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.

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