On July 10, the New York Times published an article by Matthew Zapruder entitled, “Understanding Poetry is More Straightforward Than You Think” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/10/books/review/understanding-poetry-is-more-straightforward-than-you-think.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1), which led Johannes Göransson to respond to some of Zapruder’s claims, mainly to the idea that poems need to be “straightforward.” While some have indicated that Göransson’s response may be based on a misunderstanding (which I believe it is), he makes some good points about the power of “strange” poems.
However, the real problem in this exchange is that it needs to be refocused. Göransson writes (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2017/07/to-vibrebrate-in-defense-of-strangeness):
“It is true, as Zapruder notes, that often in school students are taught that poems are merely messages to interpret, to find a “meaning,” and that this reduces our enjoyment of poetry. This is a good insight. However, Zapruder’s solution to the issue is not to open poetry up to different approaches, but instead to limit what poetry is to a very narrow definition: It’s the “literal,” a reductive idea of ‘everyday language.’”
And Zapruder responds (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2017/07/matthew-zapruder-responds):
“Really what I was talking about was the initial encounter with a poem, how vital it is, when reading or writing, to be almost (but not quite!) sacred in relation to the words that appear on the page, and that this attitude of attention is the first step toward all the exciting, troubling, contradictory, gorgeous mysteries of poetry.”
The “different approaches” in Göransson’s critique and the “attitude of attention” in Zapruder’s response are essentially the same thing. Those of us invested in poetry want to help students develop their abilities to notice/pay attention to what makes poetry, well, poetry. There are a myriad of ways to make this happen. However, professors and poets and teachers shouldn’t be practicing them in isolation.
What is sorely needed is a focused and collaborative effort by poets and academics and educators at all levels to not simply engage students with poetry but to teach them what the genre is, what it can do (basically, anything any other genre can do), and how to approach it so they can see it for themselves. It’s true that poems can be riddles, but they don’t have to be. Poems can be stories, but they don’t have to be. Poems can be wildly obscure, or they can be very straightforward. Poetry is big enough for all of these and more. Paraphrasing Lewis Turco in The Book of Forms, poetry can do anything all of the other genres can do. The difference between poetry and the other genres is that the medium of ultimate concern for poetry is the language itself in all of its nuanced aspects. What needs our collaborative intellectual effort is figuring out how all of us can better help people experience the language itself in all of its beautiful unfolding.
How can we engage all stakeholders in a constructive dialogue about what each of us can do or what each one of us is already doing to help more and more people experience the joys of poetry? Maybe we could all start by sharing our best pedagogical practices in the teaching of reading/experiencing poems. I’ll go first. My “I notice” method is one approach (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/lesson/noticing-poetry). It’s not the only one. However, it has worked well for me, and others have adopted it and/or adapted it. To Göransson and Zapruder and anyone else who cares about helping others notice the beauty of poetry — what has worked for you? Let’s discuss so maybe we can help others, too.