Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review of Beautiful and Pointless by David Orr

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 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.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Where to Read Reviews of Poetry

David Orr occasionally writes something on a few poets for the New York Times. Now and then, there’s something in TLS (more likely a dead poet than a living one) or the New York Review of Books. Also, I can’t help adding that my book and two others recently got some attention in Books and Culture. But, generally speaking, poetry appears as a topic only rarely in the biggest review publications. So, I thought I would recommend a few places, beyond this blog, where one can read on-line reviews of contemporary poetry.

At the top of my list is The Contemporary Poetry Review, a site which amasses an amazing array of top poetic talent to appraise the latest offerings in contemporary poetry. These folks are keeping the great tradition of the poet/critic alive, and they aren’t afraid to write a negative review. This is a smart and highly useful sight.

In a similar vein is The Critical Flame, which reviews many kinds of books but keeps a portion of the site dedicated to verse.

There are some really interesting reviews posted on the website for Rattle Magazine, in a special section called "E-Reviews."

Also, you won’t want to miss the Virtual Artist Collective’sReading Room,” which includes small press books that might be missed by the bigger guys above.

The Boxcar Poetry Review specializes in reviews of first books.

Of course, the Valparaiso Poetry Review is a great resource.

There are also frequently reviews included in The Pedestal Magazine.

Happy Reading.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Review of Ron Wallace's Oklahoma Cantos

Ron Wallace, Oklahoma Cantos (TJMF Publishing, 2011).

            Start throwing a word like cantos around and you raise some big expectations. The term immediately brings to mind not only Ezra Pound’s ponderous modernist project but also Dante’s great medieval allegorical epic. Ron Wallace’s Oklahoma Cantos seems aware of these expectations, beginning with a series of commendatory comments by a number of Okie literary luminaries and an introduction by the great Billie Letts. Wallace even includes his own preface to the work, ala Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads, in which he, like Wordsworth, declares a desire to make poetry from the voice of the “common man.” All this would be a bit much were it not for Wallace’s constant humility, which balances all the fanfare with a healthy dose of common sense and plain-spoken wisdom. The result is a book that is ambitious enough to generate poetry that matters but humble enough to generate poetry one actually enjoys reading. This is a delicate balance, but, like Johnny Cash, Wallace is able to walk the line.
            While the title poem would seem to pay tribute to Pound, it really owes much more to William Carlos Williams, or, if Pound, the Pound of “A Station of the Metro” rather than of the Cantos. Wallace’s “Oklahoma Cantos” is a poem of thirty-two (had he added one more he could have reached Dante’s favorite number) quatrains, each focusing on a precise image from the Oklahoma landscape. Many of the quatrains are quite lovely taken even in isolation, such as number sixteen:
                        A winding creek bends under remnants
                        of barbed wire sagging across a shallow gulley,
                        where fireflies appear in flashes, disappear,
                        and reappear in tangled vines above the ravine.
This is vivid and recognizable. But the poem’s effect is symphonic rather than cumulative: the quatrains work together to build one larger image of Oklahoma as Wallace sees it, and it’s the whole picture that is really compelling. This is an innovative and interesting approach, one that requires a painterly patience from the poet and that rewards the time of the reader.
            As interesting as the title poem is, the, mostly narrative, poems which follow it are, in my opinion, the heart of the book. These poems deliver on Wallace’s promise in his preface to depict the world of real Oklahomans. These poems draw on daily life: the cutting of hay, the changeable weather, baseball. This last topic, in fact, dominates much of the collection, with poems about playing catch with his father and with his son, about Mickey Mantle, about buying a glove, about little league. Although baseball is not a new topic in American poetry, Wallace manages to avoid cliché, mainly by focusing more on the place of the game in his own life than on the obvious and familiar trappings of the sport. The poems, in other words, aren’t just about baseball; they are about Ron Wallace’s baseball.
            In fact, Oklahoma Cantos is a very personal book throughout, although not what one would call “confessional” (unless you count open affection for the NY Yankees as confessional), and its most personal aspect is its treatment of the poet’s struggle against passing time. The inevitable loss that comes with time is a major theme throughout the book. The opening poem subtly establishes this theme by enacting the struggle against time in the poet’s imagistic attempt to isolate and preserve brief moments. The theme becomes more overt in poems like “Main Street 1964” which dramatizes the noble but inevitably unsuccessful effort to conquer time through the force of imagination. A similar drama unfold in “Crown and Seven,” as the poet attempts to summon a musical voice from the past but ends up with only “the cold iron wind of February singing through the trees.” In “Moonlight Graham Steps off the Field,” the poet is confronted with “forty years fractured / like a dropped tea glass on a cement porch.” This line both evokes the past in its image of rural Oklahoma summer time and simultaneously mourns its loss. Wallace frequently strikes this elegiac tone, doing what elegy always does: temporary resurrection. Another fine instance of this tone is “In My Father’s Books,” in which the lost father is returned to life by means of marginalia. In a more forceful vein, the short poem “Grey” seems to evoke the tradition of time the devourer in a link between the blank grey sky, the grey hair of the poet, and the grey fur of his cat, who is stalking for the kill a bird as blue as the poem’s always already lost sky. The sum effect of these poems is the keen awareness of how, as he puts it in “One Day you Ride,” “half your life passes like an errant rifle shot.”
            The poem I consider to be the book’s finest is also concerned with time, but in a way more subtle and complex than any other poem in the collection. “Learning to Speak Choctaw,” is simultaneously another elegy for his father, a lament for his lost youth, a tribute to “the greatest generation,” and an reminder of the great past and troubled present of a proud people. Like most of the poems after the title piece, “Learning to Speak Choctaw” is a narrative poem, telling of his policeman father’s relationship with a Choctaw veteran and alcoholic living near Wallace’s boyhood home. It is a profoundly moving poem, ending with the father’s sad and stoic advice to his young son to “just keep thowin’ the ball.”
            Wallace may mean the title, Oklahoma Cantos, as a reference only to the book’s first poem, but, in the etymological sense, all the poems in this book are Oklahoma cantos, or songs of Oklahoma. In the preface and in poem after poem, Wallace unabashedly embraces a regional approach and poetic identity. Paradoxically, it is that willingness to write in a particular place, struggling against a particular time, that gives the poems their universal appeal. Books like Oklahoma Cantos remind us of what it feels like to be from somewhere, whatever particular place we may be from. This is an accomplishment of which to be proud.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Poem in a New Journal

A while back I got a message from a fellow “Chandlerite” (that’s a resident of Chandler, OK) involved in a start-up literary magazine, wanting to know if I had anything to contribute. Their online journal, Naked Earth, is up now and is very interesting. My contribution is a poem about turtles, my way of talking about paying attention.