David Orr: Review by Edward Byrne

Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, David Orr (Harper)


Orr Cover





Regularly, during the past quarter century, a number of books have been published announcing or debating “the death of poetry” in contemporary culture. The reports and arguments concerning this issue seem to have sparked energetic conversations or engendered a degree of conflict among many poets and academics, particularly since the discussion has coincided with a steep rise in the number of graduate creative writing programs at American universities and the enormous growth of membership in AWP (The Association of Writers & Writing Programs). Indeed, on the surface, some might suggest the greater enrollments in our nation’s MFA creative writing programs—whose merits also always appear to be subjects of an ongoing controversy—and the evidence of overflowing crowds at annual AWP conferences in recent years would seem to contradict any claims about a downward spiral in attention to literature and writing, particularly poetry.

     In addition, occasionally observers in the literary community offer further indicators they say speak to the health of interest in poetry, such as the sudden and tremendous presence of poetry in online journals or other Internet venues during this century’s initial decade. Others point to the popularity of spoken word poetry in live performances or on cable television specials, as well as in thousands of YouTube video presentations readily available to all. Opposing voices may acknowledge, and even welcome, these developments, but they recommend such activities at best represent evidence of a transition away from printed volumes of poetry and a migration from what might be perceived as serious art prevalent in the tradition of the poetry canon. They would accept every attention poetry receives, but would also compare most of the products in these new forms of delivery to an ordinary kind of pop poetry that, like pop music, has more in common with current fads than classical works.

     As I began reading David Orr’s Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, I wondered how his commentary would contribute to the present perceptions of poetry among readers, poets, critics, and academics. Immediately in the volume’s introduction, Orr acknowledges recent concerns with the state of American poetry and its readership: “For decades now, one of the poetry world’s favorite activities has been bemoaning its lost audience, then bemoaning the bemoaning, then bemoaning that bemoaning, until finally everyone shrugs and applies for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.” I must confess I was heartened to notice the tone taken by Orr in the book’s opening pages—and his hint that the debate over “the death of poetry” had reached a certain level of tediousness—as well as his belief that “such arguments are interesting only to (some) poets.”

     The book’s introductory comments also reveal that its subtitle, A Guide to Modern Poetry, might be a misnomer, since Orr’s intentions do not include the sort of survey and study of modern poetry one might expect from a textbook or critical treatise. Indeed, Orr’s use of the term “modern poetry” is not limited to those poets of the modern era, such as Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, etc. Instead, the author usually speaks of more contemporary poets whom he freely groups under the “modern” label. He also advises readers: “this book will try to give you a sense of what modern poets think about, how those poets talk about what they’re thinking about, and most important, how an individual poetry reader relates to the art he usually likes, always loves, and is frequently annoyed by.” Orr confesses to an avoidance of strict critical or academic standards in his explorations and explanations of poetry: “The chapters themselves are loose, anecdotal, occasionally inappropriate, and decidedly candid. I don’t expect you to agree with everything that’s said in each of them; in fact, I’ll go further and say that I hope you don’t.”

     By pairing the titles of the book’s first two chapters (out of six), “The Personal” and “The Political,” Orr starts his examination of recent poetry by engaging a couple of the primary purposes often associated with poetic composition. Looking back from today through much of the twentieth century, Orr realizes an emphasis on personal poetry has shaped a significant portion of poems among the contents in American anthologies, especially since “Confessionalism was given its Official Literary Christening in a 1959 review of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies by the critic M.L. Rosenthal.”

     Orr compares a penchant for the personal in poetry to the recent popularity of the memoir. However, he discloses that readers determine poetry to be even more intimate and unfiltered. He believes readers apprehend poetry with the assumption these poets regard their works as “pure expressions of our inner lives,” and poetry involves a kind of vulnerability that invites audiences with a glimpse into the private lives of their poets. Of course, Orr correctly discounts any notion all personal poetry is factual or true. Rather, Orr views personal poetry as relative, at times even fictional. “This is an easy truth to lose track of, however, because certain information seems so obviously personal that it’s hard to imagine not reading it as such.”

     Nevertheless, though the image of poetry as personal revelation has appeal for many contemporary readers of the art form, Orr also wonders if audiences should be more accepting of alternative, perhaps less fashionable, approaches: “it’s worth thinking how much richer those readers’ experience might be if they had a slightly greater acquaintance with the many ways in which poetry can be impersonal; at the least, this would help explain the strange ways in which it can be personal.”

     Although for the most part American poets have embraced “the personal” in their works, and poetry readers have mainly responded with acceptance, Orr suggests inclusion of “the political” by poets and aimed at audiences seems to be a bit more uncertain: “the relationship between American poets and American politics is confused and confusing.” Orr describes the position of today’s poet: “Rare is the poet who doesn’t view himself as deeply invested in political life, and yet the sloppy, compromised, and frequently idiotic business of democracy—which is, for all its flaws, the way most political change occurs in this country—rarely attracts the attention of our best poets.”

     Perhaps one of the factors Orr finds fascinating about the political in poetry has to do with interest among those within the poetry community: “It may seem odd that an art form so determinedly ignored by most Americans spends this much energy talking about its role in the political life of those very same Americans.” Curiously, Orr implies the conversation among poets about the political might be vigorous, but it also may be limited: “I should add that almost all poets, including myself, lean left. There are maybe five conservative American poets, not one of whom can safely show his face at a writing conference for fear of being angrily doused with herbal tea.”

     Still, Orr displays surprise in his noting of poets discussing politics or particularly with his lamenting the lack of poetry exhibiting a sense of depth in the political content, even in response to obvious public phenomena—Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the Gulf Oil Spill, etc. In an examination of “Bush’s War” by Robert Hass, which Orr offers as a typical political poem by a prominent poet, he finds the work “pseudo-political.” Orr suggests: “such poems fail to address their putatively political subjects in ways that recognize the practical reality of politics.” Orr forwards, as one reason for this type of language, the idea that contemporary poets, “even a poet of Hass’s caliber,” slip into “the reassuring dialect of the faculty lounge.” After all, he concludes: “Most contemporary American political poems are written for contemporary American poets, which means that political poems generally have more relevance to the politics of the poetry world than to the politics of America.”

     Orr’s third chapter, devoted to “Form,” informs readers that “nothing—not politics, not gossip, not the inequities of the grant application process—gets poets quite as riled up as the concept of form.” Yet, this section of the book seems less compelling, as Orr merely divides form into three categories: “Metrical Form,” which includes most traditional forms of rhyme and meter; “Resemblance Form,” which he associates with a poem that resembles other poems previously identified as traditional forms—“sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, rondeaux, and so forth”; and “Mechanical Form,” which “involves a simple rule based on inclusion, exclusion, counting, or some similar procedure.” Orr declares: “There’s no aspect of poetry more significant than form (according to some critics, poetry is nothing but form), and consequently no aspect of poetry more likely to lead to confusion and unhappiness among poets and poetry readers.” Yet, the author presents little indication of a passion for form or of a way to clarify such confusion to dispel unhappiness. Orr even confides within this chapter: “I have to confess: These categories are barely categories.”

     Chapters four (“Ambition”) and five (“The Fishbowl”) contain more issues concerning those within the poetry community. In “Ambition,” Orr examines the reputations of various poets and measures the degree to which their careers have been perceived as achieving greatness through ambitious works. Orr comments that for nearly three decades “segments of the poetry world have been fretting over” a seeming loss of ambition among contemporary American poets. Recalling a 1983 essay by Donald Hall, “Poetry and Ambition,” Orr questions the expected links between assumed ambition and greatness. In a look at the poetry careers of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, Orr recounts the view by some critics that Lowell, whose poetry was praised highly and who was deemed the most ambitious of poets, has seen his reputation surpassed in recent decades by his friend Elizabeth Bishop, known as a more modest writer with a controlled scope of poetry.

     Addressing the terms “ambition” and “greatness,” Orr offers the following: “When we talk about poetic ambition, and by extension poetic Greatness, we’re talking about style and persona, even when (or maybe, especially when) we think we aren’t. We expect 'ambition' and 'Greatness' to announce themselves in a certain way, and if they don’t, we’re slow to recognize them. Our assumptions, which are largely unconscious, work like a velvet rope: If a poet looks the way we think a great poet ought to, we let him or her into the club quickly—and sometimes later wish we hadn’t.”

     Discussing more contemporary poets—Jorie Graham, Geoffrey Hill, Derek Walcott, and Kay Ryan—Orr believes the tendency to confuse ambition with greatness, and to sometimes mistakenly define ambition by appearances of style or persona, continues today: “‘Ambition’ and ‘Greatness’ make us think of grandness and scope, so in our less subtle moments we look for lines that exhibit those qualities in an overt way. Yet our literary assumptions aren’t just a matter of how we perceive different styles; they’re also shaped by the reputation-making structures of the poetry world.”

     Following from this chapter regarding the influence of poets' reputations upon critical expectations and evaluations, Orr considers the social network of the contemporary poetry community in “The Fishbowl.” This chapter, which relates gossip and gains within the “guild,” as Orr labels the current poetry congregation, seems the most directed at other poets as its audience. In this section, the author states that a “creative writing industry” has arisen as a result of the proliferation of creative writing programs during the past few decades: “What had previously been an occupation composed of loners and occasionally interlocking coteries became—well, not exactly a profession, but what the sociologist Ailsa Craig has smartly called ‘an illusion of a profession.’” Orr discusses the consequences of such changes in the poetry world and how the new “configuration affects the way poets view themselves and each other both inside and outside their poetry.”

     Orr describes the necessity of publication, especially in a competitive academic market for poets, and he also shares other aspects of literary politics, such as unspoken pressures upon reviewers or the reports about allegations of actual corruption associated with the publication of poetry, especially through judging of contests run by academic or small presses. He even introduces the “Foetry” controversy of a few years back, which highlighted improprieties by particular poets and editors.

     Maybe the most interesting section of Beautiful & Pointless is its closing chapter, “Why Bother?” In this section, Orr delivers honest and passionate appraisal of the worth this art form might hold to those who read or write poetry. He also attempts to tamp down those grander rationalizations sometimes presented by poets in defense of poetry. His central question, toward which the book seems to have been aimed since the beginning pages, as expressed by the chapter’s title may be one that has been asked of all poets at one point or another: “Why should anyone spend time reading or writing poems when that person could be doing something else . . .?”

     Like others, Orr has been confronted by those who wonder: “Why do poets, critics, and poetry readers think poems are worth bothering with?” He addresses common responses heard from poets or lovers of poetry, and refreshingly deflates some of those answers. He dispenses with two of the grander justifications, “that poetry has a special connection to ourselves and the notion that poetry has a special connection to society and culture.” Orr correctly indicates most humans are clearly able to “lead inner lives that are perfectly satisfactory” without an avid attraction to poetry. Also, even if one wanted to influence society or culture, an individual would be hard pressed to believe poetry to be the instrument for change, since “poetry currently plays a modest role” at best in contemporary living, and might even be regarded as irrelevant; therefore, it could not possibly hold sway over an entire community that mostly ignores its existence. Poets might like to explain their activities in a manner that would reflect social or cultural significance, but the plain truth seems to deny such an interpretation of their efforts.

     Orr also deflects the need for poetry because of its “special connection to language.” He believes “it is hard to see how poetry does something in or to or with language that isn’t managed just as effectively by some other activity.” As an example, Orr compares poems to other forms of written or verbal communication. In one instance, he places “Self Portrait,” a fine poem by William Carlos Williams, beside Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Orr argues the language in King’s composition is as elegant and effective as any poem might produce, “filled with memorable phrasing.” Moreover, he concludes, “the real-world effect of King’s ‘Letter’—and what is power without consequence?—was and is greater than probably any American poem yet written.”

     The chapter’s title—“Why Bother?”—might be viewed negatively, as though no benefit could be achieved through the writing or reading of poetry, and skeptical of the value poetry contains for anyone. However, though he believes “poetry is hard to recommend,” Orr almost reluctantly supplies motivation for encountering poetry, perhaps providing the best incentive available: “I can’t tell you why you should bother to read poems, or to write them; I can only say that if you do choose to give your attention to poetry, as against all other things you might turn to instead, that choice can be meaningful. There’s little grandeur in this, maybe, but out of such small, unnecessary devotions is the abundance of our lives sometimes made evident.”

     “Devotion” may be the key word in this crucial comment. Its suggestion of dedication and commitment deriving from a personal passion appears to present the best basis for involvement in the reading or writing of poetry. As Orr later states, “people who read poetry have a tendency not simply to say that they ‘like’ it or ‘enjoy’ the art form, but rather that they ‘love’ it.” In this way, individuals develop an enthusiastic relationship with poetry that rivals their fervor for other activities. As simple as it may seem, “love” of poetry may be at the core of the spiritedness with which poets and poetry readers approach the art. Orr quotes a comment with a touch of exaggeration by Mark Strand: “I love poetry. I love myself, but I think I love poetry as much as myself.”

     In the final pages of Beautiful & Pointless, after describing poetry as “a private pleasure and an occasional irritation that can’t easily be justified in public terms,” Orr recounts a personal experience, his father’s cancer-related stroke that left him with a severely impaired ability to speak. As one form of therapy, Orr would ask his father to read poetry, hoping it would aid in the speech recovery, though Orr admits any of his father’s positive responses did not result from the sound or syntax of poetry. Rather, the father may have been interested by details contained in the poetry that might resemble items remembered from his past. Indeed, the father reacts most favorably to poems, like Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” that are opposite to the great works one might expect to be more powerful. Orr realizes, poetry seems to be effective in helping the father, but not with the poems or the reasons he’d expected. 

     Still, near the closing of the volume, Orr offers a plain yet perceptive description of the art form: “Poetry is a small, vulnerable human activity no better or more powerful than thousands of other small, vulnerable human activities. And poetry, ever more than any of these other activities, needs a history with its readers. It needs to have been read, and thought about, and excessively praised, and excessively scorned, and quoted in melodramatic fashion, and misremembered at dinner parties. It needs, in a particular and occasionally ridiculous way, to have been loved.”

     As anyone who has committed a significant amount of time and effort to poetry in his or her lifetime can attest, the endeavor is foremost simply a labor of love, and Orr’s uncomplicated summary clearly expresses this principal motivation in a distinct and comprehensible manner readers and writers of poetry ought to appreciate.