Beautiful & pointless
by David Orr
Harper Collins, $25.99 hardback, $14.99 paperback, 224 pp.
Do we really need another meditation on the state and function of modern poetry? If it’s as well-considered as critic David Orr’s book Beautiful & pointless, I’ll give an emphatic Yes. In this relatively short book (there are only six chapters after the author’s introduction), Orr holds an incredibly frank discussion of poetry. He doesn’t try to become a poetry lobbyist or doom-crier; there are plenty of those already. He refuses the common urges that have led many authors to gush about some genre of art, and its underappreciated status, a strategy that leaves the non-expert scratching his head, wondering what he missed.
In fact, Orr’s looking the common reader directly in the eyes when writes this, not in spite of, but because the common reader doesn’t know what to make of poetry. What’s most refreshing is that Orr admits he often feels the same way, often encouraging disagreement. This is a dangerous tactic for a poetry critic, and one that a more insecure author would avoid, but Orr is not interested in a “Scholarly Model” (described as: summary of poetry, case studies, and a prescription) or the “How-to Model” (described as: mechanical breakdown of famous formal poems) for his book. He’s thirsty for understanding and makes his compulsion contagious.
The introduction uses a wonderful analogy to reconcile the “tediously mechanical view of poems and an unjustifiably shamanistic view of poetry itself” that tends to polarize and disconnect a reader from the experience. Poetry, as Orr notes, is neither fully explainable like a math equation, nor is it entirely supernatural and incomprehensible. Orr’s analogy is this: “it would be useful to talk about poetry as if it were, for example, Belgium.” At first, this makes little sense, but imagine, as Orr suggests, “the way you’d be thinking about Belgium if you were planning a trip there.” Now there’s some traction. Poetry is like visiting a foreign country where you don’t understand all of the history, culture, or language. It can be enjoyable and exciting while never being fully grasped. Orr’s book is full of quirky moments like this that allow for an engaging, unintimidating discussion of a potentially frustrating and intimidating subject.
Orr becomes a great companion throughout the chapters of the book: “The Personal,” “The Political,” “Form,” “Ambition,” “The Fishbowl,” and finally “Why Bother?”. He’s willing to share the reader’s potential confusion and frustration while never losing any patience. This strategy is enhanced since Orr’s discussions begin with generalizations about poetry. This actually proves immensely beneficial for both novice and veteran alike. In “The Personal” Orr asks why we believe all poems are “the pure expression of our inner lives,” a belief that can make poems dangerously unaccountable to a reader, especially when many poets (Philip Larkin is one of Orr’s favorites) try so hard to speak to a larger, universal experience, nearly erasing their own lives in the process. In “The Political,” Orr asks why we think poets can’t be fighters, but rather are “passive, swoony, and generally not in the business of “doing things.’” I find that funny, even if it stings as if I’ve been slapped. It’s hilarious, because those thoughts are accurate in describing the connotations most people bring, innocently enough, to a conversation about poetry.
This book may be enlivened by Orr’s sardonic sense of humor and often discursive style, but this doesn’t overshadow or trivialize the content. Orr’s asides speak directly, often acknowledging the insufficiency of many labels and descriptions. This is because Orr, sneaky author he is, may have an agenda after all. By recognizing the incredible breadth of poetry and reactions to it, he’s secretly given a prescription to combat anxiety: expect (or maybe even seek) the unexpected. His descriptions of poetry are often deeply personal, though also highly empathetic to the less-traveled, because, as his chapter on “Ambition” demonstrates, in thirty years, the significance of certain authors—his examples of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop serve him well—might be altogether different.
Orr knows “Poetry is written by humans, not angels or elves” and lets us see them as people. In his book poets fight, can be petty, and act crudely, even towards language (his discussion on Foetry is less than flattering, but fact). Poets embarrass themselves, often on the page. He even admits that the popular use of the word “poetic” as a metaphor for excellence is unfair, because it’s almost never spectacular for the layman and uncommon to many fans. Those may be tough truths to swallow for a zealot, but Orr’s a realist and as a poetry critic, he’s ultimately on the side of poetry even if he’s not in a militant mode. The closing chapter of the book “Why Bother?” is simultaneously bleak and empowering. Poetry may not have any intrinsic quality that makes it special or a better use of time than another activity. It won’t cure cancer, it won’t put a man on Mars, but not much we do needs to have that amount of gravity. As Orr explains with his closing anecdote (which I’ll only describe as powerful to avoid spoiling it), there are worse things to love.