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:
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. Me, 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.