V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Three Decades of Poetry and a Lifetime of Survival



Orr has accomplished an incredible feat, managing to bring together 
his tragic and triumphant personal narrative with his belief 
in the importance and impact of the personal lyric poem in a way that, 
through the strength of each genre, allows the three to comment upon
one another and to contribute in harmony with one another 
to a greater understanding of the whole.  When read together, 
these three books present in both prose and poetry not only 
a gripping private portrait of their author, but also a sophisticated 
and convincing case for the possibility of the "transformative power" 
of lyric poetry, as evidenced in Orr's own life experiences.

The Human culture "invented" or evolved the personal lyric as a means of helping individuals survive the existential crises represented by extremities of subjectivity and also by such outer circumstances as poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one.  This survival begins when we "translate" our crisis into language ÷ where we give it symbolic expression as an unfolding drama of self and the forces that assail it.  This same poem also arrays the ordering powers our shaping imagination has brought to bear on these disorderings.
     ÷ Gregory Orr, "Introduction" to Poetry as Survival

Writing an essay titled "Poetry and Survival" for the September, 2002 issue of The Writer's Chronicle, Gregory Orr glanced back at the American public's various responses during the previous year to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.  Orr observed an outpouring of emotional reactions by his fellow citizens ÷ expressions of "confusion, grief, rage, and a sense of vulnerability" ÷ and he was impressed by the desire many displayed for an eloquent (though not necessarily always elegant), elegiac, and evocative language filled with comfort, compassion, commiseration, or simply a compelling recognition of common commitment, a need which often seemed to be satisfied, in differing degrees perhaps, by the words of hope some readers discovered in a return to favorite memorable poems or in the composition of new works by contemporary poets. 
     Nevertheless, Orr also noticed a need of his own to explore and maybe even explain why the art of poetry served so many in such a manner at this wrenching time of chaos and confusion.  As Orr discerned this situation, "Among other responses, many sought clarity and consolation in the reading or writing of poems.  Perhaps that should surprise us, perhaps not.  But what concerns me is that the explanations for this almost instinctive turning to poetry are seldom understood or articulated in a way that makes the appropriateness of the impulse as clear and obvious as it could be." 
     Anyone who has read Gregory Orr's forceful and reflective poetry over the past three decades since his first book of poems, Burning the Empty Nests, appeared in 1973, or anyone who has followed his career as a critic and essayist producing perceptive writings on the practice of poetry ÷ particularly about the prominent place of the personal lyric (with its repeated insistence on confronting overwhelming emotional circumstances and its characteristic of providing comfort for such instances) among the works of this nation's finest poets of the past, as well as in the continuing canon of contemporary American poems ÷ will not be surprised to find him once again presenting an intelligent and insightful analysis.  Orr offers the following: "Lyric poetry, especially the personal lyric, exists in all cultures and at all times precisely because it performs an essential survival function for individuals, especially when they undergo crises.  It helps individual selves (the poets) and then it extends its survival efficacy outward toward those listeners or readers who respond to the poem's situation as if it were, in some way, their own." 
     Many may understand why poets and readers continually turn to the personal lyric poem during times of private pain or anguish, but some may be surprised how just such a poem also can assist in alleviating the widespread suffering felt by an entire nation, if not most of the world, when its population is experiencing enormous emotional stress and continuing consternation caused by large-scale catastrophic events ÷ whether atrosities initiated by the acts of humans with religious, social, or political motives, or demostrations of devastation created by nature as a consequence of such tremendous disasters as earthquakes, hurricanes, or floods.  As Orr indicates in his essay, every day humans are "engaged with the project of ordering confusion (inner world), allaying anxiety (the unknowable next moment), and making sense of the past (memory as a meaning system)."  This common process informs the personal lyric, which serves as an examination of one's experiences with disorder in a form that imposes order.  Orr contends that "the personal lyric urges the self to translate its whole being into language where it can dramatize and re-stabilize itself in the patterned language of the poem." 
     No contemporary poet-critic has investigated the importance and the impact of the personal lyric poem ÷ not only in current poetry writing, but also throughout American literary history ÷ more than Gregory Orr has in his essays and books of criticism.  In an expansive essay titled "The Postconfessional Lyric," which was published ten years ago in The Columbia History of American Poetry, Orr had already established himself as a perceptive commentator on the persuasive affect of personal lyric poetry from the Romantic era of Whitman and Dickinson, to the confessional poems of Lowell and Bishop, and then beyond to the postconfessional poetry of Levine and Rich.  In his chronicling of the history of the personal lyric in American poetry, Orr expanded upon his initial interest in the possibilities of transformation in autobiographical lyric poetry, whether poems written about intimate experiences that converted previously private revelations into universal truths or primarily personal poems written in an attempt to move "autobiographical encounters further into the political and social world."  Indeed, in  his  four books of literary criticism and eight collections of poetry published over the years, Gregory Orr's theoretical focus on the lyric mode of poetry has been consistently effective, and his practical use of the form has been ever more evocative.
     However, with the 2002 publication of three impressive books in various genres ÷ Poetry as Survival, a collection of critical essays; The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems; and The Blessing, a memoir ÷ Orr has accomplished an incredible feat, managing to bring together his tragic and triumphant personal narrative with his belief in the importance and impact of the personal lyric poem in a way that, through the strength of each genre, allows the three to comment upon one another and to contribute in harmony with one another to a greater understanding of the whole.  When read  together, these three books present in both prose and poetry not only a gripping private portrait of their author, but also a sophisticated and convincing case for the possibility of the "transformative power" of lyric poetry, as evidenced in Orr's own life experiences. 
     In the "Introduction" to Poetry as Survival, Orr briefly recounts a few of the early experiences that influenced him and informed his writing of poetry: 

          When I was twelve years old I was responsible for a hunting accident 
          in which my younger brother died.  To say that I was horrified and 
          traumatized by the event is only to state the obvious.  I've written 
          elsewhere (in poems and a memoir) about my emotional responses 
          to this experience; I won't rehearse them here.  Two years after my 
          brother's death, my mother died suddenly, at the young age of thirty- 
          six, after a "routine" hospital procedure.  In 1965, at the age of eighteen, 
          I worked briefly as a volunteer in the South for the Civil Rights movement 
          and was on the receiving end of both state-organized political violence 
          (numerous police beatings with clubs) and vigilante rage (being abducted 
          at gunpoint in rural Alabama and held in solitary confinement for eight 

     As Orr indicates about the accidental killing of his younger brother, all these details of his biography appear not only in his memoir, but Orr also has returned to them repeatedly in his poetry.  In fact, the "Introduction" further explains that Orr discovered the power of poetry when it was presented to him by his senior "honors English" teacher, the high school librarian.  His life was changed when he wrote his first poem and discovered "the essential purpose and meaning of lyric poetry": 

          The first poem I wrote was a simple, escapist fantasy, but it liberated 
          the enormous energy of my despair and oppression as nothing before 
          had ever done.  I felt simultaneously revealed to myself and freed of my 
          self by the images and actions of the poem.  I knew from that moment 
          on that all I wanted to do was write poems.  I knew that if I was to 
          survive in this life, it would only be through the help of poetry. 

     For Gregory Orr the connection between poetry and survival has persisted since his initial attempts at writing poems, and his understanding of an interdependence between the two has shaped both his approach to the composition of poetry and his attitude toward analysis of poetry.  Writing in his essay, "The Two Survivals," Orr the critic believes "the poem's existence on the page is proof of its efficacy for survival, proof that the poet succeeded in ordering his or her disorder (if only briefly); proof a person could take on the thematic disorder of that particular poem (even the theme of madness) and order it."  Viewing his own process of writing a poem, Orr claims in one section, "Trauma and Radical Freedom," from his chapter in Poetry as Survival titled "The Dangerous Angel": "When I write a poem to help myself cope with a serious disturbance, I do so by registering the disorder that first destabilized me and then incorporating it into the poem.  The literary result is the poem of survival." 
     Those readers who have followed Orr's poetry throughout the last three decades have become familiar with a number of works that would aptly be labeled poems of survival.  Indeed, although there have been changes in the writing style exhibited in Orr's poetry from volume to volume (for example, shifting from the more surrealistic to a somewhat more narrative lyric voice or choosing to use traditional form, such as the villanelle, in addition to free verse), readers are accustomed to coming upon poems written from the poet's "threshold" ÷ "the borderline between disorder and order" ÷ as Orr categorizes it in a chapter titled "The Edge as Threshold": "that place where energy and intensity concentrate, that place just beyond which chaos and randomness reign." 
     Orr's lyric poetry often arises as a response to instances of personal trauma ("trauma" being the Greek word for "wound," Orr reminds the reader).  The second half of Poetry as Survival is appropriately titled "Trauma and Transformation."  There, Orr views "composing or reciting personal lyrics as a means by which individuals can overcome the destructive powers of trauma."  However, Orr does not limit the incidents of trauma that can trigger a well-written poem to just the personal pain due to an individual's wound.  Instead, Orr suggests there are"culture-wide traumas," such as "war, genocide, riots, natural disasters, famines, and epidemics" that can elicit equally successful poems expressing emotions which permit the poet connection "to the surrounding human community by means of his or her own transformative encounter with trauma." 
     The poet, through the use of personal lyric, employs the self to dramatize situations involving either individual or cultural trauma, externalizing the subjective, and links to his or her readers through the shared experience represented by the images, actions, and symbols on the page.  In a section of Poetry as Survival titled "From Life to Lyric Poetry," Orr summarizes the procedure: "In poetry, the terms of our lives are transformed into language."  Likewise, it appears that Orr feels effective poetry can transform the experienced pain and suffering of trauma into a meditative process leading toward an atmosphere of comforting and a sense of mending ÷ for the poet, but also for others.  In writing about Keats's personal vision as a lyric poet who endured a number of devastating individual traumas, Orr concludes, "his struggle to understand his purpose as a poet led him to intuit the profound link between trauma and the ability to heal and console others who suffer." 
     Perhaps the most anthologized of Orr's works, "Gathering the Bones Together," the title poem from his 1975 collection, provides an apt example of lyric poetry dramatizing an instance of individual trauma: "I was twelve when I killed him / I felt my own bones wrench from my body."  The poem concerns the young Greg Orr's tragic accidental shooting of his little brother, Peter, while they were hunting deer with their father.  The scene is described in The Blessing:

          In my excitement after the deer fell, I must have clicked the safety off 
          again and now, instead of pointing my rifle barrel at the ground, I casually 
          directed it back over my right shoulder toward the woods and never even 
          looked as I pulled the trigger.  And Peter was there, a little behind me, not 
          more than two feet from where I stood.  In that instant in which the sound 
          of my gun firing made me startle and look around, Peter was already lying 
          motionless on the ground at my feet.  I never saw his face ÷ only his small 
          figure lying there, the hood up over his head, a dark stain of blood already 
          seeping across the fabric toward the fringe of fur riffling in the breeze.  I 
          never saw his face again. 

     Orr reports in his memoirs how he retreated to his bedroom after the shooting, and how the family treated the incident mostly with silence.  The twelve year old felt he'd lost the love of others, especially his mother, from that day forward.  Various forms of guilt and loss became ever-present in Orr's life, and responses to those emotions have often been present in his poetry over the years since Orr's first lyrical recounting of the event in "Gathering the Bones Together":

          A father and his four sons 
          run down a slope toward 
          a deer they just killed. 
          The father and two sons carry 
          rifles.  They laugh, jostle, 
          and chatter together. 
          A gun goes off 
          and the youngest brother 
          falls to the ground. 
          A boy with a rifle 
          stands beside him 

     In his 1980 collection of poems, The Red House, Orr returns to his feelings elicited by this traumatic childhood experience.  In a poem title "After a Death," Orr presents a dreamlike scene in which he, his brother, and their father are brought together again.  The poem contains images depicting loss and grieving, and details that suggest guilt shared by the father and one son for the death of the other son.  From his bedroom window, the young Greg Orr sees his father "cross the moonlit lawn" as he comes to get him.  The two are next viewed accompanying the dead brother: 

          Then I was with him, 
          my mittened hand in his, 
          and Peter, my brother, his dead son, 
          holding his other hand. 
          The way the three of us walked 
          was a kind of steady weeping. 

     By the time Gregory Orr writes once more about this in his 1995 collection, City of Salt, published two decades after "Gathering the Bones Together" first fully presented the horrible accident, readers who have followed Orr's works over those decades are not surprised to see the issue revisited, nor are they disappointed by his re-examination of the scene in "A Moment": "The field where my brother died ÷ / I've walked there since."  As Orr points out in his "Introduction" to Poetry as Survival, "the personal lyric helps individual selves, both writers and readers, survive the vicissitudes of experience and the complexities and anguish of subjectivity and trauma.  Indeed, in the poems of City of Salt that encounter the death of his younger brother, Orr not only remembers vividly and movingly the details of his brother's death and Orr's immediate reactions on the tragic day in "A Litany," but he also recalls that two young boys were actually lost on that day, his brother Peter and the innocent young Greg: 

          Always I arrive too late 
          to take the rifle 
          from the boy I was, 
          too late to warn him 
          of what he can't imagine: 
          how quickly people vanish . . . . 

     Although various poems Gregory Orr has written over the years confront this specific haunting experience and consider the lasting emotional effects created by it, a number of additional crucial events have shaped his works and serve equally as eloquent examples of the power poetry can exert through disclosure of actions or emotions leading toward an eventual healing.  One of these instances of trauma is vividly described in The Blessing.  After a period of time when his family had been in the midst of turmoil brought on by his father's leaving for another, much younger woman, the family is brought together once again, and they depart for Haiti, where his father could work at the local clinic.  Orr recalls: "We had reconsituted our family as a physical unit and consolidated our lives into the ten acres of the Deschapelles compound.  Dad was busy with interesting if exhausting work at the hospital.  For the first time in his life, his medical training was saving lives and relieving deep suffering on a daily basis."  Orr remembers his mother at this time as seeming to be "in better spirits than she had been in over a year," and the children "wanted nothing more than to believe that this improbable family healing was real, and that the nightmare that had preceded it was over for good."
     Despite this, Orr found he was unable to fully feel "a part of the family anymore."  The emotionally distant relationship between his mother and him reflects what he suspects, "Peter's death had put an uncrossable wall" between Greg and the other members of the family.  Indeed, the young Greg doesn't dare "hope for happiness, only some release, some sluicing away of all the accumulated grief."  However, what he discovers in Haiti is only another traumatic event and more reason for grief when his mother dies of complications following a seemingly routine surgery.  Rather than fly to Miami for the surgery or travel to the main Haiti hospital at Port-au-Prince, she undergoes the operation in the local hospital.  Orr knows his father, despite an awareness of the dangers the mother faced, especially given her past medical history, surely advised the mother to stay, and Orr questions his father's care and concern for his mother.  He concludes: "Sometimes I see what happened as one more bit of recklessness; sometimes I'm haunted by the image of my father surreptitiously placing a finger on one side of the scales, tipping it just slightly."
     His emotional reactions to his mother's death supply inspiration for a number of poems, especially a grouping that appears in The Red House, a title which arises from a memory of Orr and his mother gardening together: "On the lawn, beside the red house / she taught me to slice deep / circles around dandelions / with the sharp point of my trowel / so when I pulled them out / the taproots came out too."  When his mother dies, it is as if she had been taken from him for a second time.  First, she was removed from him emotionally after his brother's death.  Second, she is physically removed from him before the two have an opportunity for an emotional reconciliation.  Orr's lyrical rendering of this is presented in "Song: Early Death of the Mother": 

          The last tear turns 
          to glass on her cheek. 
          It isn't ice because, 
          squeezed in the boy's hot 
          fist, it doesn't thaw. 

     In an interview with Sean Thomas Dougherty, Orr comments, "I obsess about my brother and mother's deaths not only because I sense that the mystery of my being is tied up in them.  They also stand for transpersonal mysteries: the jeopardy of life, the anguish of loss.  My imagination has returned to those scenes because they are complex and I can't escape the feeling that much of the meaning of my life was compressed into those events."
     As suggested by the narrative in The Blessing of the circumstances surrounding his mother's death, Orr portrays his father, throughout his memoir and often in his poems, as a poor parent and irresponsible husband.  His father's carelessness and bad judgments appear at least partially to blame for the deaths of two of his sons and his wife, not to mention the alienation of Greg and other family members.  In one of a group of new poems about his father from The Caged Owl, "If There's a God . . . ," Orr writes:

          If there's a god of amphetamine, he's also the god of wrecked 
          lives, and it's only he who can explain how my doctor father, 
          with the gift for healing strangers and patients alike, left so many 
          intimate dead in his wake.

     As a boy, Orr recognized his father's intelligence and admired his knowledge of various subjects, even inherited his father's love for language ÷ "I could feel that he loved the power and beauty of words rhythmically compressed into meaning. He passed that awe on to me, and it sustained me my whole life."  However, Greg Orr also determined early on that he and his father were not compatible: "Despite our shared excitement about ideas and language, my father and I were antipodal temperaments who could only briefly be at peace."  Nevertheless, in his fine new poems concerning his father's dying of cancer, Orr tries to reconcile painful memories of his father with the weakened man he now sees suffering: "Time / has worn you smooth / as a boulder / tumbled in a stream" ("To My Father, Dying").  As much animosity as there may have been between him and his father ("What stood between us was never outright hate," he writes in "The Talk," a poem dedicated to his father), Orr even questions what this world will be like absent the man who shaped his life, for better or for worse: 

          How shall I get on 
          without you, whose love 
          like hatred made me a man? 
               ["To My Father, Dying"]

     In "The Quest and the Dangerous Path," a chapter from Poetry as Survival, Orr indicates a debt to his mentor, Stanley Kunitz, specifically quoting "Father and Son," a poem in which "Kunitz directly addresses his father (here, a ghost), seeking, as sons will, answers, explanations, and guidance."   Orr's new poems in The Caged Owl addressed to his dying father seem to follow Kunitz's lead.  Indeed, although the work representing Orr's three decades of production as a poet clearly display his development of an individual voice, throughout the poetry selected for this book one may also find, besides Keats and Kunitz, the subtle presence of other poets apparently influential to Orr, including Georg Trakl, Robert Bly, Robert Penn Warren, James Wright, Mark Strand, and Theodore Roethke. 
     However, in addition to using the subjectivity of lyric poems as a means to survive personal trauma and initiate healing, Orr's lyrical work has at times been instrumental in examining larger social issues by placing the disorder and drama of such instances into the ordering power of the poetic line.   Orr narrates in The Blessing his experiences "in the spring of 1965, at the age of eighteen, heading to Mississippi as a volunteer" activist in the civil rights movement, where he and others  marched, were beaten by police, arrested, and placed in solitary confinement.  In compelling prose, Orr writes: 

          For the first time, there was blood.  I saw how surgical and calculated 
          these blows were.  A middle-aged white man with a dark beard seemed 
          to have caught the attention of several officers.  I saw two of them rush 
          in and one swung his stick deftly toward the man's face.  He wasn't 
          trying to knock him unconscious (which he could easily have done). 
          Instead, he hit him a glancing blow directly mid-forehead so the edge 
          of the stick's end split the skin neatly and blood gushed down over 
          his face. 

     The effectiveness of Orr's poetic prose describing his experiences as a demonstrator and civil disobedience participant in 1965 is not surprising to readers who have seen such accounts in his previous poetry: 

          Even as the last bars clang 
          shut and I start to rub the purple ache 
          clubs left on shoulders, ribs, 
          and shins, my mind is fashioning 
          an invisible ladder, 
          its rungs and lifts of escape. 
                    ["Solitary Confinement"] 

     In fact, one of Orr's most powerful pieces about his civil rights experiences was presented as a 1980s prose poem, "On a Highway East of Selma, Alabama," and it hints at the memoirs that would follow two decades later in The Blessing: 

               Once we passed its gates, it was a different story: the truck doors 
          opened on a crowd of state troopers waiting to greet us with their 
          nightsticks out.  Smiles beneath mirrored sunglasses and blue riot 
          helmets; smiles above badges taped so numbers didn't show. 
               For the next twenty minutes, they clubbed us, and it kept up at 
          intervals, more or less at random, all that afternoon and into the 

     And today ÷ especially in the post-September 11, 2001 era ÷ at a time of great personal and public trauma for an entire nation, the publication of these three books in differing genres now brings together the various strengths Orr has demonstrated separately in his past prose and poetry ÷ a lyrical voice that shows itself even when speaking in a very straightforward language, an ability to create work that gives order to the natural disorder of private or public traumatic incidents, a desire to preserve the most painful memories as evidence of survival and lessons leading to the possibility of healing, the talent to transform personal experience into an art that can be shared by all, a willingness to be brutally honest and emotionally vulnerable, the urge to blend observed physical details with suggestive and insightful subjective responses, and a need to communicate fully with his readers the pleasure of language, as well as displaying the saving grace of poetry. 
     In his "Introduction" to Poetry as Survival, Orr confesses, "I knew that if I was to survive in this life, it would only be through the help of poetry."  Although it is coincidental, one can be thankful for the timely publication of these three volumes, released during an atmosphere of national uncertainty and unease, when many are seeking ways to work through the process of pain, grieving, and mending of physical or psychological wounds.  Poetry has long been an aid for some who look for guidance at such a time, who wish to control disorder with the sense of order art, especially poetry, might be able to provide ÷ whether it be Keats confronting personal trauma or Whitman grappling with a national trauma of war and the death of a president.  Readers of Gregory Orr's poems have long been appreciative of his passion for poetry, and many have sought comfort in the transformative power of his work as it confronts disturbing traumatic events in the past or present and creates potent visions filled with the hope necessary for a more positive future, and now once more Orr presents to his readers wise counsel offering a path through poetry toward survival and healing.

Orr, Gregory.  The Blessing.  San Francisco/Tulsa: Council Oak Books, 2002.  ISBN: 1-57178-111-0 $24.95

Orr, Gregory.  The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems.  Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2002.   ISBN: 1-55659-177-2  $16.00 

Orr, Gregory.  Poetry as Survival.  Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2002.  ISBN: 0-8203-2428-0  $13.97

© by Edward Byrne


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