A New Kind of Critic

Matthew Zapruder

Matthew Zapruder has written an article for The Poetry Foundation calling for a new kind of poetry critic. A critic that analyzes a poem based not on whether they like, dislike, or even fully understand a poem but instead bases their opinion on the choices the writer has made to create their work.

Read the complete piece here.

I took a workshop with the poet Dean Young at Sarah Lawrence College a couple of summers ago and one of the first things he had us do was strike out "I like" or "I don't like" from our vocabularies when talking about each others poems. That was easier said than done since our subjective gut reactions were often so ingrained in our responses.

But over time we began discussing the poems in more unfamiliar ways, including trying to understand what type of poems they were, whether they reminded us of other works, what traditions they were following, whether certain choices risked alienating a reader or if more ambiguity would add a certain je ne sais quoi. Last year I also had a workshop class with Zapruder and he challenged us to analyze poems in a similar fashion.

In high school we were taught to analyze a work of literature by looking at the plot, whether we related to the characters, and yes, if we liked or disliked it and why. And that was that. While these techniques are helpful to a certain extent, I find it immensely more interesting to also dissect a work of art in the way I was taught by Young and Zapruder.

I was shocked, then, to see how strongly people have reacted to Zapruder's piece. The comment board right now has about sixty posts and many of them are calling out for blood for what seemed to be a very earnest plea.

At one point, Zapruder uses the art world as a springboard to jump into a discussion of poetry. For myself, I find music to be another helpful tool. The word 'poetry' encompasses a multitude of genres just the way 'music' does.

In college I took a music appreciation course and learned about the finer points of different musical genres, listening to the likes of Handel's Water Music to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro to Bernstein's West Side Story. Dissecting musical pieces helped me understand them and love them that much more.

That being said, I enjoy certain types of music more than others but I'd like to think that I'm open enough to appreciate a wide variety of styles and genres. I like Elvis just as much as I like Tom Waits. I like John Cage and Philip Glass but I also enjoy Beethoven and Hayden. I'm a fan of The Silver Jews and The Decemberists but I'm not ashamed to say I also bounce my head to tunes by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Patti Smith or Ella Fitzgerald? Why not both? Not all music is created equal but all these artists bring something different to the table.

The same can be said about the richness and variety of poetry. I can enjoy Gertrude Stein one day and look to Elizabeth Bishop the next. I'll look for inspiration from Russell Edson and James Tate and then I'll go to Billy Collins. I'm not saying that I love all these poets equally, I just appreciate different qualities from each of them depending on my mood.

It is simply ridiculous to say whether an epic poem is better than haiku. Or comparing a sonnet to a concrete poem, let's say, is like comparing a birthday cake to a necklace. They are all poetic genres that add to the language of poetry as a whole. Dismissing a poem just because you don't understand it or don't immediately like it is a real shame. I'm not saying we shouldn't listen to that gut feeling right away when we approach a new work of art only that sometimes it takes time for art to make a true impression.

As one can see from my own post and the comments Zapruder's piece received, people are still passionate about their poetry. Unfortunately, they are also dead set on defining what poetry should and shouldn't do. One can only hope that people keep an open mind. I know I'll try.

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