Why Poetry (a short review + quotes)

Why PoetryWhy Poetry by Matthew Zapruder

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There were a hundred bright spots in this eloquent book: beautiful, essential quotes about poetry from the greatest poets themselves. These were a shortcut straight to the heart of poetry. There were other bright spots of Zapruder’s own clear explanations of the mysterious power of poetry. It’s just that as a whole, it failed to carry the reader along with elegance and enthusiasm, and failed to provide much in the way of a conclusion at the end.

For a truly elegant book on poetry that is as poetic, moving, and inspired as the poem it contains, read Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination. It is the best book defending and explaining poetry that I have ever read (and, what’s more, it includes poems from all eras, not just contemporary poetry.)

Nonetheless, I flagged a hundred bright spots to keep as treasured quotes from Zapruder’s work and I truly benefitted from my time in his company. He gave a lot of courage to an aspiring amateur poet, and for that I am grateful. I loved how he embraced the mysterious machinery of poetry but still took care to explain to those who are less wise to its ways. But to claim that your books explains “why poetry” exists and is useful, then to end with such a nihilistic understanding of the universe was a real let-down, and the book didn’t carry me with its own momentum so much as I forced myself to keep trudging through it in the hopes of encountering more bright spots of insight from Zapruder and his many favorite thinkers.

View all my reviews

Paul Valery: “A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words…If the term machine shocks you, if my mechanical comparison seems crude, please notice that while the composition of even a very short poem may absorb years, the action of the poem on the reader will take only a few minutes. IN a few minutes, the reader will receive his shock from discoveries, connections, glimmers of expression that have been accumulating during months of research, waiting, patience, and impatience” (11).

 

“Saying it more conventionally would take the shimmering multiplicity out of the line” (34).

 

“What is the poem ‘about’? This question inevitably carries within in the implicit message that the poem is beautiful (at best) container for something more essential than the experience of reading it. Really, when a poem is functioning, it could best be said to be ‘about’ ‘aboutness’–that is, ‘about’ the wordless moment we can only be brought to through words, when we perceive the contradictory yet harmonious significance of everything” (113).

 

Yeats “We make out of the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrels with ourselves, poetry” (121).

 

Frost: “Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere….You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history” (151).

 

Wallace Stevens: “Reality is a cliche from which we escape by metaphor” (154).

 

“Without clarity, it is not possible to have true mystery” (190).

 

“One of the things readers truly love about poetry, this ability to hear wisdom that feels truly wise and yet also disembodied, as though it comes from the world itself” (194).

 

“But I think we would be better off to think of ‘understanding’ a poem as an ongoing process of attention” (199).

 

“(A poet’s job) is, in a way, to refuse to do what others find useful, in order to leave a space for other things to happen. Poets are alchemists of nothingness. They aspire to turn silence, nothingness, absence, into something palpable” (208).

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The Worthiness of Imitation

I’ve had a literary crush on Fathom magazine for over a year and this summer I decided to do something about it.

Screen Shot 2017-09-11 at 2.00.11 PMFirst, I made it a goal to get something published on the internet before my birthday (which is tomorrow, Sep. 12). I pitched an article to a website where an online acquaintance had published a few pieces, which gave me confidence to give it a shot. They accepted, edited, and published that piece about a month ago.

But my true literary crush was on a magazine called Fathom. Listen to the way they describe themselves:

“We believe indulging our curiosity acts like a weight to pull us beyond the surface of our faith. More than just knowledge waits for us when we forsake the shallows. In fact, we will find out how little we know as we plunge deeper. In the depths we are shaped into Christians who embrace empathy, honor humility, desire intellectual integrity, laugh a lot, and believe in beauty. At least that’s the kind of Christian we hope to help cultivate with Fathom.”

Curiosity acts like a weight to pull us beyond the surface? I loved that image, I instantly loved the writing, and I loved the nautical imagery that informed the aesthetic and the language of the magazine (I mean, I am a Navigator for life, after all.) They publish everything I love–thoughtful essays, reviews, and commentary from a Christian perspective, as well as poetry, short stories, and really excellent interviews with Christian visual artists. I’ve been reading it for about a year and have spent some time online getting to know some of the people who write for it. I am hooked. (Fishing pun very much intended.)

Eventually–in honor of my birthday goal–I worked up my courage and pitched them an article for their issue on Image that came out today. I typed the pitch quickly, submitted it, and tried not to overthink it. It was out of my hands.

They wanted a full article but I was about to leave the land of the internet for a trip up north. Again, I wrote quickly, trying to get my draft in by the deadline, submitted it and tried to walk away without obsessing over it.

Then, just when I was about to give up on the piece thinking that my draft hadn’t lived up to my pitch or my own standards for myself, I got an email back from the editor saying they loved my piece AND wanted it to be the feature article for this month’s online magazine! I can’t for the life of me *fathom* why they chose my article as the feature, because the magazine is seriously packed with intelligent, creative, and deeply moving content by writers with far higher qualifications. I’m honored to be in such company. (Seriously, read the whole thing. You won’t be disappointed. Quality writing and important insights abound.)

In case you’re wondering, the thesis of my piece is that imitation doesn’t stifle our imagination but feeds it. We need images of people doing what we want to do, and we are endowed by our creator with the gift of imitation when we learn to imitate in love. It’s a natural process of discipleship that applies to the way babies learn to be adults, the way young Christians learn to mature in the faith, and I propose it also applies to aspiring creatives learning to produce original works of art.

What’s more, they were also willing to publish my latest poem, too, which actually means almost more to me. There is really no way to know if you’re actually achieving your goal of writing poetry until someone else reads it and recognizes it as poetry. Otherwise, you sort of feel like you’re just scribbling nonsense. To have a poem filed under the Poetry section of such a publication is a dream come true for me.
I’ve really enjoyed getting to work with a couple different editors and to watch my ideas be polished, improved, and given a place among good company. Thanks for reading and for cheering on this amateur. It means the world to me!

 

 

Showing up Empty-Handed

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Would you miss the party just because you didn’t bring a dish to pass?

I’ve been meditating on how hard it is to truly understand grace when you can’t even accept acts of helpful kindness and generosity from others. I was honored to share my thoughts over at Gospel Taboo today. Take a look! (And let me know if you have the guts to take my challenge… I haven’t even done it myself yet!)

Peanut Butter

I’ve been working on writing more poetry lately. Perhaps I’ve grown tired of the self-assuredness it takes to write blog posts. I just don’t feel like drawing easy conclusions or simplifying things. Plus, I find myself wanting to write about the same subjects over and over until I get it right, which doesn’t make for very fascinating blog writing.

Right now it takes me about a month to get a poem right-ish. It usually start with an idea that strikes me while I’m busy. I mull it over, write a rough draft that is usually a) far too self-serious and b) not completely honest about how I truly feel. I hack away at it, mostly in my thoughts while I’m doing other things, and then type it out in bursts on rare moments where my enthusiasm for writing and my free time coincide.

My attention has been drawn to small things lately. Here’s a poem about peanut butter and motherhood that’s been bugging me for weeks. I think it is finally starting to accomplish some of what I want it to accomplish, so I’m calling it “done” for now because I am at the stage where I want other people to see it and tell me what they think.

I’d love to hear what you think! Tell me what makes sense or what sticks out as strange. Or ask me questions about what I was going for. Every comment can help me move closer to getting it right. Or “crushing” it, as my daughter would say. (Pun intended.)

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Peanut Butter

by Laura Lundgren

She feels no less for having been crushed

into a simple, shelf-stable cylinder.

The mother I imagine is serene as peanut butter.

A thousand possibilities

Have been suspended

Beneath a foiled paper lid.

Preserved and cupboarded

In patient anticipation,

She waits to be useful.

 

I am a mother half-used up.

Peaks and canyons from hasty knife-work

are a sign as sure as footprints and flags

That someone has already claimed this jar.

I grow hollow.

 

I find it hard to swallow

disappearing into the bodies of my children.

Though I give myself over to being spread

Across raw-edged celery or softer bread,

I still cling to the corners of a rounded life.

I tell myself I am no less for having been gouged.

I am never so empty

That a small hand twisting

Would not find a mouth already forming the word

“okay.”

Investing Influence

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Let’s pretend you get a quarter every day.

Let’s say this quarter represents the amount of influence you can have over other people each day.

Maybe you’re at work where you see the same people every day. You influence them simply by being with them every day. You add a quarter’s worth of influence every day you’re there, either by complaining or by joking or working hard or hardly working or whatever. Doesn’t matter, really. You’re influencing them, either convincing them to like you or resent you, agree with you or distrust you. I’m not saying it’s always good, but at the end of the day, you can see you’ve invested your quarter’s worth of influence.

Maybe you’re connected to the internet so you invest your quarter not in the people you know but in trying to convince people online to think more like you. You cash in your quarter, turn it into 25 pennies, and spend the day trying to influence others on a bunch of topics around the internet. Who knows if anyone reads it, responds to it, is changed by it. You rarely find out. But you feel like you’ve done your part to spend your quarter’s worth of influence. You’re keep a more diverse portfolio, maybe hoping one of these little investments turns into something significant. But most of the time you never get to see whether or not your ideas made any impact at all.

Maybe you’re like me, at home with the same gang of kids each day. And you’re trying to decide how to use your influence. Do you keep trying to influence your kids (even though most days it seems like your influence may not be making any difference!) or do you escape to the world wide web of Big Ideas and scatter a little influence there? Try to make a difference with likes and retweets and words and all the like? Do you cash in your quarter and try to do a little of both?

This is the question I’ve been living with, more or less, for the last few months. I love that I get to stay home with my kids, I really do, but it is hard to see the payoff of my investment in them each day. It was hard quitting my job. When I was a teacher, I was scattering my pennies of influence widely each day. Now I’m just stacking up quarter after quarter in the same account. Sometimes I’m tempted to diversify my portfolio, maybe give my 2 cents’ worth in a few places online. I don’t think a few pennies here and there will shortchange my kids, but I do have to recognize that every decision to pour my energy elsewhere costs me at least a little.

From my perspective, it feels like our culture values having a wide influence over many people, rather than having a deep influence on a few people. We admire people who spread their pennies far and wide. We assume anyone who has good name-recognition must be doing something right.

To decide to stay home is to decide not to break your quarter. Instead of having a name everyone knows, you have a name that only a few people know, but for those few people, it is the only name they know and the only name they need to know.  It is to keep investing in the same account, keep betting on the same horse. It’s a tough choice to make–some days I miss the feeling of having a wider influence. But it is a choice I don’t regret and I have determined that I won’t allow myself to regret.

Some days it feels like a small job, no more than a janitorial job. I see my former students around town working as nannies for kids the same ages as my kids. Four years ago, I held a little piece of these girls’ fate in my hands. I was the authority in the front of the room and they were the students eager for my approval (or at least that’s how I saw it.) Now we are essentially peers doing the same job. Except they are getting paid better!

It seemed like a small job when I first took it on, but I’ve learned that stay at home mothering is an enormous job. Instead of needing to know a LOT about one thing, I now have to know a little about LOTS of things. This is because I am, as G.K. Chesterton describes it, “shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t.”

I get to be the first and most trusted source of answers for these four kids. I get to introduce the world to young imaginations and then see where that takes them. I get to see the spark of wonder come on as each of my children recognizes the world for what it is. I have immense influence. It only looks like a small job if you measure it in pennies a day. It is a big job if you think of how all the pennies add up.

Today I needed to remember that. I needed to write this so I could lay out the meaning of it all.

I don’t know if I’m doing it “right.” I’m not even sure I know how to measure motherhood’s success. But at least I am starting to see my influence on my kids. As they grow, I can start to see some of the results of my own good intentions for them. Were my intentions good enough? Did I live up to them? I don’t know yet. There are thousand ways to measure yourself as a mother which is why it is always possible to feel like you don’t measure up.

I’m trying not to measure myself as often anymore, trying to just keep my head down and do my job with grace and humility. I’m trying to treat each day like it counts because I know eventually it all adds up.

 

 

Welcome to our World

I wrote this a long time ago. Christmas of 2010, to be exact. This was my first attempt at taking myself seriously as a writer. I still love it and have always wanted to share it on my blog. It has been on my mind more recently, of course, because I am watching my LAST baby turn a year old pretty soon. This has been my last chance to introduce one of my own babies to the world and it makes me remember how much I treasured this experience with each of my babies.

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Claire (my first baby)

The One who knit Claire together and lent her the breath of life has spent this year introducing the wonder-filled world to her. Watching her discover it all has made me appreciate the intricacy and beauty of this world with fresh eyes. For her, everything is new!

Of course, nothing here is actually new. It all goes on like it has from the very beginning. Every child is born into a world already filled with more wonders than he or she could ever witness in a lifetime. It is a world varied beyond imagining, connected beyond coincidence, beautiful beyond comprehension. Every child must discover these wonders one at a time. Nonetheless, the world is new to Claire, and as we’ve watched her discover the wonders of the world, I have often felt like I was watching the creation story found in Genesis unfold before my eyes.

When we brought Claire home, we marveled at the way she would stare intently at the dark and the light. At first, she would blink and sneeze and close her eyes against the brightness. When she would open those bright big brown eyes, she would stare—not at us, not at the complex and perplexing faces of the people who continually looked at her. Her eyes flickered between light and dark, simply sorting out the difference. There was light and there was darkness (Genesis 1:3).

Claire learned the difference between the wet—the diapers that constantly needed changing, the baths that shocked her out of her sleepy daze, the milk that she drank eagerly (and occasionally spit back onto her clothes)—and the dry. Outside, there was snow; inside, there were blankets. There was wet and there was dry.

She learned to distinguish the sun from the moon. The sun watched over her days, days she spent lying on her back, then on her tummy, then rolling, then lurching, then crawling, and now walking. The moon watched over her long, sleepy nights. There was the sun and the moon.

Spring changed the picture outside her window just in time. Claire’s eyes learned to focus on far away objects and her mind made sense of complex shapes and movements just as the leaves on the trees budded and unfurled and began to flip in the wind. We removed the fuzzy layers that had kept her warm but had obstructed her view on our walks. We watched. Suddenly, she looked up to notice all that was alive and moving and colorful. There was vegetation to cover the earth.

Then changes came rapidly. It had taken her weeks to figure out dark and light, but now, suddenly, there were millions of things to see! There were creatures filling her world—those that crawl along the ground, those that walk on four legs, those that swim in the sea, those that fly in the air. She reached out to touch the dogs and the bugs and the birds. She recoiled from the fish, which were, perhaps, still too other-worldly for her. There were creatures, great and small.

Gradually, slowly, Claire became aware of her own body. At first, she surprised herself with her own flailing hands. Her hands learned to reach and to hold on. Her feet learned to kick, to propel, and now, to balance and to walk. Her world grew from two dimensions to three. In the mirror, Claire encountered her whole self. First from a distance and later leaning close, she would examine her own face. There she was, a human, made in the image of her creator.

The world is replete with good and wonderful things. Everything, Claire is realizing, has a name. It has been her habit of late to point to new things and christen them. “Da.” she says, or “Daaa!” or “Da?” or “Dat.” She is naming her world like Adam did, recognizing the usefulness of giving a label to each and every living thing. Soon, we know, she will use these names to request and refuse, to assert her own preferences. I do not want to take for granted that even this stubborn willfulness is a miracle!

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Caleb (my last baby)

Paved with Good Intentions

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I don’t know if it’s the road to hell, but it sure is the road to disappointment and frustration.

StockSnap_B9SJQMZ7KK.jpgThe weird thing about quitting your job and staying home with your kids is that your life gets both easier–much easier–and much, much harder at the same time.

No longer do you have those panicked mornings trying to decide whether your kid is too sick for daycare or those rushed evenings trying to invent a dinner out of the ingredients currently in your fridge. (Never mind. I still have those evenings. But now I can’t blame it on my job, which I actually sort of miss.) Your whole pace of life slows down. I don’t have to be in a hurry nearly as often. If I want to, I can take life at the pace of a toddler–even a toddler who pretends to be a puppy every time he sees a set of stairs.

But on the other hand, you become your own boss. At least in my case, I had more time to fill so I began to expect more and more from myself. Perhaps I’m only speaking for myself, but I am a terrible boss. I have grand intentions for every day. I make elaborate lists of chores to get done and errands to run, essentially setting myself up to fail pretty much every day. And these are just the good intentions I have for myself each day.

Add to that all my good intentions for my kids. For example, here are my good intentions for today: Just as soon as she gets home from school, I am going to make my seven year old practice piano and teach her to love reading and convince her to choose fruit for a snack. And make her do her chores (cheerfully, of course.) My five year old has Thank You notes from her birthday to finish and she will do her chores, too. And my two year old is going to finish learning how to use the toilet if it kills me. And they all need a good dose of sound doctrine before they go to bed, too.  I’m a sucker for a new system, so I’m always figuring out some new system for getting chores done or teaching table manners or whatever is on my mind. And when the system fails me (or I fail to follow through, as I inevitably do), I find myself frustrated and angry. My good intentions can so easily become my enemy.

The internet, of course, doesn’t help. The internet is the land of good intentions. It’s the one place where we can be known solely for our intentions. I sort of wish sometimes that I just wasn’t even aware of how everyone else is doing everything. I’m too tempted to look up a parenting question and find a dozen helpful mom-blogs with colorful chore charts or cheerful explanations for how to motivate/inspire/instruct my kids. I’d like to know how much of the internet’s traffic is fueled by stay-at-home mothers with good intentions.

My good intentions really reflect my own self-reliance. I spent most of last year preparing for a talk on the pressure women feel to be “Picture Perfect.” The question that kept troubling me was “Where is this pressure coming from?” Is it really an external pressure? Are there really other people saying “You ought to be doing X with your kids?” And if there are, does their opinion of me actually carry any weight? Do you they truly KNOW what is best for MY kids? Can they guarantee that their system will work? At least in my case, I have to say that any pressure I feel is from my own desire to impress. The pressure pretty much comes from the toxic combination of my own insecurity and the easy answers of others’ good intentions.

The fact is, most of the self-published advice on the internet is unproven. I want to believe that a new system full of good intentions will yield good results. But kids aren’t robots. Even with a foolproof motivational system to encourage chore completion, I could still raise a lazy slob. Or a resentful over-achiever. Or any other manner of human being. My children are, after all, plagued with that pesky gift of free will. I will eventually have to set each of my kids loose to make decisions for themselves.

The results of my particular brand of motherhood remain to be seen. I’ve known plenty of kids raised with the best intentions who grew up to reject their parents’ values. I’ve also known plenty of kids raised with good intentions who lived up to their parents’ hopes. There is no guaranteed recipe. The best adults–and I’m not just talking about the most financially successful adults, but the ones who are most content and most confident about their choices–come from all kinds of childhoods.

Kids are not raised by good intentions alone. I’m trying to get better at not setting myself up for frustration, but I still go to bed at night scheming ways I’ll live up to my good intentions tomorrow. I’ll probably do it again tonight and I will likely be at least moderately disappointed again tomorrow night. I’m working on it.

So why am I so prone to making life hard for myself with my good intentions? I think I know at least part of the answer, but that is a post for another day…