13 June, 2011Issue 16.4LiteraturePoetry

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The Point of Beauty

Rachel Abramowitz

Beautiful & PointlessDavid Orr
Beautiful & Pointless
Harper, 2011
224 Pages
$25.99
ISBN 978-0061673450

 


For many, if not most people, encountering a poem is akin to being shoved blindfolded into a labyrinth at whose heart lies a Brussels sprout doused in castor oil. Actually, the general reader would shun such simile-making, choosing instead to abandon the enterprise altogether. Anyone who has tried, with less than one thousandth the skill, talent, and zeal of Milton to “explain the ways of poetry to American undergraduate business majors” understands the near-divine frustration inherent in such a task. Resistance is hardly futile; it generally conquers all. “I don’t get it.” “I’ll never need to use this.” “All that matters is what you bring to the poem.” Statements to haunt an English teacher’s nightmares.

But you don’t have to be a teacher to experience the particular torment of trying to convince someone to read (let alone write!) a poem; you just have to enjoy poetry and want to share it. The resistance you most likely will confront is at once curious and unsurprising. Poetry did not enjoy, as did the visual arts, a late-19th century democratisation. The overlap between the millions of yearly visitors to the Museum of Modern Art and the handful of poetry readers is tellingly slim. Our culture has taught us how to look at a Picasso—or at least not to panic in front of one. At least when “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was first exhibited, the reactions were violent. Modern poetry, no more or less challenging than a modern painting, is rarely even actively disliked. Indifference is the common attitude, and avoidance the standard strategy.

What these teachers, students, and future business leaders of the developing world need is a book that makes the case for reading modern poetry as a worthwhile and even pleasant pursuit. A book that outlines how to begin to figure out what a given poem is “about”; that explains the value of understanding how meter works; that demonstrates how and why rhyme is perfected, slanted, or broken; that considers a poet’s choice of a villanelle or a sestina or a ghazal, and briefly explains what makes these forms tick. A book that shows us how to determine whether a poem is good or bad, to develop our own artistic tastes, and to make the case for why we should try to articulate them to others.

Sadly, David Orr’s Beautiful & Pointless, a professed “Guide to Modern Poetry”, is not that book. As poetry columnist at The New York Times Book Review, Orr has had quite a bit of practice bringing poetry to the masses (or at least the self-selecting masses who read The New York Times Book Review). Over the years he has pinpointed the problem as the fact that “many good readers don’t understand, as a basic matter, how to respond to the art form.” In light of this cultural limitation, Orr’s goal in Beautiful & Pointless is to “give [the reader] a sense of what modern poets think about, how those poets talk about what they’re thinking about, and most important, how an individual poetry reader relates to the art he usually likes, always loves, and is frequently annoyed by.” This is a noble and long-overdue undertaking, and Orr might have been just the guru those exasperated verse-lovers and inquiring souls have been looking for. It seems, unfortunately, that they will have to wait a little longer.

Orr so often asks the right questions that it is difficult not to yearn for the book that answers them. For example, he echoes the dilemma faced by many poetry teachers when he writes that “We seem trapped between a tediously mechanical view of poems and an unjustifiably shamanistic view of poetry itself”. For many students and readers, learning about poetry is often either a chore or an experience of exclusion from a secret sect of poetry initiates. What is even worse than reducing poetry either to “philosophy in a can” (as the poet James Galvin puts it) or to some otherworldly invocation is the common belief that poetry is the “pure expression of our inner lives”, that it is a “prism through which the soul is glimpsed” and therefore immune to criticism and unfettered by craft. The purpose of Beautiful & Pointless, one would assume, is to remedy this quandary, to forge a middle way of teaching in which poetry retains its beauty not only despite but because of an investigation into its inner workings. In an attempt to knock poetry from its pedestal, however, Orr succeeds only in airing its dirty laundry: the stale scandal of Foetry.com, the “rhetorical extremity” of blurbs, Jewel’s travesty A Night Without Armor. A chapter devoted to a wrongheaded discussion of “Ambition” is further “blurred”—a word Orr frequently uses in most of its forms as a kind of aesthetic get-out-of-jail-free card—by a nasty diatribe against MFA programs and an ambivalence about what, exactly, the poet’s role in society is.

For a poet and critic, Orr does not seem to think very hard about his metaphors, which range from the offensive to the merely puzzling. Discussing Robert Hass’s political poem “Bush’s War”, Orr tries to explain a reference to Tokyo as “serving as another crudité on the atrocity platter”, which makes war sound like one hell of a cocktail party. Elsewhere he claims that “there are more transparently veiled personal references in modern poems than there are grits in South Carolina”—you’ll just have to take his word for it. Even Orr’s attempt to find an analogy to the activity of reading poetry misfires: instead of comparing the apple of poetry to other art apples, Orr throws in the orange of the American football game. Had Orr really considered how the game works, or what it means to be a spectator of any sport or entertainment, it might have been a fruitful comparison; as it stands, Orr’s treatment of the metaphor is simply slapdash. One can guess at Orr’s objective behind these rhetorical moves: the ways in which we talk about poetry have become stale, and modern audiences require modern references. In his effort to be funny and culturally relevant, however, he neglects to really get to the heart of any of the legitimate problems he identifies, sacrificing a meaningful discussion of satire or “greatness” or the professionalization of poetry for a throwaway quip. Name-dropping Beyoncé and Courtney Love, as any teenager knows, does not a cool authority figure make.

Perhaps the cure for the common trepidation is homeopathic, that is, using poetry to strengthen one’s immunity to the anxiety produced by a poem. After all, our language is not only chock-full of metaphors (found everywhere from advertising to aphorisms), but is also roughly iambic or at least recognizably metrical. Every time you Google the lyrics to a pop song, you get a lyric poem (for better or for worse: cf. Justin Bieber, early Beatles). Every time you try to assemble something from IKEA, you’re reading an imagistic haiku. A grasp of basic irony is a step in a child’s cognitive development. Revealing the ways in which poetry infuses our daily lives—”I love you” is a poem—would go far in convincing the nervous reader that poetry is not only accessible, but that it enriches our inner lives immeasurably. Orr quotes Randall Jarrell’s Möbius-like maxim that “if we were in the habit of reading poems their obscurity would not matter; and once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help.” Orr, rightly, wants us to change our habits, but Beautiful & Pointless, as he himself might say, is too little carrot, too much stick.

Rachel Abramowitz is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Christ Church, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.