Naming What Can Be Lost: Matthew Zapruder on Poems for Dire Times
“The greatest poems demand change. Maybe we need to change to meet them.”
If you don’t read much poetry, or feel uncertain in relation to it, you are more than welcome here. Please know that I chose the poems in the Best American 2022 thinking of you. I, too, feel uncertain, unsure of what poetry is for, especially during eerie, frightening, and confusing times. But finding these seventy-five poems helped me, and I hope they will help you too.
Maybe you go to art, as I do, because you find that there, unlike in so much of the rest of life, people are asking the big questions. They don’t already know the answers and are not necessarily trying to convince us of something, but we can be with them while they are searching. In poems, I often hear a solitary consciousness trying to ask hard questions, to make some sense of things without oversimplifying them, to share the experience of thinking through something in ways that are not beholden to convention.
In poems, language—humanity’s greatest invention—is liberated. I think this is what people often mean when they say they want to be surprised by a poem, not only by its content, and not by mere decoration of that content, but by a feeling of possibility itself, manifested in language. As Lorca wrote, “I do not believe in creation but in discovery, and I don’t believe in the seated artist but in the one who is walking down the road.”
It’s amazing how the old technology of the lyric can still push everything else away and create a dangerous space of possibility. There seem to be an infinite number of ways to do it; at least so far no one has discovered the limit. As I was reading through all the magazines and websites in 2021, I did not have preconceived ideas about what I was looking for to include in The Best American Poetry 2022 edition. I wanted a feeling of resonance in me that something necessary and true was being said, and by “necessary” I mean necessary to say in just this way. Lift your head from your device, and I will lift my head from mine.
These are dire times. Often the question occurred to me, reading all these poems: What am I doing? Certain poems reminded me that there was possibility in language and thought, which gave me some hope. Yet I often felt convinced that none of this literary activity was going to make the slightest difference.
What gave me hope was the sense that everywhere people are still dreaming. We can’t help it. The dream is the place where one is free to imagine anything. It is beyond our usual means of control and is uninterested in the limits of what has been considered possible. As Delmore Schwartz wrote, “In dreams begin responsibilities.” Audre Lorde wrote that “it is through poetry that we give names to those ideas which are—until the poem—nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt.” Maybe all this reading and writing is not merely useful, but essential.
The poetic imagination connects concretely with activism, resistance, and optimism. A hope that starts out as a tentative, inchoate feeling can, in a poem, be dreamed forth, envisioned as a concrete possibility; only then, when we start to imagine how things could change, can we begin to act to make it so.
The Surrealists saw dreams as essential to ending war, and to improving the human condition. Emerging from the horrors of World War I, they believed that if everyone wrote poetry, the dream world would be linked once again to what we call everyday reality; if that happened, we would no longer see each other as machines. It would be the end of cruelty and conflict. As we now know, the horrors of the twentieth century were only beginning. But the Surrealists were not wrong that dreaming is at least a step toward change. A poem is a dream made manifest in the world, for oneself and others. Before we dismiss dreams as a source of knowledge and power and change, we should remember that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not say he had a thought, or a plan, or an idea.
In this year of pandemic, we do not need any reminders to grieve or to feel love or compassion. Yet perhaps you found yourself growing numb, as I did. The imagination of these poets took me again and again to places where I could feel again, though not in the usual ways. Often the poems painfully reminded me that everything is alive. A bulldozer lowers its bucket in the rain. When a goldfish dies, we mourn the entire ocean. A bolt of lightning falls in love. Our love, like our grief, is unreasoned.
The poems I love most are responsible to others and the world but also feel free. “If I am not for myself, who will be? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” said Hillel the Elder. Today we are living in the ultimate paradox of those words. Conflicts between self and other, the role of the individual in relation to community, the responsibility of ourselves to others and to the earth—these are the sites of unending failures and disappointments. Many of our contemporary poems enter into that conflict between the self and the collective—not to resolve it, which would be impossible, but to clarify our position.
Vievee Francis looks at a photograph of poet Galway Kinnell being held by Harriet Richardson after state troopers beat him at the march from Selma to Montgomery. This photograph of a bleeding white man held by a black woman at a march against racial discrimination could, in lesser hands, easily become a dangerous site of sentimentality. It’s a beautiful photograph, in its confusion. Francis uses it to explore, in a relatively small space, questions of race, especially as they relate to an interracial marriage. The speaker observes the desire of white men to be compassionate, and the limits of that desire. She imagines Richardson’s emotions and gives us a chronicle of her own. It’s hard for me to imagine an essay many times the length of this poem investigating such matters with as much clarity and insight, and, perhaps most important, respect for the limits of understanding.
The poems in the new edition of Best American Poetry, to which I returned again and again, and which I could not and did not want to move on from or forget, seemed to be searching as in a dream for something not easily said or known. These poems are active, full of a spirit of questioning, searching for a different way of being. Jericho Brown’s “Inaugural” feels like a far more accurate assessment of the American condition than any speech or editorial or sermon:
We were told that it is dangerous to touch
And yet we journeyed here, where what we believe
Meets what must be done. You want to see, in spite
Of my mask, my face. We imagine, in time
Of disease, our grandmothers
Whole. We imagine an impossible
America and call one another
A fool for doing so.
Here is the virus, both literal and metaphoric, which makes it “dangerous to touch.” Brown’s poem acknowledges the impossible desire to see past the mask of the face, for dreams to bring back the dead, and for America to somehow become what it purports to be—to live up to its ideals, which, as Brown writes, we cannot help but imagine and hope for, even though we are fools for doing so.
His description of the American dilemma, of the dual nature of our dreams, which are both self-deluding and full of necessary hope, is ruthlessly accurate. And complex. It requires reading and rereading with a mind that is willing to be plastic in relation to the intuitions and leaps made by the poem. Only a poem, it seems to me, is capable of expressing and creating, in the mind of the reader, the coexisting, colliding, disappointing, irresolvable mess of despair, rage, and foolish hope that defines what it is to be American.
In these poems I was drawn to pattern-making in the material of language and structure of the poems themselves, usually more subtle than overt, like the faint echo of phrasal rhythms or the low hum of sonic similarity. Poets are also interested in patterns of experience and meaning, and in finding those commonalities where they are utterly unexpected.
Poets, like all artists, continually emerge from the privacy of their own anomalies into a collective space, which makes poems inherently hopeful for human connection. Poems remind us that, at our core, we share something deep. This is the gorgeous paradox of poetry. It’s as if there are human qualities that link us across time and geographical and other differences. Perhaps this is ultimately a fiction, but poems make use of that hope of commonality while reminding us of the individuality of perception—how far we are away from each other, how singular experience is, how weird and unpredictable and inappropriate we are. The assertion of individuality in the poems in this anthology, coexisting with a belief that it is possible to find common ground, constitutes a kind of implicit hope that we might, despite all that separates us, find a way to pull together to solve the grave problems that threaten us all.
Many of the selected poems engage with the central conflicts and dilemmas of our time, always in interesting and new ways. It’s more than okay though if sometimes these poems are about private matters like moustaches, and rhinestones, and love. They remind us of what we will need to fight for. In “The Life of a Writer,” Jalynn Harris writes:
how deep in love i am
& how silly of me to spend all morning dreaming
about love & not expect my
desire to set me free
the knives of my fingers tap
out the notion that if i turn the key
it will unlock.
This poet is writing about writing about love. I like that she admits that it feels silly, though of course it is not. It might be the most important thing in the world. She wants to understand, to explore, to know. She is trying to get closer to human experience by writing and thinking. Her fingers are knives; there is a key; there is something that will unlock. Yes.
Would you imagine your fingers are knives, especially in the moment of typing a poem about love? I would not. Now I will not forget it. Aristotle wrote that metaphor is the “application of an alien name”: it makes a connection that is inherently unexpected or unauthorized, but in retrospect seems to have been waiting there all along. That is the rebellious spirit by which poets are animated.When I read a poem I love, despite my anger and despair, something in me starts to bloom.
Despite all the efforts to control it, poetry has from the beginning never bent to authority. Poets are constantly breaking the rules, to reveal what should be considered beautiful and therefore worth preserving. Which means that the most important elements of the best poems might not be immediately understood as poetry. The inclusion of these disparate, unpredictable, misbehaving elements in the same space expands our sense of what is possible. What we thought was strange or took for granted or did not see as beautiful—or even see at all, before the poem—becomes something we cannot live without. The greatest poems demand change. Maybe we need to change to meet them.
Sometimes I think of poems less as artifacts of individual minds, and more as a part of a collective effort. Poets are specialists in the unknown, and because of the compactness of a poem and its flexibility, can respond rapidly to any situation. After a dose of truth serum most poets will admit they write mostly by instinct, or as Frank O’Hara said, “You just go on your nerve.” This makes poets suited to dramatic moments in history, which no one can make sense of while they are happening. Shelley wrote that poets don’t really even understand what they are saying. He meant this as a compliment. By singing, poets turn themselves into instruments that don’t just reflect their times, but also tell the future, becoming “mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.”
Is this year’s Best American Poetry anthology a time capsule? A futile cry into a dark future? A harbinger of necessary change? A seed bank? A catalog of soon-to-be-anachronistic neuroses? One of the final exhales of literature’s expired, propped-up corpse? More kindling? I don’t know. I do know that when life is confusing and difficult, we need to encounter it directly. That’s what these seventy-five poems do. They are aware of where they sit in relation to others and the world. So many of them feel as if they were written in a growing sense of their own precarity—often in a social sense, but spiritually too. Like all lyrics that seem true to me, they speak against power with anger or passion or despair or sometimes with an exhilarating disinterest in what is usually considered important. They seem written against, in order to preserve.
When I read a poem I love, despite my anger and despair, something in me starts to bloom. Maybe it was already there. Maybe it is something new. The point is, it was only potential before I read the poem. Now I am more alive and aware. I feel sadder, more vulnerable, and more capable of resisting. This puts me in solidarity with my fellow beings. There are many more things to lose, maybe everything, but what I can lose is named. Everything matters more, which is of course terrifying, but at least it is a true condition. In the direst circumstances, poems are available to everyone, and can help us resist, and survive, and see and forgive each other and ourselves.
Adaptedfrom the introduction to THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2022 ed. Matthew Zapruder and David Lehman. Copyright © 2022 by David Lehman. Introduction copyright © 2022 by Matthew Zapruder. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.