Why Poetry: An interview with Matthew Zapruder

Matthew Zapruder headshot

Travis Nichols: Let's start with Audre Lorde. What's the difference between poetry and rhetoric?

Matthew Zapruder: You're referring to the discussion in Why Poetry of Audre Lorde's poem "Power," which begins, "The difference between poetry and rhetoric/ is being ready to kill/ yourself/ instead of your children." The poem was written in response to the acquittal of a police officer who had murdered a 10 year old boy in Queens. Her lines echo and rewrite Yeats's famous formulation that "we make out of the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrels with ourselves, poetry." Lorde's poem challenges the idea that poetry is some refined ethereal space cut off from the troubling messiness of actuality, while also acknowledging that giving up on the idea of poetry as a protected place, one that is in some ways free from the pressures of the outside world, is a very real loss, even a kind of violence to the self. In discussing her poem, what I was interested in was how the pressures of events in the external world can start to seem as if they absolutely demand a response in our poetry, and what that means for us as readers and writers. Many people seem interested in that same question.

Travis Nichols: It's such an intense, startling poem, and one I find myself returning to a lot recently, largely, because there's so much to respond to on a daily and even hourly basis right now. There are so many quarrels with others that it feels self-indulgent to pay any attention to the quarrels with ourselves. To read a poem or to write a poem that doesn't deal directly with injustice, that doesn't try to alleviate suffering in a direct way, feels to me more ridiculous than ever. And yet this negotiation is at the heart of your book, and was so even before Trumpism was ascendent. It's always been difficult to negotiate the difference between poetry and rhetoric, through the "pressures of the real," as Stevens has it, but is it worse now? Has your answer to the question, "Why Poetry?" changed in the past year?

Matthew Zapruder: I don't think it's self-indulgent, or ridiculous, though I can certainly understand feeling that way, and often do myself. Actually though, I think it's a matter of survival.

After the election, in frustration and confusion and despair, I started to write something just to clear my head, that became an essay and eventually the afterword to Why Poetry. In it, I try to make the argument that it is not only possible, but necessary, to preserve a free space inside oneself for the imagination. Probably some of my feelings about this come from having grown up in Washington, D.C., in a home where the minutiae and tactics of politics was a source of endless discussion. It took me some time to realize that this kind of obsession, however well-meaning, can be a distraction. Politics as entertainment, as sports. I also have seen myself and others around me at times become stunned, drained, and less likely to act, the more they follow the minute by minute spectacle of degradation.

But really, my belief in these spaces is beyond the merely tactical. I think there are truths about being alive that one can only discover in the imagination by liberating oneself from all obligation. To find those truths and bring them back for others is the role of the artist. And to do so is not only to preserve oneself, but also to open up the possibility, however slender, that someone else you disagree with might do the same, and to cross some kind of border that cannot be crossed by argument or even fact.

For a long time, really since my second book (which I wrote during the run-up to the 2004 election), politics has been a part of my poetry, just because thinking and worrying about it is as much as part of my life as anything else. Over the past several years, I have seen so many poets do remarkable things in poetry with politics as material. Poems by Brenda Hillman and Terrance Hayes and Victoria Chang and Shane McCrae and so many others have made me feel simultaneously sadder and more despairing, but also hopeful, in community, more aware and alive. I just read an incredible poem by Patricia Lockwood called "The Pinch" that transformed and re-enlivened so many familiar images and feelings I think so many of us have now. It made me feel more upset and less alone. These poems take the material of the real and transform it. They do something more than merely report or argue.

Of course I have seen a lot of bad poetry that either preaches to the converted, or seems mainly designed to position the poet as a correct and decent person. This reminds me of Keats's famous remark about Wordsworth, that he was guilty of the "egotistical sublime," that is, pretending he was awed by nature when really what he was awed by was his own awe, which he wanted the reader to share. I suppose poetry is a particular temptation to that sort of self-projection. But it's also true that we have bigger problems than bad political poems!

Travis Nichols: This is what Ann Coulter calls "virtue-signalling," performing the role of right-thinking hero for the right-thinking audience. She does not approve. One of the many things I like about Why Poetry is that it asks us to try to set aside some of these outside interpretations or inferences in favor of a more narrow reading of the text itself. Not forever, but for long enough to get our bearings. You ask readers to look at the words on the page, ask what they could mean, what they might be doing together, why they somehow capture the spirit of poetry, if and when they do. It's a difficult thing, given that we want any excuse not to actually read a poem. It's easier to call Wordsworth a spy than to read his poems. When I was reading Why Poetry, I found myself deeply enjoying poems I thought I had exhausted or that no longer held secrets for me because I had begun having a sort of shorthand for them, assuming I knew everything about them. What made you want to emphasize this kind of close reading?

Matthew Zapruder: I really do think that so much of what keeps people away from poetry is a firmly held and incorrect idea about poetic language: that whatever is on the page can't possibly be what is "really" meant. It's a paradox, because to read poetry is to look for that transcendence poetry can give, the way it can bring us out of ordinary experience, into different levels of understanding, or more exciting, even magical realms. But in order for that to happen, a reader has to at first be completely attentive to the words on the page, and read at least at first in the same way we would a piece of prose or any writing. Otherwise there can be no meaningful encounter with a poem.

This sounds really obvious, even dumb, but it is my experience as a teacher and poet that this is not something so many people do. It's as if as soon as something is called "poetry," a big scary switch is thrown, and completely ordinary language scares people, making them feel paralyzed. All of the many close readings I do in the book are more or less about demonstrating that the wondrous experiences of poetry always come first out of literal readings, though of course our understanding so often then goes somewhere else, away from the merely literal.

There's also something else, which is that poems have an inherent strangeness to them, both in their surfaces and forms (the way they look on the page: line breaks, and sometimes even more aggressive oddities), as well as the strangeness of their movements, which are often unexpected, not linear, associative, leaping. One of the other main purposes of the book was to show how and why the formal qualities of poetry are not merely decorative accessories to meaning, but themselves the source of meaning. I think if people don't know why poets do those things, they don't know how to read or react to them. They might think they are arbitrary or just interferences with "making meaning," when in fact those elements are absolutely essential, at least in good poetry. My hope in the book was to go some way toward clarifying that.

Travis Nichols: Do you think your approach here is different from the New Criticism school of Practical Criticism by people like I.A. Richards? Is it a call for readers to return to that kind of interpretation?

Matthew Zapruder: My book is not at all a call to return to New Criticism. I do love Richards, I think he is brilliant on metaphor (especially his little book based on his lectures, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, in which he invents the terms "tenor" and "vehicle" which we still use to describe metaphor) and on criticism in general, a very funny and lively writer. I also enjoy reading Cleanth Brooks and William Empson and many of those other New Critics, again because their writing is surprisingly lively, and their minds are super sharp. But I find their insistence that the text itself is all that matters to be way too limiting. When you really dig into it, their reasoning becomes quite circular.

In the end they don't actually present a reason why poetry as a distinct genre exists, which is a fatal flaw. Ironically, the New Critics were trying to bring the study and reading of poetry away from paraphrase. They recognized the danger of treating a poem like a story or sermon in disguise: that it would make all the things that make it a poem seem at best decorative, and at worst an annoying interference to the important message (if it's so important, why not just say it clearly and directly?!).

But because the New Critics did not successfully articulate a reason for the existence of poetry, what ended up happening is that under their strong and pervasive influence reading poetry became a completely useless exercise in identifying structure, pointing out resonances and similarities with little connection to meaning, and so on. Whenever the issue of meaning did come up, teachers and students understandably either gravitated back to the very sorts of paraphrase that the New Critics were trying to counter ("the theme of this poem is death"), and/or asserted that meaning isn't an operative concept when it comes to poetry. This is still the case. You can see this in the questions that are asked on standardized tests about poetry, which still either reduce the poem to a theme-bearing text, or ask pointless questions about metaphor or imagery or sound. The result has been generations of wounded, irritated and cynical students who go on to think they hate and don't understand poetry.

Those critics had immense influence, because their ideas about poetry coincided with the time that poetry, for the first time, began to be taught in a widespread way, not just at university, but to younger students. That's why at some point during the writing of the book I put a lot of time into reading and analyzing the New Critics closely, particularly the best-selling textbook Understanding Poetry, edited by Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Poetry has believe it or not sold many, many millions of copies, and the odds are good that your English teacher, and your parents, and maybe even you, read that book in class. The fact is, it's kind of a disaster of a book, because it fails to explain why we should bother with poetry in the first place, why it is the way it is, and does what it does, which creates the above mentioned vacuum in meaning. In the end, I cut many thousands of words from the book that I had written about that textbook and other widely-used ones (like Laurence Perrine's Sound and Sense and others), mainly because the writing I did about them turned out to be super boring. But I'm glad I did the work, for my own sake.

Travis Nichols: As someone who has written about poetry and been in many conversations about how and if to make it accessible to wider audiences, I have a lot of admiration for what you've done here. You try throughout Why Poetry to speak as plainly as possible without being reductive, without dumbing the poems down into paraphrase or aphorism, while at the same time not retreating into jargon. As a poet, the process can necessarily be mysterious. You try to say something, you meet resistance, and out of that resistance comes a poem. It is always tempting to put on the robes of the high priest, light the incense and say, "Poetry is a mystery! Only if you are pure of spirit will you be able to understand!" I sometimes do this in the privacy of my own home but even my small children find it tedious. Was it a struggle to write this way about something that does, as you say, bring us out of our everyday experience into magical realms?

Matthew Zapruder: Please tell me you actually put on robes and light incense before you read poetry. That would be awesome. Your kids would love it I'm sure.

Before I got my MFA, I was getting a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures, so I had a lot of exposure to that sort of jargon-y, highly technical talk about literature. It's something I dove into and came out on the other side of, and consciously turned away from when I began to devote my life to the writing of poetry. That sort of talk and writing is definitely interesting to some people, and occasionally quite useful in clarifying issues that come up in texts, but for the general reader, most of that terminology and conceptualizing is not so helpful. It's definitely not helpful (and is also demonstrably not true) to feel like you have to know a lot of specialized terminology in order to have a meaningful experience with a poem. Oddly though, there is one whole chapter in the book devoted to a literary theoretical concept, Viktor Shklovsky's defamiliarization, because it's an incredibly useful way to think about poetry.

I feel the same way about this as I do about the deeper meanings, literary allusions, historical references, and so on in poems: those things can be ways of appreciating a literary text more deeply, giving more pleasure and understanding, but they are I believe secondary to primary encounters that do not require any special training or knowledge. I guess in the end I am basically a humanist when it comes to literature: I think most of us simply by virtue of being alive, and therefore experienced language users, have the basic equipment to read most literature. Sometimes you need a little help with something, but mostly it's there on the page for anyone. Maybe that is just what I would like to believe, since I am not a scholar, but a producer of literary texts, ones that I hope could be read by any person. Part of writing the book was to test out that hypothesis, and I was relieved to discover at the end that I still thought this was the case.

As far as whether it was hard, the answer is yes, but not because I was tempted to write in jargon or using literary theory. I needed to write clearly and directly, and answer the questions that so often come up from general readers about poetry, without ever talking down to anyone, or being reductive, or oversimplifying. That's why it took so many years of writing and rewriting: often I would explain a concept or poem, and then realize that I had gone too far in one direction, or that I had made things too definitive, and didn't really agree with what I had written. So I went back in, again and again and again. Also, I depended on my most trusted readers (some poets, but not all) to tell me if I what I had written made sense, and seemed true.

Travis Nichols: Were there any particular poets you found yourself going back to? Any surprises?

Matthew Zapruder: I began the book writing about a poem by John Ashbery, "The One Thing That Can Save America," for a lecture I gave at the Tin House Summer Workshop. In that lecture, I touched on most of the themes I would eventually write about in the book. Initially, I thought the subject and effect of the poem was mainly about creating a space of contemplation and privacy and mystery, and that the "thing" that was going to "save America" was, basically, the dream state created by the poem itself. That's how Wallace Stevens talked about poetry, and I write quite a bit about Stevens's ideas in my discussion of the Ashbery poem. I still do think that is part of what the poem asserts. But something always bothered me about that. It seemed to be missing something essential, and in a fundamental way falling into the trap of diminishing Ashbery, reducing him to merely a poet of affect, interested only in creating a dream state. The more I read and reread the poem, I realized that it did have a subject matter, and that this subject was also, obliquely, democracy, and other matters related to community, and what concerns us most in our personal and civic lives. The poem revealed itself as being in a way deeply political, which was something I didn't really see at first.

This happened with several other poems in the book. It also happened most notably for me in the concept of the symbol. Initially, as I said above, one of my main motivations in writing the book was to argue against knee-jerk symbolic readings of poetry, ones that immediately assume that a word or image must "really" mean something else, something supposedly deeper, but which so often turns out to be banal, not really strange or interesting at all. Poetry teachers often call this sort of analysis "symbol hunting." In early drafts of the book I was highly derogatory about this, and one-sided. But the more I thought and read about symbols, the more I realized that while symbol hunting is not a good way to read poetry, what I call "true symbolism" is intimately related to the nature of poetry. At some point in the book I write that all poets are more or less symbolists, in that they are looking for the way the ordinary can (by means of the poem) become something other than ordinary, something strange and magical and transcendent. I knew this was true from reading and writing poetry, but until I wrote about this for many years, I didn't really understand it. It was super hard to explain the difference between symbol hunting and true symbolism, but I think absolutely essential.

Travis Nichols: Because this is a book about poetry, partisans from different camps are likely to lose their minds arguing about your methods, interpretations, and suggestions. Does that worry you?

Matthew Zapruder: I haven't been so worried, though maybe I should be. I tried to include and discuss a wide a range of poetry (though I'm sure I missed so much, mainly so that the book wouldn't end up being 9000 pages long), not only because that reflects my own reading habits, but because to be truly useful, what I'm saying has to apply to all poetry. Probably that very attempt is, in and of itself, so presumptuous as to invite disagreement. Were there particular contentions in the book that you thought might be likely to set people off?

Travis Nichols: That's probably the main one, that there could be something universal or agreed-upon about the idea of what poetry is. I like the question, and I find it's actually one that can start interesting conversations with people who don't consider themselves poets, or even poetry readers. Everyone has an idea about what it is, but few people want to read it, which is a curious disconnect. I am so out of the loop with contemporary criticism and theory that I feel like a golden retriever trying to mail a letter articulating this, so bear with me, but I feel like there is a way of talking about art that primarily foregrounds the cultural and socio-economic context of the art-making process rather than the end product. If that was my orientation as a reader, then I'd feel like you were telling readers to look at poems in a way that limited their understanding. But I'm not sure this is an interesting road for us to go down, so I'll leave it to you to decide. I'm also interested in what kind of assumptions I could make about this book expressing your sensibility as an editor.

Matthew Zapruder: It's not hard for me to imagine someone objecting to the idea that there is something universal to be said about poetry, or the very idea that poetry is a distinct genre. It's certainly not fashionable to talk about genres right now, unless you are talking about crossing over or combining them. But as I write in the introduction, even if you feel that way about genre, when it comes to poetry it's helpful to think about it temporarily, without of course ultimately being beholden to it. Anyway, I would hope if someone objected to my trying to say something universal about poetry, that it wasn't just on principle, that you can't say anything universal about anything. That just doesn't seem like a very interesting thing to disagree about. It would take us quickly away from talking about poetry, and into the realm of undergraduate dorm room epistemology or something else yawny.

In the most basic sense, the point I am trying to make is that the continued persistence of poetry as a human activity, across time and cultures, has to do with something it does that is different from all other types of writing. How it refuses to be beholden to all the other things we use language for. How it turns distractibility, inconsistency, dreaminess, leaping, all those things that we scrub out of everyday life and functionality, into something to be treasured. How it continually prioritizes an interest in the very nature of language itself: as material that has a sound, visual qualities, feels a certain way in the mouth, etc., and also in the larger sense as a thing that attempts—and ultimately fails—to completely represent the world. It seems interesting to me to think about what connects Sappho to Rumi to Keats to Basho to Eluard to James Tate to Alice Notley to Victoria Chang. My instinct is that there is something. It's just an instinct, but it's one that comes out of a long time of being a poet, and also reading and thinking about it. The intellectual project of the book is to investigate this. Someone else's intellectual project could be to tell me why I am wrong, but even so, maybe they will find my attempt interesting and worth reading.

I do feel quite strongly that given the current state of thinking and discussion about poetry, that unless we open up these questions in some more interesting ways, people just aren't going to be having very worthwhile reading experiences. Time and again, I have the experience of talking to really brilliant people, writers and artists and also very smart educated people outside of the literary world, who have absolutely the most limited and boring ideas about poetry that you could imagine. They often have in their mind some version of the idea that the whole point of a poem is to get past all the decorative crap and figure out what the message is, what it's really trying to say. It's as if people still thought that a painting wasn't any good unless it looked like whatever it was trying to represent, and that any deviation from "reality," anything that made it a painting and not just a photorealist representation of the world, was an interference. No one thinks that about painting anymore. Poetry needs to catch up.

Travis Nichols: The other criticism I can imagine is from the "I don't know about art but I know what I like" camp. I thought of it as I was reading "Suite For Barbara Loden" by Nathalie Leger, which has this quote from an actor: "I lack both the idea and the words, I have only the feeling." There is a group of dedicated poetry readers who love the poems they love, but they don't want analysis to impede their enjoyment. They have only the feeling. Do you think it's worthwhile to engage that mindset?

Matthew Zapruder: It seems to me if you like some poems, there are other poems and poets you will like as well. Maybe you just haven't heard of them yet. Because I can't talk individually to everyone who might read this book, I can't just say, well, you like this, check this other thing out. So I am trying to make deeper, more conceptual connections, that can be applied to very different types and styles of poetry. I hope this book will help open up some of the reasons why a reader might love certain poems or poets, not (as Wordsworth wrote) to murder to dissect, but so they can find other poems that do similar things, or maybe even very different ones.

One of my biggest fears is that people might think I'm not interested in meaning at all. I gave a lecture at a few years ago at the Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland, in which I discussed an idea that "about" was a limited idea in poetry, very close to "looks like" in painting. I came up with the phrase "about aboutness," in order to explain that way a poem makes meaning less by getting a message across, and more by creating a state of dreamy attentiveness particular to poetry. Of course this effect is created through the meaning-making properties of words, and language. The reaction to this from some people was to assume that I was saying poems aren't about anything at all, which is not what as I think, as should (I hope) be obvious to anyone who reads my poems or prose about poetry.

It might seem that in my focus on the material of language, I am asserting that the effects of poetry are less about what it means than how. It's definitely true that I think the how (and why) of poetry require far more explanation than the what. The what is so often what ends up getting talked about in school, with a little bit of how thrown in on top, and no why at all. The effects of that are hugely detrimental, as I've tried to explain above. But I also believe that meaning-making is inextricably, thankfully, bound up in the effects of poetry. I just think meaning-making works differently in poetry than in prose.

The chapters I write on associative movement, leaping, negative capability, and symbols attempt to illuminate some different ways that poets activate the meaning-making capacities of language using the tools of prose, but also moving beyond them. For me, poetry doesn't leave behind the ways meaning is made in prose and everyday conversation: it takes those meanings and uses them while also doing different things with them too, and adding as well an equal interest in the material of language itself (its sounds, the tenuous yet essential relationship it has to whatever it is trying to represent, and so on). This creates an enormous set of possibilities for the poet. The poet gives up certain things prose does, in exchange for something else. In my book, I try to talk about what that something else is, and how it manifests in so many different forms. Which is why there are so many different types of poems, and why in their own ways they can each and all be poetry. If my book is able to bring readers closer to more poems, to help them find deep meaning in those poems according to their own particular interests, preferences, and proclivities, then I will have succeeded.


Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Come On All You Ghosts, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Sun Bear, Copper Canyon 2014, as well as Why Poetry, a book of prose, from Ecco Press in August 2017. An Associate Professor in the MFA Program at Saint Mary's College of California, he is also Editor at Large at Wave Books. The 2016-17 Editor of the Poetry Column for the New York Times Magazine, he lives in Oakland, CA. Photo credit: B.A. Van Sise.

Travis Nichols is the author of two poetry collections, Iowa Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (Copper Canyon Press), as well as two novels, Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder and See Me Improving (Coffee House Press). He works at Greenpeace USA. Follow him on Twitter: @travisjnichols

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