'Poems are made to be read, they’re acts of communication'

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:10 pm on 24 October 2017

Mention the word poetry and many of us will flashback to the time when we were forced to recite from Homer's Odyssey.

School is often the first place where we learn about poetry and the place where many of us learn to hate it.

Matthew Zapruder

Matthew Zapruder Photo: PoetryFoundation.org

That's what poet and former New York Times Magazine poetry editor Matthew Zapruder thinks. 

Too much time is spent at school trying to find hidden messages and deeper meaning in the words on the page instead of just enjoying the poem, he says. 

Zapruder wants to help people overcome their fear of poetry and take solace from poetry in troubled times.

He has written a book on this very subject called Why Poetry? and told Jesse Mulligan we learn to unlove poetry.

He says children have an instinctive appreciation of poetry. They take it as it comes, but as we get older we see it as a puzzle to be solved. Something to wrestle with.

“The problem of reading poems is people skip over the first very important part, which is to just read literally what’s on the page.”

Take time to savour the language, he says. Don’t rush ahead.

“Poems are made to be read, so they’re acts of communication.”

So what is the point of poetry?

“It gets to a deeper truth I think. I don’t know how good poetry is at facts … it does something bigger it gets to deeper human truths.

“All art attempts to do that, but poetry does it in a kind of crystallised way, somehow just stripped of all the other stuff, great poetry kind of hones in on these commonalities of the human soul.”

American poet John Ashbery is an example Zapruder says.

His Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror published in 1975 won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Critics Circle Award - an unprecedented achievement in the US literary world.

“It’s a seminal book of poetry, but a strange book of poems, the poems are very drifty and dream-like and I read it when I was first starting to write poetry in my 20s - it mystified, intrigued and bothered and excited me. It was a kind of transition book for me.”

John Ashbery

John Ashbery Photo: Wikicommons

But he had to stop looking for meaning and let the words flow.

“Once I was able to let go of that need to find the single message or theme - which is that thing we’re all taught to do in school when we read poetry - once I let go of that I really felt the atmosphere of the poem and felt like I was learning something and experiencing something.”

Poems can shift our consciousness, bring us to a dream-like state, he says.  A necessary state of productive idleness, he says.

“We’re bombarded by information, news and media and to be in that different space that poetry can create - it’s very healing.”

And never forget that poetry is a construct, a way of speaking directly to us, he says.

“Poetry is not written for experts and it's not written for scholars and it doesn't belong to the priests of literature, it belongs to the people.”


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