Review: David Orr’s “Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry”

In his slim Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, New York Times Book Review poetry critic David Orr gets to the point quickly. In his first paragraph, he writes:

[T]he potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it’s a subject of at best mild and confused interest.

Notice he does not list poetry readers. These days, it seems, only poets read poetry, much less books about poetry. There’s some argument over this, but I think the point is fairly made. The percentage of general readers (those who read, say, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Nora Roberts, Dave Cullen, Armistead Maupin, Lorrie Moore, Sara Gruen, Stephen Hawking, Bill Bryson, or Rick Atkinson) simply do not read poetry. Not, at any rate, in any significant or even statistically relevant number.

Poetry apologists may argue that there’s never been so many people writing poetry (true) or so many poetry magazines (also true) publishing so many poems (yet again true). Nevertheless, the bottom line remains that all those poetry magazines publishing so many poems by so many poets are being read … by those who write the poems and a negligible percentage of the general reading public. What if they gave a poetry fest and nobody but the poets came? That is the poetry scene in America today (it is slightly better in England, but that’s a different story).

David Orr takes it from there. Beautiful and Pointless is essentially an invitation to those who don’t normally read poetry (“the rest of the world” other than poets) to investigate what poetry can offer. More to the point, it is a guided tour of poetry-land (Orr compares reading poetry to visiting, say, Belgium), an attempt to describe “what it really means to read poetry, and by extension, why such reading might be as worthwhile as watching the director’s cut of Blade Runner.” Cut to the second and first person singular, and the book becomes “an attempt to let you see how … [an] individual reader — how I — read poetry.” It does not get much more personal than that.

Orr does, by and by, a creditable job. He refuses to mystify poetry (it’s just something else humans do, like watching football, playing golf, and watching soap operas or dog shows). There is no ecstatic rapture at the mere sight of a poem. Angels will not sing as you read the last line of a sonnet. At the same time, Orr implies that poetry is NOT like anything else, that the pleasures it offers are different (in degree if not in kind) from the pleasures offered by non-poetry pursuits. People who read poetry LOVE poetry (that is, get more out of it) in a way football fans, golfers, soap-opera addicts, and dog show aficionados do not love (nor reap rewards from) their respective interests.

Alas, Orr’s approach (perhaps inevitably in a man who holds a law degree from Yale and is a gatekeeper of good poetic taste at the New York Times Book Review) is very cerebral. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: poetry is, last I checked, part of literature, and literature (particularly modern literature) is rather cerebral. But people other than fiction writers LOVE and feel emotions for such cerebral works as, say, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s hard to find people other than poets who can feel anything for any book of poetry, even such phenomenal ones as Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain or Elyse Fenton’s Clamor.

Of course, poetry is much more difficult to read than fiction. Poems more often than not have no narrative, no characters that develop and grow fully human in our imaginations, precious little time or space to flesh out a time and space until it becomes “real” to the reader. On top of that, poetic conventions make it difficult to READ a darned poem in the first place (and it’s supposed to be that way, right? if you can read a “poem” and immediately grasp its entire meaning then it’s not very good, is it?) If you can’t even figure out what the poem is doing (who is talking? where is he or she while talking? what on Earth does he or she mean by “My sister, the sun, / broods in her yellow room and won’t come out?”) then how can you have any response to it other than frustration and eventual disinterest?

Poetry, Orr counters, despite its difficulties, can offer the potential reader rewards of such depth that it is worth sticking with. Yes, reading a poem is hard going. And yes, it can turn off the casual observer. But for the initiated, poetry is a bottomless source of pleasure unlike anything else the world has to offer.

Fine enough. It’s just that after reading Beautiful and Pointless, I am not sure Orr describes what that pleasure is with any credible emotion. Quite the contrary, as I touched upon earlier, Orr’s cerebral approach and reaction to poetry seem to require a distancing from any response remotely related to the visceral.

That response is, by the way, why I read poetry — to have a poem punch me in the solar plexus and take my breath away (pardon my bad poetics). In turn, the desire to affect others that way is what makes me want to write poetry. The emotional response a poem can hand you in a handful of lines is a powerful one, and that is what I look for in great poems. And let me tell you, that quality is rarer than ever in the poems being published to good reviews today. My desire for (and disappointment at) not finding emotional satisfaction in much of the poetry being written today is probably why I don’t have the poetic taste necessary to be a poetry critic for the New York Times Book Review. And it’s probably also why most people don’t bother reading modern poetry. As experiences go, it’s a pretty empty one, even when reading many of what Orr would consider “good” poems.

Orr’s approach is a possible solution to this lack of readership: that of educating and guiding the would-be poetry reader, hoping that learning more about poetry and how to read it will create a more meaningful experience for that reader. His book is, in fact, a pretty good attempt at easing the initiation into the world of poetry. And if he never exactly explains the rewards the initiated can expect from poetry, one senses that is because the pleasures of poetry must be experienced personally and individually. And therein lie poetry’s greatness, and also its challenges.

And yet.

And yet … What if the issue also partly lies with the poetry being produced these days and not simply with the modern (non-poetry) reader?

Orr illustrates what I think is the very problem with poetry right now. Speaking of his father’s terminal illness, he must distance himself from emotions that are … dare we say … commonplace. A poetry critic, one who has a great deal to say as to which poets are and are not worth reading, must not indulge in such … common feelings. Nevermind that losing a parent will unleash feelings about as universal as universal gets. No. The poetic sensibility (which Orr admits is entirely idiosyncratic and unfair) must be on guard for cheap and easy feelings, ever able to keep an ironic distance … even if such feelings revolve around the death of one’s father. (I am, of course, not talking about what Orr felt, but about how he chooses to talk about what he felt, how he edits himself, how he, in short, produces something tangible, much like a poem, from the raw emotions of his life).

I wonder if such a rarefied (if not downright self-censoring) sensibility is the primary barrier between a general reader and poetry. If critics reward poems that say nothing anyone could relate to but say that nothing beautifully, how many readers will invest their time therein? What reward can a poem written from (and evaluated in) the context of post (post-post-post) modern self-referential irony offer a reader hungry for a commentary on human experience? Can such a poem (and such poetry) offer a payoff sufficient to keep a reader coming back for more?

If any given poem is pointless, from a human experience frame of reference, why would a reader take the time and effort to worm his or her way to the heart of it only to find there’s no heart, alas. If ALMOST EVERY published poem is likewise, the experience quickly becomes self-defeating … and not worth repeating. If poetry is an experience, there must be something in it for the reader, and it seems that if poetry critics, poetry editors, and successful (that is, widely published) poets indulge in a “poetry as an exercise in cleverness” the results are bound to turn off a reader taking his or her first (or fifth, or tenth) step into the poetry world.

There may exist, it seems to me, a disconnect in the sensibility of poets (or at least those poets who are rewarded by editors and critics with publications and good reviews) and the sensibility of the general reader, with the result that the general reader turns away, perhaps never to return. This is perhaps inevitable. Perhaps poetry as a genre is something like opera — it had its heyday, it has been in long decline, it will never regain the cultural significance it once held, it survives in a niche of its own making. Perhaps writing poetry simply means writing for an audience of poets, and that will never change (at least not any time soon). But I, for one, hunger to be read by the same people who buy good fiction and enjoy it, and I don’t want to write them off simply because I am not willing to write things they want to read.

I remember teaching college composition and reminding my students that “the audience” was key. Know your audience. Aim for your audience. Persuade your audience. I am not convinced that more people wouldn’t read poetry if poets (by way of editors and critics) made the general reader their target audience. And I am not convinced that such poetry would be much worse than the poetry being put out and praised today.

In short, if poetry is beautiful and pointless but little read, would it hurt to make it beautiful and meaningful to enough people to get it read more?

How to do that is a challenge David Orr does not contemplate in Beautiful and Pointless. It is thus unfair to judge him on it. But it is significant that the option never enters his frame of reference.



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