Better Experienced than Explained: On ‘Why Poetry’ by Matthew Zapruder

August 18, 2017 | 4 3 min read

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Aristotle, Percy Shelley, Matthew Arnold, John Keats, H.D., Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Pinsky. Poetry has had its fair share of apologists. In Why Write Poetry?: Modern Poets Defending Their Art, Jeannine Johnson documents a tradition of poetic apology, but notes two important shifts. Shelley “contends with a charge that poetry has become culturally obsolete,” and Matthew Arnold “links the activity of defending poetry with that of defending literary criticism.” Johnson explains that “poets in modern poetic defenses converse with their own anxieties.” In poetry, as in other elements of life, it is more dramatic to have a villain than a friend.

Poetry is not the only genre that requires resident apologists—you won’t have to wait long for the next article announcing that the novel is dead—but poetry’s form and function inherently require defense. Simply put, prose is our default mode. Poetry is a process of selection, of white space and rhythm. If prose is prayer, poetry is hymn.

In my own teaching experience, poetry is best sold to students as one of two extremes. There is the utilitarian mode, in which poetry is weight-training for prose (the syntactic and verbal difficulties of poetry make even layered prose seem conquerable; it is easier to read William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison after first reading Countee Cullen). Then there is the dream-like approach, where poetry is a surreal escape from everyday life—a realm where rules defer to feelings. Both extremes, of course, are exaggerations. But hyperbole has a useful home in the classroom.

I love poetry, and I want others to love poetry—or at least listen, for a long moment, to words made with care. I suspect that my job might become a little easier after Why Poetry, the new book by Matthew Zapruder, who recently finished his yearlong tenure selecting poetry for The New York Times. For his final poem, Zapruder selected “The Afterlife” by James Tate, a poem that reminds me of W. Somerset Maugham’s version of “The Appointment in Samarra.” “A man fell out of the tree in our backyard. I ran over / to help him,” it begins, those odd but plain lines following the heavy title. A conversation follows, the dialogue running across lines, with tags peppering the poem—another prosaic stake into this whimsical ground. I shouldn’t spoil the end; channeling Zapruder, I think poetry is better experienced than explained.

While Zapruder’s book enters an established canon, he isn’t interested in throwing scholarly elbows. He writes with clear and inviting prose. His tone is careful, but direct. Early in the book he laments that the “act of treating poetry like a difficult activity one needs to master can easily perpetuate those mistaken, and pervasive, ideas about poetry that make it hard to read in the first place.” Poetry shouldn’t be difficult. Now, that might sound easy for as talented a poet and teacher as Zapruder to say, but he reminds us we each have particular weapons. “We are all experts in words,” he promises us—well-versed in our own ways. And in a pleasant quirk of the book I love, he sends us to dictionaries (how we have lost that communion of searching, skimming, reading, learning, and returning to a text with understanding!). “The better the poem,” Zapruder asserts, “the harder it is to talk about it.”

Zapruder’s book avoids the eschatological tone that mars other pronouncements about poetry. He doesn’t think poetry is in danger, and “Probably even robots will write it, just as soon as they get souls.” But for someone like Zapruder, we don’t need sickness for attention. Why Poetry is part-inspiration, part-guidebook, and part literary memoir. We learn his hesitance toward poetry in high school, how he fell for the work of W.H. Auden without fully understanding it. Rather, he offers, we are naturally inclined toward verse: “the energy of poetry comes primarily from the reanimation and reactivation of the language that we recognize and know.”

Zapruder walks us through how select poems develop, rather than “what” they mean. Poems remind us of the “miraculous, tenuous ability of language to connect us to each other and the world around us.” He excerpts a speech from Pope Francis to demonstrate how “To live morally, to avoid self-delusion and even monstrosity, we have to think about what we are saying, and to avoid euphemism and cliché.” Poems help us be honest; poems help us be true. They are like whispers of faith, “that unending effort to bring someone closer to the divine, without pretending the divine could ever be fully known or understood.” Zapruder’s spiritual undercurrent raises Why Poetry into something rare: the cogent and lively argument that poetry truly matters, fueled by passion rather than pretense.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Ember Days, a collection of stories. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and twin daughters. Follow him @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at www.nickripatrazone.com.

4 comments:

  1. It seems every commentary on poetry that is in a position to get broadcast to the masses lumps all poetry together. I contend, and have contended for many years, that the problem poetry as a genre has is that there is an “ivory tower” divide between what is getting published and what people actually want to read. What have people grown up with? The sonnet, the limerick, Longfellow and Frost. Patterns and rhyme schemes and understandable words. What’s getting published? Free verse and collage, avant garde and shock. I like poems I can understand on multiple levels, and the stuff filling poetry journals for the last 20-30 years to me seems random phrases (or not even phrases)–I struggle to understand it on even one level. It’s like looking at paintings and–seeing that abstract is fetching the highest prices–concluding that representational landscapes are too outdated to sell, despite more people preferring to have a generic mountain scene in their living room than a Jackson Pollock.

  2. Interesting Wendy, although I have never thought of poetry as a genre of literature but rather as an art form of writing.

  3. Zapruder wants to avoid cliche and then he offers up a banal platitude like “the better the poem, the harder it is to talk about.” This sounds neato-bandito but is functionally meaningless and very obviously not true. Name a great poem that’s hard to talk about. The Wasteland? The Second Coming? Anything by Rimbaud, Basho, Wallace Stevens?

  4. @Wendy

    On the other hand, I’d like to see one limerick as good as Ted Hughes’ “Football at Slack” at doing what the best poetry does, which is nearly everything the Novel does but with the added near-infinite space for reverberation that the Novel can never afford. The division isn’t between quaintly-familiar forms and Pollock-ugly flim flam, the division is between the capable and the half-assed. Here’s a link to a copy of that great poem (so worth a read; the antithesis of any “surreal escape from everyday life”) plus a little context to go with it, at the TLS:

    https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/football-at-slack/

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