Recently I’ve been thinking of something I’ve often heard people say when describing the process of engaging with particularly complex or esoteric poetry.
“Let it wash over you.”
What does this mean exactly? It means not trying to understand every word or phrase or how it all fits together. Ultimately, agonizing over details lessens your experience of the work as a whole. Some poetry is better taken in when you let it hit you like a ton of waves and don’t lose your balance struggling to fight back. You might still lose your balance, but you won’t have wasted your energy.
It means not getting bogged down in the minutiae—assuming we can presuppose for our purposes anything in poetry can be considered trifling.
Maybe at some point you will go back and try again, maybe you will reread the poem many times or maybe you will never return to it.
This advice may seem counterintuitive or rudimentary to the seasoned reader, but it’s a worthwhile exercise for people with any level of expertise. Some poetry is simply not written to be deconstructed and what an individual takes away from the experience differs for every person and varies upon every read.
I’ve been thinking about this advice because it’s worth contemplating beyond the realm of the poetic. Sometimes life’s more trivial, nebulous stressors compound our anxiety until, while we can’t put our finger on exactly why, we are overwhelmed by what is beyond our control.
What if we could pass through life treating it a little more like a difficult, at times inaccessible, poem, a poem we don’t understand in full, but with parts that sound pleasing. What if rather than attempting to wield too much control over what happens to us, we let situations wash over us instead. What if we pulled back and watched them roll by, bit by bit?
Just as it’s still possible to appreciate art we do not fully grasp or “understand,” if we cede some of the need for control in our own lives we might be surprised how much is not lost, and even how much can be gained from this altered perspective.
It’s important to play an active role and be present and engaged in our own lives, but it’s also worth realizing when a situation is merely another impenetrable stanza.
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