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.