In the Key That Our Souls Were Singing

Matthew Zapruder is persuasive and optimistic enough to make one feel patriotic about poetry.

In the Key That Our Souls Were Singing

Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder. Ecco. 256 pages.

IT’S SAID THAT every language has produced some form of poetry, and that poetry may in fact predate literacy. Yet despite its global and historical ubiquity, despite poetry’s closeness to its more popular sister song, here in these (dis)United States … how shall I say it politely? Poetry is disfavored? Avoided? Defunded? Unloved?

Can you remember when you last sat down for quality time with a book of poems, or even an individual poem? I mean voluntarily. Being force-fed Emily Dickinson in school doesn’t count. Even if you’re in the dwindling minority who consumes literature in this country (and since you’re eyeballing a book review, this may be true) it’s likely you rarely, if ever, read poems.

And who could blame you? When I was in high school, poetry was punishment — students were required to memorize and recite “The Charge of Light Brigade” as a penalty for not doing their homework. So, what have poems to offer us that’s vital and desirable, rather than vaguely humiliating? Has American poetry become the province of scholars, the anointed few who know how to read obscure, weirdly shaped texts? Are most poems opaque, encrypted writings whose keys lie buried deep beneath the buildings where PhD programs are housed? Are most poems, especially of the contemporary variety, designed to make even seasoned prose readers feel stupid?

Enter Matthew Zapruder, poet, editor, teacher, and champion of the genre. Zapruder has written a book intended to help mend the rift between poems and readers. He wants to restore our access to poetry’s considerable gifts, to aid us in reclaiming that birthright. By my lights, this is a noble and ambitious agenda.

Defenses of poetry are not new. They even comprise a sort of genre unto themselves. [1] The poet Shelley penned one (published in 1840), in which he famously declared poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” About 100 years later, poet W. H. Auden retorted, “The unacknowledged legislators of the world’ describes the secret police, not the poets.” They may be little read, but poets can be uncannily prescient.

By multiple conventional measures, Zapruder is “qualified” to enter the defense of poetry fray. He’s published four well-received books of poems. Former poetry editor for The New York Times magazine, he has a BA in Russian literature, an MA in Slavic languages and literature, and an MFA in poetry. In other words, Zapruder is not some outsider storming the ivory towers of literary academe. He’s a practicing artist and trained academic, steeped in at least a couple of literary traditions other than English.

Zapruder’s mission is to “explore what it is about poetry that makes people feel they don’t understand it […] take seriously the objections people have, and try to address those objections clearly and simply.” “Most people,” he observes (by which I think he may mean most Americans) regard poetry “on a spectrum of skepticism to scorn.” His thesis is that contrary to what the majority may think, poetry’s pleasures and benefits are accessible to anyone willing to invest a bit of time and attention. And he contends that poetry’s riches are worth having, perhaps especially in our current, alienated political moment. No special tools, bohemian lifestyles, passwords, or degrees are needed, he argues. I am happy to report that he is refreshingly successful in making his case.

Why Poetry is intelligent, straightforward, lucid, and cleanly reasoned. The book reads like a single essay in some respects, because Zapruder’s central points about poetry not being a code, about its literary uniqueness and resultant usefulness, are patiently reiterated across his essays. He also circles back across several essays to poems by Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and Williams Carlos Williams, which seem to be touchstones for him, considering them from multiple angles. Although he heavily references the usual suspects in terms of “canon” poets, (like the three aforementioned gents, and Elizabeth Bishop, and others familiar to anyone who has taught or taken a standard American poetry course), he also employs examples from living poets of varying ages, races, and ethnicities, as well as some poetry from other, mostly European, cultures.

Zapruder uses close readings of poems to substantiate his arguments and teach the art of unpacking a poem. These are excellent models, graceful and well informed without being condescending. Notable among them are moments when Zapruder acknowledges that the passage under scrutiny is open to varied and perhaps competing “reads.” This attitude is rarer than one might wish in poetry analysis, and in this reader’s view, trust-inspiring in a poetry guide.

The pieces included here are teacherly in the best sense. Why Poetry’s tone blends enthusiasm and erudition. Flashes of autobiography are integrated into the text, making the essays warmer and less lecture-y. In his prose Zapruder abides by his own maxim about poetry, that “clarity” can be “a kind of generosity.” He’s careful to construct his arguments so they can be followed by newcomers to the genre; when he quotes poems or critical texts, he provides just enough context so novices will not feel like uninitiated victims of name-dropping. At the same time, his writing is intellectually lively and layered enough to engage those more in the know.

The way Zapruder sees it, a root cause of poetry’s PR problems is that readers often approach the genre with inappropriate expectations. These misapprehensions, which he takes care to present as understandable, can lead to frustration and rejection. Readers may “resent poetry for not behaving like other forms of writing.” However, if we approach poems disabused of confounding preconceptions, he argues, armed with a little knowledge of poetry’s intentions and methods, the field is ours to enjoy, “without any kind of intermediary.”

Zapruder contends that many of poetry’s virtues reside precisely in what may cause it to elude new readers, namely the ways it operates differently from most prose. Poems, he reminds us, tend to traffic in imagination rather than fact, though of course the two are not mutually exclusive. But because poetry is particularly concerned with the medium of language, its limits and possibilities, Zapruder tells us, poems “have less to do with delivering a message” and more to do with what they “can do to our language, re-enlivening and reactivating it, and thereby drawing us into a different form of attention and awareness.”

One way poetry increases our awareness, Zapruder thinks, is almost counterintuitive. According to him, poetry doesn’t explain or normalize, but rather foregrounds the value of uncertainty. Poetry “does not respect proper categories of thought.” Instead, it provides a place where “functionality is sublimated to exploration and play.” Poetry has at its heart questions, not answers, placing readers not in a state of knowledgeability or superiority, but “in the middle of the inherently contradictory nature of being.” According to Zapruder, poetry excels at engendering a kind of fertile insecurity, a receptivity that can result in new ideas and feelings, “a position of open, questioning alertness,” maybe even encouraging the formation of fresh synapses. By immersing us in all this uncertainty and questioning, Zapruder claims poetry aims to “rearrange our consciousness,” “to produce an effect in us, rather than to communicate information,” perhaps making reading poetry akin to taking a hit of acid.

In “Make It Strange,” one of my favorite essays in the collection, Zapruder uses Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of “defamiliarization” to discuss ways the odd and unexpected in poems can both reground and awaken our brains through surprise and destabilization. In this view, poetry is meant to shake us up. “Shklovsky describes how, as we go through our daily lives, our perceptions of things become ‘habitual,’ and ‘automatic.’ We start to lose the sense of the actuality of things, and treat them as abstractions.” Zapruder goes on to explain how deadening and morally dangerous this kind of habitualization can be. He proposes poetry as one antidote to its numbing effects, explaining that in making language and thought “deliberately strange” poems can “return us to an understanding about language, and the world, that is related to the most basic truths of existence” in order to “jar us awake.” Poetry, Zapruder declares, in characteristically hopeful fashion, has not only the ability to enact poet Ezra Pound’s edict to “make it new,” but it can actually make us new. Zapruder is persuasive and optimistic enough to make one feel patriotic about poetry.

In an afterword titled “Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis,” fueled by Wallace Steven’s meditations on “the pressure of the real” and the importance of imagination, Zapruder eloquently wrestles with how “the preservation of a free imaginative space in language” might be “vital to our survival.” Recognizing the crucial relationship between imagination and empathy, Zapruder writes,

People do not disbelieve in inequality or racism or global warming because they have not been informed: they disbelieve because they cannot or choose not to imagine it. They are cruel because to them, others have become an abstraction, and cannot be truly imagined.

Regardless of whether you agree with this line of thinking, Zapruder’s belief in the power of poetry is stirring.

I like pretty much everything about this book except its title. This is a minor objection, and ultimately an admiring one. While the title is serviceable, it feels a bit humdrum, especially for a set of essays meant to hook new readers, to entice and convert them. But perhaps the thinking was that something more colorful or floridly poetic would have been off-putting to one target audience for this book: those who’ve been curious about poetry, maybe even secretly attracted to it, but have felt snubbed by its seemingly fancy language and lack of plain speaking.

Like Zapruder, I too teach poetry. The spirit of his book, with its passionate faith in the power of art recalled one of my happiest teaching memories, when an undergraduate poet, on reading W. H. Auden’s oft quoted line “poetry makes nothing happen” got upset. “That’s a terrible thing to say!” she protested. “That’s not true!” Asked how she’d correct Auden, after a few seconds she said, “Poetry makes everything happen!” Zapruder’s book reminded me what it’s like to feel that way, and I’m grateful.


Amy Gerstler’s most recent books of poetry include Scattered at SeaDearest CreatureGhost GirlMedicine, and Crown of Weeds.


[1] If you’re interested in a short survey of this topic, I highly recommend Louis Menand’s essay in the July 31, 2017 The New Yorker, “Can Poetry Change Your Life?” It mentions Zapruder’s book, and discusses a handful of others in a recent-ish flurry of volumes in this category.

LARB Contributor

Amy Gerstler’s most recent books of poetry include Scattered at Sea, Dearest Creature, Ghost Girl, Medicine, and Crown of Weeds. Her book of poems Bitter Angel received a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. These include The New Yorker, Poetry, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, several volumes of Best American Poetry, and The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry. She teaches at University of California at Irvine.


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