Why Poetry? Matthew Zapruder Asks, and Answers

“Somewhere, in every poem, there are words that shine forth, light up, almost as if plugged in,” writes Matthew Zapruder, associate professor in Saint Mary’s English Department and core faculty of the Creative Writing MFA program. A critically acclaimed poet, Zapruder is also a former poetry column editor for The New York Times and editor at large at Wave Books, the renowned independent publishing house for poetry. In his just-released fifth book, Why Poetry (Ecco/HarperCollins, August 2017), Zapruder argues that reading poems can illuminate our lives. But first, he says, we need to stop treating poetry like a riddle to be solved, and get real with what’s on the page.

Q: Why Poetry is, among other things, a first-person guide to how an ordinary person can take pleasure in poetry and not be intimidated by it. What led you to write it?

A: Becoming a poet, and then encountering so many people who said they didn’t understand poetry and didn’t like it. I wondered what would it be like to dig into and address, in good faith, that resistance. And then I started to get into how poetry is taught and how we think of it culturally.

Q: What’s wrong with the way poetry is taught?

A: The whole presumption is that it’s some riddle, some secret code or message. To get students off that presumption, that’s a huge step in the right direction.

Q: So how do you address the “hidden message” misconception in the classroom?

A: I try to get students to focus on what’s on the page—the title of the poem, who is speaking, the basic action. Then we look for what jumps out as being strange or unexpected . . . that’s often where the poem’s energy is. And then I make space for students to talk about what they think the deeper ideas of the poem are, what it seems to be pointing toward or questioning, and what the poem makes them think or feel. To make us think more deeply, not just about the poem itself, but about our own lives and experience—that is what poems are supposed to do!

Q: Have you ever felt intimidated by a poem?

A: I’ve felt baffled. Or annoyed. When I first read the notoriously difficult poems of John Ashbery, I was angry because I was looking for something that wasn’t there. “Why doesn’t he say what he means?” It was my mistake. There wasn’t something he was hiding. The meaning of the poems was in the way they took over my mind, and how thinking along with him changed my thinking. It was like the music of John Coltrane—at first I just literally could not hear it. I was too inexperienced; I needed to listen to it a bunch of times. Now, if something seems weird or strange or different, I’m going to try to postpone my judgment and let it sink in. Why not give it some time? In art, there are many things I have come to love that I didn’t like at first.

Q: Your previous four books are poetry collections. What was it like to write a 256-page book of prose?

A: Grueling! I have always had deep respect for prose writers, but now it’s exponentially greater. You have to sit down and work for hours and hours at a time, day after day, on the same thing. Poems are really more about a different type of mentality, about associating and drifting and dreaming and making leaps.

Q: Do you see a connection between poetry and the Lasallian philosophy?

A: Absolutely. Poetry is intimately bound up with the mission of education in the liberal arts, and the Catholic respect for the integrity and sacredness of human beings and their imaginations.

Q: You play guitar with a rock band called The Figments. Do you also write song lyrics?

A: No. Our lead singer, Thane Thomsen, is a brilliant, world-class songwriter. My contribution is to play the guitar and admire his songwriting. But it’s nice to be in a band, have a little posse you work with. Writing is solitary.

Q: In Why Poetry, you describe taking your father, a practical-minded attorney, to a poetry reading, and seeing him become transfixed. Along those lines, what might a student of, say, business or biology get out of poetry?

A: Wallace Stevens says that “the all-commanding subject matter of poetry is life.” If you are alive, there are poems for you. And your life will be more interesting, better, stranger, cooler, weirder, and more fun through reading poems.