A Poetry Critic Asks: Why Bother? If you've ever been afraid to pick up a book of poetry, critic David Orr can help. His new book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, aims to demystify this often-overlooked art.
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A Poetry Critic Asks: Why Bother?

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A Poetry Critic Asks: Why Bother?

A Poetry Critic Asks: Why Bother?

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David Orr has written a new book, which he says is a guide to modern poetry. "Beautiful and Pointless" is the name of the book and, we assume, a comment on modern poetry as well. David Orr was trained as a lawyer, but the trade he practices is poetry criticism. He writes for the New York Times Book Review.

This book is a slender volume, like many of the books of modern poetry he critiques. It is tough going in places, requiring the reader to back up and try again. There are lots of funny bits and clever parenthetical observations, and there are lots of poems, good ones and bad ones, quoted to help us along.

David Orr joins us from Cornell University.

Welcome to our program.

Mr. DAVID ORR (Author, "Beautiful and Pointless"): Hi. Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you arrange your slender vol in six chapters, and the last is called Why Bother? But to proceed in order, the first is called The Personal; the second chapter is called The Political. I completely got The Political, but The Personal was harder. Could you just help me out here?

Mr. ORR: I think it really goes to the center of what a lot of people think about modern poetry, which is that it is expressive, that it is personal. And as you know, the chapter begins with an anecdote about me going to a party and being introduced to someone who asks what I do.

And so, you know, I say, well, actually, I'm a poetry critic. I review contemporary collections of poetry. And the smile just falls off of her face. And she says, you mean you criticize people's poetry?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ORR: And it's, you know, it's a response that you get, because people view poetry as being some sort of unfiltered expression of the poets in her life.

And so what I've tried to do in that chapter is talk about that perception that I think a lot of general readers have and explain why it is, in some sense, mistaken, but is also, in a sense, accurate. And then there's the persistence of just the romantic idea of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility. It's actually never been - I mean, even when we're just talking about emotion being recollected in tranquility, he didn't mean: I'm just going to write down what I feel. He was suggesting that there's a lot of mediation that art does between the emotion that you feel and then the recollection in tranquility.

WERTHEIMER: You also write about form and suggest that there - at one point, you raise the question that you think readers of modern poetry still really want answered, which is, is it still okay to like sonnets or what? So is it?

Mr. ORR: Right. I think that it is. I should say first, form is one of the things that poets like to argue about. And we have a lot of confusion about what we're talking about when we talk about form. And the confusion leads to these arguments about whether or not we should be writing in particular forms or whether a form has rules and things like that.

WERTHEIMER: Whether a form is dead or alive?

Mr. ORR: Exactly. Exactly. And I think a poet's duty is just to be interesting. And one of the mechanisms that we use to be interesting is form. It could be the form like a sonnet, it could be a form like an erasure, in which a poet is taking somebody else's text and just removing words from it. It could be form like meter.

WERTHEIMER: You make the point that modern poetry, when it isn't a sonnet or some other rhymed form that we feel most certainly be a poem, that we can't always tell a poem from a bunch of broken lines or perhaps a little collection of prose. And I want to ask you to read a couple of examples. On page 70 is a part of the very beautiful poem, "The Drowned Children."

Mr. ORR: Sure.

(Reading) You see they have no judgment, so it is natural that they should drown. First, the ice taking them in, and then all winter, their wool scarves floating behind them as they sink, until at last they are quiet, and the pond lifts them in its manifold, dark arms.

WERTHEIMER: The poet is Louise Gluck. Now, why did you pick that one?

Mr. ORR: Well, first I picked it because I liked it. And it seemed like a nice way to put an example in of writing that isn't exactly formal, but that is also very good.

WERTHEIMER: It isn't exactly formal in that it doesn't have a form. It doesn't have a rhyme.

Mr. ORR: That's right.

WERTHEIMER: It has no meter.

Mr. ORR: Right. It has what you might call a shape, but it doesn't have a separate form.

WERTHEIMER: Now, mostly for me in this, I would like you to read Hart Seely's offering called "Happenings" on page 72. And maybe you could explain what it is.

Mr. ORR: Okay.

(Reading) You're going to be told lots of things. You get told things every day that don't happen. It doesn't seem to bother people. They don't. It's printed in the press. The world thinks all these things happen. They never happened. All I can tell you is it hasn't happened; it's going to happen.

(Soundbite of laughter

WERTHEIMER: Yes. Now, of course, I know what the joke is, so you tell us.

Mr. ORR: So all of the lines there are taken from a press conference of Donald Rumsfeld's in 2003. What's so funny about them - what's so great about that as a poem, as a parody, is that it sounds just like a kind of free verse modern poem.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, your last chapter, you called it "Why Bother?" So David Orr, give us your best shot. Why bother?

Mr. ORR: Well, I don't know that people ought to bother. I think that poetry is one of those choices that you make in life that doesn't really - it's not really susceptible to reasoning or arguments.

You know, people say things like, oh, poetry is the most distilled form of language, but, you know, you can actually think of a lot of other forms of language that are vastly more distilled. Or people will say poetry has this special relationship to people's inner lives, but then a lot of other things have special relationships to people's inner lives.

None of those reasons are actually the reason that I read poetry. I read poetry because it's just one of the things that helps me to negotiate the world around me and helps me to understand my own feelings about things, and also frankly, it's just something that entertains me.

I think a better way to approach the question of why bother is not really to answer it, but rather just to say that if you do bother, it can be worthwhile.

HANSEN: David Orr. His book on modern poetry is called "Beautiful and Pointless." For an excerpt, you could check out our website, npr.org.

David Orr, thank you.

Mr. ORR: Thank you so much.

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