“Clearly, there is something about poetry that rattles and mystifies people, that puts them off, that makes them feel as if there is something wrong,” writes Matthew Zapruder in Why Poetry, a book that seeks to change this sentiment. Conceived as a welcome mat to those who feel lost when presented with a poem, Why Poetry functions equally as a guide to understanding poetry, a call for the embrace of the genre, and a memoir of being transformed by it.
Zapruder, whose playful, often surprising poems have gained him a well-deserved following, is the ideal person to write a book like this—not simply because he’s a passionate and even-handed writer, but because as a teenager and young adult he was also confused by the why of poetry. It wasn’t until his mid-twenties that he fell under the spell of poetry’s possibilities, though, even then, he had to fight against the sense that his interpretation was somehow flawed.
This general confusion around poetry, Zapruder believes, is largely due to how poetry is taught. By “treating poetry like a difficult activity one needs to master,” and identifying a single meaning or theme as the correct interpretation of a poem, the reader loses most of what makes poetry such a singular experience. In the school-sanctioned interpretation, “poems are designed to communicate messages, albeit in a confusing way,” Zapruder writes.
What poems actually provide, Zapruder argues, is a way of seeing the world anew. Their associative connections and dream-logic are not annoying roadblocks to meaning, but part of the way poems shake the foundations of our preconceived notions and push at the limits of our imaginations. While messages might come along the way, they’re often not the point, and hunting for them usually kills any joy the poem would otherwise give.
Bringing in the voices of dozens of poets across time periods and cultures, Zapruder offers numerous entry points to finding joy in a poem. That said, in many ways, the book speaks to an already literary-inclined audience and doesn’t translate its message to the masses. But given the scope of what Zapruder’s attempting—covering the wide expanse of poetic styles and communicating how they’re working both similarly and uniquely in a relatively compact book—Why Poetry is remarkable.
Along the way, Zapruder also manages to build a case for poetry’s political viability—not necessarily in a practical, tangible sense, but in how poems can alter our mental framework. “Poems are there, waiting,” Zapruder writes, “whenever we feel we need our minds to think in a different way.”