on teaching poetry

Don’t Paraphrase

I think as readers it is our task to try very hard, despite what seems natural or what we may have been taught to do when we read poetry, not to begin immediately to paraphrase or translate such poems to ourselves in order to understand. To truly experience poetry, we need to try just to be in the poem for a while. Maybe even having unfamiliarity, resistance, not understanding at times pass through us. Which is hard for me, at least, as it might be for you.

In such cases, it is often helpful for me to remember that the word stanza comes from the Greek word for room, and verse from the Greek word for turn. If I think of the poem as something I am actually physically moving my consciousness through, from one line down to the next, and from one room to another, it helps me stay there, within what is being said. Giving myself that task to do helps keep me from translating and explaining everything in the poem as I am going along.

Now we are there. And maybe also now thinking, this poem is doing its best to be as simple as possible. Which, maybe alas or not, is not always so simple. First of all, new experiences are by definition unfamiliar. And second, no one asks mathematicians or physicists to make very complex equations or theories simple and clear, if to do so would compromise their task of communicating the truth. So why should we expect always immediately to understand, and consider lack of understanding a failure on our part or on the part of a poem? Especially if we are reading a poem full of the complexities and contradictions of human life and feeling.

Some poems exist to clarify and distill the human conundrum. Of these, some powerful and great, others sentimentally reductive, I don't have much to say. They speak for themselves, and fortunately for them, by their nature already resist paraphrase.

Usually I dislike riddles. A riddle is something—usually a simple object—described in as complex a way as possible, in order to confuse, obfuscate, create a delay. Presumably for the purpose of fun. What has four wheels and flies? What walks on four feet in the morning, two during the day, and three in the evening? Garbage truck; man. I personally find them annoying.

Often we are taught to read poems as if they were a kind of literary subspecies of riddles, with a hidden meaning we must tease out by looking for what the poem is actually saying. Which of our teachers told us poetry has been deliberately hidden from the reader, by the poet, behind the words? Nothing could be further from poetry's true nature! Except in very rare situations (symbolism and political persecution), in poems words mean exactly what they always do. When I say table, I mean table. Flower means flower, and not beloved; if I wanted to say beloved I would, and nothing would stop me.

Yet why poetry, when it could all be gotten across so much more...simply? The poem must be saying something that cannot be said in any other way. Maybe it's not something grand, just ordinary. We all know recognition of the ordinary can be a blessing too. But if poetry is somehow in the way of the true message, it's all just one step up from a crossword puzzle.

I want poems to come as close to my life as possible. I want what I read and write to be important, both familiar and new, and to not be easily pushed away into a realm of beauty or artistic experience that is safely separated from our actual lives and those of people who surround us. The poems I love try to say, as clearly as possible, that which cannot in any other way be said.

We all know we are so much of the time in the middle of mixed emotions, that which seems for a moment to be clear but is not or vice versa. Moments of rare clarity and understanding succeeded by far more moments of mundane struggle, and so on, and so on. Wise people may know the point of all this, and live without such complexity. All I know is, when I read a poem that implies the speaker knows the answer to the unanswerable question of why we are alive, I feel poetry has fled.

Also, poems can be a process of unfolding, one that might welcome us, or maybe grudgingly allow us, to be inside it. Poems do not have to be all about the revelation, the learning at the end. They aren't necessarily goal-oriented. If anything they are more like a conversation with a friend. You start talking, you learn something, you double back, you get confused, you misunderstand, you laugh, you have some different feelings, you drift off, you come back, you know you have learned some things (though maybe you can't even say what) but most of all you know you know this person better. What's the goal? To be alive, and to experience. Which is more than enough, and a great pleasure.

Only poetry tries to take us together on a journey towards that which cannot be said, but which we are driven to understand. Old things that have always been there, waiting, on the tip of our collective tongue. Shelley in "Defence of Poetry" wrote of listening to a poem, that we are "moved and softened, yet know not whence or why." And the poem is where, as Wallace Stevens wrote, "out of the central mind / We make a dwelling in the evening air / In which being there together is enough."


Reprinted from Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, by permission of the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2010 by Matthew Zapruder.