Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review: Beautiful and Pointless - David Orr

Full Disclosure: Received a copy of an ARC from Harper Collins

I picked out this book from Harper's ARC list for Patrick, my fiance, because I knew that he enjoyed poetry.  He kindly agreed to write a little review for this blog as well.  Enjoy!

I have always liked poetry. In my mind it has usually been a term reserved for lines with perfect rhythm and rhyme, but I can appreciate free verse in the hands of a master. Yet on those occasions when I’ve picked up an avant-garde anthology with hopes of being swept into the future of poetry, I’ve always reacted with the feeling that I must not have what it takes.

New York Times poetry reviewer David Orr, in the introduction to Beautiful & Pointless, gives me the comfort of knowing that my reaction is all too common: “It’s easy to feel that your response to the art is somehow wrong, that you’re either insufficiently smart or insufficiently soulful,” Orr writes. He suggests that modern poetry is a bit like a foreign country. To paraphrase: Expect confusion. Indeed, Orr’s introduction gave me high hopes that he would give me the sort of Fodor’s Guide to Modern Poetry, that I was the ideal reader for this travelogue, and that at long last my heart and mind might be moved by those one-word, arrhythmic, non-rhyming, non-punctuated lines.

Orr’s book is really a collection of essays on topics that he considers in reviewing a modern poem. He resists overall thumbs-up or thumbs-down judgments (de gustibus and all that) but can at least tell a potential reader whether a poem is interesting. He approaches this question from a few different angles, each of which receives an essay within Beautiful & Pointless: How is the poem personal to either the poet or the reader? Is there a political message? In what ways does the poem adhere to (or reject) established poetic forms? Is the poem “ambitious”? And (in a chapter called “The Fishbowl”), what does the poem tell us about the modern state of the poetry world?

As for “ambition”, Orr argues that a poet’s pursuit of capital-g Greatness may be counterproductive, primarily using a comparison of contemporaries Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Lowell’s comparatively bombastic work was praised as it rolled off the presses, but Bishop’s more modest words and themes appear to have earned greater posthumous appreciation. I enjoyed the discussion and Orr’s insight, but wondered if Lowell/Bishop might be a selective example.

I had a few frustrations with the essays in the middle of the book. One was that I did not come away with a clear picture of how Orr defines “modern” poetry, as opposed to its opposite (classical?). Aside from the section on form, it wasn’t clear where “classic” poetry ended and “modern” poetry began. At times, Orr seems to count W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost among “modern” poets because of the time period when they worked. However, I tend to think of “modern” poetry as the inaccessible type, and those three poets are rather accessible to me, perhaps because I studied them in school.

Another frustration was that Orr told so much about the landscape of his foreign country without telling us what he thought was good or bad. For example, in wrapping up the “Ambition” section, he responds to his own question about what ambition means in modern poetry: “The answer, as I hope you’ve seen, is that we just don’t know. There is no ‘true’ way to be ambitious, just as there’s no ‘proper’ way to write poetry; instead, we exist in a flurry of possibilities that will bring to mind either snowflakes or bullets, depending on your disposition.” Similarly, pointing out that many modern poets use traditional forms earnestly, many use them playfully, many use them partially, and many do not use them at all, Orr concludes: “We have either a gorgeous mosaic or a big mess, depending on whom you ask.” Such statements give deference to the reader, but more deference than the target audience of casual poetry readers would like. We would tend to ask the professional reviewer: Well, is it snowflakes, or bullets? A mosaic, or mess?

My third recurring frustration was that, for someone who cares about modern poetry, Orr doesn’t seem to like modern poets. If you imagine a room where a poetry reading is occurring, Orr is constantly walking us in and out of the room: In, to let us listen to the poets, then out, to tell us how crazy they are. They are entitled: “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.” They are self-important: “Possibly you doubt that it really matters, politics-wise, whether somebody gets a poem published in a magazine with a circulation in the low hundreds…. This is why you are not a poet, or at least not a particular kind of poet.” They are intolerantly and ineffectually liberal: “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.” And on and on. They are ivory-tower intellectuals, they are false martyrs, they are petty, they are jealous, they make mountains of molehills. The putdowns are funny, but they undermine Orr’s larger task. Whether the characterization of poets has a general ring of truth, I do not know. But it does not make me want to spend time reading modern poetry.

And that – the question of whether or why I should spend any time with modern poetry – is the topic of the book’s final, redemptive essay: “Why Bother?” After struggling to internalize most of the book, I found this final chapter to be wonderfully convincing and personal. Orr will not argue for reading poetry over spending discretionary time on any other given activity, but he tells us what it has meant in his own life. He recounts the magical experience of having a line (from Philip Larkin’s “Water”) resonate with him for the first time. And in the final few pages, he describes what poetry could, and could not, accomplish as his father fought cancer. There are no illusions of grandeur here. There is only a gifted prose writer who is grateful for the role of poetry in his life.

April Reading Summary and Challenge Update

I'm finally posting a monthly summary post within a few days of the end of the month!

April was another slow month due to wedding planning and work commitments. I read 2 1/2 books.

The Metropolis Case by Matthew Gallaway

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

Reading Challenges Progress

Cannonball Read III: 19 of 52 complete

Off the Shelf: 2 of 15 complete

Heroines Bookshelf: haven't started

Outdo Yourself: 19 of 70 complete

CBR-19: The Weird Sisters: Eleanor Brown

You don't have to have a sister or be a fan of the Bard to love Brown's bright, literate debut, but it wouldn't hurt. Sisters Rose (Rosalind; As You Like It), Bean (Bianca; The Taming of the Shrew), and Cordy (Cordelia; King Lear)--the book-loving, Shakespeare-quoting, and wonderfully screwed-up spawn of Bard scholar Dr. James Andreas--end up under one roof again in Barnwell, Ohio, the college town where they were raised, to help their breast cancer–stricken mom. The real reasons they've trudged home, however, are far less straightforward: vagabond and youngest sib Cordy is pregnant with nowhere to go; man-eater Bean ran into big trouble in New York for embezzlement, and eldest sister Rose can't venture beyond the "mental circle with Barnwell at the center of it." For these pains-in-the-soul, the sisters have to learn to trust love--of themselves, of each other--to find their way home again. The supporting cast--removed, erudite dad; ailing mom; a crew of locals; Rose's long-suffering fiancĂ©--is a punchy delight, but the stage clearly belongs to the sisters; Macbeth's witches would be proud of the toil and trouble they stir up. - Publishers Weekly

I found it was easy to relate to the sisters and there were familiar themes throughout the book.  I'm not familiar with a lot of Shakespeare, but found it interesting how the quotes were worked into the dialogue.  I was a tad disappointed that all three sisters' plot lines were resolved neatly.  It would have been interesting to see a little more diversity and strife for them to adapt to. 

Most of the book was written in first person plural which at times was a little confusing. The book was a good look at university and small town life.  I liked that Bean was able to adjust and become the town librarian and I was slightly jealous that she got to be a solo library in a little town.  I always felt that I would like to be a solo librarian in a small town one day.  I also related to the whole family bringing a book to read when going out.  I am known to always having some type of reading material with me in case I get stuck somewhere and need to occupy myself. 

CBR3-18: The Red Tent - Anna Diamant

The red tent is the place where women gathered during their cycles of birthing, menses, and even illness. Like the conversations and mysteries held within this feminine tent, this sweeping piece of fiction offers an insider's look at the daily life of a biblical sorority of mothers and wives and their one and only daughter, Dinah. Told in the voice of Jacob's daughter Dinah (who only received a glimpse of recognition in the Book of Genesis), we are privy to the fascinating feminine characters who bled within the red tent. In a confiding and poetic voice, Dinah whispers stories of her four mothers, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah--all wives to Jacob, and each one embodying unique feminine traits. As she reveals these sensual and emotionally charged stories we learn of birthing miracles, slaves, artisans, household gods, and sisterhood secrets. Eventually Dinah delves into her own saga of betrayals, grief, and a call to midwifery.

"Like any sisters who live together and share a husband, my mother and aunties spun a sticky web of loyalties and grudges," Anita Diamant writes in the voice of Dinah. "They traded secrets like bracelets, and these were handed down to me the only surviving girl. They told me things I was too young to hear. They held my face between their hands and made me swear to remember." Remembering women's earthy stories and passionate history is indeed the theme of this magnificent book. In fact, it's been said that The Red Tent is what the Bible might have been had it been written by God's daughters, instead of her sons -
This book is the book club pick for April/May.  It was suggested that we read the passage in the Bible that this book was based on first before starting the book.  I remember the basic story of Jacob and Esau and the many sons of Jacob, but it was good to have a refresher before jumping into this book.  I've never read a book based on an Old Testament book before.  I have read books based on passages in Revelations. 

Diamont stayed pretty true to the Genesis passages but embellished where the details were lacking.  I appreciated seeing how Dinah's life changed when she moved to Egypt versus how it was with her family.  The cultural practices and differences were highlighted even more.  I had forgotten how much idol worshping was part of life back then.  Also there was a strong enforcement of heritage and remembering where you can from back then as well. 

CBR3-17: The Metropolis Case - Matthew Gallaway

In his ambitious debut, Gallaway jumps backward and forward in time between two cities, spiraling in on four characters connected by music: Lucien, an opera singer coming-of-age in mid-19th-century Paris; Anna, an opera singer reaching the height of her career in 1960s New York; Maria, an extraordinarily promising young singer but a difficult student; and Martin, an aging lawyer whose love of music might save his life. The ties between them are at first so tenuous that readers may wonder when, how, or if their narratives will converge. But Wagner's Tristan and Isolde touches each in some way, as does, eventually, eternal life, a device that allows Gallaway to chronicle 1860s Paris and 1960s New York through the eyes of one character. Gallaway, a former musician, gives music a literary presence, intertwining opera and punk by illuminating their shared passion and chaos. But ambition sometimes gives way to pretension (particularly with chapter titles such as "Fashion Is a Canon for this Dialect Also") and purple prose, but the story remains grounded by characters grappling with love, in some cases for eternity - Publishers Weekly
I was intrigued with an opera being the center of a book's plot.  As I read this book, I was impressed with how the author moved between the different stories, but still "moved" the overall plot forward. All of the characters seemed not to care about the consequences of their actions, but simply lived life to the fullest.

Gallaway's portrayal of the typical New Yorker reacting to the events of 9/11 through Martin definitely resonated with me.  While I wasn't in New York that day, I lived in within an hour of the city at the time of the attacks.  I saw many of my coworkers and friends react and try to cope with the what happened that morning.

I had a hard time relating to Anna and felt that she was the least developed character.  I expected to learn more about her as the book progressed. Maria was an interesting character, but continued to be troubled even as an adult. 

Lucien provided a good perspecive on life in a different century and how the focus back then was on different priorities - building new places and cities. It's easy to forget that the grandeur of Europe wasn't there initially and it had to be developed.

I found a hard time relating to most of the characters and found that if there hadn't been the mystery of the opera's influence on their lives I would have had a hard time reading this book.