Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Beautiful & Pointless by David Orr

So, I've been on a poetry quest this year, right?  I've been reading it, writing it, and generally trying to figure it out.  So when I was browsing my local Barnes & Noble (on the day that I bought my new Nook)  I made sure to pick over the poetry shelves (which, by the way, are farther off the beaten path than Alaska).  On the highest shelf of the farthest wall on the lowest level of the bookstore, I saw the spine of this pretty orange book smiling at me.  It looked like it needed a home, and my impulse-book-buying-urges were in Full Justification Mode.

What I Hoped This Book Would Be:
I've struggled with modern poetry largely because, as the title of this book affirms, many of the poems I read feel pointless.  I don't know about you, but if I'm reading something and I'm thinking What's the POINT?? then I generally don't feel like it was a worthwhile read.  This book: A Guide to Modern Poetry, looked to be just the thing to explain to me how modern poetry has evolved, and what on earth I'm missing.  I want to know why "good poetry" is considered good, and why it is so difficult to find different styles of modern poetry.

In many ways, the book was exactly what I was looking for and did what I hoped it would do.  It answered many of my questions and went far to clarifying the current poetry climate.  Also worth mentioning is the fact that it was written in an easy to read, humorous, and intelligent manner.  On the other hand, I was disheartened and disappointed by what I found.  It actually left me rather depressed, and though a good dose of reality isn't necessarily a bad thing, I'm still left wondering if the opinion of this NYTimes Poetry Critic is universal.  If it is, then modern American poetry is in a sad state indeed.

The Good Stuff:
Not of great use for learning how to analyze modern poetry,  but still rather helpful in understanding what modern poetry is, and how it got there.  Among other things, reading poetry is a journey towards understanding how a specific poet thinks and views the world.  In this sense, biographical information about the author may end up being a valuable commodity, depending on the specific writing style.  I liked that the author pointed out that there are some poems/poets that nobody really understands. What this means is that if you don't understand a poem, it isn't necessarily your fault.  Perhaps the poem is appreciated for reasons other than appeal.  Don't discount your gut reaction.  The chapter on Form ended up being a great explanation about the fluidity of poetry rules.

The Sad Stuff:
It turns out that, in the author's world at least, all poets are liberal, political, and non-religious.  Not only that, but it is far too easy to obtain a MFA these days, and the Golden Days of Poets-With-Ambition are long gone. Orr spoke often of the inner politics of poetic elite, at once bemoaning and defending immature and/or illogical behavior.  As far as why "good poetry" is considered good, this portion of the chapter Ambition was telling:
Many of us in the American poetry world have a habit of exalting foreign writers while turning them into cartoons.  [...]  How else, really, to explain the reverse condescension that allows us to applaud pompous nonsense in the work of a Polish poet that would be rightly skewered if it came from an American?
That, to me, shows a couple of things.  First, there really are no absolutes in quality of poetry--beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Second, being a successful American poet has more to do with politics and popularity than anything else...explaining why it is often difficult to find variety in currently publish poetry.

The Verdict:
Half of this book was fabulously informative and the other half was irritatingly depressing.  If I could turn back time, I'd read every other chapter: The Personal, Form, and The Fishbowl, (skipping The Political, Ambition, and Why Bother?)  That way I'd be able to remain pleasantly content in my optimism and new found knowledge.  Taken all together, there was an amazing amount of reading-between-the-lines, which (while being a fascinating thing to observe and digest) was ultimately very off-putting.  To say that it tempered my enthusiasm for modern poetry would be an understatement.

[edited to add another quote]
      Much as the growth of trees is affected by the quality of the soil, the writing we call poetry is affected by the methods we've developed to produce, distribute, and discuss it.
      In many ways, this is obvious.  Consider, for instance, publishing and reviewing.  The structure of the poetry world helps determine which books end up in print, which in turn determines what poems audiences have the opportunity to hear about and read, which in turn determines what the average, educated person believes to be "poetry", which in turn has an effect on how many poets feel about their own work.

Title: Beautiful & Pointless
Author: David Orr
Pages: 224
Published: 2011 Harper
My Rating: all said and done, I guess this one balances out at a 3


  1. Maybe you need to focus on classic poetry next year? I was in Barnes and Noble yesterday and saw a new poetry anthology edited by Carolyn Kennedy called "She Walks in Beauty" about a woman's journey through life. It looks like a beautiful book, some classic and some modern poetry. I'm going to check my library first--but it's on my list.

    By the way, you and Belle are terrible influences on me. I was in Barnes and Noble checking out the new Nook. My husband has given me the green light to purchase one today. The only problem is that I didn't get it in time to get all those beautiful Unbridled ebooks for 6.25.

  2. OK, I'm back. I did go buy the Nook. Thanks for the valuable peer pressure. :) I love the touch and drag feature for highlighting!! I may post and ask questions.

  3. Ah, you caved! Isn't the new Nook great, though? So far I've been impressed with it...and looking for reasons to use it. :) I even put a bible on it and take it to church with me, though I don't know how long that will last--I miss flipping the pages and writing pen&paper notes.

    I do like the fact that I can read books from other sources on the Nook by using Adobe Digital Editions...more versatile than the Kindle that way.

  4. Hi Melody ... so I have a question, is the book about Modern poetry or contemporary poetry? I'm a little bit confused ..

  5. Ingrid, I'm not sure I know what you are you mean style vs. when it was written? The book doesn't really differentiate between the two. It does focus on poetry currently being published, but doesn't get too much into dissecting different styles and types (apart from the chapter on form, which does talk about it in more of an overarching general manner).

    For all that the subtitle claims that it is a "guide" to modern poetry, it really isn' least not in the traditional sense. It's more of an exploration of what the poetry community is today, what most currently-published-poets are seeking to accomplish, and why/how it got that way.

    It (perhaps unintentionally) brought up the historical fickleness of popularity in arts that has long fascinated me. Why is it so typical for an artist (of whatever medium) to be ignored or shunned during their life, only to become immortal after their death? Is it just that these creative minds are ahead of their time as far as fads & style goes? Does it just take a while for us to adapt to another way of thinking & looking at life? Even if these stories are the exception rather than the norm in the art world, it still seems to happen fairly consistently. So then I wonder if the type of poetry I like is just difficult to find because it isn't popular right now, or is poetry just not my thing?

    Sorry I went off on a tangent, you got me thinking!! Did I muddy the waters even more?


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