book cover imageBeautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry
by David Orr.
HarperCollins Publishers (New York, NY), 2011, xviii + 200 pp., $25.99

In this, his first book, David Orr, the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, attempts to persuade the general reading public that contemporary American poetry is meaningful. Though he readily admits that much of it is immaterial and that the poetry establishment’s cult and its hero-worship are derisible, Orr does try—valiantly, if unsuccessfully—to prove that American poems still have some artistic and social values. Many will instantly dismiss this attempt as silly but Orr’s small book is worth a footnote in any study of American poetry’s steady decline towards irrelevance. This is an honest book about a neglected art form and its dishonest practitioners.

T. S. Eliot twice remarked that “each generation brings to the contemplation of art its own categories of appreciation, makes its own demands upon art, and has its own uses for art.” According to Orr, the current generation of Americans suffers (perhaps unknowingly) the loss of poetry because it is incapable of appreciating its influence. Consequently poetry must now be taught or explained by columnists like Orr or the same disengaged contemporary poets whom he quotes at length. But Orr faces an almost insurmountable task in attempting to identify the potential good in poetry in an age preoccupied with other forms of expression because few of the poems that he quotes evoke the possibility of further interest or remembrance. Daily newspaper reports of aberrant behavior may be more interesting to read than Sharon Olds’s “family travails” poems from which Orr quotes: in which her father shoves his arm up every waitress’s skirt and then dresses like a woman, complete with tennis balls for breasts.

One would have thought that creative words, if meaningful to the public, would not require such support, especially in our age of rabid communication. Perhaps contemporary American poetry simply does not radiate much interest and no amount of detail about the making of the poem or of the poet’s home life can cure the absence of artistic expression. In his conclusion Orr reverts to two standard-bearers—Frost and Lear (though the latter is English)—in telling the gory story of his father’s decay after a stroke and how a poem by each was used in an attempt to restore speech. This only appeared to reinforce the insular nature of this art form and to suggest a parallel decline by literary essayists.

Orr’s style is colloquial and friendly,full of present-day references to sports and pop music, intended clearly to draw the reading public towards something that he suggests it does not understand. He reminds one of those sincere young poets, just out of university writing programs, who eagerly read their juvenilia aloud at open poetry readings. One is always tempted to suggest that their time might have been better spent reading, not writing, in order to grasp why poetry was once considered an expression of national or universal importance. But Orr does not go that far. He is too kind and accepting. To Orr, poetry that is beautiful and pointless is acceptable. And he may be right: consider how fleeting anything of importance or beauty is these days as we tweet.

Those used to cogent written opinions may dislike Orr’s folklorist style. I wondered why he was not more surefooted, why he seems to apologize for his odd colloquialisms at every turn: “the discussion [of poetry’s decline] tends to take on a weirdly personal tone, as if poetry were a bedridden grandmother”; “the implicit assumption that relating to poetry is like solving a calculus problem while being zapped with a cattle prod.” He even describes Ezra Pound as the Courtney Love of his day.

I also wondered if Orr was purposely writing down in order to separate himself from the superlatives that now usually surround poetry. Consider self-acclaimed critic and poet Meghan O’Rourke’s breathless description of “the power of literature to transubstantiate grievance into insight” in her recent review of Les Murray’s new volume of poetry about his depression. As Orr readily concedes, O’Rourke’s poems will in turn be showered with praise by another poet who wants to advance in their cardboard pantheon. Under these circumstances one might choose the bedridden grandmother for her truthfulness or calculus for its more honest intellectual rigor.

According to Orr most Americans are incapable of undertaking the arduous journey towards understanding poetry because time is scarce and they have other things (and needs) on their mind. But there will always be those, especially the young, who are eager to engage the future. They relish the ribaldry and rivalry of words tossed into the daily cauldron of life in this magnificently complex and demanding nation. Perhaps it is not the general American public that lacks linguistic stamina but the self-absorbed poets whose works leave us drowsy. Orr simply won’t admit that contemporary American poetry is boring.

A quick visit to the poetry section (if it still exists and has not been subsumed by fiction) of a bookstore will confirm Orr’s depressing observations. Excluding poets such as Richard Howard with his broad historical sense, most contemporary poetry is cartoonish, cheap, therapeutic, or personal. Worst of all, the prestigious honors and awards that fill the biographies of America’s celebrated contemporary poets belie both the importance and the academic integrity of the universities that foster and house these practitioners.

Unlike most Americans in all walks of life, poets do not contribute their fair share to our political discussions. One may question the sincerity of Hollywood’s partisan antics before presidential elections or the music industry’s showy charity concerts but at least they are vibrant displays in their own fashion. In contrast, would it matter much if all the books submitted for this year’s National Book Critics Circle award for poetry were recycled as starter logs for fireplaces or as padding for shipping shoes? Like Orr, I exaggerate, but even he mocks what American poets have produced and honored lately.

What is to be done to save both the public and the poets from themselves? According to Orr, both are powerless because of the public’s inability to grasp the interplay of meter, form, perception, memory, and intuition. But can talk about a dying art form revive it? Can poetry be made more meaningful without fundamental improvements? That’s like trying to improve a government without first extracting those who passed and profited from its bad laws.

There are many poems in Orr’s book and I discovered one by Thom Gunn that I did not know and liked. But mostly what Orr demonstrates, especially in his section about ambition, is how confused, insecure, purposeless, and unsure are both America’s poets and their critics. Young poets are said to be full of promise despite the dearth of their experience. But, almost certainly, the incestuous environment that Orr describes will neither foster the development of new writers nor the creation of good or great poems worthy of the attention of Americans. Now, in the small poetry world, not much matters.  

Eugene Schlanger, the Wall Street Poet, is the author of September 11 Wall Street Sonnets (Paris: Éditions Underbahn, 2006). He also practices law on Wall Street.