‘Why Poetry’ and ‘Poetry Will Save Your Life’
August 11, 2017
August 11, 2017
If you think poetry is too difficult, you’re not alone. Most people avoid the genre unless they need a reading for a wedding or a funeral, and many are haunted by shameful school memories of trying to parse an impenetrable poem. Two new books promise to illuminate the uses and mysteries of poetry. Employing very different methods, acclaimed poets Matthew Zapruder and Jill Bialosky both share how poetry has shaped their lives and try to open our minds to its value.
To this end, Zapruder takes on critic Harold Bloom, as well as T.S. Eliot and the Modernists, who wrote in a “deliberately difficult, elusive and allusive style.” Believing all a poem requires is our full attention, Zapruder does skillful close readings of “The Waste Land,” as well as work by Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson and other masters. He breaks down poems “literally,” in accessible prose that clarifies their meanings, like when contrasting Dickinson’s staccato line-breaks with Whitman’s “easy, strolling, conversational tone.”
“Why Poetry” casts its net wide and hauls in a splendid bounty. Zapruder quotes sources as diverse as Pope Francis, Pema Chödrön, Keats and Roxane Gay, and moves nimbly from French surrealism to Japanese haiku. He engages deeply with language and meaning and doesn’t shy away from crucial questions of ethics or politics, examining Audre Lorde on racial violence, Amiri Baraka on 9/11, Adrienne Rich on rape.
Although he praises clarity, Zapruder keeps returning to poetry’s strangeness, the private experience of reading a poem — “getting close to the unsayable and feeling it.” This poem-induced “state of reverie” is what he urges teachers to address in school (hopefully English teachers will take note). Zapruder, who teaches at St. Mary’s College of California, comes across as a generous instructor who learns from his students, and he brings this generosity to the page. While intellectually rigorous, his chapters resonate because of currents of personal revelation running alongside the argument. I loved his initial resistance to John Ashbery’s poems: “I felt angry reading them, as if I were in the presence of a giant literary hoax that I had the choice either to sanction or to condemn.” His subsequent close readings of Ashbery are sensory and intimate, and for the first time I enjoyed Ashbery myself; I stopped worrying about getting the point and cultivated a “drifting” attention.
“Why Poetry” concludes in the anxious aftermath of the 2016 election. Especially in a time of crisis, Zapruder believes that imagination is crucial for our humanity and that poetry preserves “the possibility of mutual understanding.”
Jill Bialosky attempts this understanding through the memoir form in “Poetry Will Save Your Life,” charting her personal history through her favorite poems. From a fourth-grade discovery of Robert Frost to a visit to her mother in the care home, Bialosky collects poems that seem to capture her life’s pivotal moments. “Poetry has given me more sustenance, meaning, joy, and consolation than I could hope for in this life,” she writes, and hopes her book “might open the door to poetry for others.”
Unfortunately, the door remains half-closed, since “Poetry Will Save Your Life” proves an inconsistent read. An executive editor at W.W. Norton, Bialosky’s own poems are precise, spare and emotionally acute. She writes memoir scenes with a poet’s eye, recalling the immediate sensations of childhood: three little girls building a snowman, “licking the rusty taste of snow from our mittens.” She grieves her father, who died when she was 2, and chronicles the loneliness of her widowed mother, alone in Midwest suburbia with three daughters. Sharon Olds’ poem “The Sisters of Sexual Treasure” clarifies Bialosky’s own erotic awakening, a charged encounter in a blue Corvette. Later, Lucille Clifton and Adrienne Rich help her to hone her ambition and challenge the myth of female sacrifice.
For 32 brief chapters, the book follows a fixed structure: tell a personal story, connect it to a poem (or several). Sometimes these connections are insightful, as when Sylvia Plath’s “Poppies in October” articulates her mother’s depression: “In the late sixties there is no language to talk about this form of melancholy, where one can barely function or get out of bed.” Decades later, when Bialosky experiences the terror of 9/11 (her husband’s office is near the World Trade Center), Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated Word” consoles her and a city in mourning. But other times the memoir-poem combinations are forced, or even worse, ill-chosen, like her schoolgirl field trip through the ghetto, seen through the lens of a Langston Hughes poem (chapter title: “Shame”).
“Poetry Will Save Your Life” wants the reader to believe in poetry as ardently as the author does. Occasionally, its tone verges on preachy, and the structure feels contrived. But Bialosky is at her best when writing about Plath — that “heightened and intense awareness of the evolving self.” Plath’s poems shed light on the miracle of new motherhood and distill meaning from the horror of her younger sister’s suicide. “Only the poets seem to provide insight into the mystery of this form of suffering,” Bialosky insists, and this statement, at least, rings true.
Diana Whitney, poet and essayist, is the author of “Wanting It.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Matthew Zapruder
(Ecco; 239 pages; $24.99)
Poetry Will Save Your Life
By Jill Bialosky
(Atria; 222 pages; $24)