The poetry of misunderstanding: Ross Martin at TEDxEast

Translator: Emma Becciu
Reviewer: Capa Girl The best thing we can hope for is not to be understood but to be misunderstood by original minds. I remember the first poem I wrote, I was in like 6th grade. I think I had 15 or 20 journal entries to the next day for school. Like all great epiphanies, I was trying to get out of doing something; like all business people I know, I was trying to do the least amount of work, and still get credit for it. So I wrote poems, and here is one of
the poems I wrote that night: “Why do we mow our lawns” “It started to thunder
I began to wonder Why do we mow our lawns? Then it hit me
That nice lawns are pretty When they wake up freshly cut at dawn. Maybe they want to keep growing But man’s too ignorant to stop mowing,
So lawns are cut each day. Because man doesn’t care
About cutting nature’s hair, Even if nature doesn’t want it that way.” Thank you! (Laughter) Well, the next night, my mom gets a phone call from the school guidance counselor, “Mrs. Martin, we are concerned that your son Ross may be suicidal.” (Laughter) I was a 6th grade kid writing a poem about mowing the lawn! Creative interpretation, one of the great unheralded fountains of genius and the best thing about it it’s so easy you can misunderstand anything, whether we’re crafting a poem, or a TEDTalk, or a deli sandwich, chances are our work will not be received exactly as we intended. That’s a scary thing, but it’s also a great thing. Whether we are talking about writing poems, one of the oldest forms of art, or social media, one of the newest, most people would argue that a degree in poetry prepares you for one thing: living at home in your parents’ basement, eating pepperoni pizza and drinking beer out of a bag — at best, maybe a side gig teaching poetry. (Laughter) But it was surprisingly great preparation for my life as an executive in media. The job of a poet is to — I’m waiting for the laugh, because it’s Snooki — Ok, the job of a poet is to find truth in beauty, To preserve the order of perception, and by that I mean our own experience of things, and to create experiences that other people can feel. What if CMOs of big companies approached their jobs a little more like that? Now, we would never send crack teams of poets in to reengineer businesses. But you’d be surprised at how similar the worlds of poetry and, let’s say, media actually are. Let’s take the rules of a sonnet: sonnets are 14 lines long, they are in iambic pentameter, da DA da DA da DA da DA da DA. Sonnets have pretty rigorous form of rhyme schemes, a-b-b-a or a-b-a-b, and you can bet somewhere in there there will be a metaphor about a rose. What about television? Not so dissimilar. An hour of television is actually 44 minutes of real show, the rest, as you know, promo time and paid commercial time. Those commercials have to be 60 seconds, 30 seconds or 15 seconds, and you can bet somewhere in the hour there’ll be a love triangle. How does a poem end? Well, the sonnet ends with an oral cue, a heads-up from the poet, a rhymed couplet, “Hey, I’m about to wrap this up, pay attention” So, “Sonnet 130” from Shakespeare: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” How does a TV show end? Well, close up on an emotion, on a character’s face, the protagonist, begin to pull back as the music swells, and we pull back to wide shot of, let’s say, the Jersey shore. (Laughter) Well, things are a little different, right? A hit can be a 30-minute show, an hour can be a 3-minute video, a 30-second clip, or even the 3-second look on the face of an adorable grasshopper. But what does it sound like? It sounds like free verse: E.E. Cummings knew that. Over a century ago, poetry began to break out of its rigorous formal constraints. Now, if you are crafting a poem, or a TV show, or a bar of soap, we are all struggling to do the same thing, we are struggling to translate an original creative impulse into some sort of a formal output, and no matter what, it goes on some sort of a shelf; and when it gets there, we really have no idea how it will be received. In Graduate School, my Pulitzer Prize-winning poet professor Yusef Komunyakaa had us come in the first day and he said, “We are going to go around, you each are going to read a poem, and then the class is going to critique it.” And I was psyched because I had a really good poem in my pocket, and I whipped it out, and he goes, “Ross, you go first,” so I read my poem. Silence, total silence, for painful minutes, before, eventually, a classmate of mine stood up and said, “That’s not a poem”. (Laughter) People will never receive your work exactly as you intended, but the truth is we don’t want them to, we want them to chew it up, swallow it or reject it, we want it to change them, and them to change it, we want them to spit something back out that’s new and original; or, at least, we better want that, because we don’t really have a choice. My poetry professor in College was Olga Broumas, this beautiful Greek Sapphic poet, who would float around campus as if she was on air. What Olga was teaching us to do was to preserve the order of perception, to let go and break free of that nebulous chase for the real meaning of things, and, instead, honour our own interpretation. So, we’d come to class, she’d ask us to read our new poem out loud, but read it backwards. Or, put a poem up on the screen and have us translate it, only problem is the poem would be in a language that none of us spoke. Or we would read poems with a pen in our hand, and write down every emotion, every creative instinct or impulse that the words created. Well, now no one’s reading with a pen in their hand, they’re not watching with a pen in their hand either. Everyone has a smartphone, and what they’re doing is remixing, mashing up and then spitting back out into social media, whatever they can consume, as fast as they consume it. This is what happened to us this year, we found Maggie Champagne, I hope you recognise her, some of you. Maggie is an amazing New York actress and she has a great talent: she can open a can of soda, she can — she has many talents, she can chug the can of soda, and then she can dance inappropriately in public, like this. I know, that’s disturbing, but what we were attempting to do was to disturb that lofty intellectual battle ground of soda marketing. We were tempting to make you stop, look up, and go, “Is that for real?” So reminds you, does it not, of T.S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, of course. “Do I dare disturb the universe? In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions, which a minute will reverse.” Now, of course, T.S. Eliot is not, as you may think, rolling over in his grave that I’m up here from MTV, on the TED stage, and I’m using “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to eliminate the success of a social marketing campaign for a soda. T.S. Eliot would agree, “in a minute there is time for decisions and revisions, which a minute will reverse.” Well, a minute after we introduced Maggie and her crazy inappropriate dancing to the world, this is what the world, a minute later, began giving us back: (Video) T.S. Eliot would agree, the world moves forward by creative minds using things in ways far beyond our intention. Think about it, it happens to all of us every day: you have an idea and you share it with someone, someone has an idea and they share it with you, you share it with other people it gets bounced around and garbled and what rises to the top, somehow, is an idea that was better than your original concept. That’s not a happy accident, that’s a magical consequence. There is this poem I love by Wallace Stevens, “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”, and it’s about how who we are informs how we see everything. Here is how the poem ends: “I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw Or heard or felt came not but from myself; And there I found myself more truly and more strange.” I love that idea, that by discovering the strangeness in ourself we can find the truth. The first step in speaking the truth is to embrace our own messy imperfect genius, and the second step is to embrace the messy imperfect geniuses all around us. What if, in work, in life, we could somehow break free and let go of the need to be understood? And instead, seek to be misunderstood by creative minds, and if that doesn’t make perfect sense, here in this room filled with brilliant original minds, there you are. Good, thank you! (Applause)

3 thoughts on “The poetry of misunderstanding: Ross Martin at TEDxEast

  1. "preserve the order of perception and honor our own interpretation"

  2. Sorry man, but this doesn't hack it.
    I disagree, and just can not back it.
    I'd rather be understood to share a thought,
    Than to have nonsense into which we're caught.
    If you try to be misunderstood, then maybe,
    You'll be no better than a babbling baby.
    Any inspiration that THAT will cause,
    Can only be be filled with many flaws.
    Creativity is much more than random.
    Mistakes're everywhere, and why we canned 'em.

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