On Poetry

Yesterday, the New York Times offered a nice surprise: an eloquent little essay by Matthew Zapruder on learning how to read poetry. It begins in the classroom, with Zapruder describing a problem that any teacher of literature will be familiar with:

Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? … [I]n school we are taught that poetry is inherently “difficult,” and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning. So our efforts at reading poetry begin to reflect this.

“But,” Zapruder goes on, “it turns out that the portal to the strange is the literal. As a teacher, I’ve found that regardless of how open or resistant my literature students initially are to poetry, real progress begins when they get literal with the words on the page.” That’s my experience too, and it’s refreshing to find someone else saying it. The lion’s share of helping students to read poetry involves dragging them back down to earth, away from the abstract dimensions of literature, and getting them to read the poem as a literal text. That’s usually impossible, of course, since it’s a rare poem that works wholly and solely on a literal level, but this is exactly the point: you find your springboard into the substance of the poem in the places where it begins to resist a literal reading, where it becomes difficult to appreciate the words in their literal sense, where the words carry a hint or a whiff of something more than their literal definitions.

Zapruder calls the search for these places an “exercise” in “getting as deeply into the words as possible.” It’s basically an exercise in considering the diction and syntax of a poem from the inside of the creative process, through the eyes of the writer, rather than as a reader approaching the poem as a thing already written and awaiting meaningful interpretation. It involves assessing the precision of each word on the basis of its innate prosodic qualities, the prosodic effects it generates in conjunction with the words around it, its register, its tone, its connotations, its associative qualities, and so on. The result of reading a poem in this way is, as Zapruder writes, a keener sense of “[o]ne of the great pleasures of reading poetry,” namely:

to feel words mean what they usually do in everyday life, and also start to move into a more charged, activated realm. In poetry our familiar language can start to feel resonant with significance, more alive, even noble. The words we use in our everyday lives carry along with them deep reservoirs of history (personal and collective) that can, through a poem, be activated.

But in my experience, the real difficulties that students encounter come from the need to become and remain attuned to those “deep reservoirs of history” beneath the surfaces of words. Even if students are able to adjust their approach to poetry and maintain their focus on the granular elements of a poem, there’s no way to teach them, via direct instruction, the history of each and every word in the language; no way to help them understand the process by which words become invested with multiple meanings, suggestive capabilities, and evocative powers. The only way to develop a sense of such things is to read — closely, widely, and often. That’s where the real learning begins, I think: totally outside the classroom and out of the teacher’s hands.