The poems she chooses are mostly well known. I did not catalog them, but I wondered whether they were not all cross-referenceable in a Norton anthology. That isn’t a dig. These poems were lovingly chosen — treasures — and I soften toward the book’s conceit when I consider that. We are comrades in our sense that poetry is a kind of gift, there for anyone to take. Still, the notion that generates such an anthology-memoir, the idea that poems must be filtered through a scrim of ordinary language and life in order for us to commune with them, in order that they be “understood” in some definite way, is wrongheaded and, indeed, condescending. Bialosky gets it, but you don’t?
When I was really mad reading the book, which I was frequently, it was because I was quite sure Bialosky doesn’t get it, or quite sure at least that we don’t get any of the same stuff of life from being in poetry. I’ve already said that being mad can be a generative experience when it comes to poetry. First the feels, then a rush of thinking. But emotional engagement with a poem is incomplete engagement. The words and workings of a great poem, an independent artifact, traject outside. It’s actually not about you. Bialosky’s readings of some poems that I, too, like — Langston Hughes’s “I, Too,” offered under the section title “Shame,” a true editorial blunder; the stunning Sylvia Plath poem (Plath! whose life poetry could not save, sacrificed!) “Poppies in October,” under “Depression” — are marred by unaddressed questions of Bialosky’s position as a white woman whose cultural power affects and skews her relationship to words. Shame? Why would a serious reading of “I, Too” be consumed by recollection of a primal scene of white guilt?
How does the life work to make words mean differently? What is the relationship between meaning and experience? These questions are posed by the book and dropped when they get hot.
Matthew Zapruder wants us to get that poets deal in the archival set of common understandings about cognitive and sensory disorder in human language (an art of producing dis-understanding in order to know things better). If this is true — and I think it is true — I have the same question for him that I have for Jill Bialosky: Who is the audience for this book?
He writes, convincingly, rather beautifully: “Poetry is a constructed conversation on the frontier of dreaming. It is a mechanism by which the essential state of reverie can be made available to our conscious minds. … Poems make possible a conscious entry into the preconscious mind, a lucid dreaming.” Elsewhere he describes the effect of poetry on the mind as “dreamlike,” “associative,” a “drifting feeling.” What he calls, fittingly, the poetry “machine,” the poem itself, constitutes these effects and also enacts them in a kind of zoned-out feedback loop. (In my experience, in the act of writing a poem, it’s not clear where the formal and structural intentions or ideas I bring for the poem end and “drift” begins, or vice versa. Rather than “drift,” I think of the mind-state of composition, only partially achievable as an end-user of the poem, as being inside the mind-state of the particular poem, which is a state of willed or controlled subconscious dwelling. Perhaps this state is the opposite of dreaming and is, instead, an experience of what Emerson called practical power.)
Zapruder’s book makes me think of all this, and because of that I think it is a roaring success. Is it necessary? Is it designed primarily to be purchased and read by students being introduced to the reasons for and methods of reading poetry? I don’t know. Zapruder is an editor at Wave Books — publisher of, among other excellent things, “What Is Poetry (Just Kidding, I Know You Know): Interviews From the Poetry Project Newsletter (1983-2009),” edited by Anselm Berrigan, which can be seen as a book of common prayer of late 20th- and 21st-century innovative poetry, a new classic for the ones who already know the songs. I understand Zapruder’s interest in preaching to the unconverted. I suspect he is a terrific teacher. His readings of poems are subtle and convincing. I found myself thinking, “Gosh, I never saw that obvious thing in quite that way before,” many times during my reading, which is precisely what should happen when reading about literature: We are humbled by its operations on our own minds and the need for others to read with us.
While the formulation and reformulation of “Poetry is”-type sentences is the problematic problem that I refuse at the center of both these books, I loved many of Zapruder’s phrases. They struck me as fresh and true: “The poem makes poetry happen in the mind of the reader or listener. It happens first to the poet, and in the course of writing, the poet eventually makes something, a little machine, one that for the reader produces discoveries, connections, glimmers of expression.” Lovely.
Take all of this with a grain of salt. I am not a professional reviewer of books. I am a poet and a teacher of literature. There is no separation at all between my life — as a human, a woman, a black woman, a mother, a working person deeply involved and interested in the political economies of intellectual life — and my work. I work to live. As a result, I’m in the take-it-or-leave-it school of poetry making and reading. Poetry isn’t magical or removed from dirty, compromising political and personal acts, pettiness, racism, sexism, suffering. Absent the intervention of many other sociopolitical acts, poetry won’t save your life. To suggest otherwise is a kind of offense against poetry’s insistence on complexity, the multidimensionality of understanding. Taking it seriously as a carrier of information about the real matrix between language and power, which is truly upsetting — mind-blowing — when we come near to it, changes the way you live. Believe it.