Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry represents the effort of David Orr, the New York Times poetry critic, to make a case for why contemporary poetry is worth reading. It’s sad that such a book has to be written at all, but such is the failing of our public school system and our culture, I suppose? Orr defines his target audience and his motive when he states in his introduction, “A smart, educated person who likes Charlie Kaufman’s movies and tolerates Thomas Pynchon’s novels, who works in a job that involves phrases like ‘amortized debentures’ or ‘easement by estoppel’ or ‘nomological necessity’ — that person is often not so much annoyed by poetry as confounded by it.” He is going to try to explain to said person what poetry reading is all about. At the same time, he hopes his reader will be thoughtful enough to not always agree with him: “If you do, you’ll be preventing your own response, the most vital and disturbing faculty you possess, from fully developing its power. You want to become a reader of modern poetry, not a receiver of the verdicts of modern poetry critics.”
Orr’s project is divided in six parts, the strongest of which are “The Personal” and “The Political.” In part one, “The Personal,” he tackles the common misunderstanding that poetry is necessarily a window into the poet’s soul, an impression nowadays informed by the confessionalism movement associated with Robert Lowell and his contemporaries. Yes, the lyric tradition in poetry prominently features the use of first-person, but this “I” overlaps the poet’s real-life self by varying degrees. The pop singer Jewel’s maudlin Hallmark-like verses are quoted as an instance of the artless splaying forth of a private self that too often passes for poetry just because it intimately confesses. Relying on Frank O’Hara as his showcase example, Orr goes on to demonstrate that poems can be personal without being embarrassing like Jewel’s, through the skillful juxtaposition of different registers. Personal remains relative; you often can’t know what is true confession and what is fiction, but what makes a good poem come off as personal is its poise between seeming calculated and seeming vulnerable.
Part two, “The Political,” addresses the age-old relationship between poetry and politics. Is it in any way true that, as Shelley wrote in 1821, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”? Orr notes the ironic disconnect between poets’ fascination with politics, with its basis in moral vision and persuasion that often mirrors their own, and the fact that mainstream Americans don’t see their poets as relevant to political life. Still, poems can serve a political function both knowingly (Orr quotes a Gwendolyn Brooks piece about the 1960s civil rights movement) and unknowingly (as when Auden’s “September 1, 1939” was revived around September 11, 2001). The chapter gracefully concludes that poems “have their own realities, and the worlds they contain cannot be lightly dismissed. [A]s a maker of poems, a poet is always engaged in battle, though the opponents may be unclear, the stakes unknowable, and the victories and defeats felt far away, in different domains, by people other than himself.”
From its title, I expected part three, “Form,” to defend traditional form against the modern-day supremacy of free verse. Instead it sidesteps the entire debate about form, positing that the use of form is all about triggering a reader’s recognition and the associations that she has with prior works. Part four, “Ambition,” takes on an unexpected topic at this juncture: the desire of many poets to be great, or as former poet laureate Donald Hall defines the goal, “to make words that live forever…to be as good as Dante.” Orr reminds us not to be hoodwinked by a poet’s use of bombastic terminology, or by the grandiose acclaim of biased institutions, when evaluating poetic ambition or greatness. Ambition, he says, is only the conviction that one can produce poems that stand out and stick.
The book finishes on a weaker note but with a fuller portrait of Orr’s subject. Part five, “The Fishbowl,” describes the tensions and controversies that define the contemporary poetry world, including the widespread observation that poets, their teachers, and their publicists have all receded into an inbred ivory tower. And part six, “Why Bother?”, examines arguments for why poetry is worth our time at all. “I can’t tell you,” Orr finally admits, “why you should bother to read poems, or to write them; I can only say that if you do choose to give your attention to poetry, as against all the other things you might turn to instead, that choice can be meaningful. There’s little grandeur in this, maybe, but out of such small, unnecessary devotions is the abundance of our lives sometimes made evident.”
This is a strangely modest conclusion, given the project that drove his book. We are reading this, after all, to find a defense for poetry. I prefer the conclusion he comes to later, toward the final pages: “Poetry…needs a history with its readers. It needs to have been read, and thought about, and excessively praised, and excessively scorned, and quoted in melodramatic fashion, and misremembered at dinner parties. It needs, in a particular and occasionally ridiculous way, to have been loved.” That is exactly what it comes down to. A person of faith does not believe because of irrefutable arguments but because of her personal relationship with God. Similarly, a person of poetry needs no arguments to take it up, because poetry has always been with him. I don’t know how many converts Beautiful & Pointless will make. I do know we could abolish the need for an apologia like David Orr’s if we made poetry a staple of our textbooks, our magazines, our newspapers, our rituals.