Monday, 6 June 2011

Book Review - Beautiful and Pointless (a guide to modern poetry) by David Orr

Beautiful & pointless : (a guide to modern poetry), by David Orr

Published by Harper, 2011                     ISBN 9780061673450

Go to most bookshops today, and you're hard pressed to find a poetry section- if you do, you might find that the books of modern poetry are outnumbered by anthologies, and how-to books such as How to Read Poetry, or The Poetry Toolkit. At first blush David Orr's book might seem to be another in this genre, but he has set himself a slightly different task, and it's one he pulls off with a considerable amount of verve.

It's important to point out at the beginning of this review that Orr is writing specifically of the milieu of modern poetry in the USA, where creative writing courses have carved out a sizable niche in academe for 'professional' poets, and all that means (both good and bad). This is quite different from the Australian situation, where there is much less scope for poets to turn their craft into a way to earn a living, so my "Down Under" viewpoint might be a little different to Orr's (presumed) intended audience.

Orr has divided his work inti six sections - The Personal, The Political, Form, Ambition, The Fishbowl, and Why Bother? The first section, The Personal begins by describing the responses Orr gets at parties when he says what he does for a living (he is a poetry critic). This moves into a discussion of what the personal actually means in poetry, especially given the confessional nature of a lot of modern verse. The point I think Orr is trying to make is that a reader shouldn't let the feeling of 'overhearing' a poem take away from the experience of it's language or technical skill. He subtly points out that this criticism could be applied to some poets as well.

The short chapter entitled 'The Political', deals with what it means to be political in poetry, and raises the conundrum that many (American) poets today are highly politicised (usually on the Left of the spectrum), but their poetry shys away from direct political statement, or fails to reach it's presumed target audience - Orr raising the conjecture that poets today might be so enclosed in the ivory tower that they have actually lost the ability to speak to the masses (and also points out that there may never have been a time when they did).

If you have got this far into the review, you'll realise by now that this is not your typical guide to poetry, but you might think the next section,'Form' might brings us back to more familiar 'how to' territory. You'd be wrong of course. In fact this is the best part of the book, because Orr does not go down the usual path of technical explanation of form. He describes the battle that rages between formalism and it's opposites, and in so doing has given us some new methods and terms to use when discussing form. Metrical form is obvious, but then he gives us two other terms, 'Resemblance form', and 'Mechanical form'. These are quite handy and useful ways to look at and perhaps categorize modern poetry - the idea behind Orr's concept of resemblance form is that something that resembles a classic form should be treated as such, even if it has been pulled apart with (post)modern glee and reconstructed in a way that Shakespeare may not understand (Orr does point out that even the Great Man himself was able to stretch forms to suit his purposes on occasion). Mechanical form is a category that Orr uses to describe poetry that sets itself some sort of artificial limitation, such as only containing a certain number of syllables a line.

Of course, because this is the postmodern age, Orr then spends several pages disavowing the idea of categorizing form at all, and coming to rest in the argument on the side of 'is it interesting?', rather than giving too much weight to any particular form.

In the section titled 'Ambition', Orr looks at the state of American poetry today in terms of what makes a poet ambitious, and what that means for a poet writing today. He has a very interesting section on Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, connected in so many ways, and the relative change in the posthumous reception of the two, with Bishop on the ascendant and Lowell declining in reputation. He makes the point that Lowell was self-consciously a Great Poet and strived to be so, a position that Bishop eschewed, perhaps to concentrate on her craft. It's instructive to note that Lowell's collected works amount to 1200 pages, where Bishop's checks in at about 200. The change to the nature of what it means to be a poet in the modern age has done things, in Orr's opinion, that make it harder for a Lowell-type Greatness to be possible today, and perhaps give us a greater appreciation for Bishop's less 'shouty' form of achievement. There is no easy answer to the question of what it means to be an ambitious poet in the early twenty-first century, and Orr gives the answer that may in fact be closest to the truth - find your voice and develop it as much as you can.

'The Fishbowl' brings us back closer to earth, being a discussion of what the "academization" of poetry has done to it's practitioners, and whether that change is of detriment to the art. Orr gives space to both sides of the argument, explaining how academia provides a comfortable place for someone to find the time to write, and gives poetry an importance that it might otherwise lack. He also points out that the ivory tower can put some limitations on a poet as well, in that a potential poet needs to conform to the appropriate career milestones and make sure they keep in with the right people to get ahead, which of course can actually end up being antithetical to the best poetry.

What Orr doesn't really discuss in this section are the poets that are not part of the academic treadmill, who are Insurance Executives or Librarians or Labourers. This section of the book is fascinating, but it is very narrow, and it is unclear to me whether Orr sees academic poets as the only ones worth talking about. Certainly if you are a poet in academe you are taking your work very seriously, but surely so was Philip Larkin (the Librarian), Wallace Stevens (the Insurance Company Executive), or John Shaw Neilson (the Labourer).

In 'Why Bother?', Orr moves into a more personal mode, where he attempts to answer a question that possibly has never had a definitive answer. He certainly doesn't provide one, and is unashamed to state that. Why Not? is a perfectly valid response, and in the end is one that Orr gives us, after a quick ride through some of the arguments that have been put forward for poetry over the years.

In his Introduction to this book Orr gives the reader permission to disagree with him - he also gives the reader permission to read poetry without necessarily knowing too much about it at first - he uses the metaphor of visiting another country, in which at first things don't make much sense, but if you keep wandering around eventually you do start to get the hang of it all. To stretch that metaphor, Orr's book is like one of those short, hip guidebooks that eschews the "normal" sights and restaurants, and instead provides an interesting view of some parts of the country of modern poetry that will help the traveller get around the countryside. It's well written, pacy and humorous in parts, and certainly more fun than a Lonely Planet Guide.

Check your local library or bookshop for Beautiful and Pointless - they probably won't have it but you never know, they might - and they might have some decent poetry as well.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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