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August 17, 2017

Book Notes - Matthew Zapruder "Why Poetry"

Why Poetry

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Matthew Zapruder's Why Poetry is an eloquent book that makes the case for poetry's relevance and importance.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"[A] diligently executed investigation. . . . Conversational yet eloquent, accessible and intelligent, Zapruder considers a range of writing on poetics and the craft of composition and includes close reads and smart explication."

In his own words, here is Matthew Zapruder's Book Notes music playlist for his book Why Poetry:

My dad taught me how to finger pick Bob Dylan songs when I was five, and I've been playing ever since, sometimes in bands and on records, but mostly on my own, in every room I've lived in. Listening to and playing music is a way I have of connecting with other artists throughout time, mostly ones I've never met, many of whom are dead. I have deep, private relationships in my imagination with those songs and the people who made them. Music is a huge part of my memories, and my understanding of my own personal history. My feelings about the songs I love and their creators are inextricable from the experiences that make up my life.

Why Poetry is an amalgam of autobiography, inquiry, analysis, and polemic. I set out originally to write a book about poetry, and not about my own life. But as I tried to ask myself what was difficult about poetry, and what could be done to bring it closer to readers, I came back again and again to my own experiences with reading and writing it as a way to clearly and honestly bring out what I think are central concerns. Below is a playlist with one song per chapter of the book.

Introduction: "Oh, My Stars," Nina Nastasia

I start off the book by talking about when I began writing this book, in New York in 2005 or so. I remember that was a deep Guided by Voices period for me: for years, I listened to them more than any other band. For obvious reasons I associate those dark, second term George W. Bush years with a perfect song from their brief commercial music era, "Hold on Hope." But the other singer who I listened to so much during that time was Nina Nastasia, whom I met once at the KGB Bar in the Lower East Side.

Three Beginnings and The Machine of Poetry: "Darkness," The Police

The first chapter of the book centers around when I first started reading poetry, in high school and much earlier, as a child. But other than those isolated experiences, I wasn't into poetry at all as kid. In high school my brother and I used to go into the back area of our house, where we would sit and play primitive video games for hours and listen to The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, and then later The Talking Heads, Men at Work, Tears for Fears, and other bands that were then "alternative." Eventually U2, REM, Aztec Camera. But the band we loved the most, and vowed at the time never to abandon, was The Police. We were especially attached to the moody Ghost in the Machine, essentially a perfect record. As soon as I hear a few notes from any song on that record, I am spiritually transported back to those times. It's hard to pick a song, but I'm going to go with the last one on the record, "Darkness," penned by Stewart Copeland, an underrated songwriter.

Literalists of the Imagination: "Linctus House," Robyn Hitchcock

In this chapter I write about how crucial it is to read any poem, no matter how clear or confusing it first appears, completely literally: to be as attentive as possible to the words on the page, and avoid leaving them in search of supposed symbolism, scholarly allusion, etc. I discuss surrealist Paul Eluard's great poem, "The earth is blue like an orange," and when I think of surrealism I think of the songwriter whom I listened to incessantly in my early 20's, the great Robyn Hitchcock. It's almost impossible to pick a song -- "I Often Dream of Trains," "My Wife and My Dead Wife," "Tropical Flesh Mandala," "Madonna of the Wasps" – but I'm going to have to go with a song so painfully suffused for me with ineffable nostalgia that I can only listen to it at those rare times when I feel strong enough.

Three Literal Readings: "Hopeless," The Wrens

At the end of this chapter I talk about going to Emily Dickinson's grave in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I went to college and then later returned to go to graduate school. Writing this I had a vivid memory of driving, at night, away from the graveyard one summer night in 2006, and listening at top volume to one of my favorite songs by one of favorite bands. I will tell you all a secret: I have heard rough versions of some of the new songs from their upcoming record, and it's some of the most epic, ambitious, pleasurable, transformational rock music I have ever experienced. Finish it, Charles!!

Make It Strange: "I Send My Love to You," Palace Brothers

The only place in the book where I write about literary theory, in this case the Russian theorist Viktor Shklovsky's well-known concept of "defamiliarization." According to him, in its artificiality, art reminds us of the true strangeness of life: it makes the stone feel stony to us again. This makes me think of the stripped-down early lyrics of Will Oldham, when he was still mostly just a voice, before he was a bearded indie-rock weird god. I listened to Palace Brothers all the time when I was first starting to seriously write poems. Is there a stranger, simpler, more mysterious song ever written than this one?

Some Thoughts on Form and Why I Rhyme: Tribe Called Quest, "Show Business"

Oh, I could have put "I Send My Love to You" in this section too, since Oldham is so good at rhyming! Or gone back to the great American whose songs I have definitely played far more on guitar and sung than anyone else, Hank Williams. In this chapter I talked about an idea called "normal rhyme," an idea Hugh Kenner came up with, that there are certain words that feel so connected we suspect that they must have an etymological relationship, when in fact they don't. In those rhymes, we feel as if we are, he writes, "confronting the wisdom of our vanished ancestors." A perfect example of normal rhyme happens in this Tribe Called Quest song, in Sadat X's guest lyrics: "But I wasn't that cute when I didn't have no loot/ Although I hit a pound of herbs I'm still nice with the verbs." Cute and loot, verbs and herbs: normal rhymes. Or MCA from the Beastie Boys:

I keep my underwear up with a piece of elastic
I use a bullshit mic that's made out of plastic
To send my rhymes out to all the nations
Like Ma Bell, I got the ill communication

The One Thing That Can Save America: "Gymnopédies," Erik Satie (performed by Teodoro Anzellotti)

A chapter about John Ashbery and dreams in poetry. The first (and only) time I hung out with Ashbery, in his house in upstate NY, I brought him a copy of a c.d. of Erik Satie's Sports et Divertissements, played by the genius accordionist Teodoro Anzellotti. I realize writing this how terrible that probably sounds, but it's one of the best records you could ever hear, and is also packaged gorgeously by the label Winter & Winter. I have no idea if he listened to it.

Negative Capability: "Frontwards," Pavement

This chapter is about what happened to me when I first started writing poetry for real, how it pushed me out of one life and into another. Pavement's records Slanted and Enchanted and the EP Watery, Domestic, which has this song on it, were the soundtracks of this transition from California back to Amherst, where I would get my MFA. The lines "I am the only one, searching for you. And if I get caught, then the search is through" continue to have mysterious resonance for me. Plus I also love the dripping ironic confidence of, "I've got style, miles and miles, so much style that it's wasted!"

Three Political Poems: "All These Governors," The Evens

I grew up listening to D.C. hardcore of the 80's, especially my two favorites, Minor Threat and Rites of Spring. When the frontmen of those two bands, Guy Piccioto and Ian MacKaye, formed the straight edge supergroup Fugazi, we all went to one of their first shows, at the outdoor music space Fort Reno park, which Wikipedia informs me has the highest natural point in the entire District of Columbia. Makes sense. It's just a hill. I might be wrong, but I think the red-tinged photos on Fugazi's eponymous first e.p. were taken at that show. I loved that band so much and have seen them many times in concert, never paying more than $5. This great song is from MacKaye's side project, The Evens. It still rocks, and still applies. "When things should work and don't work, that's the work of all these governors." And check it out, you can stream the entire Dischord catalog on line for free!

Dream Meaning: "Perfect Circle," R.E.M.

This chapter is about how associative thinking and movement is central to poetry. The dreamiest of all bands for me, from their name on down, is R.E.M. When I graduated from high school, for some reason I took a job working in a toy store in our local mall, Mazza Gallery. It was like some kind of a living nightmare, the last horror before going away to college. I eventually got my hours reduced to almost none, for leaving work in the middle of the day and playing video games in the record store across the corridor. I used to listen to this record every single morning in my car before I would go into work in my stupid madras shirt. It was the promise of a new life.

Alien Names: "Game of Pricks," Guided By Voices

I have always suspected without evidence that Robert Pollard got the name of the classic GBV record Alien Lanes from Aristotle's description of metaphor: he calls it "the application of an alien name." When I saw GBV in Columbus, Ohio (the poets Joshua Beckman, Betsy Wheeler, and Maggie Smith were all there!) they were so drunk they played this song twice, once during the set and once for an encore. We didn't mind.

True Symbols: "The Ghost in You," Psychedelic Furs

In this chapter I make a distinction between the kind of dreary symbol hunting so many of us were taught to do in school, and the way poetry can reactivate language and remind us of its mysterious symbolic nature. This symbolism is often connected with a return to childhood, when things are both what they are, and something more. When I think of the feeling I get when I encounter a true symbol in a poem, the rush of excitement and possibility and impossible longing, I think of this song, which is probably the one I would play for an alien race if I were going to try to convince them not to kill us all, that we were worth saving.

Most of the Stories Have to do With Vanishing: "He Vanished," Mark Mulcahy

I write about W.S. Merwin and my experiences in graduate school trying to figure out how to write poetry. It's probably the most pervasively personal chapter. During that time at UMass Amherst I was playing a lot of music with The Figments (still in existence, just in hibernation, fronted by my friend the brilliant songwriter Thane Thomsen), and very briefly with the great songwriter Mark Mulcahy. I play on a few songs on his record In Pursuit of Your Happiness, though humiliatingly there are vastly better guitar players on that record too, including Alex Johnson and (gulp) J. Mascis. I love this song, which I don't play on. At around the 9 minute mark, long after the song is over, you can hear me count off, and then Mark sings and I play a hidden track, into one mic.

Nothing is the Force that Renovates the World: "Don't Think Twice," Bob Dylan

In this chapter I write about the limits of knowledge and language, and how they are central to the meaning of poetry. I also write about my father's death, which I was not expecting. I mentioned earlier that my father taught me to play songs by Dylan when I was a kid, including this one, a great performance of negation.

Afterword: Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis: "Search and Destroy," Iggy and the Stooges

This song is pure power and anger in its most distilled elixir. I have a feeling we're going to need a whole lot of that feeling going forward.

Matthew Zapruder and Why Poetry links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Divedapper interview with the author
Kirkus review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review of the book
San Francisco Chronicle review

The Grotto interview with the author
The Millions interview with the author
PBS Newshour profile of the author
Poetry Society of America interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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