Modern poetry made less terrifying

Critic David Orr explains the mysteries and marvels of contemporary verse and the people who write it

Published April 6, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)

David Orr
David Orr

Regular readers of the New York Times Book Review may recognize David Orr as that publication's poetry critic -- assuming they ever look at poetry criticism in the first place. Orr's clear, down-to-earth but never dumbed-down reviews are always a delight to read, but you'll only find that out if you actually read them. Orr knows all too well that many people won't because they assume that contemporary poetry is an impenetrable mystery.

Changing the public's mind about that is beyond the scope of a 1,000-word review in the Sunday newspaper, and so Orr has written "Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry." Almost as slim as some of the volumes Orr writes about, it's an introduction to a land with odd customs and gorgeous scenery.

Orr suggests that the curious novice venture into modern poetry the way you'd approach visiting a foreign country (specifically, Belgium): "You might try to learn a few phrases, or read a little Belgian history, or thumb through a guidebook," but "the important thing is that you'd know you were going to be confused, or at least occasionally at a loss, and you'd accept that confusion as part of the process. What you wouldn't do, however, is become paralyzed with anxiety because you don't speak fluent Flemish, or convinced that to really 'get' Belgium, you need to memorize the Brussels phone book."

"Beautiful and Pointless" is a guidebook to the realm of contemporary poetry, and I spoke with Orr recently about the tricky task of introducing his corner of the literary landscape to new visitors.

Did anything in particular inspire this book?

It comes from writing for the Times, and the Times' very large, very strange audience. That has made me especially sensitive to how, as a poetry critic, a lot of the things you say not only aren't understood but aren't understood almost in the way that you wouldn't understand a Martian talking.

Even readers who are excellent readers -- better readers than I am, for all I know -- just don't know what you're talking about. And then another part of your audience knows everything that you're talking about and is mightily contemptuous of any attempt to talk to the other, larger portion of your audience, so you end up in this sort of hopeless position. Don't get me wrong, I'm always happy to write for the Times. But I wanted to see what would happen if you tried to talk to all of the audiences at the same time.

A critic who addresses a wider audience gets that. Some people accuse you of being a snob while others call you a philistine. But it's got to be particularly difficult for poetry critics.

In "Simpsons" terms, it's like you're trying to communicate simultaneously with the Comic Book Guy and Moe the bartender.

Who do you think of as the designated reader for this book?

It's written for the type of reader that Louis Menand once described better than I could. In an interview, he said the audience that he writes for when he writes for the New Yorker is "the kind of people who are as smart as I am, but who are in another field." I'm writing for readers who I think are very smart and who are good readers, but who aren't in my field. Specifically, a lot of the book was written with my wife in mind. She's a philosophy professor. Doesn't read poetry, but does read literary fiction. She's kind of the ideal reader for the book.

That said, I'm also writing for people who are in my field, so there's a bit of a balancing act going on.

Is there one idea or impression you most want the readers to get from "Beautiful and Pointless"?

I think it would be less an idea than a mood of possibility. I would like for a person to feel, after reading my book, not that they know everything about poetry or that they now have some instructions for reading poetry or even that they should read poetry -- but just this: Should they decide to read poetry, they might do so with slightly less terror.

Do you feel that many people approach poetry with terror?

I do. I really do. It's kind of incredible sometimes. I'll be talking to someone who is just amazingly accomplished in some way, in some art or some business that is probably vastly more complicated than poetry, and I'll say, "I'm a poetry critic." And they'll say, [abashedly] "Oh, I don't really know anything about poetry." It's as if it were poor form in some way not to know anything about it. As if you didn't know what silverware to use at dinner.

One point you make in the book is that people from the outside tend to assume, wrongly, that poetry is less an art form than a kind of confession, the pure expression of someone's inner self. You talk of meeting a woman at a party who was horrified that you criticize other people's poetry.

I think about it this way: If you'd never seen a play, and you didn't even know what the concept of a play was, and then someone took you to a play and in the play somebody gets stabbed with a fake sword, I don't think it's impossible that you would rush the stage and try to stop the stabbing.

In the same way, people just don't have the context for poetry. Most lay readers think poems express inner feelings, so if you criticize a poem, you're criticizing the poet's inner feelings and that's a bad thing to do.

Poetry obviously comes in different shapes and sizes and forms and genres. There are people who write novels in verse right now, involving characters. Still, what's seen as being the main part of poetry by most readers today is the traditional lyric poem about an emotion. Yet even lyric poetry isn't personal in an uncomplicated way. It's personal in an extremely complicated way, actually. For example, Paul Muldoon has several poems involving sisters that he doesn't actually have.

What I'm hoping to do in that chapter is to help readers to see that when poetry is personal, it's not just in the sense that the poet is saying, "I have some feelings, and here they are." It's that the poet is very carefully balancing different identities in order to give us this very distinctive "personal" feeling. That's what we value in poetry.

What is the most challenging technical aspect of poetry to write about?

It can be difficult to discuss the nuts and bolts of a poem, the formal aspects, for two reasons. One is that it involves a little bit of specialized vocabulary, although not that much, I think. The other is that it involves a particular way of hearing poetic lines that some readers who haven't read a lot of poetry don't yet have.

So usually before I do something like that I try to do a fair amount of setup for those readers. I find that if you do that, they actually take to it pretty well. It's not as complicated as a lot of other things. It's a lot less complicated than doing your taxes. People are actually attracted to poetic form and enjoy playing with it. Any time there's a haiku contest, people love to do that kind of thing. The craft element of it is appealing.

You have a fascinating chapter, titled "In the Fishbowl," about the social and economic situation that professional poets work in. I have to say, the poetry world in itself can be daunting to the nonspecialist. You might tentatively mention a poet you like to an expert or a member of the poetry world, and they'll look at you as if you just gushed over a greeting card. You don't even want to admit to having any kind of taste because you're afraid it'll be the wrong taste.

I've been that kind of person before, and I'm ashamed of it.

I often write about the sociology of the poetry world, and some readers like it and some don't. I think that it's important to do because people don't know where poems come from. I find that when people do get a sense that poetry is written by human beings and that these human beings are under various pressures through the world that they inhabit, just like everyone else, usually people are much more sympathetic to poetry.

Really? Because my impression is that there is a lot of knee-jerk complaining about the poetry establishment, and that the people who make those complaints are not very sympathetic to the communal pressures of the poetry world. You hear a lot of gripes about how everybody knows everybody else and that there's a lot of log rolling.

Well, one of the things I want to show in that chapter is that the kind of behavior that those people complain about has been going on for a long, long time. A lot of really good poetry has arisen either in spite of or maybe because of that kind of behavior.

Poets (including great poets) have always been cliquish and have always fought with other poets.

Yes. I think it's useful for general readers to see that so that they see poetry as a human art, not as something that just arrives on a lightning bolt from the clouds.

There are people who don't like this, and who really cling to the idea that poetry should never talk about the dirty underside. But I find that a little familiarity with the dirty underside actually makes everyone more comfortable because otherwise you just sit around denying the reality.

I found the chapter "Ambition" particularly fascinating. It compares the reputations of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, who were poets and friends in the mid-20th century.

I wanted to talk about questions of style that make us perceive certain writers as being ambitious. And, of course, as a consequence, make us inclined to see those writers as being "great." In their own lifetime, Lowell was unquestioningly seen as the more important writer. People were very blunt about that. Lowell's obituary was on Page One of the New York Times and Bishop's was like Page 13 of the B section. What has happened over time is that Lowell's reputation has steadily fallen while Bishop's reputation has steadily risen.

Today, lots and lots of poets view Bishop as a model and think of her as being one of the great poets of the 20th century. You'll find fewer poets who will say that about Lowell. Although I do want to say that Lowell is a very good writer and I think most poets think of him as being a very good writer. They just don't think of him as being on the same level as Bishop.

Part of the problem for Bishop is just that her style is not the kind of style that we have grown used to viewing as ambitious. We have certain cues that encourage us to think that this must be ambitious or this must be great. And if we don't see them, it takes us a very long time sometimes to appreciate a particular writer's qualities.

The world of literary fiction had a debate along these lines last year, but it was explicitly about the idea of "greatness" and gender. Yet you never mention the issue of gender in comparing Bishop and Lowell, which was pretty sly.

I don't mention it, but I think I pretty strongly imply it. [Laughs] I intentionally didn't bring it up, although I do agree very much that it is an issue.

I really wanted to focus on style. I do think what we're talking about here is a style bias. The style bias is tied to gender but it would be a mistake to see it as being just purely gendered.

For example, let's say we've been choosing between pairs of performers who come out on a stage. The two people are a man and a woman, but the man is also wearing a yellow raincoat. And for a very long time, we always would pick the man, because we were biased against women.

Then at a certain point someone says we shouldn't be biased against women anymore. That's just wrong. So then the next time, the two figures come out and we still pick the man, but then we say it's because he's wearing a yellow raincoat. I think style functions very much the same way. Then, staying in the thought experiment, imagine that two women came out, and one of the women was wearing a yellow raincoat

I guess that woman would be Jorie Graham.

Exactly. That's the point. The reason I didn't get too much into the gender issue, although I absolutely agree with you that it's a live issue and I feel very strongly about it, is that these styles are now open to everyone to use. You can be a woman writing in this style that used to be perceived as masculine and you are probably going to be getting some of the same benefits from it that a man might.

Your final chapter is called "Why bother?"

In that chapter, I go through a lot of arguments that are often put forward as reasons why one should read poetry. And the arguments don't hold up. But in going through them, I get into a lot of personal stuff about the death of my father and I make an argument of my own.

Poetry reading isn't really based on arguments about what's important or whether we should do it. It's something that people do for obscure, personal reasons that are no less valuable for being obscure and personal. The whole concept of having a reason doesn't really apply much to things like poetry. It's something that we do because we're human. There's a lot of other things that we do because we're human, and those things are no less valuable than poetry. But poetry is also no less valuable than those other things. You do it for its own sake, just like we do a lot of other things for their own sake, even though they too may be beautiful and pointless.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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