David Orr ’96 (Tom McGhee)

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David Orr ’96 (Tom McGhee)

A poetry critic, poet, and part-time lawyer, David Orr ’96 is the poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review. In his columns and reviews, he writes in a witty way that is inviting for nonpoets and poets alike. In his new book, Beautiful & Pointless {A Guide to Modern Poetry}, which he began working on as a Hodder Fellow at Princeton several years ago, he aims to bring nonpoets along with him to “Poetryland” — to help them understand a bit about poetic form, and what poets think about and talk about in the contemporary poetry world. Slate critic Craig Morgan Teicher wrote that Orr “seeks not just to initiate the uninitiated … but also to hold a mirror up to the poetry world itself.” Orr spoke with Katherine Federici Greenwood.

For whom did you write the book?

People who are quite bright, who are quite good readers, but who don’t read much poetry. And more specifically, I have a lot of friends who are lawyers, who are academics in departments other than the English department, the comp-lit department, or the creative writing department, and who are interested in poetry, but who haven’t read much of it in 10 or 20 years. It’s meant to reintroduce some readers to poetry. It’s also intended for poets who know it’s for nonpoets.

You compare learning how to read and relate to poetry to going to Belgium or some other foreign country. What do you mean by that?

There are different kinds of difficulties that you can encounter when trying to do something new, whether it’s read poetry or repair a motorcycle. One type of difficulty is just the complexity of the activity itself, and the other type of difficulty is your lack of familiarity with the context of the activity. Obviously poetry is complicated and it’s hard to do at a basic level, but the larger problem is that people lack context for it. So if you compare reading poetry to visiting a foreign country, it helps people to understand that some of the confusion they experience is just the natural confusion you are supposed to experience any time you do something new. Poetry [like a foreign country] has its own landmarks. It has its own customs. And sometimes it has its own language.

In the chapter on ambition, you talk about how through most of 20th century there were fewer poets, and poetry was more clubby and elitist than it is today. With the creation of creative writing programs in America that started flourishing in the 1970s, more people became poets. And some critics and poets lament that poetry has become more “middle class” and not so “great” and ambitious.

People are conflicted about the democratization of poetry. On the one hand, they really like it that there are a lot more people to participate in the art form. On the other hand, they worry that something will be lost as the old system collapses. Although at this point it really has collapsed. …  

I am completely in favor of poetry being democratized, so long as we keep what’s worth keeping. I think that one of problems is that our conception of greatness is still tied to this older period and isn’t necessarily helpful. Writers are just as good now as they were before, but we have this idea that “great poetry” is supposed to look a certain way, and some of our better contemporary writers don’t have that look. The problem is that usually when you’re making these types of assumptions, it’s an instinctive response. It’s not something that you are carefully considering. So if you somehow have it in your head that poets are supposed to write in a certain kind of style, when you see somebody writing in that style your first assumption is that person is really ambitious. And therefore that person might be “great.” It might be that over time, you’ll realize that person is not very good at all. But you’re going to have to overcome your initial response. 

What is that certain look or appearance that some readers instinctively think “great poetry” should have?

It’s almost exactly what you would think. Poetry that tends to involve words that are sort of grand and abstract. Poetry that tends to involve overt discussion of something that is considered to be something really important like politics — versus poetry that at first appears to be about something really simple, like a sandwich or a dog. Because poetry is so complex, a poem about a sandwich isn’t really about a sandwich in the first place. So when you’re thinking less of something because it appears to be about a sandwich, you’re making a mistake.

We have this sort of bias in favor of this grand style. And the way you see the bias is we’re always making excuses for things that aren’t written in that style. A great example of something like this is Kay Ryan,who writes really terrific poetry. But people are constantly having to say stuff like, “Oh, she writes these little, bitty poems, but that’s OK.” Of course it’s OK. Why wouldn’t it be OK?

In your book you say that people need to spend time with poetry to develop a meaningful relationship with it – just as they would with any other activity.

In a way, that’s the point of the book. What I’m hoping to do is less give people a series of lessons than, in this sort of backdoor way, let them spend time with it. One way to spend time with any activity is listening to someone who knows the activity talk their way through the activity. And that’s what I’m trying to do in the book. …

The only way to learn about poetry is to follow your own tastes. You’ll find it changes over time. There are plenty of poets I just loved when I was 22 who I now find tiresome. There are poets I didn’t like so much when I was 22 that I now like quite a lot. So you just have to follow your own path. You can get the basics of poetry in a regimented way by reading a long checklist [of poets], but in the end, if you really want to be a reader, you have to do your own thing. The relationship that some people want readers to have with poetry, which is one of sort of reverence, I don’t think is very helpful for anybody. It’s certainly not good for poetry. You have to feel familiar with it. You can’t feel familiar with something you’re supposed to bow in front of.   

Interview has been condensed.