Grokking About “Grok”

This morning, for no apparent reason in particular, I started one of those trains of thought that ambles through the countryside before dropping one off at some pleasant station never heard of before and certainly not on one’s itinerary.

Who even knows where I started, but then I wandered to reminiscing about the days I went looking for a poem to include in the ceremony for my marriage to Lynn four-plus years ago. Finding wedding poetry is harder than one might think, although Telluride poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer (one of my favorites, and we incorporated one of her poems) has a charming story about being at a wedding reception where the groom rescued a highly tasteless toast from his son (“Here’s to Viagra!”) by turning to his new and now blushing bride and reciting Robert Burns from memory: “My love is like a red, red rose. . .” and he knew the entire poem.

My search for wedding poetry took me to Contemporary American Poetry, which is the title of every other compendium out there. This one, from 2001 (unclear if that’s the original date or of the seventh edition) and edited by A. Poulin Jr. and Michael Waters, was assigned as the textbook for the class in poetry I audited at Western Then State Then College, taught by one of my several friends named Mark.

During the course of the semester, we looked at a mere handful of the poems in this book, but I quickly found two I liked a great deal. The first one, by Robert Creeley, was never going to work for a wedding, but I was quite happy in my search to come across it once again.

Here we will see if I have enough savvy to format it correctly in WordPress (I still hate the “upgrades”):

I Know a Man
by Robert Creeley
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, -- John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.

I love this! If you were to read it out loud, the voice is so clear, so directed in these few short lines. Mr. Creeley’s choices, especially in “sd” for “said” and “yr,” totally give pronunciation guidelines that have this man (I presume) speaking out loud in my head. “Drive, he sd . . . look out where yr going.”

Maybe some of you are defaulting to where many non-poets do: I don’t understand poetry, I don’t like it, it’s weird. But if you like listening to song lyrics, you like poetry, and Mr. Creeley’s poem speaks so clearly that it’s enthralling even if you don’t care to scry out a deeper meaning within the lines.

It’s also a great poem to examine in an academic class to discuss line breaks, inflection, and all kinds of rigorous study that we most certainly are not known for within this blog. But I was reminded of this poem this morning, and it’s a great, easy example of how word choices matter when you distill language down to its most succinct, which sometimes is what poetry does.

[I was in a poetry group once when I had an epiphany: some young woman said she liked poetry because she used so few words to explain things, and right then and there I realized I was exactly the opposite, and that I feel this great compulsion to use as many words as possible to convey my thoughts.]

The other poem I really liked from the book did turn out to work for a wedding, although I took the liberty of changing a couple of words to increase the relevance. One of the words that went was the one that made no sense.

In the seventh edition, the fourth line of a sonnet by Bill Knott is printed: “Leads me to grop,” and that last word stumped the entire class, including Mark. Eventually we decided it was a typo, and the word Mr. Knott intended was “grok.” Which here in the 21st century doesn’t make much more sense than “grop.” That’s because it’s a word whose life span was short and sweet.

“Grok” is a neologism, which as part of my research this morning is “a new word, expression or usage.” This particular neologism comes with its own Wikipedia entry, noting that author Robert Heinlein came up with it for a 1961 sci-fi novel.

Wikipedia tells us: “While the Oxford English Dictionary summarizes the meaning of grok as ‘to understand intuitively or by empathy, to establish rapport with’ and ‘to empathize or communicate sympathetically; also, to experience enjoyment,’ Heinlein’s concept is far more nuanced . . . [the term] garnered significant critical scrutiny in the years after the book’s initial publication.”

So it’s an entire concept, one perhaps still used by the computer-science crowd, a group I clearly am not crowded into. I only know of the word, nee concept, from its most important use: “I grok Spock,” which could be found on bumper stickers and buttons of all the cool people of the late 1960s. But even though Mr. Spock (I presume you understand we’re talking the ultra-cool alien and not the no-longer-listened-to baby doctor of the same era) persists to this day, “grok” quickly fell out of the general lexicon.

As long as I’m being all presumptuous today, I am going to hazard a guess that Mr. Knott wrote this particular sonnet in the 1960s, when it would have been perfectly reasonable to lead him to grok about a woman he understood intuitively and had established rapport with.

I did go so far, during that semester, as to attempt to contact Mr. Knott, who was listed as a faculty member at Emerson College, but I never heard back. I did this because his sonnet is so spectacular, and this one word was so jarring. Remember, the book has it as “grop.” But it must have been “grok,” because when you look up the poem online today, every version has it as “think,” which is what I changed it to for our wedding without consulting either the internet or Mr. Knott — although I did try.

All his other words fit so, so tightly, and the precision of this sonnet, which makes his love beautiful and perfect simply by reversing two lines from the top at the bottom . . . well, I still find it exquisite, even breathtaking.

This was written by Mr. Knott, presumably for a woman in his life, presumably in the 1960s, but it still expresses love so clearly and beautifully, that I am eschewing “think” in favor of the original word, so that you may grok it as it was initially intended. (Just so you know, Lynn still astonishes me — every single day.)

By Bill Knott
The way the world is not
Astonished at you
It doesn't blink a leaf
When we step from the house
Leads me to grok
That beauty is natural, unremarkable
And not to be spoken of
Except in the course of things
The course of singing and worksharing
The course of squeezes and neighbors
The course of you tying back your raving hair to go out
And the course of course of me
Astonished at you
The way the world is not.

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