Poetry frustrates people. Lay readers often find it incomprehensible, and even literary professionals sometimes complain of its obscurity, as the critic Mark Edmundson did at length four years ago in Harper’s.
Every now and then one of the poets, in turn, steps up helpfully to explain how to read the stuff. In his friendly new book, “Why Poetry” (Ecco, 256 pp., $24.99), poet, editor and teacher Matthew Zapruder does this very thing with unusual clarity and generosity. He agreed to answer some questions about poetry by email; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
As you acknowledge in your book, Americans are often flummoxed by poetry. What’s the secret to appreciating — never mind “understanding” — a contemporary poem?
The big secret is . . . there is no secret. The very fact that people are taught to think there is a secret meaning is precisely what keeps them from understanding it. Poems are not riddles, or codes. They are meant to be read literally. Of course, once you start to read them literally, they are quite strange and do peculiar things to one’s mind. But the true secret of poetry is that it is not difficult to understand, but to accept.
Many poetry readers seem to agree with Edmundson that “most of our poets now speak a deeply internal language.” Few people read or talk about poems, and few mainstream outlets review them. Most are published noncommercially. Is it possible the fault is not in the readers but in the poets?
I don’t agree that most poets speak a “deeply internal language.” That’s also an odd comment, since a criticism I hear just as often is that the language of contemporary American poetry is too plain, and not “poetic” enough anymore. Poets use the same language as everyone else, the language that belongs to all of us, and binds us all together. It’s just that poets have always used language for unique purposes, ones that are a little less obvious and a little harder to explain than in other forms of writing. That’s one of the main purposes of my book, to explore those unique functions of poems and what they do that no other form of writing can.
You emphasize the centrality of language and feeling in poetry, rather than philosophy or narrative or theme. Yet Milton and Pope and Wordsworth and Larkin all did pretty well at both. Have times changed?
Not at all. Storytelling, philosophy, a commitment to social and political issues — these are all everywhere in contemporary American poetry, especially right now. In the book, I discuss many poems that have more traditional approaches (narrative, philosophical, etc.), and talk about what, and how, they mean. I don’t believe that poems are merely “about language” or only about feelings. What I am trying to show is that in every poem, regardless of whether it is ostensibly interested in communicating or convincing or explaining, there are always deeper purposes. These purposes, in addition to whatever else is going on, are what distinguish the poem from prose. If the primary task of a poem were only to inform, convince or do any of the other work of prose, then why not just write it in prose? Obviously there is something else that motivates the poet. This fundamental human need to search for a different way of making meaning is central to the poetic impulse, and evident in all poetry.
Was there ever a time when cobblers and fish mongers consumed sonnets at lunch, or has poetry always been a rarefied taste? And if things are different now, is it just because misguided educators have made poetry into such an object of cryptography?
That strikes me as an anachronistic fantasy. And I certainly don’t think educators are primarily to blame. Teachers are just doing the best they can, with limited training and time. But it certainly doesn’t help that our first exposure to poetry in school is most often being asked to decipher what it “really means,” i.e., the hidden message or big theme. That’s just misleading and annoying, because it treats the poem like a riddle, with a single meaning it is our job as readers to decipher. It also gives people the impression that whatever makes something a poem — be it rhyme, imagery, metaphor, or an interest in making meaning in unfamiliar ways — is just an obstacle. So poetry itself comes to seem decorative or deliberately obfuscatory. No wonder people dislike it.