Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
In this assertion of what poetry does, Dickinson distinguishes poetry from all other forms of writing just by its effect. She knows when it’s poetry by the way it makes her feel, what it does to her.
Matthew Zapuder’s Why Poetry is a welcoming and thoughtful reflection of the field of poetry and what poems can do to help us resist, better understand one another, and why poetry thrives in cultures around the world. He also addresses the deliberately difficult genre of modern poetry that relies on esoteric and obscure references that may be intimidating to students of poetry.
Zapruder cautions against poets mimicking high modernist poems like T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land just to hide meaning and feign mysteriousness. As he says, “Good poets do not deliberately complicate something just to make it harder for a reader to understand, and as poet Mahmoud Darwish says, “Extreme Clarity is a mystery.”
Young or new poets may feel an impulse to overcomplicate or disguise what they’re saying to imitate challenging work as a kind of self-protection. This may be a short-cut to mysterious, or, as Zapruder suggests, intentionally hiding true meanings may arise from a self-conscious fear that many writers experience.
What distinguishes poetry from all other forms of writing is that it exists to create a space for the possibilities of language. It requires a slowing-down, to think at a different pace than the rest of life demands. It takes the habitual and defamiliarizes or “strangifies” words in order to jar us awake.
An example of defamiliarization in short poem by Langston Hughes:
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.
In response to the poem Zapruder says, “In Hughes’s poem, he takes what is a very familiar imaginative act – the water has a face – and treats it literally, as something that could, like a real face, ask for a kiss. And this request, which the suicide feels compelled to grant, becomes the explanation for the self-annihilating act” (44).
Another example of poetry awakening language is in the example of Adrienne Rich’s “Rape”
Rich’s poem brings the terrible actuality of the word “Rape” back and is addresses the act of a woman reporting a rape to a suspicious policeman.
There is a cop who is both prowler and father:
he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,
had certain ideals.
You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,
on horseback, one hand touching his gun.
You hardly know him but you have to get to know him:
he has access to machinery that could kill you.
You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it in a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
He knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.
He has access to machinery that could get you put away;
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
and if, in the sickening light of the preceint,
your details sound like a portrait of your confessor,
will you swallow, will you deny them, will you lie your way
“The repetition of the lines in the final stanza awakens us to the actuality of the scene, taking us out of mere description. And there is something about repetition itself in this poem that does feel sickening: that this happened before, and will happen again […] And the only beginning to a solution is for us all to become reawakened to its actual, horrible meaning” (52).
Zapruder concludes with the possibilities that poetry creates. Poetry is a way we can resist, not in order to avoid the real, but in order to preserve within ourselves the necessary spaces of imagination, possibility, humanity, love, and togetherness. Since poetry remains free of utilitarian obligations, it can be devoted to imaginative structures built out of words where freedom can be made possible. The role of poetry in a time of crisis is to preserve the possibility of mutual understanding.
Highly recommended. Contact your local Busboys and Poets bookstore to get a copy of Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder (2017).
Blog done by Laela Shallal