The Power of Poetry

According to Matthew Zapruder, poets and tax professionals have a lot more in common than you might think: They're both concerned with the precise meaning of language.

As a professional poet and son of a tax lawer, Zapruder would know. In his book Why Poetry, Zapruder takes on the herculean task of using prose to explain the value of poetry and what makes it such a vital art form.

He suggests that the way poetry is typically taught in high school robs it of its potential, arguing that good poetry doesn't obfuscate its meaning behind hidden symbolism that the reader must untangle. There is no subtext – simply the words on the page, arranged to invoke an emotional response in the reader.

This emotional response is key to what distinguishes poetry from other types of writing. When a poet is freed from the boundaries of linear narrative and argument, they can begin the work of reminding us of "a time when we were, as a species, in a sort of childlike state of perpetual wonder."

According to Zapruder, poetry often achieves this state through rhyme – not just by rhyming words that sound alike, but also through conceptual rhyme. "Tears" and "ocean" have a kind of inherent connection because they're both comprised of salty water. Even without making that connection explicitly, a poem can take advantage of these conceptual rhymes to create an associative daydream.

This invokes a personal shift in the reader. Zapruder writes:

When a person truly falls in love with a poem, it is usually because it feels like a private experience. Moving through the poem, the reader feels a kind of understanding that is hard to paraphrase or resay. Therefore, the essential knowledge of a poem, what can make it feel so necessary, cannot ever fully be put into other words. The better the poem, the harder it is to talk about it.

This is the key to a successful poem: Its ability to use words to tell us something vital beyond what language can normally communicate. He continues:

The experience of getting close to the unsayable and feeling it, and how we are brought to that place beyond words by words themselves, is the subject of this book.

Upon further reflection, this is the experience I seek from all art. When I go to an art museum, I'm there not just to learn, but to find the pieces that give me a slight sense of vertigo – of falling into the painting, if only briefly, and transported to a heightened state of awareness.

This awareness can start to feel like a religious experience, even for someone who doesn't otherwise identify as religious. As I've written previously, an amazing poem can be a kind of secular prayer, which Zapruder agrees with:

It could be said the relationship of poems to what we intuit but can never fully say makes them like prayer, that unending effort to bring someone closer to the divine, without pretending the divine could ever be fully known or understood.

So, why poetry? What is the purpose of all this? Ultimately, poetry is an antitode to a noisy world – one that often seems driven to drown out the kind of reflective, thoughtful state poetry can return us to.

Theatre director Anne Bogart wrote in her book And Then, You Act, "In a culture where daily human hopes have shrunk to the myriad opiates of self-centered satisfaction, art is more necessary and powerful than ever."

Zapruder agrees:

The more we are colonized by our devices and the "information" and "experiences" that they supposedly deliver, the more we need a true experience of unmonetized attention.

This is the true power of poetry: Its ability to reclaim our attention, to reawaken our childlike sense of wonder and restore our presence in the current moment – in all its vivid beauty.

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