Editor's Note: In a letter to the editor, Johannes Göransson writes a response to Matthew Zapruder's July 10th article, "Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think," published in the New York Times, and which Harriet Staff featured here.


In his article "Understanding Poetry is More Straightforward Than You Think,” Matthew Zapruder wants to have his poetry and eat it too, wants to tell you how simple and "straightforward" "understanding" poetry is, at the same time as he wants to position himself as the expert explainer (what "you think" is "incorrect," and he will correct it). In the end, Zapruder mostly reiterates a dominant U.S. rhetoric about poetry and art, a rhetoric that tends to dismiss the excessive and the strange, emphasizing the importance of "accessible" poetry, an aesthetic that paradoxically depends on the very method of reading (as decoding) he begins the article by denouncing.

It is true, as Zapruder notes, that often in school students are taught that poems are merely messages to interpret, to find a "meaning," and that this reduces our enjoyment of poetry. This is a good insight. However, Zapruder's solution to the issue is not to open poetry up to different approaches, but instead to limit what poetry is to a very narrow definition: It's the "literal," a reductive idea of "everyday language."

For someone who claims that poetry is not "difficult," Zapruder spends a large part of the essay shaming unnamed, immature writers who "deliberately complicate" their language in a "shortcut to being mysterious," and others who "will do something really weird and disruptive with syntax," and others who "will throw in a bunch of images and metaphors, right away, before we even know what the poem is about." These unnamed immature poets refuse "giving basic information" to the reader. Instead they "disguise" their intentions. For Zapruder, the strange and weird are the enemies of "straightforward" writing. This is peculiar since he has written elsewhere in defense of John Ashbery, whose entire style was influenced by the disruptive anti-aesthetics of European Dada.

Zapruder is opposed to the extravagant (like a wandering star), or poetry that wears "disguises." This seems to contradict his urge for us to take pleasure in language: "weird and disruptive" syntax does after all call attention to the language itself, asks us to linger in its textures.

More importantly, the idea that bad poetry somehow interferes or disguises the real experience of the poem suggests that Zapruder does believe that a poem’s real value exists outside (or before, or under) the actual language of the poem. The extravagant styles of immature writers are a "disguise" only if the real poem exists elsewhere, outside of the language. If it's important to be straightforward, you have to answer the question: straightforward about what?


Not all poems prioritize everyday language. Some poems value arguments and narrative above the experience of language. Sometimes poems have mystical meanings. Zapruder rejects reading poems as riddles, but some poems are indeed riddles. While Zapruder argues that students are turned off when poems are treated as riddles, I have found the opposite to be true. Often students love riddles: they create the sense that words may not mean what they are supposed to (thus flouting his maxim that "One of the great pleasures of reading poetry is to feel words mean what they usually do in everyday life"). Riddles create a sense of mystery.

To further frustrate Zapruder's binary, the riddle, with its 'hidden' meaning, is often keenly language-driven. Poems can be gorgeous precisely in their riddle-like mystery. I think about the famous "Ann Jäderlund Debates" that raged in Sweden in the late-80s, wherein Jäderlund was precisely accused of writing riddles that "flirted" without really revealing herself. But Jäderlund went on to become perhaps the most important, influential Swedish poet alive because her riddle-like necropastorals proved irresistibly mysterious.

It is precisely Jäderlund's unwillingness to give us the "basic information" that is key to the hypnotizing strangeness of her book, Which Once Had Been Meadow. Rather than give us the "basic information" so that we can keep things clear, she pulls us into an immersive experience with a semi-story that may take place in a meadow and involve some kind of mysterious sexual—and possibly violent—encounter.

Gerard Manley Hopkins's sonically excessive, ecstatic poetry plunges us into the sensuality of language. However, Hopkins's poems do most certainly have a meaning—it's not a hidden meaning but one that gets played out in overpowering, ecstatic poetry. Hopkins sweeps us off our feet, takes off the tops of our heads (as Dickinson said) and induces a state of ecstasy (ecstasy meaning to stand outside yourself).

Masks and "disguises" are fascinating, and they can also be politically volatile. Masks unsettle identity-based hierarchies: the king might really be a pauper. I think about Raúl Zurita's Purgatorio (trans. Anna Deeny Morales), the opening of a decades-long poem of resistance to the 1973 Chilean coup. The sequence opens with an image of Zurita's ID papers coupled with a little poem that asserts that he's in fact not at all Zurita, but the sex worker Rachel: "my friends think / I'm a sick woman / because I burned my cheek," he writes (in Deeny's translation), literally masking or disguising the biographical fact that, upon being released from prison, Zurita burnt his own cheek—an action he took to overwrite/memorialize his torture at the hands of government thugs. This single couplet and its accompanying image wears many masks, many disguises, many disfigurements, many defacements.


There's another politics at play in the demand for the "straightforward," one that is personal to me. As an immigrant, I know how beautiful a foreign language can seem when it mingles with your "native" language, or when you only half understand it, or how certain words take on multilingual echoes (The sound of the English word “barn” in Swedish means “children”). The idea that poetry—or language in general—is ever "straightforward" seems impossible to my immigrant ears and eyes.

But I also know how incredibly political foreign languages are in the current moment. All over the U.S., conservative protests insist we need to speak "English only." Why? Perhaps foreign languages act as "disguises." We don't know what those foreigners might be saying; perhaps they are plotting revolutions in those weird words. But I think the opposite is also true—what foreign ideas, languages, and syntaxes is the immigrant masking with their English? A foreigner can never be "straightforward." There's always another language mingling with the English, deforming it, transforming it, constantly shifting it. And vigilant people across the country guard against any accent, any slip-up as a sign of a foreign threat.


It is a wonderful coincidence that Zapruder's article should appear on my computer at the same time as I am watching David Lynch's brilliant return from retirement with Twin Peaks: The Return, a strange and wild ride of a TV series that is driven by "weird" "disruptions" and, yes, riddles. In episode eight, a strange killer takes over a radio station and starts broadcasting a poem about a "horse" that is "the white of the eyes," a riddle which—intertextually!—invokes all those beautiful old blues and folks songs, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" ("I got two white horses following me..."). It also invokes Lynch's own original Twin Peaks, which began with the murder of Laura Palmer and the mysterious invocation, "Fire, walk with me." Lynch's mysterious poetry has entranced viewers (readers) for twenty-five years (and Jefferson's songs have kept us entranced even longer!). Is such poetry flat or deep? Does it conceal a meaning or give access to it? What other options are there outside such binaries? Might poetry, like song, to borrow a neologism of Aase Berg's, "vibribrera"/"vibribrate"?

If we can leave behind the constant injunction of our gatekeepers and tastemakers to comply with aesthetics of the "straightforward," we can embrace intense meadows and ecstatic riddles. Jäderlund, Hopkins, Zurita, Lynch, Jefferson all offer a different route, an ecstatic, visionary route that says: poetry is a strange force that can take over your minds and bodies, transport you out of what you think you know and take you into a new kind of mysterious knowledge.

Write what you don't know.


Originally Published: July 13th, 2017

Poet and translator Johannes Göransson emigrated with his family from Skåne, Sweden to the United States at age 13. He earned a BA from the University of Minnesota, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his PhD from the University of Georgia. He is the author of several books,...