Thursday, March 29, 2018

Why Poetry?

I 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 best.

The 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.

Poetry, 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 (, 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:

1.      What 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. 

2.      Which 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.

3.      What 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 things happen.

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.

“It 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.”

He 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 worthwhile read:

1. The 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.

2.      That 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.

3.      The energy of poetry comes primarily from the reanimation and reactivation of the language that we recognize and know.

4.      No 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?

5.      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.

6.      Good 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 poets do.

7.      Poems can return us to an understanding about language, and the world, that is related to the most basic truths of existence.

8.      Poems are the place where the actuality of language and of life is most made available.  And it is up to us not to evade it.

9.      Too 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.

10.  There 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.

11.  The 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.

12.  Most 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 fine.

13.  One 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.

14.  It 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.

15.  Poets 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 of permission.

16.  Poets 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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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource."

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