What Makes an Artist?

Matthew Zapruder is the author of Why Poetry, a book that argues for the necessity and value of contemporary poetry. Zapruder claims that his book’s purpose is to “explore what it is about poetry that makes people feel that they don’t understand it” (xii). In the first few pages, he portrays readers as often intimidated by poetry when in reality, they are qualified to understand poetry just because they are alive. The human experience is all one needs to comprehend what poets intend to relate. His book shows readers how they can engage with poetry without a degree — essentially, he claims that everyone can comprehend and interact with poetry; however, I am sensitive to the ways in which Zapruder speaks of the other half of the equation.

In some instances, he indulges in a characterization of the poet as powerless to his or her creative impulse. For example, he mentions that he began his writing career by one day sitting down and deciding on a whim to write. He notes that “it is amazing to [him] now that [he] knew to do that . . . [and that] for whatever reason [he] simply could not not . . . write” (8). He hadn’t studied English in college nor had he been exposed to much poetry. It seems like he’s saying that to be a poet was not his decision, but what he was unavoidably meant to do. In addition, he indulges the portrait of the poet as omnipotent creator, that a poet’s job is to create “a different sort of mood, or mental space, or way of thinking” (10). Zapruder seems to think that anyone can understand poetry, but only the select few (who are, in addition, more powerful) can make it.

Because I consider myself a writer, Zapruder’s conclusion is vexing. On the one hand, it elevates the writer, associating him or her with something akin to mystical powers. What does this mean for the writer’s ego? It certainly makes mine feel a bit inflated. On the other hand, I can’t say I fully disagree with Zapruder’s conclusion. The reality is that not everyone can write fiction. I don’t think this is attributable to some artistic power granted a person at birth, but I do think it is attributable to the cultivation of a natural artistic proclivity at an early age; this is a proclivity that some ignore, never indulging it, and some embrace. I think this indulgence rather than a god of art waving his magic wand over a person, dubbing “YOU to be the next Hemingway,” is what makes a writer.

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