Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry

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The Only Tool Needed To “Get” Poetry

why poetry

When I read it, Matthew Zapruder’s book, Why Poetry proved memorable. For instance, I give you Chapter 2, titled after the Marianne Moore quote about poets: “Literalists of the Imagination.”

The chapter title itself is poetic. It should be, as it’s taken from Moore’s famous poem, “Poetry,” which features “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Using Marianne as his inspiration, Moore or less, Zapruder begins to riff on layreaders and how so many of them shun poetry because they find it difficult or mysterious. In short, they throw up their hands because the meaning is hidden and wonder aloud why poets have to play hide-and-go-seek with their purpose, anyway.

The damage is done in school, chiefly (schools, after all, are the scapegoats for most all of our woes… remember Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos?). Darn those English teachers who constantly ask students to divine the meaning, the theme, the purpose, the symbolism, thus ruining a perfectly good poem. In Zapruder’s view, poems should be read for (brace yourselves) fun.

Of course, poems can’t be fun unless we know what the heck’s going on, so Zapruder recommends one essential tool to understand poetry: a dictionary. (You were expecting Siri or the dreaded Google search bar, maybe?)

“The portal to the strange is the literal,” he writes. Thus, as a teacher (most poets need full-time jobs, after all), he has students choose a word in the poem to investigate big-time, as in right down to its multiple meanings and history, or even, maybe, down to what it might have meant at the time that the poem was written.

Zapruder adds, “…the exercise of getting as deeply into the words as possible has the effect of showing them that this is the way into a poem, and that meaning and possibility come from that act, and not from some search for an interpretation someone else already made of the poem, that they have to figure out to get a good grade… It turns out that close attention to definitions and etymologies can be a portal to the power of poetry.”

From this paean to the literal’s eminence in an unexpected place — the genre of poetry — Zapruder goes on to say that many beginning writers of poetry get snared by the same misconceptions as layreaders. They purposely write in abstractions, mysteries, double meanings. They forsake the literal for the “deliberately obscure and esoteric.” It is, in short, a recipe for failure, just as reading poems strictly to interpret their coded language is a recipe for alienation.

Three cheers, then, for the literal and for taking poems at their word, both as readers and writers.


Make It Strange


In Chapter 4 of his thought-invoking book, Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder quotes a Russian literary scholar, essayist, novelist, and memoirist no one’s heard of: Viktor Shklovsky. Viktor’s eureka moment? He claimed that the language of artistic texts is no different than the language of texts used to convey information. Asterisk.

Make that BIG asterisk. In artistic texts like poetry, writers do something quite different with this same plain language. They make it strange. The Russian word is “ostraneniye,” which, Zapruder writes, “most often [is] translated as ‘defamiliarization,’ though a more literal translation would be something like ‘strangeifying.'”

In Shklovsky’s view, as we live our lives, the ordinary objects we are surrounded by become “habitual” and “automatic” in our minds until we begin to think of them as abstractions. The Russian writes, “Habitualization devours work clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.”

Let’s pause right there. What a wonderful reminder for every creative writer out there: “make the stone stony” again. Because, you see, we’ve grown so accustomed to stones that they’ve lost their stoniness. There’s no wonder to them. They’ve become, quite frankly, an abstraction, one we simply walk by and pay no mind, one we all think of alike. For the poet, thinking of some ordinary thing “alike,” or like everyone else, is the death knell for his or her creativity.

More Shklovsky: “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”

The key line? “To make objects unfamiliar.” Make it strange, friends. Make it strange.

Zapruder comments: “Poetry exhibits the purest form of defamiliarization. This is because, in a poem, other tasks, such as telling a story, or fully and exhaustively expressing an idea, never take priority. Therefore, it is in poetry that we see most clearly and powerfully, without any other ultimate distraction, how language can be made deliberately strange, how it becomes especially ‘a difficult, roughened, impeded language,’ in order to jar us awake.”

If this sounds easy–jarring readers awake by hitting them over the head with the ordinary–it isn’t. But it isn’t impossible, either. We’ve all seen it done when we read our favorite poets. In fact, it’s one of the reasons we return to poetry again, one of the reasons prose just isn’t filling enough for our artistic hungers. To see the ordinary used in extraordinary ways is a basic need. To say, “Gee, that was weird–but it’s true, now that I think about it!” is a basic joy.

Poetry. Nothing fancy. Nothing crazy. Just the literal used in strange and wonderful ways.



The Upside of Negative


Negative. It sounds so…negative, doesn’t it? And yet, in the “up is down and down is up” world of poetry, negative can prove a high compliment. Ask John Keats, the wunderkind of poetry. In a December 1817 letter to his brothers, he wrote:

…and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously–I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

Hmn. Sounds like the exact opposite of Walt Whitman’s Learn’d Astronomer. In fact, I wonder if old Walt used Keats’ quote as inspiration.

This is my last riff on Matthew Zapruder’s book Why Poetry, but instead of commenting on the final chapter, I thought I’d comment on Chapter 7, “Negative Capability,” because, at first glance, it looks like something a poetry editor might write on a rejection slip. But, no. Keats! What Keats would, later in the same letter quoted above, call “half knowledge.”

MZ thinks it akin to a state of reverie (just west of the State of New Hampshire, I think), a place where one can find truths due to being unsure. A Utopian state, then, for both writers and readers of poetry (the former, because the wonder is a siren call to the Muse; the latter, because it opens one up to the possibilities that poetry is famous for exploring).

Zapruder writes, “This is what negative capability means in poetry, to be in the state where you can accept a succession of things, especially if they contradict each other, in order to allow within yourself an experience that you will not have elsewhere in life.”

What I did not know until reading this chapter was Keats’ almost religious preoccupation with Shakespeare. He used the Bard as a constant source of inspiration. (And here I am, resting on decades-old laurels because I took not one but two Shakespeare courses in college–one on the comedies and one on the tragedies. Shakespeare is not a “been there, done that” kind of writer, Keats reminds us. After reading this, I have decided to embark on a rereading schedule that periodically uses the plays as an inspirational interstice between my regular reading. Once a month, or every other?)

Zapruder uses Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” as an example of the negative capability theory. “If in reading the poem you get distracted by an irritable need to come up with a consistent, coherent set of ideas that the speaker has in his feelings about the urn, an overall message about the urn, or silence, or time, or mortality, instead of thinking about the statements of the poem as a series of deeply felt, shifting, even contradictory thoughts, you will miss what is truly great about the experience of reading it. Maybe poems are not to be read for their great answers, but for their great, more often than not unanswerable, questions.”

Luckily, MZ remembers to warn us that not finding a definite single meaning to poems doesn’t mean we are free to believe whatever we wish them to mean. That is a common student overreaction, one many a teacher of poetry bangs his head against the wall over. Rather, we are in middle ground here, hoping to encourage not one and not many interpretations while staying close to the text and accepting the poet’s musings as something triggered within the realm of doubtful possibility. (Clear as muddy water, right?) Bottom line: Personal reactions are OK on a personal level, but should not be wildly and openly declared as the true secret meaning of the poor poet, who might mightily object were she present (or alive).

If the thought of negative capability is liberating, you’ve read Zapruder (channeling Keats) well. Men of Science need not apply. People with all the answers can go directly to jail without passing go. Leave the mysteries to the readers and writers of poetry. And, in the name of Keats, reconnect with your Bard, won’t you? All the truths of human nature are mysteriously there!

(And, as this is my last post on Zapruder’s book, I’d like to personally thank him for the inspiration his book provided. Thanks again, Matthew!)


Joyfully Ambushed


One theme touched on in Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry is “associative movement,” a term he rather dislikes as being too “clinical sounding,” but uses anyway because its meaning is so vast that it’s hard to label and shelf as something else. What can it mean? Lots of things, but for my purposes, I’ll call it the feeling readers of poetry get when they are “joyfully ambushed.”

That term itself is associative. When I preach poetry in the classroom, I praise the value of “unexpected word pairings” — words we seldom (or, better yet, never) see together. Our first reaction, when we read them, is, “Wha–?” And our second reaction is, “But, you know what? I kind of get that, now that I think about it!”

The ambush is part one: the jolt, the surprise, the unexpected idea. The joy is part two: the caboose connection, as if the train of the poet’s thought has latched onto you at the last possible moment, and now you feel the pleasure of being pulled along by this new association.

On a larger scale, Zapruder goes beyond words and discusses how many poems “leap” from one thought to another, similar to the “monkey mind” practitioners of meditation warn us about. In this sense, poets are like hydroelectric plants on a river, harnessing the turbulent white water of their minds to create poetic energy.

A microcosm of the “leap” theory is seen in haiku. Never mind the syllable-counting so beloved by schoolchildren’s fingers, the essence of good haiku is line 3, which takes a tiny leap from lines 1 and 2–different, yet the same. A new trajectory, but in the spirit of the set-up. Zapruder uses a Basho as a for-instance:

The cicada.
Nothing in its song reveals
that tomorrow it must die.

And then a Sora:

The coastal wind
disorders above the sea
the seagulls’ wise drawings

Robert Bly even wrote a book called Leaping Poetry. Zapruder shares a quote from that book which discusses leaps from image to image:

In “Nothing but Death,” [Pablo] Neruda leaps from death to the whiteness of flour, then to notary publics, and he continues to make leap after leap. We often feel elation reading Neruda because he follows some arc of association which corresponds to the inner life of the objects; so that anyone sensitive to the inner life of objects can ride with him.

Most people think of daydreaming as the enemy, but in associative parlance it is above all an ally. You need only order these Dionysian delights with a dash of Apollonian “structured mayhem” to find “the inner life of objects,” as Bly puts it.

Metaphor itself provides such associative treats. A is like B? Readers delight in C-ing such novel connections. It’s as if they have been allowed to clamber upon the back of the poet so they can cross a river for the first time and get to the other side–a new place affording a new view and offering a new reckoning on life.

Zapruder’s book is rich with researched gems, quotes that reinforce his lines of thought. I particularly like this one by Roger Shattuck, taken from the introduction to his book The Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire:

I spoke at the start of a criterion applicable to all art: that it should present both clarity and mystery. These terms and the evaluations they permit can now by elucidated. The clarity of a literary work of art lies in its reference to experiences already familiar and available to the reader, which allow him to orient himself within this territory called art. The mystery points toward experience not yet known, to an extension of the consciousness.

Ah, yes. The old “extension of the consciousness” bit. It’s not just our bodies that need exercise, it’s our brains, too, and there is no better fitness coach than a talented poet taking us on associative leaps we’ve never experienced before. Aerobic food for thought. Eating and breathing poetry.┬áMe, I’ll walk knowing I might be “joyfully ambushed” by such clear mysteries (or mysterious clarities) any day of the week.

That’s why I read–and write–poetry.