Poetry: A Defense?


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“This book is about modern poetry.” That’s how David Orr begins his introduction to Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. It is a fine way to begin a book. But it isn’t true.

  • Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr. 224 pages. Harper. $25.99

I, for one, like a book that isn’t about what it claims to be about. More interesting yet is a book that continually redefines what it is about. Orr does that, too. After having claimed in the beginning of his book that he is writing about modern poetry, he opens his first chapter talking about what it means to be a critic of poetry. Poetry criticism is something Orr is well placed to talk about since he writes the “On Poetry” column for the New York Times and is therefore one of the more influential voices on poetry currently inhabiting this planet. Truly, the poetry world is a small one. It is fair to assume that David Orr will never be a household name. But as marginalia goes, the esoteric nature of contemporary poetry can serve as the very confirmation of its relative importance to the greater cultural mind. Poetry is special because it is serious, and beautiful, and sometimes very difficult. People who can give us access to that serious, beautiful, and difficult world are thus highly valued. Orr has taken on that task and come to bear the noble, if sometimes exacerbating, burden of explaining to the general public just what goes on behind the closed doors where the poetry is made. He has become an unofficial if broadly recognized spokesman for poetry itself. David Orr can teach us all how to talk about poetry.

Orr claims that most people not deeply familiar with poetry assume that the form is a personal enterprise and that poets are mostly in the business of baring their souls. It is therefore considered akin to an act of cruelty to be a critic of poetic self-expression. “Is it any surprise that an art form whose conventions are largely unknown, and whose practitioners often seem to be addressing themselves, has come to be seen — by lay readers, anyway — as presumptively personal?” Orr asks, “As something it seems cruel to criticize?”

But poetry isn’t actually all that personal. It might seem to be so from all the personal statements contained in poems. That’s an illusion, though. Poetry, Orr claims, uses the language of personal revelation as a vehicle for getting across images and ideas. We are thus under no obligation to coddle the sometimes painful personal material of poems. We are free to address them as poetic acts, playing with form and language that, seen in the proper context, have their own rules for success and failure. The first misunderstanding duly dispatched, Orr is now free to dig deeper into the mystery that is contemporary poetry.

If we can’t talk poetry as personal, maybe we can talk about it as inherently political. Maybe, but no. Sure, Orr allows, some poems try to sound political, but they don’t really mean it, and even if they do, political poems usually end up being misunderstood, misinterpreted, and otherwise purged of any real political content. In the end, poetry is too ambiguous to be political. The battle in which the poet is engaged is more ethereal. “And as a maker of poems, a poet is always engaged in battle, though the opponents may be unclear, the stakes unknowable, and the victories and defeats felt far away, in different domains, by people other than himself,” he writes.

So, we shouldn’t approach poetry as personal or political. It must, then, be formal. Poetry could be a set of different rules for organizing language. Once we know something about those rules, we’ll be able to read and understand the otherwise confusing jumble of words on the page. As you may begin to suspect, Orr doesn’t think this proposition works out so well either. Near the end of his chapter on form, Orr writes,

Now, of course, having spent 18 pages carefully outlining three approaches to formalism, I have to confess: These categories are barely categories. Indeed, to call them permeable would be putting it mildly — meter, resemblance form, and mechanical form aren’t distinct groupings so much as areas of occasional concentration, with many poems combining elements from two or even all three of these concepts.

Having dispatched the personal and political as not being very good tools for talking about poetry, and having decided that formal discussions about poetry are decidedly ambiguous, Orr turns to a chapter on “ambition.” He opens the chapter by asking, “What is the situation of American poetry?”

Maybe we can talk about poetry by talking about poetic ambition. The chapter on ambition, however, develops into a rather depressing survey of all the ways that poets attempt to talk big about what they are doing and why. Generally, the results of such ambition are empty for Orr. “Yes,” he writes, “greatness narrowly defined to mean a particular, windily dull type of writing is something we could all do without, and long may its advocates gag on their pipe smoke and languish in their tweeds.” No, there aren’t any convincing answers to be found in the category of ambition. If ambition has any meaning for poetry at all, it is in its smallness and fragility. So we move on again, effectively abandoning the question about the situation of American poetry.

Maybe we can find a way to talk about poetry by listening more closely to what poets are talking about, especially when they are not actually engaged in the writing of poetry. We thus enter what Orr calls “the fishbowl.” The fishbowl is the world of contemporary poets who spend much of their time worrying and complaining about what other poets are doing. Life in the fishbowl is hard. It is a world in which pettiness and resentment is the daily bread, frequently making its way into the content of the poems that the petty and resentful poets are composing. As Orr asks, “If the familial bickering of the poetry world is now considered sufficient grounds for a poem, what’s next — a sequence about how upset one is at having been left off a panel at the AWP conference?”

It may be — and I mean this quite seriously — that David Orr is a deeply masochistic person. He takes enjoyment in the pain and confusion, in the emptiness that results in attempting to discuss poetry. The less he talks about poetry directly and the more he talks about talking about poetry, the more powerful the negative lesson he tells. In trying to talk about poetry, Orr goes nowhere. His arguments move from the intangible to the untenable to the irrelevant. It is no surprise at all that the final chapter of his book is entitled “Why bother?” Less surprising still is that he does not have a good answer to that question.

Halfway though the last chapter Orr stops dead in his tracks and says, “Before going any further, though, I should make a confession: I don’t think most of the claims made for poetry are especially helpful.” And here, the collapse of this exceedingly strange book is essentially complete. This book is not about modern poetry — it is about the fact that it is impossible for a book to be about modern poetry. And a few pages later, we get the actual thesis of the book, the one sustainable claim that Beautiful and Pointless is ever able to make. “The best we can do is to say that only through poetry can we understand poetry.”

In other words, if we want to understand poetry, we should begin a process of reading poetry. And even after we have read lots of poetry, we still aren’t going to be able to abstract from that experience to make any meaningful or persuasive points about poetry in general. This is quite a brave point for a book that is ostensibly about poetry in general to make. A more descriptive title for Beautiful and Pointless might be, This Book Is Impossible or, This Book Isn’t and Cannot Be About Anything.

I’m not sure this makes the book that Orr has written exactly pointless, though. What Orr has created is something the philosophers used to call a performative contradiction. The most famous example of the performative contradiction is the Liar’s Paradox in which we meet the statement, “This statement is false.” That is a statement where it is false if it is true and true if it is false. No one is really sure what the implications of such statements are for logic or knowledge. Maybe performative contradictions are simply interesting in that they show us how thought can run up against itself and gets confused.

In an era in which it seems utterly impossible to make grand claims about what poetry should be like, in which there is no project of poetry outside the specific things that any particular poet is doing in any particular poem, a book “about modern poetry” is utterly pointless indeed. But a book that is about the fact that a book about modern poetry is pointless, and that proves that this is the case through a series of performative contradictions that collapse in on themselves chapter after chapter has a point. Or maybe it doesn’t have a point. But it is interesting. And as Orr says in his impossible book, if you write something interesting, if you write something difficult to forget, then it is enough. • 25 April 2011