Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr (Harper, 2011)
It is easy to see why David Orr is one of our preeminent reviewers of poetry. He writes with grace and wit, two attributes necessary to transform a review from something merely serviceable to a form of literary art itself. His new book, Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, is, however, perhaps misnamed in the portion of the title a grad-school friend of mine cheekily referred to as the “post-colonic.” The term “guide” suggests some sort of schematic layout, perhaps accompanied by a few charts and graphs, along with a chunky glossary. Orr’s graceful little book is better described as an eloquent conversation, as it draws few of the definitive lines one would expect from a “guide.” Orr clearly prefers musing to mapping.
The first two chapters muse upon first the place of the “personal” and then of the “political” in contemporary poetry. Orr resists drawing any conclusions about how these aspects of poetry either do or should operate in the contemporary literary world. Instead he shows how the questions raised by poets about their work in relation to the personal and the political animates much contemporary poetry. If one is left feeling that these two chapters never really arrive anywhere, the disappointment is more than compensated for by the delightful company along the way to nowhere, especially by Orr aptness with examples, evidence of his wide familiarity with contemporary poetry.
More schematic is the chapter on “form,” in which Orr offers three categories under that heading: “metrical form,” “resemblance form,” and “mechanical form.” By the first term, he obviously refers to iambic-pentameter and the like. By the third term, he means artificial rules used to generate poems, such as the games of the L=A=N=U=A=U=G=E Poets, though he also applies the terms to syllabics (which seems odd, as I would categorize syllabics as simply another metrical system). Most useful in this chapter is his introduction of the term, “Resemblance Form,” by which he means received forms such as the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina, etc. The term is useful for the analogy it draws: “Resemblance has no trouble allowing for degree – just think of how one sibling may strongly have the family ‘look,’ while another sibling may show it only weakly” (81). This analogy, if introduced to writing students at the proper moment in their development, could do much to fight off, on the one hand, a slavish conception of form as mere mechanics, and, on the other hand, a too-common disinterest in form altogether. Orr adds a richer critical dimension to this observation when he observes how such an understanding of form helps us to see a particular poem in a rich tradition of poems with the “family resemblance.” I’ll certainly be incorporating the concept into my writing and poetics courses.
I do have to quibble with one thing Orr says in his chapter on form. In rightly asserting the aural nature of metrical form, Orr contrasts it with what he calls “other formal structures” but will soon call “resemblance forms,” saying “other formal structures – sonnets for instance – are perceived visually” (76). Let’s leave aside the vague “other formal structures” and focus only on the case of the sonnet. If Orr means to say that the sonnet is also perceived visually, then he is correct. He seems to imply by means of contrast, however, that the sonnet is perceived only visually, an assertion I believe to be incorrect. One is, I believe, perfectly capable of recognizing a sonnet as such through purely aural means, as Shakespeare clearly expects his audience to do in Romeo and Juliet, for instance upon the meeting of the star-crossed lovers in Act One, Scene Five. This is perhaps more true of the English sonnet than of its Italian cousin, as the regularity of the quatrains builds the expectation that the concluding couplet confirms. As evidence, listen to Mark Jarman read some of his Unholy Sonnets.
The next chapter is devoted to “Ambition,” a topic of some controversy in poetry circles. Orr agrees with Donald Hall and others that contemporary poetry inevitably fails when it lacks “ambition,” but Orr wants to carefully define that term rather than sweepingly invoke it in the usual polemical way. This is, next to his observation on “resemblance form,” the most critically useful point in Beautiful and Pointless. Drawing on examples from Geoffrey Hill, Jorie Graham, Derek Walcott, and (for contrast) Kay Ryan, Orr skillful leads his reader into a crucial distinction between “ambition” and grand style. Citing other critics, he demonstrates that poets are often praised for their ambition as a reward for a certain grandness of style (perhaps to be associated with the legacy of Milton). He concludes with the very commonsense assertion that true ambition ought to be measured by the desire to produce poems “difficult to forget” (131), regardless of the stylistic approach. Such a distinction could do much to deflate a lot of literary windbags and to redeem the reputation of several plain-spoken poets who have fallen into critical neglect.
In a chapter titled “The Fishbowl” Orr provides a chatty, maybe even gossipy, look at the “pobiz” world of contests, grants, and controversy (including the foetry.com ruckus). This chapter, like the first two chapters, is more companionable conversation than critical insight. Like Donald Hall’s entertaining essays on the old poetry circuit, it is good airplane reading.
More interesting, and a natural culmination for the book, is the final chapter, “Why Bother?” Characteristically, Orr does not answer this question in a positive sense; instead, he offers three failed answers. The most interesting part of this chapter is Orr’s deflation of the argument that poetry is important because it teaches us something about language itself or it epitomizes whatever it is that is special or even miraculous about language. By comparing contemporary poetry with other language instances ranging from a parental “I love you” to King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, he shows the case for poetry as uniquely powerful language to have been greatly overstated. This is a refreshingly frank confession from someone who has spent his adult life writing about poetry. Orr then also deflates the argument for poetry as a special form of self-knowledge and as a special form of social knowledge. He does this not by arguing that poetry has no power to tell us about ourselves or our social contexts, but rather by showing that poetry does not uniquely do so. Poems are one way to know thyself; some people obviously find others. Again, this is good commonsense. So why bother, then? Orr ultimately admits that he doesn’t know: “I can’t tell you 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 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” (179). That such a statement might also be made about, say, fly fishing or running marathons is, I think, a good indication of its truthfulness. When we ask too much of poetry, we set ourselves (and maybe more importantly our students) up for certain disappointment. Orr follows this point up with a moving story involving his father’s stroke and poetry as speech therapy. This personal anecdote adds dimension to Orr’s assertion about the “abundance of our lives,” supporting the statement in the only way such a statement may be supported: empirically.
Beautiful and Pointless is a fine book. It is not ground-breaking or even mind-changing. It is something that is perhaps even more rare in contemporary literary publishing: it is good company. In that, it joins a “family resemblance” that reaches back through Samuel Johnson and Francis Bacon to Plato’s Socratic dialogues. If that isn’t grand, it is certainly ambitious.