Off The Shelf: Finding the pieces that turn writing into poetry


When I was in my early 20s, living in Berkeley and drifting toward a PhD in Russian literature, I started writing poetry. It was a completely unexpected development. I definitely hadn’t been one of those kids in high school who worked for the literary magazine and wrote moody poems. In college, I took one poetry class, my last semester, which I nearly failed because I kept skipping it to get drunk and hang out with my friends.

Looking back, I somehow knew I should be a writer instead of a graduate student, and when I sat down before a keyboard, poetry was what happened. Why poetry and not novels or stories or screenplays is a mystery to me. Maybe it had to do with some deep internal need, or maybe I didn’t have the stamina or concentration to write something longer than a page or so.

Mostly at the beginning I was putting down stray lines, and trying to fit them into what it seemed to me at the time were poems. The problem was that I had absolutely no idea what a poem was. Or maybe I had too many shallow ideas. I knew what you were if you were a good poet -- a winner of the Nobel Prize, a professor, published in the New Yorker -- but I didn’t know why the poems those people wrote were considered good. They were all so different. Once I started reading literary magazines, and books haphazardly recommended to me, I just got more confused.


One burning question I remember having at the time was: Why doesn’t poetry rhyme anymore? From what I could remember, the limited amount of poetry I had read in high school and college was formal. Even the 20th century poets we read -- Yeats, Frost, Auden -- wrote in forms. The only exception was T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” which was completely baffling to me.

Of course, I knew there was something called “free verse,” because I had seen it in magazines and books, and even heard it read by poets like Robert Hass and Gary Snyder, at readings upstairs in Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue. What they read sure felt like poetry to me, and I liked that feeling. But I was also suspicious of it. It seemed too easy, not as hard as writing something that rhymed.

At Cody’s, I bought the “Norton Anthology of Poetry,” a giant black anthology, very serious looking, with the air of a book that had all the answers. In the appendix, I found a list of poetic forms. As a beginning poet, not unlike the forlorn geometric shape in Shel Silverstein’s “The Missing Piece,” I set out systematically to write each one, in search of where I belonged. For about a year, I carried around a rhyming dictionary, writing terrible sonnets, lousy sestinas, atrocious villanelles, abysmal pantoums. I felt like I was working, which was good, but it was also painful and embarrassing to write so much bad poetry.

I didn’t realize then that I was doing my own clumsy version of what art students do when they learn to paint. Now every time I go to the museum I see at least one of them with a sketchbook, copying the great paintings, and it makes sense to me. I’m glad I did it, even though nothing I wrote was any good.

As I learned more about poetry, I came to understand that for most of literary history, poems had been written in some kind of rhyming pattern, or else a repeating rhythmic structure -- or both. Shakespeare’s sonnets, for instance, rhyme and also have a regular meter. On the other hand, many poems don’t rhyme, but have a consistent rhythm: This is known as “blank verse.” Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Shakespeare’s plays are written in blank verse.

In the second half of the 19th century, Walt Whitman wrote “Leaves of Grass,” which featured poems that neither rhymed nor had a regular, repeating metrical pattern. During the early part of the 20th century, poets began to break free of forms, of rhyme and rhythm, by imitating Whitman or other experimental poets, or by devising their own ways of writing.


Gradually formal poetry began to seem old-fashioned. By the mid-1970s, formal poetry had ceased to be the dominant mode. Of course, there were, and continue to be, major American poets who use rhyme and/or meter. But most American poets today write in free verse.

It’s easy now to make fun of formalists by calling them old-fashioned or even reactionary. But when the great 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “After great pain a formal feeling comes,” she was connected to a deep truth about human nature, and writing. Form is the literary expression of our need to be consoled by some kind of order. This is why funerals have rituals and procedures, so we can keep it at least a little bit together in times of great grief and disruption. It is also why, right after Sept. 11 -- when sitting together silently would have been too difficult and weird and sad -- people read poems, more often than not ones that had meter and rhyme, such as W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.”

There is a great satisfaction in hearing rhyme, either in poetry or song, and knowing the world is at least for a moment orderable, that the seemingly disconnected elements can be convincingly fitted together. But while rhyme can be funny or witty, or a lovely, even essential consolation, it is obviously not necessary for poetry: Too many great poets have written free verse for the past 150 years for that to be the case.

Indeed, nowadays there’s simply no way to rhyme and not sound a bit out of time. Our world is too wary and conscious of the different space rhyme and meter create. This doesn’t mean great formal poetry can’t be written today. But because rhyme and meter are not essential, formal poetry is by its nature a subcategory of poetry as a whole.

Poetry at its most basic level is about the movement of the mind. This is why it is translatable, even from a language such as Chinese, which has very little in common with English. What can be translated is the leap from one thought to another: what I call the associative movement particular to poetry. That leap, that movement, is what makes poetry poetry.

When I look at the poems I wrote in my early 20s, I realize they are bad not because they are written in forms, but because they are essentially fake. Whatever moments are true and good in them exist despite the formal elements. Poems in rhyme and meter don’t suit my mind or the way it needs to move. It’s like style: It might seem cool every once in a while to wear a vintage suit, but the fact of the matter is it just doesn’t work for me.

One thing I do notice about my poems is that, though they might not have overt formal elements, there is always a rhythm that develops, subtly, in the voice of the speaker. Maybe something more like a cadence. Most poetry is “formal” in that way.

And I think, secretly, that my poems actually do rhyme. It’s just that the rhyme is what I would call “conceptual,” that is, not made of sounds, but of ideas that accomplish what the sounds do in formal poetry: to connect elements that one wouldn’t have expected, and to make the reader or listener, even if just for a moment, feel the complexity and disorder of life, and at the same time what Wallace Stevens called the “obscurity of an order, a whole.”

Zapruder is the author of three collections of poetry: “American Linden,” “The Pajamaist” (selected by Tony Hoagland as the winner of the William Carlos Williams Award), and “Come on All You Ghosts,” forthcoming from Copper Canyon in 2010.