I just finished Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr, and now I am sad. It isn’t often that I come across a person who cares so much about poetry but is equally as honest about the state of contemporary poetry, and that willingness to illuminate the reality of modern poetry and call it like it is was refreshing, humbling, and entertaining. I’m not sad because of his honesty or the bleak portrait of modern poetry. I’m sad because he was light, funny, and accessible, and now it is over, and now I must go back to actually reading contemporary poetry (ha ha ha).
Y’all know that I love poetry (really, I love poetry, not just like). I come to poetry mostly from Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein and the simple pleasure of the way words felt in my mouth as I learned to read. The music of poetry and the written word is unlike lyrics in that the rhythm resides solely in the words– it cannot be buttressed by notes and chords, by percussion or strings. That’s where my love of poetry starts– in play and in joy. Plus, I am tone deaf, and while I will sing (badly), singing is a distinctly different kind of pleasure that involves high notes, low notes and all that fall between, while one focus of poetry is on the way the words rub up against each other, in stresses and unstressed syllables, in alliterations and rhyme. It sings without vocal range (thank God for that).
Next I find the poems I like most offer a magnified glimpse. At something. Anything, really. Like a photographer, the poet zooms in and says, look what I found. Or, listen to this experience I had once. Or, doesn’t this remind you of this other thing? I love the metaphor. I love the hidden truth revealed. I love the “ah ha!” moment when I discover what the writer discovered, and I love to be on the writing end of that “ah ha!” moment, experiencing the surprise, too. I like poems that invite me over for a cup of tea.
But I also like poems with depth and feeling, poems that struggle with questions– big and little ones–poems that make demands, poems that are so personal they fold in on themselves and become universal. I love poems rich in detail and rooted in scene. I love storytelling and narrative, form and freeverse. I even love the poems that require several run-throughs before the meaning reveals itself, if at all, poems with complex syntax that I have to cut into small pieces and digest slowly before I have any idea what’s really going on besides initial awe.
So these are some of the reasons why I love poetry. What is brilliant about Beautiful & Pointless is that Orr does not set out to defend poetry as the Art of Arts. He shares with the reader a panoramic shot of the world of modern poetry, and he nails it, all of it– the ego, the rubbing of elbows, the academic world, the private world, the public poet, the business of endorsements, the poem about the poem, and, most importantly, the reality that is so often forgotten in poetic circles, the fact that all of the people who actually read and value poetry could comfortably fit into one large athletic complex.
This reality, for me, isn’t discouraging. There are plenty of niche groups in the world who are passionate about interests I have no desire to pursue (i.e., Star Trek. Basket Weaving. Hot Air Ballooning. Rowing. Etc.), and none of them are bemoaning the state of the world, the general neglect of their Art, or why collecting stamps hasn’t entered the realm of popular culture.
At the end of the century, maybe a dozen dead poets will find their work in the Norton Anthology tortured college freshman will read and be confused by. The likelihood that I am one of those dead poets by 2100 is pretty, pretty slim (the likelihood that I AM a dead poet by 2100 is almost guaranteed, unless I live to be 118), SO, I think I will write whatever the heck I want to write, however the heck I want to write it, and I better darn well have a good time doing it, because chances are me and a handful of my closest friends and family will read the things, and then just two or three will actually care, so if I’m not having fun along the way, then why, why keep it up?
I love poetry.
Read Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr. You might not walk away wanting to jump into the latest issue of Poetry Magazine or jump online to order a subscription for Rattle, but you will have a fresh perspective on the wild and crazy world of the contemporary poet, you will laugh a little– mostly at yourself, if you are a poet.
(Chiseling away at my book goal for 2012! Have you read any good poets lately? Or good books about poetry?)