An Essential Question

reviewing the book, Why Poetry

It may never be possible to empirically demonstrate the value of poetry. Just think about the amount of academic energy spent struggling to build a scientific understanding of even the simplest kinds of language. An answer to the question “Why Poetry?” is even more elusive than a coherent response to “How Words?” because anything that means so many different things to so many different people won’t offer itself up on a Petri dish for easy scrutiny. What that means for anyone who wants an answer to “Why Poetry?” is simple: It takes faith.

This faith doesn’t have to be blind, though, and Matthew Zapruder’s book Why Poetry is a thirteen-chapter testament to belief in what poetry can do and why it is not only necessary, but essential. To the award winning Oakland poet, “Poetry isn’t merely a more beautiful way to communicate ideas or experiences or feelings.” Instead, it exposes us to, “Those connections that are hidden when language is being used for another purpose.”

When you read the ad plastered on the bus stop, the restaurant menu, the endless jumble of a news feed, language is taken as a vehicle of relatively clear and useful information, and the relationship between a word and what it signifies takes a back seat. In day-to-day life, this utilitarian approach to language is enough to go by. But it’s not the whole story. For instance, the word “apple” is not itself an apple, but an abstraction invented to help us categorize and talk about apples. By extension, language is not reality, but a tool we use to make sense of reality. Poets, philosophers, and religious leaders have grappled with the intersection of language and reality since always, and while the topic lends itself to aimless pseudo-profundity, it’s nonetheless incredibly important to our understanding of how humanity communicates. Without this associative logic—which sits at the forefront of poetry—it’s easy to fall unwittingly into prepackaged assumptions about ourselves, others, and everything around us.

Cover art; 2017, Harper Collins; Why Poetry; Matthew Zapruder
Book cover art; 2017, Harper Collins; Why Poetry; Matthew Zapruder

Zapruder wrenches us out of this utilitarian mindset by encouraging readers to approach poems on their own terms. During a talk at Harvard last December, he mentioned that his motivation to write Why Poetry came from friends of his who kept asking why poetry was often so obscure, and what poetry accomplishes that other forms of writing—novels, for instance—can not. Zapruder could never come up with a satisfactory answer in the moment, and Why Poetry grew from his desire to conjure an adequate response. The book of essays reads less like a collection of academic meanderings, and more like a conversation with an acquaintance at a bar after they loosen up enough to gush about something they love.

This is not to say that the book lacks thoroughness. Zapruder mixes a casual tone and anecdotes in equal measure with explications of poems and a deep appreciation for the place of poetry in human life. Most importantly, Zapruder strongly suggests that we discard the notion that a poem is a puzzle—a place where, “Words mean something other than what they actually say.” This attitude—sustained by years of academic gatekeeping and the deliberate obscurity young poets employ when trying to emulate “sophisticated writing”—is both alienating to general audiences and just plain wrong, by the author’s account. As evidence, Zapruder gives close readings of some of the touchstones most commonly cited by people in the midst of explaining why they “don’t get” poetry.

And we certainly can’t talk about intentionally difficult poetry without addressing its most famous offender—T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Even back in the 1920s, some of Eliot’s contemporaries recognized his magnum opus as having dangerous appeal to individuals who saw themselves as gatekeepers of “high art” at the expense of poetry’s vital function in the lives of all people. However, Zapruder points out that many passages from this poem are about as straightforward as they can possibly be. Take the opening lines, for example:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Zapruder gives brief but careful notice to this passage, unearthing meanings that he says require “no special knowledge, only attention.” While an understanding of this section might be made more robust by foreknowledge of the broader cultural context and the maelstrom of allusions in the poem, the emotional tone struck by the uncommonly characterized seasons becomes plain without much more than time and focus. The problem, according to Zapruder, with other passages in The Waste Land and many other poems that are unnecessarily heavy with obfuscating tactics like broken syntax and niche allusions, is not the difficulty of these poems themselves, but the standards they set for poetry as a medium. Much of the rest of the book is given to similar close readings of poems and passages of poems, training us into the idea that poets are only ever as elusive as the moment they try to communicate.

While Zapruder does a wonderful job guiding the reader away from an intimidated/ambivalent position on poetry, he does so mostly through selections from canonized poets whose legacies will be carried on by academic and publishing institutions regardless of any popular disregard for poetry. Although he mentions a few poets whose household name status isn’t on the tier of Eliot and Walt Whitman, he gives almost no attention to contemporary poets whose works, and therefore whose careers, are commonly overlooked because of the bafflement with which we reflexively view poetry. This is surprising, considering how he founded the experimental publishing house Wave Books.

Drawing from commonly-known poets is necessary for bringing a wider audience into the conversation, but without any living, breathing poets in that same conversation, this book can’t quite illuminate the importance of poetry to our lives as we live them. Take Cody-Rose Clevidence’s poem XYLO, for example. The entire poem consists of columns that go like this:

} {Ptu8o7w3

The vast majority of the poem is literally a jumble of random nonsense keystrokes, but over its course, the words “I AM A MONKEY | I AM LOST IN THE FOREST | I AM FULL OF DESIRE |WHERE ARE YOU?” emerge from and submerge back into the wall of noise. At first glance this is exactly the kind of impenetrable word wank that could very easily make you feel like all modern poetry is bullshit some edgelord with a counterculture fetish cooked up to stick it to some ill-defined hegemony. If you take Zapruder’s advice, though, and approach the poem as literally and attentively as you can, this poem is viscerally relatable to anyone who has ever lived in a city or been on the internet. In the few years it’s been since I first read this poem, nothing I have read, heard, or seen since has captured so concisely the feeling of raw animal loneliness and yearning we experience in the absurd barrage of stimuli that comes with being one among billions of people in this century.

The simple fact is Zapruder’s lesson is most vital to the relationship between living writers and readers. He even touched upon this during his Harvard talk when asked “Why [is it] necessary to have poems in the 21st century?”:

“Because it does something no other form of language can do, that we need whether or not we know it… And if you take poetry out into the world, you see that. I could use an example, not that I need to, but after 9/11 when people gathered, they didn’t read stories[,] they didn’t read newspaper articles, they didn’t sing songs… All those things were not right. They read poems.”

With a statement as direct as this said off the cuff in a talk, it’s difficult to see how something equally direct never surfaces over the course of thirteen essays. Why Poetry might not stress the point explicitly enough, but it is strongly implicit in the tone of Zapruder’s writing, making this book a heartfelt and (mostly) thorough starting point for the reimagination of our engagement with a crucial, underappreciated, timeless medium.