No one reads poetry. If you are a poet or poetry critic (odds are, if you’re one, you’re the other) and are not thoroughly sick of this topic, there is probably something wrong with your brain that prevents you from experiencing boredom. You should give up poetry and become an astronaut. But now comes David Orr with his bright, chatty, superfluous Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (Harper, 224 pages, $25.99). At last! A “guide to modern poetry,” apparently intended for that imaginary audience that yearns to read them some “modern poetry,” if only there were a reliable guide to be found.
Scads of potential poetry fanatics, on Mr. Orr’s view, are as lost in the wilderness of contemporary poetry as they would be if they were suddenly transported to–well, Belgium is Mr. Orr’s analogy. Yes, Brussels is a forbidding place, but The New York Times Book Review‘s “poetry columnist” is here to teach you which is the salad fork and which the thorn of life upon which you fall and bleed. In his recent and inevitable Times weigh-in on O: The Oprah Magazine‘s “spring fashion modeled by poets” issue, Mr. Orr delivered himself of his eternal lament: “for an overwhelming majority of the culture, almost every poem has an inscrutable ending, even the ones that aren’t actually inscrutable.” Beautiful & Pointless is intended to change that (or at least to convince Mr. Orr’s editors that they have the right man in position to do so).
But a book that undertakes to educate “general readers” about contemporary poetry is handicapped by the uncomfortable truth that there is no such thing as a general reader.
Mr. Orr commits the usual liberal fallacy of assuming social phenomena are rooted in the individual, rather than the other way around. A Russian cabbie once recited a lengthy passage of Pushkin to me, providing a rough-and-ready translation. It’s difficult to imagine many Americans who are not themselves academics or poets (the first set contains the second)–whether cabbies, Wal-Mart cashiers, lawyers or neurosurgeons–reciting Whitman or Dickinson, or even being able to quote one or two of their most famous lines, much less managing to name a single living American poet. People would read poetry if poetry were valued by the culture: That seems tautological only if you assume that “culture” is simply an agglomeration of individuals. The culture, however, does value books that purport to teach you how to master a laborious, intensive process in the time it takes to read 190 pages.
Beautiful & Pointless divides Belgium into six “concepts”: “The Personal”; “The Political”; “Form”; “Ambition”; “The Fishbowl,” about the sociology of poetry; and “Why Bother?” The first section addresses the knotty question of who is speaking in poetic speech, but it does so in a cursory way typical of the volume. Mr. Orr appears to believe that the crucial question for “general readers” is whether the poem is a direct record of the biographical person’s experience and feelings, so he spends a lot of time discussing karaoke and the poetry of Jewel.
The section on “the political” reduces the complexities of its subject to the notion that politics and poetry are inspired by analogous “visions.” The affinities between these forms of representation have been noted at least since Plato, but Mr. Orr treats them in a programmatic fashion, reproving a platitudinous poem by Robert Hass called “Bush’s War” for quoting Goethe. (The “general reader” has no German.)
The chapter on form advises readers seeking a detailed explanation of meter to look elsewhere. In his discussion of “ambition,” Mr. Orr informs the ingénue that poets seek to develop a distinctive style within which they might produce something “difficult to forget.” The chapter allegedly on “sociology” is a collection of gossip, from which one may learn that poets can be egotistical jerks.
Ultimately, Mr. Orr cannot provide much of a reason to “bother” with poetry, and who can blame him? You don’t fall in love with poetry because someone provides you with reasons. Something that is already within you–something that probably must be cultivated in childhood–responds to a line, a cadence, a strange use of language. Mr. Orr knows this: He is at his most convincing when describing how, in college, he discovered Philip Larkin’s poem “Water,” whose “deliberately offhand tone … was practically the opposite of what I’d thought poetry was supposed to sound like.” Mr. Orr’s reaction to Larkin’s lines “Any-angled light/ Would congregate endlessly” is instructive: “‘Any-angled light’ doesn’t actually make much sense, I thought, but at the same time it made perfect sense. It sounded right. To read it, to say it, made me think (as Larkin himself once put it), ‘That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it?’”
This is right; the experience it describes can’t be taught. Ezra Pound in ABC of Reading (which remains the most useful text on the subject precisely because it is the most idiosyncratic) wrote the only sentence one need consult: “The proper METHOD for studying poetry … is careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one ‘slide’ or specimen with another.” Pound won’t tell you what an anapest is, either, but he includes very little about Foetry.com.
I am not suggesting that this is a bad book of its kind, but that this kind of book is usually bad. Mr. Orr is a capable critic; his reviews are always worth reading. What he’s not, ever, is a risky critic, and a book like this requires something of Pound’s bilious irony if it is to avoid lapsing into the bland public-service antics that always accompany well-meaning attempts to get people interested in poetry. (At the book’s nadir, Mr. Orr is tallying Google hits for the phrase “I love poetry.”)
Mr. Orr has taken to heart Pound’s admonition that “Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man,” but I’m afraid Mr. Orr thinks he is funny. And he just isn’t. Nothing here approaches the badness of the laughless parody of The Paris Review‘s Culture Diaries he wrote last month for The Awl (Google it–you can actually hear the crickets), but most of the jokes reminded me of a professor trying to be hip. About a Jennifer Moxley poem that bemoans the way poets read one another, Mr. Orr asks, “What if we think that this particular injustice ranks significantly below jaywalking, and maybe one tick above bogarting the nachos?” Elsewhere he says that Pound “was sort of the Courtney Love of his day.” A little of this goes a long way, but like Dave Fleischer in the early Popeye cartoons, Orr has to have a gag in every scene.
All of which makes it somewhat unfortunate that the final pages of Beautiful & Pointless are so affecting and finely drawn. They contain an account of Mr. Orr’s attempts to introduce his father to the pleasures of poetry as he was dying of cancer. It sounds like the sort of treacly resort to intimacy that Mr. Orr rightly derides elsewhere, but he is too smart not to realize that, to defend against it by letting down his defenses. He writes for the first time in the book as if he means it. His father resisted Robert Frost but fell for Edward Lear. “‘I really like,’ said Dad, ‘the runcible spoon.’” These last few pages are enough to make you wish Mr. Orr had written a different kind of book. Certainly they tell the reader far more than anything else here about how beautiful poetry can be, and why that beauty is often to be found in poetry’s very pointlessness.