- Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry
- Harper, 224 pp.
Who’s Afraid of Poetry?
David Orr likes analogies. Analogies drive his new book Beautiful & Pointless the way metaphors do in contemporary poems. And perhaps the simplification of abstract concepts into playful and entertaining comparisons is essential to Orr’s ambitious project: to demystify poetry and reform readers who balk at the thought of having to read poems which they just don’t “get.” The result, while delivering some thoughtful insights and fine readings of individual poems, only proves how difficult Orr’s project truly is.
The book doesn’t so much take an objective, didactic stance as it does share Orr’s subjective impressions of poetry and its attendant culture. He likens what he hopes would be the reader’s experience of his book to overhearing a conversation between sports fans:
If you’d never seen a college football game, it wouldn’t help much to read an article about the ten greatest wide receivers of all time. But it might help to sit in a bar and listen as a Georgia fan and a Clemson fan discuss a game they’d just been to. At the very least, you’d see what made them happy, what bothered them, what kinds of things they thought were funny, and what experiences seem to have stayed with them through the long ride to the bar and the drink they had before you showed up. You’d get a sense of why the world we call “college football” might be worth visiting.
Such meandering comparisons and accessible, chit-chatty tone characterize much of Orr’s book. Each of the six chapters in the slim volume, entitled “The Personal,” “The Political,” “Form,” “Ambition,” “The Fishbowl,” and “Why Bother?” follows a similar formulaic structure: positing a central yet murky idea associated with poetry, exploring some different assumptions behind it, offering some poems as examples to illustrate possible explanations, and finally, rendering conclusions, which, if they don’t serve as definitive answers, at least give readers a jumping point from which to begin their own explorations.
Yet for all of Orr’s efforts, his overall conclusion is simple and anti-climactic: “I can’t tell you why you should bother to read poems or write them; I can only say that if you do choose to give your attention to poetry, as against all other things you might turn to instead, that choice can be meaningful.”
In an interview, Orr says that in writing his book, he “wanted to see what would happen if you tried to talk to all of the audiences at the same time,” general reader and specialist alike. But this presents problems of interchangeably talking over some people’s heads, dumbing things down for others, and just not satisfying either camp fully. Like a rubber band stretched to opposite extremes, Orr’s book snaps disappointingly into, well, something salvageable at most.
At times, as in his discussion of the “personal,” Orr’s ideas are slippery and hard to follow. Consider his chapter’s conclusion: “… it’s worth thinking about how much richer those readers’ experience might be if they had a slightly greater acquaintance with the many ways in which poetry can be impersonal; at the least, this would help explain the strange ways in which it actually can be personal.” In order to undo the common misconception of all poetry as being direct glimpses into poets’ inner lives, he uses karaoke singing to illustrate the distinction he draws between the embarrassing (personal) and the merely intimate. He pokes fun at the singer Jewel’s poem “Saved from Myself” as an example of the embarrassing and personal, yet some of the examples he uses to illustrate the intimate I find hard to not view as being personal also, such as his use of a Sharon Olds poem entitled “Sunday Night”:
When the family would go to a restaurant,
my father would put his hand up a waitress’s
skirt if he could–hand, wrist,
forearm. Suddenly, you couldn’t see
his elbow, just the upper arm.
His teeth were wet, the whites of his eyes
wet, a man with the stump of an arm…
His chapter on the “political” commits the error of omitting works by people of color. Except for a quick study of one Gwendolyn Brooks poem, little is said about how poetic movements in the 1960s and 1970s and even today among African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans help forge a sense of identity and community among racial minority groups. Instead, he discusses lyric poems by poets who predominantly write for other poets (“Pseudo-political poems–and there are legions of them–won’t unsettle anyone’s assumptions about the debate in Iraq, but they stand a good chance of being praised within the poetry community for their good intentions…”). In this way, he seems out of touch with poetry at the periphery (read: snobby), choosing instead to focus on safer, mainstream writers the likes of whom make regular appearances in the New York Times book review section (where, conveniently, Orr is a poetry columnist).
In “Form,” Orr provides a useful framework for beginners, although at times he complicates more than explains by essentially negating any comprehensive discussion of form (which, one might think, would lead any baffled beginner farther astray). In the slightly more interesting chapter “Ambition,” he compares the diverging critical reception between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and corrects some of our presumptions about what makes certain poetry “great” (such as grand abstractions, ornate language, obscure referencing, and so on). “The Fishbowl” gives an overview of the “sociology” of poets, describing poets’ habits, the rise of creative writing programs, and controversies abounding in today’s poetry circles, although I’m not sure readers would find these topics too interesting, or how they would enhance any reader’s ability to better appreciate verse.
Which brings us to “Why Bother,” a most lovely final chapter where Orr takes the most risk. Except for a (thankfully) brief, unscientific use of Google metrics, Orr beautifully shares instances of why one might fall in love with poetry. He recounts his life-changing discovery of the poet Philip Larkin, and his experience of helping his father, a stroke victim, improve his speech through readings of Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Eloquent and touching, the final pages almost make up for some of the boredom from previous chapters, and one can’t help but wish that Orr had used the closing part instead as the springboard for his book.
Orr has tried hard in Beautiful & Pointless to make well-grounded arguments and resist the grandiosity usually associated with poetry that has tended to intimidate the uninitiated. However, in trying maintain an even keel, he subdues his own passion for poetry, which, had he let loose, would have been contagious enough to convert more readers into poetry fans. In the end, Orr fails at his aim, the funny jokes and occasional clever observations are unfortunately not enough to rescue this so-so read.