetry . . . and that, indeed, I don’t get what I’m supposed to be getting . . . or even if there is anything to get at all. The first time I truly felt exhilarated by poetry was when I discovered the collected poems of G.K. Chesterton — and he’s hardly on T.S. Eliot’s many-layered level. Perhaps I only enjoy poetry when it’s already clear to me.

    And the last time I remember having heaps of fun with poetry was when I did a humorous verse smackdown on my old blog. I loved the examples of funny verse I was able to find, from the classics by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear to the near-forgetten gems of Oliver Herford and Laura E. Richards. They spoke to me in a way more “serious” or lyric poetry never really did, and again, my only explanation has been that it’s because I understood what they communicated before I got too frustrated. (That is, immediately.)

    On the other hand, I also seem to like poetry when it’s in a language I’m learning. How is that for communication before understanding? 😉 Just the other day, someone quoted a translation of the first lines of Ranier Marie Rilke’s Sonett XXI: “It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.” I found so beautiful that I had to read the original . . . and was a little disappointed that the lines were: “Frühling ist wiedergekommen. Die Erde/ ist wie ein Kind, das Gedichte weiß . . .” That is, the original poem doesn’t underline the idea that the poem is known by heart . . . or does it? When a German speaker says he “knows” a poem, does he mean he knows it by heart?

    Then there’s the complication that while I do like the original sonnet, I’m not 100% sure I get even the literal meaning. When I read the English, I loved it because it seemed like spring itself was the poem that got recited from memory each year. When I read it German, it seemed more like spring was the prize that the earth received for having memorized a poem. (Revisiting it again now . . . and incidentally, also reading it aloud . . . I see the translator hit the nail on the head. The earth has just finished reciting the poem of winter and is now reciting the poem of spring. The twist is that people seem to be the earth’s “Lehrer” or teachers!)

    Finally, Melanie, are speech choirs popular in US schools? Filipino students love them and schools like holding speech choir competitions each year. The speech choir takes the idea of memorizing and reciting a poem, and applies it to a group of people. Some lines might be said by members with high-pitched voices, others by those with low voices, etc. And some lines get turned into hooks that are repeated in interesting places. I still remember snatches from the poem I had to memorize in my second year of high school, though the title itself evades me.

    PS — A few Sundays ago, a friend from church suggested Chesterton’s Lepanto for speech choir; but while I loved the idea, I thought the piece would be too long for non-Chesterton-die-hards! Perhaps he and I can recite it to each other over coffee!

    • I think humorous poetry is a very good entry point. Precisely because, as you say, it can usually be understood immediately. It communicates directly and usually has a great clarity.

      It is frustrating to read a poem (or, really, any work of literature) and to feel like you don’t *get* it. I loved this little guide of strategies for the perplexed, especially #12:

      “12. A poem can feel like a locked safe in which the combination is hidden inside. In other words, it’s okay if you don’t understand a poem. Sometimes it takes dozens of readings to come to the slightest understanding. And sometimes understanding never comes. It’s the same with being alive: Wonder and confusion mostly prevail.”

      I feel like it gives me permission to like a poem without getting it. To like a turn of phrase or a rhyme or a rhythm or an image and yet be baffled by the rest of the poem. The more I think about it the more I find that some of my favorite poems are those that continue to baffle me in some way. So for me that’s sort of a feature, not a bug. But I can understand that other people might not like that tension that a lack of understanding causes.

      Oh I love the whole tangled question of poetry in translation. Your Rilke is enchanting me too. The image of the child who has learned a poem by heart is so apropos. My Latin and French teachers both had us memorize and recite poetry and I still remember at least significant portions of several of them. With some of the Latin poems I don’t actually remember the meaning of all the words and yet I love the sound of it and I enjoy reciting them. i’ve also enjoyed turning my hand to translation, and have had fun doing versions of poems that aren’t exact translations but that play with the words and images and take them somewhere else, so that the final poem is my own and yet owes its shape and form and language to the original.

      I’ve never heard of a speech choir before. Though I can remember when I was in elementary school we did some group recitation, it wasn’t really choral like that, but maybe approaching that. I seem to recall memorizing and reciting the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence and maybe it was broken up so that different people were speaking different lines, but if there was a choral effect it was lost on me and it was never explained as such. I am very intrigued by the idea though. Maybe I need to find some You Tube videos….

      I love Lepanto. I remember I found someone had recorded it and posted it on a blog years ago and I loved the recording. It had some kind of accompanying percussion that was marvelously effective, I can still feel the beat.