David Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, wrote Beautiful & pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry for me, or for readers very nearly like me: familiar with poetry but not wildly knowledgeable, who write poetry on occasion but are not particularly enthused about publishing it; and who are both aware of and wary of the Academy’s total dominance.
Orr asks many of the same questions about poetry that I have, and he answers them. Are all published poets raging liberals? (Yes, mostly.) What is it about poetry that seems so personal to read it, and even more personal to write it? (Or is that a figment of our imaginations?) Does modern poetry really have or use “forms, ” or has all of that been swept away, except for occasional exercises in “how to write a haiku?” What motivates people to write poetry? Is there any real value to the creative writing industry (conferences, workshops, panels, competitions) or is it only small groups of people who stand around drinking and trying to sound clever? And what’s the point of the whole thing?
(There’s also another question Orr doesn’t ask – does poetry have to rhyme, or does it have to not rhyme? I suspect his answer would be yes.)
Orr’s book is smart, witty, often humorous with just the right amount of snarkiness and no more. It’s also approachable for a “lay” audience. He’s asking very basic questions, because he’s writing for a very specific group of people.
And in a very odd yet not unexpected way, Orr answers the questions like a poem answers questions – with a fair amount of ambiguity. Like a poem, he stops short of definitive answers (as if poetry really has any definitive answers) and instead he challenges us to look for answers in the directions he’s pointed.
The three claims Orr says are usually made for poetry – that it is a special connection to language, that it has a unique connection with our selves, and that it has a special position relative to society and/or culture – he largely dismisses, and in the case of the last two, rather quickly and succinctly dismisses. And yet he acknowledges that poetry occupies some kind of place in the public’s mind as something rather sublime. Even it that’s wrong, and it shouldn’t do that, the fact is that it does.
And he’s written a highly readable book on why that is, and perhaps why that isn’t.
Note: Orr has an article, “Public Poetry, ” in the April edition of Poetry. It’s a review of four recent books of poems.
Related: “Thoughts on Beautiful & pointless” is posted at Faith, Fiction, Friends.