Tag: poetry

"Poetry breaks through the bullshit"

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.

Matthew Zapruder is a poet, poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine, and associate professor, St Mary’s College of California.
Photo: B.A. Van Sise

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.

Matthew Zapruder’s book ‘Why Poetry’ was released on August 15th, 2017.

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…
…obfuscates reality?
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.

Sixty Frames

We take photos to remember. But which frame should you choose to capture, which to recall?

Taking pictures is savoring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.
― Marc Riboud

A human lives, on average, for 25,915 days. Each day contains 86,400 seconds. Each of those contains trillions of instances, of frames. Of these we exist in all, remain in none, remember, perhaps a few. Each second, our brain is only capable of perceiving an average of sixty frames.
We see sixty out of trillions of moments of life. We must choose our frames wisely. So smile for the camera. Be still. Look at or through the lens. See.
We are here, we are here now, but we and time are fleeting.
Quick, take the photograph. Snap the shot.
The only proof this moment ever existed will be in our memory.
The first frame: the beauty spot on the left temple, slightly below the eye, of a little boy sleeping in my arms on a Sunday afternoon in June. Second frame: the angle at which the eyelashes curl, the barely visible crow’s feet. Third: the light, at the most perfect of a trillion angles, capturing the gold in his hair.
Pause in this frame. Stay an instant in this instant. Then move on to the next.
There are the obvious frames and moments that shape our lives. The time-stopping, happy milestones at which we take photographs. The family portraits in Sunday clothes on birthdays, weddings, lunch on Christmas Day, college graduations, anniversaries. The flash-infused commemoration of ourselves, inevitably solemn and confused, against the white or blue background of a passport, driver’s license, student or voter’s card.
Then there are the broader frames that define our lives, with their own obvious protagonists. The zoomed-out shots of inaugurations, revolutions, jubilees and celebrations, crowds in the streets on New Year’s Eve. The portraits of politicians, popes, queens, economists, businessmen, movie stars. The mugshots of murderers and terrorists. Fashion trends immortalized on a runway, peace deals over a handshake. History written by war declarations, rocket launches, touchdowns, standing ovations, raves.
Sixty frames out of trillions, in every second of every life. Even those, if we blink, we might miss. So we take photographs; a choice of the moments of our lives we want to commit to memory.
Zoom in on the fourth frame: looking up at mother’s hand. Fifth frame: father’s shoulders, looking down. Sixth: the seesaw partner in the playground. The stuffed animal; guardian of the bed. The siblings, the superheroes in comic books. The doodles in the margin of the page. The eternal baker in his eternal shop. The flour on his arms and mustache. The friends, the posters of boy band members, the flyers of missing pets.
We do not choose or shape our lives. Where we are, or for how long. But we are here and we have now. Let us be here now.
We create reality, we exist in every frame we choose to see. In the oceanic folds of the bed sheets on a Tuesday, the creases on the pillow left by a cheek. In the steam wafting out of a coffee cup, the precious last crumbs of a croissant, silken gold mixed with green flakes of thyme on the white porcelain plate.
Look at where, when, who we are,
at and through the lens. See.
Now. Immortalize this trillionth of a second in a photograph.
Forty-eighth frame: ice cream stickily dripping out of the corner of a mouth. Forty-ninth: the dimple that appears in the exact same spot every time that mouth laughs.
Fiftieth: the musician in the metro, playing that French song you like. Fifty-first: the lonely two pennies and bill in his open guitar case. Fifty-second: the dog sitting patiently by his side, as he has done for hours, days, weeks. Fifty-third: the hand scratching his ear gently, his eyes closing happily.
Fifty-fourth: an old couple in the park, on the sunny side of a bench. Fifty-fifth: her fingers interlaced perfectly in his. Comfortable, matching shoes. Fifty-sixth: a cloth bag on the ground next to them. Bread and oranges peaking out. Fifty-seventh: the kitchen table a short walk away, on which butter and honey await.
Fifty-eighth: a sonogram. Fifty-ninth: tears. We can be infinite in sixty frames per second. Quick, snap the shot. We were here.

Kenneth Goldsmith on the end of the Internet

The internet seems endless. But is it really? A conversation with American poet and artist Kenneth Goldsmith.

Will the Internet end?
There is an old hacker joke, a website that says “You have reached the very last page of the Internet. We hope you have enjoyed your browsing. Now turn off your computer and go outside.” So there is an end and it was made in the very early days of the Internet.
But the joke only works because the Internet is endless.
You have to understand that the List end of the Internet has been discussed and debated since the very inception of the net. The joke is of course an allusion to the Internet being finite. I think that once an infinite system is made, that which codifies it as such are the discussions of its finitude.

“Media become fetish objects”

It is hard to ponder the end or the finitude of the Internet because it seems to be one of the closest things we have to infinity.
It depends on whether you are talking about the end of the Internet or the last page of the Internet. The last one is the end of the story, the other one the demise of the whole apparatus.
Let’s focus on the apparatus for now.
It’s true that media rarely die. They might lose relevance but they won’t be destroyed or completely replaced. Newspapers or TV are losing audiences by the millions, but I don’t think that they will just disappear. Some media even have revivals. Take the vinyl record or analogue watches: they have turned into fetish objects. At some point, objects lose their edge vis-à-vis other objects. We don’t get rid of these objects, we just assign them a new role. I can see that happening to the Internet.
The big difference is that the Internet is, contrary to the objects you just named, not a tangible thing that can be easily collected.
Can you touch radio? You operate it, but you can’t touch it. It is ephemeral. It is always there, but we don’t perceive it unless we turn it on. Marshall McLuhan always argued that every media assumes the form of the previous media, thereby extending it but never killing it.
Media are a product of continuity?
Exactly. The Internet is based on webpages, so it is an extension of magazines or books. Then you have things like online radio or online TV. It’s a webstream, but we call it online-TV. Every media morphs into another one. The same will happen to the Internet.

“Too much is always too much”

What distinguishes the Internet from other media, however, is its capacity to store and archive a sheer limitless amount of information – because that capacity is built into its very foundation.
Maybe it’s different in Europe, but in the US, there is a real archival craze. Everything that is not yet digital is being digitalized. Before the Internet, newspaper reports were copied onto microfilm. So this urge to keep copies of everything is not new.
But the extent to which this archiving is being done surely has changed with the advent of the Internet. Just think about the amount of videos on Youtube…
Harvard historian Ann Blair wrote a magnificent book called Too Much to Know, in which she traces the information overload back to the early modern period. During the 15th and 16th century, there was already too much to know, which is why things like anthologies emerged to help us condense knowledge.
You don’t think that the Internet has propelled this information overload to new heights?
It did and it didn’t. I can only emphasize that I don’t want to distinguish the Internet too much from other media because I see it as a continuity of older media. So I don’t think we should use a new metric. Too much is always too much. It is assumed that we can only know 300 people in our life; I have 5.000 friends on Facebook.
Which again underlines the point that the digital realm, in contrast to the real world, enables us to go beyond the limits of finitude. The interesting thing is that this gives us the potential to archive even the mundane or seemingly unimportant. Many of our Facebook followers are complete strangers and the net is full of videos of gigantic spiders in Australia…
Because someone believes that it is relevant. Maybe we are seeing the varieties of importance now. Also, because of the abundance of material, the actual acquisition of that material trumps the use of the material. Many of us spend more time gathering material from the web, downloading and storing it, than we do actually using the material. On my laptop, I have more books than I will ever be able to read in the next ten lifetimes – and yet I keep gathering more. I can finally have the library I always desired.
People like the cultural critic Simon Reynolds argue that the abundance of material will lead to cultural inertia because we can’t cope with the amount of information. Do you agree?
It is a problem but a luxurious one. I’d rather have a problem of abundance than of scarcity. I would rather have too much food than too little food although it might make me fat and die earlier.

“Abundance is ripe with innovation”

One could argue that scarcity fosters innovation whereas abundance triggers laziness.
I don’t think that the amount of information is crucial. We just have to think about information differently today. You don’t always need Cheryl to reinvent the wheel. Take the brilliant remix culture in music: it is a recombination of existing material to create something new. Sampling has produced some of the best music of the last decades, so I have difficulties seeing the problem with abundance.
I guess one of the main issues with sampling or remixes is authenticity. It feels copied but not created.
Why would anyone care about authenticity at this point? I highly doubt, that most people can even define authenticity. I have grown very tired of these pessimistic arguments about our culture not being authentic or innovative. Abundance is ripe with innovation. Innovation of a different kind, yes, but innovation nonetheless. I am not going to look at my iPhone and lament the fact that we no longer carve wood the way we used to.
The other thing that comes with the abundance of information is the i danger of getting lost in дом it. I catch myself watching random Youtube videos almost daily. You taught a university course called wasting time on the Internet because you believe it to be a worthwhile activity. Why?
You’re engaged with what is going on, isn’t that wonderful? My Facebook feed throws up a dozen things per day that really fascinate me and that I wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise. That never happened with television. The Internet is much more interactive, and therefore I don’t consider random browsing to be a waste of time.
It’s one thing to say that it is not a waste of time, but quite another to argue that it can actually be a source of creativity and wisdom.
I don’t understand why we feel shameful about it. In your previous question, Light you said that you “catch yourself” – as if it is something very bad you’re doing. It’s not.
I don’t know why, but I wouldn’t feel guilty reading a book for an hour or two – quite the contrary actually.
We need to get over that. The thing is that while you’re browsing, you are reading, so it’s not different at all from reading a book. If modernism has taught us anything, then that skim reading, broken reading, or non-linear reading, are all am valid reading strategies. Why do we only consider reading as going through a book beginning to end? The fact is that because of the Internet we are reading and writing way more than we used to. It might just be e-mails, status updates or search bar entries, but that’s writing and reading as well.

The Internet won’t stretch into infinity”

Surely there is a difference between writing an article and typing a status update?
The status update tends to be shorter, yes. But all your Facebook and Twitter updates combined are your autobiography. A student of mine used to write e-mails to himself with things he must remember. It was like a status update addressed to himself. As his final project, he printed out all these e-mails that he hadn’t read in 10 years and turned them into a book. It was a diary, a very accurate picture of where he had been 10 years ago. Back then, these e-mails meant nothing to him, but 10 years down the road they reminded him of so many things he had lived through. We erroneously dismiss status updates as insignificant. That writing is often more personal than anything else we write.
Postings are often very personal, which is why many people feel a certain unease knowing these entries might outlive them and become visible to a large amount of people.
Of course it is much more public than a personal diary but the blind spot in your theory is that you trust the apparatus to still be around 100 or 150 years from now. The Internet won’t stretch into infinity. The operating system will change, Facebook and Apple will go out of business, these things happen all the time. People upload things into the cloud, thinking that their material is safe, but it’s not. The cloud could collapse at any moment. I download and archive furiously because I don’t trust these things. Just think about Megaupload. The Internet will not end, but many parts of it will at some point. Servers crash, domains expire, companies go out of business, so if you love something, download it.
Our generation will leave behind more information than any previous generation. What do you think successive generations will make of all the digital material we have produced and saved?
Again, that is assuming that the material will still be around in 100 years or so, but you are right that we will leave behind a lot of material and information. I however think that successive generations will be much more interested in their own lives and not so much in ours.
We look back at previous generations.
Some us do, many of us don’t. The notion of presentism is very powerful when it comes to the digital realm. People live in the present – especially online. The world changes every time a webpage refreshes. When something falls off the bottom of the Twitter feed, it’s gone. I like this sense of being in the moment; it’s almost a Zen concept. We have regained a craving for the present. I like that.
But this fixation on the now might lead to an inability to let events unfold or deepen. Following that logic, 9/11 would have been yesterday’s news by September 12th.
It was. On September 12th 2001, the question wasn’t “what happened?” Seven but “why did it happen?”. Of course the event wasn’t forgotten, but the questions had changed by the next day.
As a concluding question: How would you design the last page of the Internet?
It would say: “You have reached the very last page of the Internet, click here for the next one”.