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Matthew Zapruder explains how you learned poetry wrong (but that's easy to fix)

Matthew Zapruder makes the case for poetry’s accessibility and necessity in his debut work of nonfiction, “Why Poetry” (Ecco, $24.99). “The true meaning of a poem isn’t hidden in a textbook,” he writes. “It comes to be, each time, in the mind of each half-dreaming reader.”

Zapruder will make his case in Los Angeles on Tuesday, when he’ll be in conversation with David L. Ulin at Skylight Books at 7:30 p.m.

I spoke to Zapruder, a prizewinning poet and the former poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine, over the phone; our conversation has been edited.


You describe the flawed way poems are taught as difficult problems to be solved, codes to crack that will reveal to the reader some hidden meaning. Why is this approach is so wrongheaded?

It’s a guaranteed way to not enjoy poetry. You’re going to miss having a real experience with most poems, because most poems don’t work that way. There are always further meanings to explore, but if you don’t focus the majority of your energy on what’s actually on the page, what’s actually right in front of you, it disregards the main work of the poet and the main effect of the poem.

Poetry is an ancient art; it’s our communal language. Poetry is not written for experts and it’s not written for scholars and it doesn’t belong to the priests of literature, it belongs to the people. I know a lot of poets, and I don’t know a single one of them that thinks they write for scholars — they write for other human beings.

Why is this how poems are taught?

There’s a way that poetry is trying to get at something mysterious and strange and difficult to reach, and so sometimes people mistake that for a code or a riddle.

But a poem, in a way, is the opposite of a riddle. A riddle is something simple that’s said in a deliberately complicated way so that you have to figure it out. A poem is the opposite, it’s something allusive or complex that’s being communicated, or attempted to be communicated, in the simplest way possible, which sometimes isn’t that simple. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about things, so poems can appear strange or unusual.

You write that people often confess to you, “I don’t really understand poetry.” Does it surprise you to hear who doesn’t “get it”?

Sometimes I’m surprised when I meet other artists who say that. There were times when I would meet somebody and the kind of thing that would come out of their mouth about poetry was the kind of thing that you would hear from a businessman you’re sitting next to on an airplane. And that’s when I started to realize, wait a minute, this is a pervasive cultural attitude. It’s deeper than “Oh, somebody had a bad teacher in high school.”

One of my favorite concepts in the book is the notion that poetry stretches out “to almost grasp what feels like an unstated truth” and in doing so makes “meaning by failing to fully make meaning.” But is that unique to poetry? I mean, what about “Twin Peaks”?

This is what I think people really mean when they say something is poetic. They think what they’re saying is that it’s pretty or it’s aesthetically pleasing, but what they actually mean is what we’re talking about: that it somehow almost gets to something that you just can’t quite articulate. It’s not that only poems do it, it’s that a poem’s main interest is doing it. It’s not that other things can’t or don’t do it, it’s that they also have other competing agendas. Take “Twin Peaks” for instance, in the first version: “Who killed Laura Palmer?” It’s great that that was the plot. If you had not answered that question, it would have been a failure. But poems don’t work that way. Chekhov’s gun does not apply to poems. They are free of that. They can’t give you the pleasure of a great narrative — we need stories, we need journalism — it’s just that we also need poems to do something else.

You describe poetry as language freed from utility, and that paradoxically that freedom is useful. What does that mean?

When you read the right poem for you, it can make a space of useful usefulness, or productive idleness, that’s so rare nowadays. I’m as guilty of this as anyone: Standing in line, I just pull out my phone. What happened to all those moments? What happened to all that time? I think that poems remind me of what that time was like before everything was so harnessed to usefulness. I know it sounds weird, but the old technology of the book, it starts giving you a little bit of your time back. I teach a class sometimes to my graduate students, which I call “Everyday Creativity.” I get them to write every day, but my secret agenda is to re-create the ’90s. They always say, “Should we post these poems? Should we share them?” And I’m, like, “No. They’re just for you.”

In a chapter on the late John Ashbery, you say that his poem “The One Thing That Can save America” changed your life. How so?

I was in school, in this PhD program, and there was a part of me that knew that I wasn’t in the right place. A part of me knew that I wanted to write and what I wanted to write was poems. It was buried down deep, and there was something about reading that poem that just made me think: There’s a whole world of making this kind of art that I don’t even understand or know. Whatever feeling it is that I’m getting from reading this poem — it’s a really mysterious feeling and it’s very hard to talk about, but it feels so precious to me — that’s what I want from my life.

Was there a moment when you knew you needed to write “Why Poetry”?

Like most people who end up writing something, I was more or less forced into doing it. (I had to give a lecture at the Tin House summer writers conference, and I thought: I might as well try to start writing this book.) I worked on the book for years, and there were many times that I wondered whether it was even possible to do what I was trying to do in a way that would satisfy me. To talk about poetry is a dangerous thing, because you can end up over-explaining it, contributing to all the misinformation, and I was desperate to not do that. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t compound the problem.

Ideally, I read novels in bed and the newspaper on the train. What are the ideal conditions for reading poetry?

It could almost depend on who the poet is. Some poets are very intimate, quiet poets and they require a lot of concentration and so they’re better in a silent spot, but there are other poets who are bound up in life and community. I’m thinking of one of my favorite poets, Frank O’Hara, who wrote a book called “Lunch Poems.” He’s just walking around New York City and talking to people and hanging out with friends in many of the poems, and those feel more like poems you might read out at a coffee shop.

Like so many people, I feel overwhelmed by all of the input from technology and the news and the obligations and the exigencies in my daily life, and there’s something about the silence a poem can create. When I read it, I feel the urge to turn everything off — turn off my phone, turn off my computer. So it’s not so much that I need to create the conditions for the poem, it’s that the poem creates them for me.

That’s one of the things that reading poems you love can do, it can heal you — for a little while at least. All you have to do is pick up the book and open it.

You borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, the “pressure of reality,” which describes, in part, what you’re talking about. How can poetry alleviate that pressure without evading it?

We need to redefine ourselves and find our imaginative space both to simply feel renewed, but also to be able to image a different world. Poetry can make that space. It sounds kind of silly to say that poems can help us resist, but I think it’s true. I don’t think that’s true because poems tell us that racism is bad or that Trump shouldn’t be president — we already know those things — it’s more what they do to our imaginations and our minds that I think is something essential.

Why poetry now?

I knew I liked the title, “Why Poetry,” from the beginning, but then I came to realize why that is. One reason, of course, is because it’s making this argument for poetry and then also trying to explain that poetry’s less about what a poem is than what it does — its reason for being. It’s also personal: Why did I choose it or why did it choose me? But then as time went on, it really did become, Why poetry now? I wrote the afterword [“Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis”] after the election, seeing more and more that these concerns were more and more pressing.

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