How would you answer this question?
This question originally appeared on Quora, the best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.
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.