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Monday, May 23, 2011

Review of David Orr's Beautiful & Pointless

I just finished reading David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (Harper 2011), and for the most part it was an enjoyable read, mainly because Orr, besides knowing a lot about the po-business, has an uncanny ability to cause a reader like me to cackle, guffaw, and, well, LOL. For instance, "there are more transparently veiled personal references in modern poems than there are grits and South Carolina," and the whole bit about poets being part horse and part human (and thus not quite fitting into academia). In the final chapter of his book, "why bother?" he muses on whether it's so bad to play Dice Wars or watch an episode of Top Chef instead of reading or writing poems; it's a valid question, no doubt, but it also helps to put this all into perspective: who in their right might would choose to struggle through complex mathematical theorems when he or she could spend the day bowling, or knitting, or whatever floats your boat. In general I admire the way he pokes fun at poets and their petty squabbles, while at the same time making it resoundingly clear that poetry does matter to thousands of people (though, okay, 50% of them may only be reading Billy Collins).

Orr wastes no time letting us know that his goal is not to help novice poetry readers figure out how to read poems, those strange things they take one look at and go “I have no idea what this is … maybe I don’t like it?” No, no, it’s not going to be Orr’s task to assist the clueless reader with understanding what a sestina or a villanelle is—if you want to know about specific forms and what the heck metrics are, he reminds us you can go ahead and Google all that.

His focus, instead, will be analogous to “sit[ting] in a bar and listen [ing ] as a Georgia fan and a Clemson fan discuss a game they’ve just been to.” Never mind that you have no idea what a wide receiver does, or what it means when there’s a flag on the play. What you will learn while you’re sidled up to the bar with these two fellas will give you a sense of why anyone would love a game you have to play like somebody just hit your mother with a two-by-four.

All good in theory, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that there is no way in hell someone who isn’t acquainted with poetry would bother to read Orr’s book. First of all:

Because we are different things to different people at different times, it’s more helpful to think about combining unlike identities that it is to talk about the ‘I’ of the poem and the “author himself” (who is better thought of as a combination of selves, some of them potentially more personal in particular moments than others.

Does the author seriously think that the typical American non-poet is going to parse that one?

But okay, I give him credit for trying. Then he goes onto start talking about Confessionalism—Lowell, Sexton, Plath, the ones whose poetry depends on the “announcement of personal facts that might be embarrassing, disturbing, or simply the kind of thing usually considered indiscreet.” I’m not so sure about this definition, especially when he shares that Catullus was confessing his heart out back in 50 B.C., calling on the gods to have pity and “pluck out of me my destruction.” Nothing indiscreet or embarrassing same goes for a poem by Ann Sexton titled “In Celebration of My Uterus,” where she is quite discreet and doesn't embarrass herself in the least. In fact, her poem is not disturbing at all. It displays, in fact, much restraint. Sexton is Whitmanesque in vision and scope, and anything but personal in this poem:

There is enough here to please a nation

Many women are singing together of this:

one is in a shoe factory cursing the machine,

one is at the aquarium tending a seal,

one is dull at the wheel of her Ford,

one is at the toll gate collecting,

one is tying the cord of a calf in Arizona,

one is straddling a cello in Russia,

one is shifting pots on the stove in Egypt,

one is painting her bedroom walls moon color,

one is dying but remembering a breakfast,

one is stretching on her mat in Thailand,

one is wiping the ass of her child,

one is staring out the window of a train

in the middle of Wyoming and one is

anywhere and some are everywhere and all

seem to be singing, although some can not

sing a note.

But okay, he messed up with defining Confessionalism, no biggie. I can get past it. Besides, he begs of us, in his introduction, to disagree with him, so really I’m only doing what he's called on me, on all of us, to do.

In the next chapter, “the political," he takes Robert Hass down for writing “pseudo-political poetry,” that is, poems that “put forward no argument, make no revelatory comparison, confront no new audience, engage no misconception in language …” etc., that basically Hass is either talking to himself or to an audience of his peers, all of whom don’t need any convincing about anything, but mostly not about anything to do with the Right, including Bush’s war. Orr scoffs at the notion that all poetry is political, and I applaud him for that (it always sounded like a cop-out to me), and I am glad that he shows us how King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” contains all the essential attributes of a really good political poem, but why doesn’t Orr provide any other examples of political poetry—great political poetry? Even a snippet of Wilfred Owens would do in a pinch, but there are hordes of 20th and 21st century masters of the political poem (Heffernan, Rich, C.K. Williams, Forche Baraka, Dickey, Wagoner, Wrigley, Kizer, Levertov, Komunyakaa, Harper, Levis…), and he’s neglected to cite even ONE of ‘em. In his defense, perhaps he didn’t anticipate that an actual poet would be reading his primer on poets and what they quibble/gossip/obsess about, but still, doesn’t he owe it to the general public to get it RIGHT about the great political poems being written, and not just the ones that were written before 9/11 but seem to be about 9/11? I am so sick of hearing about the chickens coming home to roost and the poem by Auden that’s actually about WW2, especially when we have poems like Roger Bonair Agard’s “All Black Penguin” to add to the conversation of what makes a truly great political poem.

But enough about that. The next chapter attempts to explain form. Call me dense, but I’ve been studying poetry for thirty-five years, and I have to say I had some trouble wading through some of this chapter (there was this half a page that dealt with this concept called “’X’ that we think (and we think the poet thinks we’re supposed to recognize as being associated with the poem”), but in the end I came out of it with this: one side thinks free verse is the shit, and the other side thinks form is the shit. There will never be any kind of resolution or agreement about this, but hey, some poets like writing in fixed forms, and you, too, should get drunk on the stuff if it’s your cup of whiskey. whatEV. But what got me was the part where he’s talking about a Karen Volkman sonnet, sharing how, according to Christian Bok, the poem is “radicalized,” when actually very akin to Anglo Saxon syllabics, that is, the earliest type of poetry in the English language. How, suddenly, did the kenning and the strong-stress alliterative line with the caesura down the middle suddenly become radical and new? And yet, this is what Bok/Orr tell us is so.

And now we’re onto ambition, and the 10-page explanation of what Great is, and why Lowell seemed like the hottest of the hot while he was alive (because he used words like “decry” and “battle”) whereas Bishop is now viewed as the way more Queen of the Moderns, and hey, so will be Kay Ryan the Grande-Dame of the early aughts. Seriously, the equation that male and white equals Great, though brought obviously to the fray in the ambition chapter, is pretty much apparent from page 1 of this book right through to “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” on the final page. How does Orr get away with alluding to a time when the poetry world was essentially a country club, even alluding to the fact that many (including him?!) still consider it a country club, without coming right out and saying, at least in his insular bubble of a poetry world, it remains a country club, a very white and mostly male one, where anyone with so much as a vowel at the end of his or her name might be refused a post-golf drink? His book is pretty much a white man-fest of the tallest order, and he doesn’t seem to have any problem with that, nor did his publisher. They should be ashamed.

As for why bother reading poetry, by the end of the book I’m sorta asking the same question myself. So you can shoot off your filthy mouth on Foetry? So you can maybe get ten people to read your lame-ass poem about some old poet dying and still being pissed that Mark Strand is a bigger big shot than you are? I mean… it’s enough to make me run in the other direction, and I’ve been in love with poetry for most of my life. Still, I’m a sucker for the stuff, and just like Orr’s dad, I keep coming back to that runcible spoon.


David Graham said...

Thanks for this, Martha. The book's on my summer shelf already, & I'll git to it directly. Always especially interested in what people have to say about the confessional, personal, lyric, and so forth--so much blather out there on that subject, and I think you're exactly right about the conventional wisdom on Sexton, who's often been treated by critics more as a tabloid celebrity than as a real poet.

Martha Silano said...

Thanks, David--it's a really fun book. I read it twice, and the second time I found even more good stuff to ponder and take issue with. I thank Orr for making me really think hard about the term "Confessionalism," and really how wrong most poetry readers are on classifying Plath, Sexton, etc. as baring all in sloppy and embarrassing ways. I realize that what I was calling "New Confessionalism" IS pretty much the same as what Lowell and the rest were doing: using the I as a persona, a vehicle to be intimate with the reader, but not necessarily autobiographical. Orr spends a lot of time parsing the word personal, the assumptions non-poets make about poems being personal. It's good stuff!

Kells said...

Thanks for this review! I didn't realize he had a new book out. I will definitely check this out. Thanks for sharing!