fondly read a book about poetry, in part, because the book made poetry more
enjoyable and understandable than poetry really is. It’s called Why Poetry, by Matthew Zapruder, who recently served as the editor
of the poetry page at the New York Times
Magazine. His book shows us that
misunderstanding poetry interferes with our direct experience of it. However, Some don’t know that they will ever find
poetry as enjoyable as they find it to be frustrating at worst, incomplete at
award-winning poets book makes an impassioned call for a return to reading
poetry and an incisive argument for readers to embrace it. He explores what poems are and how we can
read them. He notes that poetry can
enlighten us in an age when information is often mistaken for knowledge.
unfortunately, has a lot of drawbacks and obstacles. Poets often won’t just say what they
mean. They make it so hard, as if
speaking in code, to convey what they really want to leave us with. Poetry seems to obfuscate, providing
roadblocks to communication.
However, poetry can be a beautiful form of art. I have had the pleasure of representing several great poets. One was the Poet Laureate of Vermont, Sydney Lea. Another, is a current client, J. Chester Johnson (www.jchesterjohnson.com), the author of Auden, the Psalms, and Me. He was fortunate enough to work with W.H. Auden, one of the most prominent poets of the 20th century. In honor of April being National Poetry Month, here is a Q and A I did with Mr. Johnson about poetry:
inspires your poetry? I used to write poems
that struck me in a moment, with a particular idea, on a slant, or a
combination of those three, and although I would return again and again with
revisions, the original inspiration continued to flow through the poem. Now, I
find that I’m attracted to a more complex set of ideas and events. For example,
I recently completed a long poem on the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919. There
were both personal and historical features to the event that I simply could not
release until I had written the piece. The first part is all prose, mostly
previously published, but the second part is poetry with persona voices
representing important players in the drama that the Massacre had become.
writers or poets do you marvel at? Why
I love the work of many poets, but I’m partial
to Walt Whitman and W. H. Auden. They both have written poems that particularly
excite me in various ways. That may be
surprising to conflate the two with Whitman’s iconoclastic style and ways, and
Auden, the traditionalist, who occasionally bragged, half-facetiously, that he
may have written a poem in every formal structure known to man – at least to
English-speaking man. However, they both gravitated to and were comfortable in
big ideas. I believe that poets should be obsessed and invigorated with big
ideas: Whitman – with his “great exception” concept for the American poetic
future – and Auden with his deeply
spiritual and citizenry manifestations in verse.
advice would do you have for a struggling writer today? Struggling can have several slices: struggling to be
recognized or struggling with one’s work. I wouldn’t worry so much about being
recognized; in fact, I think there is a real danger in recognition. Often, when
a poet is recognized, he or she finds that there is then a tendency to repeat
the technique or approach that got them recognition, and that can lead to
dryness. C. P. Cavafy, the great Greek-Egyptian poet, fought the effect of
recognition and chose to send his work to people he admired and to friends –
away from the public; for Cavafy, too much public acceptance could lead to a
desire for continuing public approval, a condition that he characterized as
dangerous for artists and poets. If you’re struggling with your work, that’s a
very good sign you’re serious about the direction your work is taking.
4. What can be done to promote poetry to the
masses and to have society embrace it? Poets are inheritors of big ideas.
If the world about which we write in our verse simply shrivels, then there is a
very real likelihood that the audience for the work will also shrivel. Events
happen that require poetry – all wars have their poets. Acts of violence and
mayhem often result in words being produced that describe, give solace, or
inspire. After 9/11, there were poems that circulated through the populace –
many people found comfort in Auden’s “September 1, 1939” poem written decades
ago. Others read Galway Kinnell’s poem about the towers falling. Perhaps, my
own poem, “St. Paul’s Chapel,” can be included among them. Poems occur where
5. Perhaps your most famous work comes from
tragedy. Over one million visitors to
New York’s St. Paul’s Chapel have been handed your signature poem, St. Paul’s Chapel, since September
11. Please tell us what the poem means
and why you feel it has resonated with so many. It’s a poem about standing
in the face of unimaginable destruction.
Some people have even retitled the poem over the internet, “It Stood.”
Everyone needed that assurance and endurance after 9/11. St. Paul’s Chapel
stood in two different, but important ways. First, though it was only yards
away from the North Tower, across Church Street, St. Paul’s Chapel was not
damaged. So many buildings went down or were rent, but not St. Paul’s Chapel.
The second way it stood was probably the most significant. Almost immediately,
it became the relief center for the recovery workers at Ground Zero, those
working on the Pile. It served those workers twenty-four hours a day – a place
where caring was always present, a place that actually “stood” for caring. The
workers faced hell only a few yards away, but St. Paul’s Chapel provided meals,
pews for sleeping, love and tenderness, music, stuffed animals for pillows,
shoulders, and many, many hugs. I distinctly remember the hugs. “It stood,” as
lines from the poem keep repeating. Yes, it stood. St. Paul’s Chapel stood. I
think that’s why people – from all over the world - still come by the Chapel,
even now, to pick up the poem card. A literary group in Italy decided that “The
New Colossus,” whose words appear on the Statue of Liberty, by Emma Lazarus and
“St. Paul’s Chapel” were the two poems that capture the American spirit.
Unfortunately, poetry reading may be in decline.
According to the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the share of Americans who read at least one work of poetry in the previous year dropped from 17% in 1992 to 6.7% in 2012, a significant drop over 20 years. The rate may even be loser in 2018.
seems that our ability to grasp why we are reading poetry, for reasons fundamentally
different from why we read all other forms of writing, is what makes poetry so
hard to understand," writes Zapruder.
Zapruder seems to really delve into what poetry is – and could be – if we just
understood it better. He says: “The experience of getting close to the
unsayable and feeling it, and how we are brought to that place beyond words by
words themselves is the subject of this book.”
believes poetry provides a necessity, that it matters, and that it can help us
live our personal and public lives. It
puts us in an imaginative, contemplative, and free space. Poetry allows us to live beyond ourselves.
Zapruder's book contains a number of verisimilitudes about poetry. Here are 16 excerpted thoughts from his most
desire to write anything begins out of a basic human desire to express oneself,
to be heard. Writing poetry in
particular also comes out of an inexplicable attraction to the possibilities of
the material of language itself, a kind of play.
is, there was something about the level of language, its beauty or complexity
or heightened qualities that gave a piece of writing the status of poetry, and
distinguished it from prose.
energy of poetry comes primarily from the reanimation and reactivation of the
language that we recognize and know.
one can seem to tell us why poems are written, what they are for. Why are they so confusing? What are we supposed to be looking for? And
what is the point of rhyme, of form, of metaphor, of imagery? Is it somehow to decorate or make more
appealing some kind of message of the poem?
What is the purpose of poetry?
Poems exist to create a space for the
possibilities of language as material. That is what distinguishes them from all
other forms of writing. Poems allow
language its inherent provisionality, uncertainty, and slippages. They also give space for its physicality –
the way it sounds, looks, feels in the mouth – to itself make meaning. And poems also remind us of something we
almost always take for granted: the
miraculous, tenuous ability of language to connect us to each other and the world
around us. The elusive, quick-silver,
provisional nature of language is by necessity suppressed in ordinary
conversation, as well as in most other writing.
What makes a poem different from any other use of language is that it
remains the sole place designed expressly to make available those connections
that are hidden when language is being used for another purpose.
Unlike other forms of writing, poetry
takes as its primary task to insist and depend upon and celebrate the troubled
relation of the word to what it represents.
In following what is beautiful and uncertain in language, we get to a
truth that is beyond our ability to articulate when we are attempting to “use”
language to convey our ideas or stories.
poets do not deliberately complicate something just to make it harder for a
reader to understand. Unfortunately,
young readers, and young poets too, are taught to think this is exactly what
can return us to an understanding about language, and the world, that is
related to the most basic truths of existence.
are the place where the actuality of language and of life is most made
available. And it is up to us not to
many of us have been systematically taught to read poetry as if it is full of
symbols that stand in for meanings not obviously present in the text
itself. The reasons for the
pervasiveness of this idea are complex.
Regardless of why, so often I have seen even the simplest poem, full of
single-syllable words any five-year-old knows, greeted with
incomprehension. And I think one big
reason is the way we have been taught to think about the genre of poetry: a place where objects are no longer what they
are in the world, but symbolic.
are many things we need to say and think that we almost cannot. These vital things approach, without ever
attaining, the inexpressible. Poetry
pushes away some of our usual ways of using language, of thinking, in order to
lead us up to those moments together, so in the moment of reading, and perhaps
right after, we can feel and know something we otherwise could not. Reading or listening to poems is such a
different experience from the rest of our lives. The more we are colonized by our devices and
the “information” and “experiences” that they supposedly deliver, the more we
need a true experience of unmonetized attention.
poem places us in the middle of the inherently contradictory nature of
being. While reading the poem, it is
possible for us to be in touch with a deeper truth. Negative capability is just one way of
describing this feeling, of being in a place of possibility and freedom that is
intimately related to the slippery, provisional, wondrously meaningful nature
of language itself.
serious readers of poetry realize sooner or later that it is far too limiting
to look for a single meaning in a poem.
There can, however, be an overreaction to this realization, an idea that
poems don’t really mean anything specific at all, that they are totally
subjective and ambiguous, and whatever the reader gets out of them is just
of the great pleasures of reading poetry can be that encounter with
aphorism: that simple, concise
formulation of a thought that feels original, memorable, and somehow as if it
is perfectly articulating a thought we often have but have never really been
able to put into words.
turns out that all poets are symbolists, at least to some degree. Poets are interested in the possibility of
words to resonate, to mean, more than they usually do. Somewhere, in every poem, there are words
that shine forth, are activated, light up, almost as if plugged in. This is what poetry can do form language,
and for us. This is why the symbol has
always been a part of poetic activity.
Poets have, in all cultures and at all times, stumbled upon it as a way
of making poetic meaning.
of course are also fascinated with these very same borders, the limits of
words. How far can a word be pushed and
still mean? Yet not just poets but
lawyers too can desire the expansion of the limits of the word, in the interests
need in their poems not only to expand but also to define words quite precisely
in their contexts, in order to avoid meaningless ambiguity. Poets and lawyers both area deeply concerned
with what lies at the limits of language, and the fearful and intensely
attractive nothingness beyond.
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