Monday, August 28, 2017

Why Poetry? by Matthew Zapruder

How many of us were forced to study poetry in school, possibly by teachers who, themselves, were forced to study it and therefore weren't very enthusiastic or knowledgeable?  Has this impacted your reading much poetry have you read in the past few years?  This has certainly been the case with me.  Sure, we studied poets from centuries gone by - Whitman, Dickinson, Byron, Dante, etc. - but we were so bogged down by the analysis of the poet's use of techniques and forms that "reading poetry" was never a pleasurable experience. 

Flash forward quite a few years, to 2015, and I had a poetry renaissance.  I think it was when I randomly picked up a copy of Robin Coste Lewis' collection Voyage of the Sable Venus that I began to see what poetry could really do.  This masterwork is divided into three main sections, in one of which all of the poems are made up solely "of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present" (pg. 35).  The poems are crafted in such a way that, if you had not the background information on the work, you most likely never would have guessed that they weren't directly from the poet's mind to the paper.  Not only the creativity is remarkable, but the breadth and depth of research that would be required to undertake such a project is gobsmacking.  Lewis is insightful, playful, and unafraid to confront the ugliness of the world's treatment of the female, black body throughout time. Voyage of the Sable Venus was one of my favorite books of 2015, and it set me on a trajectory that has only increased my poetic reading since then.

Recently, collections like Patricia Lockwood's Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, Juan Felipe Herrera's Notes on the Assemblage, Spring and All by William Carlos Williams, The After Party by Jana Prikryl, and Najwan Darwish's Nothing More to Lose have challenged my poetry-reading skills.  They play with forms, subject matter, and style to such a degree that, at times, I felt like the poetry was "too smart" for me, or that I just didn't "get it".  This shouldn't be the case, but I know that it was mostly due to the poor poetry studies in my youth.  So, I was genuinely pleased when I found Why Poetry, by Matthew Zapruder.  

Zapruder is an award-winning poet, teacher, and general Johnny Appleseed of poetry.  In his book, he is on a mission to spread the love of poetry through an increased understanding of its aims, forms, styles, and other major components.  He is most interested in investigating how great poetry uses language to create a poetic state of mind in the reader. As a young child, he was enraptured by poems like Henry Wordsworth Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha" and W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" but never seriously considered poetry as a career path until he had almost finished a PhD in Russian.  So, he understands his students' apprehension or disinterest in poetry, but is full of techniques and insights that he shares in Why Poetry.  Each chapter features a different component of poetry that he wants to communicate, then he provides some personal anecdotes or historical facts surrounding its use, and then breaks down a few poems, or fragments of large poems, to illustrate how that component was utilized.  This analysis is something I found most helpful, especially when it comes to matters of form, which is the area in which I feel the most uncertain. 

In the first chapter, Zapruder brings the reader into his history and early experiences with poetry.  He analyzes a fragment of Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" and talks about how reading that poem was a watershed moment for him.  At the time, he didn't understand exactly why he connected so much with the poem, but over time and re-reads, as well as with his growing education in poetry, he was able to talk more coherently and specifically about what Auden was doing in the work, and why it was so engaging. 

Chapter 2 talks about one of the most important parts of poetry, really of language itself - the use of words.  The author emphasizes that readers of poetry should take the poet's words at face value, at least initially.  Think about why the poet chose the words that she/he did, and all the possible literal meanings those words might have.  Sometimes this takes a little dictionary/internet research, but if it enhances your understanding and appreciation of the poem, then it's time well spent.  Chapter 3 builds on this topic, with the author deeply analyzing a portion of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself", Wallace Stevens' "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon", and a section of Brenda Hillman's "Death Tractates".  Most of the language is used literally, and any figurative associations are coincidental to the main idea of the poem.  It's only through close and thorough review, guided here by Zapruder, that you can begin to see significant examples of non-figurative language used to great poetic effect.

The fourth chapter moves into the more figurative and less straightforward aspects of poetry.  Once you have a good grasp on how to read the literality of poetry, you're ready to move into the odd.  As a student of the Russian language, the author references a not-easily-translatable Russian word "ostraneniye" which means something like "defamiliarization" or (my personal favorite) "strangeifying".  This is in contrast to those aspects of daily life we go about in almost a robotic fashion, where everything is habitual and routine.  Poets strangeify the world through paying attention to those things, and not letting them become too automatic, and seeing them in ways the rest of us might not expect.  In this chapter, the author looks at the poems "Suicide's Note" by Langston Hughes, an unnamed poem of Emily Dickinson, and Antonia Machado's "At a Friend's Burial". 

Chapter 5 looks at how poems are structured, and some of the reasoning for using a rhyming scheme or not.  The author, early in his poetry-writing life, bought one of those massive The Norton Anthology of Poetry collections, and discusses what the experience was like of reading it.  For him, it felt that the act of writing poetry "can be a kind of seemingly impossible communion, with someone far away in time and space" which is kind of a beautiful thing to think about.  Even after the poet is long gone, if her/his poetry speaks to something that means something to someone, it's like that poet is living on in concert with the reader.  One of the poems that Zapruder dissects is William Carlos Williams' short, untitled poem about the "red wheel barrow".  The author writes that "The line breaks and filmic way this ordinary scene is parceled out to our consciousness by the mechanism of the poem slows us down long enough for us to see once again what has become too familiar.  That is the 'message' of the poem"; it's such a complicated yet simple work, because there is nothing of significance, but in the end everything is of significance because it is noticed.  He also talks about how it is far less common for modern day poets to work in a rhyming structure, partially because it feels quaint and outdated, and partially because it affects the emotions and perceptions of the reader in ways the poet might not intend. 

The sixth chapter focuses on the frustrations that many readers have with trying to "get" the meaning or intention of poems.  Chapter 7 examines the tendency of modern poetry to jump around seemingly at any moment and without cause but, upon reflection and analysis, those jumps might not be so random at all.  It's also highly unlikely that poems have only one specific message to convey.  As the author writes, "the poem places us in a state of heightened importance, with a sense that everything matters intensely at the moment it is being experienced".  Internal consistency isn't of much importance across the entirety of the poem, as long as the essence of the work is so.  Neither are the other conventions of literature, such as plot, logic, characters, settings, etc.  These are of only slight interest to the poet.  With poetry, embrace the strangeness.

Chapter 8 explores the subsection of poetry that focuses on politics and/or political themes.  The author contends that, if you are a person who cares deeply about issues like gender, the economy, race, and environment, then the poetry you write, if you allow it to flow naturally onto the page, those topics will find themselves in your poetry without having to try to hard to fit them in.  Because the political world is almost always a strange place, poets should not be afraid to defamiliarize terms that politicians regularly toss around, in their work.

Chapter 9 extends the author's analysis and explanation around the "jumping" that can happen in poetry.   In particular interest is poetry that reads almost like stream of consciousness or dreams in that there are tenuous or thin threads connecting the poem's content from one line to the next, but over the entirety of the work there is seemingly nothing in common - called "associative movement".  The author uses Robert Hass' poem "Meditation at Lagunitas" to explore this kind of poetic movement. 

The tenth and eleventh chapters dive deeply into the use of symbolic language in poetry, and the different occasions where one might choose to employ it or not.  Chapter 12 shares in the author's coming to realize that just as clay is a medium for a sculptor, or watercolors are for a painter, that words and language are the medium in which a poet works. 

The thirteenth and final chapter explores the ways that poetry moves and changes us, sometimes without us being able to articulate exactly why or how it happens.  The author explains that, "a poem is like a person.  the more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand".  So that sense of not quite understanding a poem just means that there is more and more to come back to and make meaning and connection.

As someone who has read some poetry and wondered what the heck was happening, or if I just wasn't smart enough to understand it, I found Why Poetry extremely comforting and helpful.  It's a crash course in poetics, led by a professor who is kind, knowledgeable, and funny.  I feel more of a sense of confidence in now when I read poetry collections, that however I'm feeling is appropriate and valuable.  It also instilled a deeper sense of analysis that will allow me to see more deeply into some of the constructs and construction of poetry.  If you are interested in trying some poetry reading of your own, but have a bad taste in your mouth from poetry lessons in your school days, I would highly recommend giving Matthew Zapruder's Why Poetry a try. 

Librorum annis,