I spent this first perfect summer afternoon on the deck reading Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr, poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review. Intrigued by Orr’s premise (set forth in the introduction) that becoming a reader of contemporary poetry is like visiting an unfamiliar country (Belgium, to be exact), I started to read with great interest. After all, if Orr could explain to the non-poetry reader why they should read poetry, I may be able to explain it to my students. Or my family.
The introduction’s statement of purpose is to help the reader “become a person who can have a conversation about poems” and “find your own place in the poetry world, where others can come and visit.” A noble purpose, especially as Orr has admitted earlier in the introduction that the reading public’s view of poetry seems “trapped between the tediously mechanical and the unjustifiably shamanistic.” It also includes a caveat of sorts: that all of the opinions in the book are simply that – opinions – and therefore can and should be disagreed with. This allows him to be non-committal in some parts of the book –poetry is this, but not really, or maybe it’s this other thing.
The first three chapters – The Personal, The Political, and Form – were appealing, instructive, and entertaining. Orr’s personality and humor are at the forefront in these discussions, which try to shed light on the various aspects of poetics in each title. (I have to love a guy who disses the “best-selling” poetry of Jewel, don’t I?)
The Personal examines dilemmas familiar to poets – how does a reader separate the poet from the poem? The personal from the private? Does intimacy in a poem mean that the material is true in the factual sense? This section also spends time discussing the fluid definition of the lyric as a reader-preferred type. I felt that this chapter did speak well to a reader not familiar with modern poetry.
The Political delves into both the similarities and differences between poetry and politics and whether the two can successfully meet. They are, he argues, both forms of verbal persuasion. But he also shows how poems that are meant to be political can go awry for different reasons –perhaps the poets get caught up in being “poet-y” (he uses a Robert Hass poem to show this) or poets use the language of politics and don’t address the craft of a poem. The most interesting part of this chapter is how political meaning can be ascribed to poems that were not written for this purpose. Kay Ryan’s “Home to Roost” is mentioned, having been assimilated into consciousness as a 9/11 poem. This chapter was also interesting, though a little more obscure than the first.
Form was a bit more dry than the previous chapters, but it gave an easy-to-follow overview of how poets have either championed or worked against form almost since the beginning of poetry. He ends up using his own terminology to try and categorize types of form: mechanical, metrical, and resemblance. Mechanical poems are, in Orr’s words, constrained by some writing element. A lipogram (a piece of writing that excludes one or more letters in composition) is an example of a mechanical form. Metrical poems deal with rhythm and balance, and resemblance poems are the types of forms we are often taught as form: villanelle, sestina, etc.
Orr had me up to here. The first three chapters contained explanations that would be clear to someone who did not read poetry regularly, and they would be helpful in many respects. The next two chapters, Ambition and The Fishbowl, did not give me the same feeling. In trying to explain the world in which the poet writes and works, Orr alienates the non-initiated with discussions of career poets, poets in academia, the growth of writing workshops, the drive to publish, and the sometimes- incestuous nature of the publishing business, especially contests. I found that much of this would probably either bore or turn off anyone who is just becoming a poetry reader.
I was then eager to see Orr’s answer to the last chapter’s title question, Why Bother? After indulging in some common answers to that question and showing most of them to be lacking, Orr never really provides his own answer, except to say (in a nutshell) that it is a personal thing. The personal experiences he relates about his own beginnings as a reader of poetry and his attempt to share that love to rehabilitate the speech of his father after a stroke are well-wrought and give insight into his relationship with poems. But the end result – that there are worse things to like or love than poetry – left me unsatisfied.
So, in the end, it was hard to tell whether Orr’s title Beautiful and Pointless refers to the modern poetry he is trying to explain or to the act of writing a guide to something that defies explanation. Either way, I think it is worth reading, just to see how much you agree or disagree with his opinions. And, if you are someone who does not read poetry regularly, stick with the introduction and the first three chapters. Then go ask someone who DOES read poetry regularly to lend you some books.