English teachers and students know they will have to deal, at some point, with the dreaded P-word: poetry. Too often those classroom discussions begin with two pained questions:
"Why do we have to read it?"
"Why doesn't this stuff make sense?"
In his new book, "Why Poetry," Matthew Zapruder makes the bold assertion that understanding poetry requires "forgetting many incorrect things we have learned in school" and accepting "what is right before us on the page." Any reader can do that, he says, because "we are all experts in words; we have been for a long time. And any word we don't know we can look up."
Those claims may surprise students — and teachers — who have long assumed that each poem harbors one correct meaning that poets try to hide from hapless readers. Zapruder, an award-winning poet and a professor in the MFA program at St. Mary's College of California, understands their suspicion. He, too, disliked poetry as a high school senior who was forced to take "the dreaded poetry unit." Yet when he stumbled upon "Musée des Beaux Arts" by W.H. Auden, he realized that the more he read the opening lines, the more they resonated for him. He also admired how those lines said what they said. His reaction eventually led to the insight that he "could be in direct contact with poetry, without any kind of intermediary."
Zapruder, who didn't consider himself a poet until he was well into his 20s, soon tackles another question people frequently ask: "What is the purpose of poetry, and what should we be looking for?" He agrees with the early-20th-century French poet Paul Valéry, who famously said, "A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words."
A poem is a machine? Yes, says Zapruder: "The poem makes poetry happen in the mind of the reader or listener. It happens first to the poet, and in the course of writing, the poet eventually makes something, a little machine, one that for the reader produces discoveries, connections, glimmers of expression."
As the book continues, Zapruder, a former poetry editor for the New York Times Magazine, reveals more and more about how that machine functions, moving "through contradictions, connecting previously unlike elements so we understand in new ways." He also leads readers through many famous and challenging poems, including T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" and John Ashbery's "The One Thing That Can Save America." And he provides a wealth of revelatory yet practical statements on subjects as diverse as metaphor and symbolism, negative capability, and associative movement.
The result is a consistently surprising work that shows novices how they can navigate poetry while providing a wonderful re-education for anyone who was taught to dissect a poem as if it were a dead frog. Even serious writers will find fresh inspiration here as Zapruder, an astute teacher and writer, reminds us to seek "words that shine forth, are activated, light up, almost as if plugged in."
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry each month for The Washington Post.
By Matthew Zapruder
Ecco. 256 pp. $24.99