Beautiful and Pointless by David Orr
How would you go about introducing someone to poetry? Say you are at a family gathering and there are some cousins present you haven’t seen in a long time. They ask you what you are doing. You mention that you are writing poetry, or that you just got a poem published; something like that. Your cousin is surprised and a little intrigued and asks you about poetry; like what is it? Or perhaps a co-worker learns that you write poetry and asks you about poetry. How would you go about showing, or telling, someone who is completely unfamiliar with poetry what it is and why it attracts you?
This is the task that David Orr set himself in writing Beautiful & Pointless. Orr loves poetry, but he recognizes that the contemporary poetry scene is baffling for many people. Orr’s approach is to compare poetry to a foreign country; Orr picks Belgium. And just as a visitor to Belgium will learn about the country a little bit at a time, so also someone new to poetry will go through a similar process of becoming familiar with the territory.
Orr is an entertaining, and often witty, writer. He has a way with anecdotes and asides that keep the reader engaged. But, in all honesty, I don’t think Orr achieved his self-proclaimed task of writing a guide to modern poetry for those not familiar with it. For one thing, Orr spends a lot of time airing modern poetry’s dirty laundry; that is to say factional disputes. I doubt this would be encouraging to a newcomer to the land of poetry. For another, there are extended discussions about the nature of form, and other topics, which assume that the reader already has an extensive knowledge of poetry in order for the discussion to make sense. I believe that a complete newcomer to poetry would find Orr’s Chapter on Form obscure.
That doesn’t mean that I think the book is bad, only that I don’t think Beautiful & Pointless works as an introduction to modern poetry. I do think, however, that Orr’s book is a good book for contemporary poets to read. The book is an excellent summary of the situation of modern poetry, its various factions, perspectives, its culture of competitive grantsmanship, its isolation in modern Universities which has both plusses and minuses. As a report on the world of modern poetry in the U.S. it is well done and well worth the read.
Orr also has a good grasp of competing narratives that try to explain the situation of modern poetry. On pages 63-65 Orr writes an amusing summary of the various ways that poets relate the history of modern poetry. Please read it; it is very entertaining. But to sum up: if you are a free verse poet your general narrative is that in the early 20th century poetry broke free of its metrical shackles and embarked into new and exciting territory. There may have been some setbacks (e.g. Auden), and some odd hangers-on to the traditional approach (Frost, Wilbur, Millay, Brooks), but eventually, by the 60’s, poets heroically cast off the last remaining constraints and now we have a situation which is truly free, expressive, and boundless.
On the other hand, if you are a traditional poet (which is a large percentage), the narrative is that in the early 20th century some poets succumbed to the blandishments of modernism and experimented with avant-garde approaches that have, for the most part, proven to be dead-ends. In the middle of the 20th century poets recovered (e.g. Auden), but then all hell broke loose in the 60’s and 70’s, and it has been downhill ever since with free verse poetry becoming more and more obscure, more and more isolated, more and more out of touch with an audience.
Which narrative is true? The thing is, there is some truth to both of these narratives. They are not factual analyses, but elaborate tales used to place one’s own approach to poetry in a favorable light.
I would like to suggest a third narrative; one that Orr does not touch on, but one which has been helpful to me in my journey through the modern poetry landscape. What I would like to suggest is that in the 20th century the center of poetry moved from self-identified poets to popular song. This way of looking at 20th century poetry begins by redefining the borders of the land of poetry; the borders become larger, the country more extensive. It is instructive to me that Orr does not mention song lyrics as a part of poetry. What I would like to suggest is that we do this, that we embrace song lyrics as a significant part of 20th century poetry. Try this out yourself and see if it does not change your narrative understanding of 20th century poetry.
One way of seeing the connection between popular song and poetry is through the ballad. One of the most popular 20th century poets, Robert Service, is famous for his ballads, but he is not the only one. Gwendolyn Brooks wrote numerous ballads; I suspect she is best known for these ballads and they are frequently included in anthologies. The poetic ballad deliberately mimics the rhythmic shape of the sung ballad; and it would be an easy matter to put these poetic ballads to music.
Another way of approaching this is to note how often song lyrics appear by themselves in collections to be read, without the music. There is a big, thick, book, “Bob Dylan: Lyrics 1962 – 2001”. It contains the lyrics of Dylan’s songs from his first album, ‘Bob Dylan’, to his 2001 album ‘Love and Theft’. There is no music, just the lyrics. In other words, the book is a book of poems.
There is a lot of precedent for this. The Confucian Classic, ‘The Book of Odes’, or ‘The Book of Songs’ is a similar collection of the lyrics of songs that Confucius collected from various regions of China. What we observe in such a collection is that poetry and song, though they differ, are nevertheless porous to each other.
The separation of song lyrics from their original musical context so that they can be read as poetry, on their own, without musical support, recognizes that poetry and music inhabit different, though intimately related, regions. This kind of separation allows for multiple melodies to a single poem, or the use of the same melody for many different poems. A good example of this is Dylan’s song ‘All Along the Watchtower’, which may be Dylan’s most performed poem/song. After its initial release on Dylan’s album ‘John Wesley Harding’, Jimi Hendrix soon followed with his own version. The version by Hendrix is really different, musically, from Dylan’s; there are extended electric guitar riffs and rhythmic changes. Interestingly, Dylan responded favorably to Hendrix’s version and subsequently uses the Hendrix interpretation in Dylan’s own performances.
It is my suggestion that modern poetry is as popular as poetry has ever been, that modern poetry has a huge, massive, following; but that one finds that audience and that following in popular music. My suggestion is that Bob Dylan is one of the 20th century’s major poets; right up there with Auden, Frost, and Millay. It is in this region where poetry has continued to generate poems of great beauty and widespread appeal.
Dylan is an outstanding example of a songwriter whose works are read as poetry; but there are many others. The songs of Hart, Hammerstein, and many Broadway tunesmiths are recited by people at a popular level. A song like ‘Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered’ has become a standard and on several occasions I have heard people recite a verse or two from that song without singing it; in other words, recited the song as a poem.
Orr does not touch on the role of popular song as a conveyer of modern poetry. Orr is the poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review and also writes for Poetry magazine. Orr is, therefore, deeply embedded in modern poetry culture. It is my thesis that one of the things that happened to poetry in the early 20th century, is that poetry isolated itself from song and no longer thinks of song, popular song, as a resource or ground in which poetry is rooted. There are exceptions (like Gwendolyn Brooks), but for the most part I think this is accurate.
Here is an anecdote illustrating what I mean. A few years ago I gave a reading of my Tanka at a Haiku Society. I read from a sequence of Tanka all on the theme of love. Many of these Tanka rhyme and more than a few use images from popular culture. During the question period I was asked about sources of inspiration. I mentioned country-western music as one source. When I said this there was visible eye-rolling and shaking of the heads. This is, in part, a class issue, I think. But another part is simply a view that poets have of themselves as embodying ‘high’ culture, of poetry as something extraordinary and Olympian. This creates a gulf between poets and popular culture which is difficult to bridge. Some poets, though, are open to it. In A. E. Stallings’ latest collection, ‘Olives’, there is a wonderful sonnet that uses the diction of country-western music and references Hank Williams (another powerful songwriter whose lyrics make good poems).
So in the end, I feel that Orr’s book is an illustration of how modern poets, self-identified poets, have created their own isolation. It isn’t simply that poetry is ‘another country’, with its own peculiar habits and customs; the primary metaphor that Orr uses. It’s more like poets have become gatekeepers to the land of poetry and are charging high fees for anyone who wants to enter. The result is that fewer and fewer people bother; particularly since the land of song is just down the road and there are no gatekeepers at its entrance.
So how would you introduce people to poetry? Here is how I would go about it. I would do it the same way I would introduce someone to baking or gardening. I would start with something simple and accessible. For baking I might start with a simple bread recipe, or maybe something even simpler like a dinner roll recipe. I would want to start with something that would, in all likelihood, work.
In the same way, if someone asked me about poetry I would start with poems that are readily accessible. I might use some of Emily Dickinson’s poems; the easier ones. Or I might read the famous passage from Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and time for every purpose under the heaven . . .” (the King James version, of course; we are trying to introduce poetry, after all). Or I might read from a nursery rhyme, something familiar. If the person I’m talking to seems receptive, I might include a sonnet by Wordsworth, like the one written on Westminster Bridge. A scene from Romeo and Juliet might be worth considering. And, of course, Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods’ almost guarantees a positive response.
I would avoid poems that are complex or allusive; say poets like T. S. Elliot or Geoffrey Hill. Those could come later, after some experience. I would avoid free verse poetry which is not distinctively poetic. Free verse resources would be the Psalms (the 23rd Psalm almost always works) in the King James version, and some of Whitman’s poems; ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ is another example that almost always works in the sense of communicating.
It seems to me that this really is the only way to let someone know what poetry is about. This is similar to learning about music, or, again, baking. This is why I think ultimately that Orr’s book misses the mark. Arcane discussions about form won’t draw a newcomer into poetry; only poems will.
Still, Orr’s book is a valuable book for poets to read. I often found it insightful in the sense that it is an insider’s often humorous look at the world of poetry in the early years of the 21st century. If you haven’t already, and you are interested in poetry, or are a poet yourself, I recommend that you get a copy; you’ll enjoy it.