Have we been taught poetry all wrong?
“I have a confession to make: I don’t really understand poetry.”
So goes the opening line of poet Matthew Zapruder’s forthcoming book “Why Poetry,” which looks at why a lot of people feel alienated by poetry (this line is one he’s heard countless times before) and what can be done to remedy that.
The book is part personal, part explanatory and part polemic, saying: Here’s my experience with poetry, here’s how it works, and here’s why we desperately need it. It is the last part that is perhaps most interesting in an age of information overload. Zapruder argues poetry is a necessity, because the knowledge we gain from it can be deeper and more human than from other texts.
“It’s an intuitive, associative understanding that you can get from poems, which can really open a person up and make them aware of other human beings, of themselves, and of the natural world,” said Zapruder, who has published four collections of poetry and edited the poetry page of the New York Times Magazine. “It does that in a way that can’t be done by any other form of writing.”
But this intuitive, associative power, he says, can be lost on people because of the way poetry is taught. He argues that we are too often asked to find the “hidden meanings” in poems, as if a poem is a riddle — telling you something simple, but in the most complicated way possible, as if the poet is being deliberately opaque. Good poetry actually does the opposite, says Zapruder; “it’s something elusive and complex, said in the simplest way possible.” (Though writing about the complexities of life is not always very simple.)
Throughout the pages of “Why Poetry,” Zapruder traverses the poetry of Frank O’Hara, Sappho, Langston Hughes, John Keats, Adrienne Rich and many others, using a wide range of poets and styles to illustrate how poetry can function in many different ways. He unpacks both how their poetry works (through the technique of “defamiliarization,” for example, of making the familiar strange) and also the feeling and imagination they inspire (often, he says, poems provoke both longing and confusion).
In the end, Zapruder said he was happy to have finished writing “Why Poetry,” and to be able to go back to writing poems, instead of about them.
“Writing this book reminded me of the very thing I was writing about,” he said. “Which is that there is a different kind of knowledge, and a different kind of experience, to be gained when writing poems. A search for dream knowledge. It’s a pleasure to get back to that.”
Below, read one of Zapruder’s poems, “I Wake Up Before the Machine,” and listen to him read it aloud.
I Wake Up Before the Machine
By matthew Zapruder
I wake up before the machine
made of all the choices
we are together not making
lights up this part of Oakland
it’s dark so I can imagine
another grid humming in the east
already people are deciding
I lie in the western
pre-decision darkness and almost
hear that silent voice
saying go down there
the coffee needs you
to place it in the device
its next form will help you remember
daylight is coming
but dreams do not go away
they just move off and change
your mind is a tree
on a little hill
surrounded by grasses
that look up and say
loves moving through you
Matthew Zapruder is the author of “Why Poetry” (Ecco, August 2017) and four poetry collections: “Sun Bear”; “Come On, All You Ghosts”; “The Pajamist”; and “American Linden.” An Associate Professor in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College of California, he is also editor-at-arge at Wave Books and from 2016-2017 was editor of the poetry column for the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Oakland, CA.