Matthew Zapruder believes that poetry—often misunderstood to be obscure—is exactly what we need to find clarity this time and age.
Let’s get it out of the way first: I’m relatively unfamiliar with poetry, but drawn to it from my experience with prose and music. Is poetry a logical extension?
Yes and no. Music and poetry are different: Lyrics are written to function in relation to musical information. They have to work in that system, and music has a lot of emotional information in itself. Poems are really written in dialogue with silence. That’s why lyrics pulled out of music often sound like really bad poetry—not because they’re badly written, but written for a different purpose. Music isn’t unrelated, though.
“Some people get angry at poems”
Listening to music changed my idea of what good art was. The first time I heard The Velvet Underground, I didn’t get it. It took me several listens until, of course, I fell madly in love with it. When I came into contact with other art, I was prepared that it might take a little time. Not that something was wrong with the art but that I maybe wasn’t ready for it.
That’s how you begin your book ‘Why Poetry’—by addressing the misconception that poetry is deliberately difficult. Why do so many people have that idea?
One reason is the way poetry is taught in school, at least in the United States: As a riddle, or code that you have to crack. Students are asked to figure out what the poem really means, what the poet is really saying. That makes them feel like they can’t know, or that they have to have all this background knowledge to read poems. Another thing is that poetry is different: It works differently, it looks different on the page than prose does. Anytime you come in contact with something new, it can be destabilizing. Some people get angry at the poems, using that terrible demand that they be more “accessible”…
Why is that demand so terrible?
It sounds as though poems were built in a way that makes it impossible to enter them. Which simply isn’t true. The whole point of my book is to explain how one might enter these poems. And it’s actually much simpler than people make it out to be. Just as in music, you need to have the right balance of confidence in yourself to stick with it, and also humility in relation to the art. And that’s something you get through experience.
“Language itself is corrupted”
Your fascination with poetry stems from a fascination with language itself. What can poetry teach us about the way we communicate?
An interest in the actual meaning of words is so bound up in the experience of reading poetry. That serves a kind of training. People who read a lot of poetry are not easily taken in by bullshit in language—whether that’s political or business language, or any of the euphemistic crap we’re always exposed to. Poets or people who read a lot of poetry catch onto that stuff pretty quickly. That’s true for a lot of really good writing.
What sets poems apart?
They preserve a very individual free space in my imagination. They make me feel that I can resist a lot of the misuse of language and abuses of concepts. When I read a poem, I suddenly feel like life is not hopeless. That it’s not all capitalist politics and monstrous business people trying to eat our souls.
I’m curious about that political implication. You explain that poems use poetic language. They redefine words we’re overly familiar with for an emotional effect. That means: Something false can be true, or at least feel true in a poem. Isn’t that dangerous?
That’s exactly Plato’s critique of poets in ‘The Republic’. He argued for kicking these people out because they were such convincing liars. I think that’s true! There are lots of things poets say in poems that are total exaggerations or lies or contradictions. If you treat poems like life advice, like political manifestos, then you’re likely to be mislead. But that’s not what they’re meant to do. Language itself is corrupted, that’s what allows people to behave in monstrous ways.
One would think we needed more clarity, then, not less.
More clarity is exactly what poetry brings. I went back to read ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ where Hannah Arendt describes the trial of the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann. Things would come out of his mouth that were clearly untrue, and he would contradict himself from one moment to the next. She uses that example to trace how language had been corrupted and degraded by the Nazis, and led them to a space where one would no longer think about what words actually meant. Poetry does the opposite. Adorno famously said “There can be no more poetry after Auschwitz”, but I think he was mistaken about what poetry is. He has the same Platonic idea of a poetry that somehow…
Yes, that poets are hiding the true meaning of things. That poets write in a coded, deliberately obscure language. The opposite is true for the vast majority of poems. The poet means exactly what she or he says on the page. If you read Rilke, whose work is very abstract and conceptual, each word still means precisely what he wants it to say. When Rilke says “Every angel is terrible” then that is what he means! He means: Every. Angel. Is. Terrible. Nothing else. He is precise in an airy, abstract way.
“Poetry can put you into the consciousness of another person”
That brings us right back to the misconception of poetry being an abstract thing just trying to be beautiful. In your book you argue the precision is necessary, likening poems to machines designed to put us in a specific state.
Exactly. And that is due to the experience of reading a lot of poetry from a lot of different time periods. I have been reading poetry for decades now, and I don’t think it’s coded language.
I find the idea fascinating that a poem is like a machine, making us think a certain way. Why is that mode of thinking so useful?
Lots of reasons. Firstly because it’s awesome to feel that way. It’s a different kind of experience of what our minds and lives can do. I also think that it’s inherently free. And just in a world in which we’re constantly boxed in by obligation and capitalist or financial imperatives, it’s just liberating to be in a free space of the imagination, to be free of those concerns and considerations.
After the most recent presidential election, it also occurred to me that the problem isn’t people not having enough information. I don’t think the reason why people are racist is because they haven’t been told that black people are equal to white people. It is because they can’t imagine what it’s like to be another person and the effects of their actions on those people. Or maybe they can’t truly imagine, and see, themselves. All literature, all art, serves the purpose of helping us understand the perspective of others. But poetry in particular can literally put you in the consciousness of another person.
If you’re reading a poem and it’s working for you, their mind works in unison with you. You go along with them. It’s a very instructive experience that makes you think differently and that changes you. And I feel like that’s something we can use more of.
Being more empathetic?
That’s the effect of it—but it’s true on a more affective level, since reading itself takes us out of the solipsism of our own mind, our own limited consciousness. I read a lot of ancient Chinese poetry, from the 9th century, for instance. Even though I’m reading it in translation, it’s such an amazing experience to read along and be more or less haunted by a 9th century Chinese poet. It breaks me out of my own bullshit, and that’s a great experience to have. We could use more of that.
“The only thing that will save us is imagination”
When I first saw the title of your book, Why Poetry, I first thought it was missing a question mark. But as I started reading, I realized I had fallen into the old trap of thinking every art needs to have a use.
Well, I think it does. The first lecture I gave, which became part of the book, was called ‘Useful Poetry’. People laugh when they hear that. But it does have uses, even if it doesn’t need to. In the end of the book I write about the limits of our understanding, how poetry itself comes up against the limits of language, which is what makes it feel so exciting, so scary, so powerful.
The reason, by the way, that the title doesn’t have a question mark is mainly because it is attempting to provide some answers. But of course, along the way, asking as many questions as answering them.
Speaking of uses: You also make the point that poetry could help us regain our attention span. We live in distracting times, not only because of hyper-connectivity and the drumbeat of the news, but also because as a society we seem to be suffering from collective FOMO—fear of missing out. You write about a ‘the scarcity of silence’ and sound hopeful that engaging with poetry can help us be more mindful overall.
I think the constant exposure to bad news is paralyzing. Another hour of reading Twitter about the latest thing Donald Trump said or about climate change isn’t going to change anything. In general, I find that it’s hard to not do something, but easier to do something else instead. If you want to break a habit, like browsing the internet for hours, replace it with a better habit.
The good thing about poems is that they impose a certain kind of concentration and difference between how we experience the world. I find that helpful—particularly when I am really overwhelmed. I will shut off everything, put away the phone, close my door, and just pull out one of my books. And if just for a few minutes, be in that different space. And it really is renewing–a bit like meditating or exercise.
In preparation for making a difference?
To refocus, get your mind together to get the energy to do something. To have some interesting thoughts, to be in community, to demonstrate, to resist. Lord knows, the world out there can get you to a point when you’re just paralyzed. But the only thing that’s going to save us is imagination: People are going to have to have some different thoughts. Right now, the thoughts we’re having are not enough.