I predict this will be my least read column of the year because I am going to write about poetry.
It is both distressing and strange that so many people are put off by poetry, given that so many of our first experiences with language is with poetry — not only with children's books like Dr. Seuss or "Goodnight Moon," but even with the earlier singsong of parents babbling to their newborns, all sounds without meaning and yet deeply engaging.
In grade school, you'll find dedicated fans of Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree" and "Where the Sidewalk Ends."
But then something happens, and soon enough, poetry, which once seemed natural and elemental, becomes alien and strange. If you feel this way, I am sympathetic; I once felt this way myself, from junior high into my mid-20s.
But as part of my graduate studies in creative writing, I was reintroduced to poetry by a professor named John Wood, who was a great poet ("In Primary Light"). In a required class I was dreading — "Form & Theory of Poetry" — I saw Wood move himself to tears as he read aloud a poem called "Zimmer Guilty of the Burnt Girl" by Paul Zimmer. I found my own eyes suddenly flooded in turn.
Unfortunately, the thing that had separated me from poetry was school — or not school so much as "schooling," a process that sometimes seems designed to divorce ourselves from our own humanity in the name of "achievement." Once poetry became something to be figured out, to be understood, it seemed trite and empty. The poem "The Giving Tree" by Shel Silverstein is a parable about selfless sacrifice … blah blah blah.
Fortunately, you do not have to spend years in graduate school with an inspiring professor to be reintroduced to poetry; instead, you can read Matthew Zapruder's "Why Poetry" instead.
"Why Poetry" is perhaps best described as an "exploration" of poetry, starting with Zapruder's own beginnings as a poet as he was playing a kind of hooky from the graduate studies he was supposed to be doing. The introduction makes his goal clear: to remind us that we can experience deep enjoyment without also having to "figure something out."
(In fact, one might argue we enjoy just about anything more if we don't worry about understanding its "meaning.")
Zapruder, a faculty member at St. Mary's College of California, sides with Emily Dickinson, who wrote: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?"
The pleasure in Zapruder's book is in going beyond those feelings into an exploration into the hows and whys of poetry. Zapruder acts as a guide showing us some of the epiphanies he experienced as he developed his own craft.
It is not a "how-to" book, so do not be put off if you feel no desire to write poetry. At its core, the book isn't even necessarily about poetry, but is instead a testament to a way of seeing and moving through the world that puts experience and wonder first.
It recaptures that which draws us to poetry as children, while showing us the even deeper pleasures we are capable of as adults.
John Warner is the author of "Tough Day for the Army."
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read next based on the last five books you've read.
1. "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen
2. "Here I Am" by Jonathan Safran Foer
3. "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke
4. "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan
5. "My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues" by Pamela Paul
— Mary P., Lincolnwood
The heart and small human dramas in Tom Rachman's "The Imperfectionists" looks like a good match with Mary.
1. "Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi
2. "Catch-22" Joseph Heller
3. "Between Them: Remembering My Parents" by Richard Ford
4. "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir" Sherman Alexie
5. "Imagine Me Gone" by Adam Haslett
— Amy T., Northbrook
"My Name is Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout hits the emotional notes that I think Amy is interested in experiencing.
1. "The Casual Vacancy" by J.K. Rowling
2. "The Woman in Cabin 10" by Ruth Ware
3. "Fierce Kingdom" by Gin Phillips
4. "Standard Deviation" by Katherine Heiny
5. "The Stranger" by Albert Camus
— Linda P., Pawley's Island, S.C.
This is a book I read when it came out that just never got any traction, but I thought was unique and great, and I wish more people agreed with me: "New World Monkeys" by Nancy Mauro.
Get a reading from the Biblioracle!
Send a list of the last five books you've read to email@example.com. Write "Biblioracle" in the subject line.