Autism vs. Poetry

2011-05-31 16:50

I am not great with poetry. Some of this, I think, is from people misexplaining it. See, when you use the phrase “the meaning of the poem”, you communicate, to me anyway, that the poem has exactly one meaning. Which you propose to identify and explain.

This does not prepare me well. I have some trouble with metaphors; I can use them just fine, but I can’t always tell. “Tiger, tiger, burning bright”… well, wait. Is that about an actual tiger or not? If it’s an actual tiger, I’m guessing the fire is a metaphor. But what if it’s not a tiger? Then the flame could be literal. I dunno.

This has plagued me with music, too. People derive a whole lot of information from lyrics, and I tend to get stuck. Lady Gaga sings, quite expressively:

I’m beautiful in my way
cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track baby
I was born this way

and I get stuck on questions like “assuming that either we adopt a fairly straightforward interventionist theism, or that this is more symbolic language for describing the intrinsic worth of human beings, what about cystic fibrosis? That just sucks.” No, really. I can figure out that this is more generally a song about maintaining a positive self-image, but the powerful emotional content is basically overwhelmed by what even I recognize as essentially nit-picking. And yet, if I don’t do that nit-picking, I have no way of weeding out implausible interpretations and getting towards the question of what someone was trying to communicate.

This ties into a broader general trend, which I don’t think I’ve yet really gotten into, which is how autistic people tend to perceive the world rather than opinions about the world. That one’s up “soon”, I think, but I’m not quite ready to work on it yet. But basically… When I hear poetry, I really do hear the words before I hear the meaning. I don’t necessarily even know what the poet was aiming for, and I don’t automatically assign a meaning and hear that; I just hear words and think about them.

Peter Seebach




  1. Comprehending the various nuances of a poem’s meaning is made even more difficult by the artistic licence that poets often take with the language. This is seen more in english poetry than others. As the english language permits far more leeway in it’s use. Though German is also just as difficult due to the use of word-compounding to make completely new words.

    — Faelyn · 2011-06-21 21:21 · #

  2. I think the way you perceive poetry is actually pretty cool, although possibly less fun for you. I’m weird too – I read a ton and love to read, but I don’t get the mental images that seem to be par for the course for most people. When I read WORDS are what’s happening in my head, and relationships between ideas and characters (but just the idea of the character, unassociated with any mental image).

    — sadfulness · 2012-01-10 00:54 · #