The Physical Nature of Poetry

If you are an IT professional, you are probably used to reading about computers, software, and other things of that nature. I am used to reading about science myself, and I always dread reading poetry because I can never understand what is going on. My attitude towards poetry was like that of one of my favorite physicists, Paul Dirac, who said, “The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way.” When you can understand it, poetry can be interesting, but I can seldom understand it without help. The Fairie Queene is an example of  incomprehensible poetry, that completely baffled me when I first read it. However, I gradually began to understand. Here are some tips that someone with a background of science can use to read The Fairie Queene:

1. Read each passage slowly, and read it at least twice

When read quickly, the poem seems like a haphazard jumble of strange words, without any meaning or discernable story. After multiple readings, sometimes you can pick up meanings or themes that you may have missed the first time.

2. Look up words that you do not understand

You cannot ignore words you do not know, just as when working an equation, you must look up constants that are necessary for calculations. Although you may think that skipping a word every now and then won’t affect your understanding of the poem, they can be crucial to it.

3. Understand the symbols

The poem is full of words that are not meant to be taken literally, but instead are symbols for something else. In science, equations are also full of letters or symbols that stand for a number or quantity. It is important to understand from the context what these symbols mean if you do not know what they are.

4. Get help from others

Sometimes, no matter how much you try, you cannot understand a passage. At this point, it is best to consult with a peer, someone who does understand the poem, sort of like having a science paper peer-reviewed by other scientists.

Like an extremely complicated equation, The Faerie Queene takes a lot of effort to read or understand, and you may not even want to read it. If you do, however, these tips can help you enjoy and comprehend the poem a little bit better.

-Kashyap Saxena