Beautiful and PointlessA Guide to Modern Poetry
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2011 David Orr
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-06-167345-0
Poetry critics are often nervous about be-
ing asked what they do for a living. Its not that
we dont enjoy our workwe do, mostlybut
rather that it can be awkward to explain what a contem-
porary poetry critic does when many people are surprised
to learn that there is such a thing as contemporary po-
etry in the first place. Were talking, after all, about an
art form that currently occupies a position in the popular
consciousness somewhere between lute playing and crewel
embroidery. But theres another, more important reason
that poetry critics are sometimes reluctant to talk about
their occupation, and it is probably best demonstrated by
Several years ago, I was at a party filled with nonpo-
ets and was introduced to a friend of a friend. She asked
about my job, and I told her that I worked part-time as a
book critic. She asked where my pieces usually appeared,
and I said The New York Times Book Review. At this, she
responded, Oh, thats great! and began talking about
how much she admired book reviewers, authors, and the
literary life in general. Then she put her hand on my arm
and asked, And what kind of books do you review? I was
feeling pleased with myself after all the compliments, so I
proudly announced, Im a poetry critic. She gave me a
look as if Id just tossed a sackful of kittens into a mulcher.
Wait a minute, she said, you mean you criticize peoples
Because poetry, were told, is the pure expression of our
inner lives. It is the prism through which the soul is glimpsed.
It is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling. It is the
fulfillment of the desire expressed in Corinthians to know
even as also I am known, and a means of answering Pete
Townshends question Can you see the real me? To create
a poem is to express something central about oneself, and to
read poetry is to perceive a writer as he actually is. Poetry
Or such, at any rate, is the common belief. Poets them-
selves are more ambivalent. On one hand, we have T. S.
Eliots famous declaration that the progress of an artist is
a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personal-
ity; on the other, we have the actual work of T. S. Eliot,
which in its nervous avoidance of sentiment can seem almost
sentimental. More recently, one can pick up an issue of Po-
etry and find lines like the ones that conclude Randall Manns
The Fall of 1992:
Love was a doorknob
statement, a breakneck goodbye
and the walk of shame
without shame, the hair disheveled, curl
of Kools, and desolate birds like ampersands...
I re-did my face
in the bar bathroom, above
the urinal trough.
I liked it rough. From behind the stall,
Lady Pearl slurred the words: Dont hold out for love.
This sounds pretty personal, doesnt it? But then, one can
turn to the online magazine La Petite Zine and find lines like
these from Matthea Harvey:
All bright thought lay in future thought.
The coin was in the puddin hid.
Cod from the machine will not do,
said the dramaturg-turned-nutritionist.
Only the upper echelons could afford to be
nonchalant about it. They were, as in, oh.
It was the first time a lost Jocelyn
& a found Jocelyn had turned out
to be not one & the same...
Not so personal, are they? How much of our personal
lives belong in poems is a question that has occupied the po-
etry world for a century. And it remains unsettled in part
because nobodycertainly not us poetsseems to be sure
exactly what we mean by personal.
That may seem like a curious claim; after all, surely if
theres one thing we know, its what makes us us. But con-
sider the following sentences, assuming for the moment that
all are true:
Bob Smith was born on November 9, 1971.
Bob Smiths favorite password is nutmeg456.
Bob Smiths Social Security number is 987-65-4320.
Bob Smith has a foot fetish.
As a child, Bob Smith had an imaginary friend named Mr. Pigwort.
Whenever Bob Smith hears the sound of a high wind,
it makes him think of his wife, who died ten years
earlier, and he hears her voice faintly calling, as if
from a great distance.
The first three sentences contain deeply private informa-
tionindeed, information that might enable someone to
steal Mr. Smiths identitybut they likely dont seem per-
sonal in the way that the last three might. (And which of
those last three you consider the most intimate will depend
on how you look at the world.) The point here is that our
conception of the personal has to do with more than the
data of our lives, no matter how sensitive. It has to do with
how we see ourselves, how we see others, how we imagine
others see us, how they actually see us, and the potential em-
barrassment, joy, and shame that occur at the intersection of
these different perspectives.
But why, you might wonder, do poets need to be concerned
about any of this in the first place? Why do so many people
who dont read much poetry (and quite a few who do) reflex-
ively assume that poems generally relate, in however uncer-
tain and attenuated a manner, to a writers real life? Why
are we amused by a comment like You mean you criticize
peoples poetry? rather than simply perplexed, as we would
be if someone said, You mean you criticize peoples novels?
or You mean you criticize peoples narrative nonfiction?
After all, in order for a joke to be funny, we have to get the
premise. Why is the premise that poetry has something to do
with our inner lives something that we automatically under-
stand? Shouldnt it be possible for us to read poems without
thinking about the personal at all?
The short answer is: of course. Poetry has historically in-
cluded many genresthe epic, the short narrative poem, the
occasional poemthat have little to do with the personal
as its generally understood today. And indeed, contempo-
rary poets have worked more successfully in these genres
than they are sometimes given credit for. Here, for instance,
is the opening of Les Murrays novel-in-verse Fredy Neptune,
the epic tale of Fred Boettcher, an itinerant Australian mari-
ner who witnesses much of the worst violence of the twenti-
That was sausage day
on our farm outside Dungog.
Theres my father Reinhard Boettcher,
my mother Agnes. There is brother Frank
who died of the brain-burn, meningitis.
There I am having my turn
at the mincer. Cooked meat with parsley and salt
winding out, smooth as gruel, for the weisswurst.
The facts of Fredy Neptune dont point us in the direc-
tion of facts that might pertain to Les Murray. That isnt
to claim that Les Murrays personal history has nothing to
do with the poem, but only to suggest that the poem itself
doesnt signal us to check its claims against any identity we
might associate with Murray. Its an obvious point, to be
sure, but its nonetheless helpful to bear in mind that poetry
like Murrays 250-page novel is no less poetic than the sop-
piest verse about a love affair gone wrong. And beyond the
traditionally depersonalized narrative genres represented by
work like Fredy Neptune, there is the extravagantly formal
world of the academic avant-garde, in which poets write
books that consist entirely of a transcription of a years worth
of weather reports. A sense of the real person tends to go
by the wayside when youre looking at lines like Mostly
clear, overnight lows 40?F, Precip 0%.
But in a sense, these examples, however interesting and
worth talking about, are sidestepping the question. When
people talk about poetry being personal, they arent thinking
of poems about Australian seamen or about northerly winds
in Boise. Theyre thinking about poems in which an I says
something about itself, or the world, or a Youand does so
in such a way that we experience something like the thrill of
discovery. They are thinking, in other words, about the lyric.
Here its best to clarify some terms. Billy Collins has an amus-
ing poem about the words used most frequently in contempo-
rary poems (light figures prominently); in contemporary
poetry criticism, we have our own commonplace terms, and
the most conspicuous of these is probably lyric. What, ex-
actly, is the lyric, and why do critics like to talk about it so
Historically speaking, this is an easy question to answer.
Lyric is one of the three classical modes of poetrythe
other two being narrative and dramaticand its tradition-
ally considered to be closely related to song. But this antique
description tells us relatively little about lyric poetry today.
According to The New Prince ton Encyclopedia of Poetry and
Poetics, the modern lyric has been employed in the causes
of self-expression, feminism, and racial and social equal-
ity. But it has also apparently become a device for mak-
ing the invisible visible in which [t]he poet-surrogate is
replaced by the figurative voice, a mantic or shamanistic
presence... So its connected to self-expression except
when its connected to some kind of prophetic voice that has
nothing to do with the poet-surrogate. In fact, the only
thing the Prince ton Encyclopedia seems to be sure of about
the lyric is that its overwhelmingly popular.
Which seems about right. Theres been a great deal of
confusion over the lyric mode over the past hundred years,
mostly because of the genres extreme versatility. In the way
that a stick can serve as firewood, an imaginary rifle, or a
dowsing rod, the lyric has been many things to many poets,
and it would be a mistake to pretend otherwise. Probably
the most that can safely be said nowadays is that lyrics are
short(ish) and present a unified sensibility, often involving
the use of a voice calling itself I, that may or may not rep-
resent the writer as he perceives himself. Even given that
rather nebulous definition, however, the potential signifi-
cance of lyricism to the personal seems clear: If I want to
tell you something personal, then it probably makes sense if
I am the one saying it.
For that reason, one of the more popular ways to explain
the abundance of personal material in contemporary poetry
is simply to say that personalism flows naturally from our
preference for the lyric mode, as opposed to the narrative-
based poem, or the verse drama, or what have you. A few
years ago, I published a review in which I puzzled over the
idea of personal writing, and a talented peer of mine,
Joshua Weiner, wrote in to offer what seems a fair represen-
tation of this line of argument. Weiner said:
In his discussion... David Orr wonders about the
personal flavor that readers desire from poetry, a
kind of writing that we supposedly like to think of as
personal. The question Orr doesnt ask directly is
how weve come to presume that what we talk about
when we talk about current poetry is the lyric (and
not the epic, epistle, satire, dramatic monologue, etc.).
Its not a flavor that draws readers, as Orr puts itits
a sound, an intimate sound memorably figured. It is
a mystery but not, as Orr also claims, a muddle. The
sound of a single voice singing to each of us is a primal
experience of reception, connection, and transmission.
The experience is part of our cognitive growth; were
probably hardwired by it.
There are several things in this passage that seem inter-
estingly right to me (the idea that were hardwired by our re-
sponse to lyric utterance is intriguing), but there are several
things that are interestingly wrong as well. Foremost among
these is the suggestion that lyricism seems personal because,
well, it just is. If you read a lot of contemporary poetry, then
its easy to feel that this is the casethere are more transpar-
ently veiled personal references in modern poems than there
are grits in South Carolina. But in point of fact, lyricism isnt
necessarily personal. It isnt even usually personal. Take this
lyric, for example:
A green and yellow basket
I wrote a letter to my love
And on the way I dropped it
I dropped it, I dropped it
Yes, on the way I dropped it
A little girlie picked it up
And took it to the market
She was truckin on down the avenue
Without a single thing to do
She was peck, peck, peckin all around
When she spied it on the ground
Its hard to argue that audiences dont respond to this
particular lyricits been covered or referenced by every-
one from Ella Fitzgerald to Eminembut its unlikely that
people have embraced it because they think the words had
personal relevance for the original tisketer, whoever that
was. Probably they just like the way it sounds. From Sap-
pho to Thomas Wyatt to Cole Porter, lyrics have a long and
rich history of having little or nothing to do with the private
identities of their composersand while its true that song
lyrics and modern poetic lyrics operate in very different
contexts, theres nothing inherent to either mode that makes
those contexts inevitable.
Moreover, even when poetic lyrics do seem personal, its
sometimes the case that the experience were having has less
to do with the personal as Ive been discussing it here, and
more to do with what might be better described as the in-
timate. Intimacy in lyric poetry, as in life, is a kind of rela-
tionship: It assumes that we understand one another, that
we might be able to disclose things to each other of a per-
sonal nature. But it doesnt require that we actually say those
things. For instance, Philip Larkins short lyric Talking in
Bed, like much of Larkins work, encourages intimacy with
the reader without resorting to anything that is explicitly
personal on the poets part:
Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the winds incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.