April is National Poetry Month, but for New York Times Book Review poetry columnist David Orr, the literary art with a perennially shrinking fan base is his life’s work, occupying all months of every year. This month, coincidentally or not, Orr has released his first book of criticism, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide To Modern Poetry. In it, Orr attempts to lessen the mystique that surrounds the form, in the possibly vain hope of expanding the audience for modern poetry. (Will people averse to reading poetry itself instead flock to read about poetry?) However, with Beautiful & Pointless, Orr mingles humor (“all the best poets eat at Taco Bell”) with analysis (“I really do believe that poetry is hard to recommend”) in a way that should provide fodder for novices and academics in equal measure. On the occasion of his book’s release and this month’s celebration of poetry, Orr sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss William Carlos Williams’ wheelbarrow, Robert Pinsky’s blind love for writers who’ve been shot at, and OutKast’s possible kinship with Martians.
The A.V. Club: Is the aim of Beautiful & Pointless to make poetry appear less daunting so readers might feel less intimidated? Isn’t part of poetry’s appeal its perceived mysticism or aloofness?
David Orr: Sort of. On one hand, you want to sort of keep poetry for yourself. You grow to love it for various reasons, and you feel that you know certain things about it, so you want to keep poetry in kind of the space that’s been created for it by other people like yourself. On the other hand, everybody wants to see how the rest of the culture would really respond to the art form. I think there is a lot of fear about that. I know I have some fear about that sometimes. I think part of the mystification that goes on with poetry comes out of that fear. It’s sort of like if we mystified it enough and nobody’s really sure what it actually is, then we don’t really have to worry about it being judged. I guess I’ve always felt like—or, at least, I’ve come to feel—we don’t need to worry about that quite so much. I think poetry is sturdy enough to handle any kind of scrutiny. So the goal of the book is to give people what I think is basically an honest take on it, just from my perspective—other people will feel very differently about it—so they can feel comfortable looking at poetry really for what it is.
AVC: It’s interesting that you consider poetry “sturdy,” especially when music and literature don’t seem as sturdy as they once were. What about poetry makes it seem better equipped to survive?
DO: Good question. Obviously, I’m going to be biased in my response, because I’m a poetry critic. But I do think poetry really flourishes in anxiety. Poetry, especially lyric poetry, relies so heavily on ambiguity, it’s almost inevitable that it’s also going to stir up a lot of anxiety in the people who write it. I think all the issues you talked about—which are significant sources of anxiety for a lot of different types of artists—I wouldn’t say poets are uniquely able to deal with them. But I think, in a way, maybe poets have dealt with them in the past a little bit more thoroughly than some other art forms. Something does come from having almost always been kind of a marginal art. When suddenly other arts become marginal too, you’re not quite as worried, I think.
AVC: So if you never aimed for widespread success in the first place, you’re immune to failure?
DO: [Laughs.] Well, we try not to set the bar too low. There’s a difference between the achievement that an art has as an art and then the position of an art in a culture. Of course, it’s impossible to compare these things, really, but if you think about the best poems, are they as good as the best recordings of classical music? Sure, I think they are. Although I don’t know how on earth you would compare anything like that. I think poetry is an art of high achievement. But that’s different from where poetry sits in the culture, which is pretty much always on the sidelines. And it probably always will be on the sidelines, too. Look, even a book like mine—I’m not expecting that suddenly people are going to be out in the grocery stores leafing through tabloids and then picking up a book of poetry. I’m just hoping that people, if they are interested, if they want to, can maybe read some poetry if they’d like to.
AVC: But with the immediacy of social media, why bother interpreting some obscure poem and its individual perspective when there are all of these other outlets now to express yourself bluntly and immediately?
DO: I guess there’s two responses to that. The first one is, when we’re talking about poetry and saying it’s obscure and so forth, the reason it’s obscure is because we’re not familiar with it. If you are familiar with something, it doesn’t seem obscure. If you imagine a Martian coming down and listening to OutKast, the Martian is going to be totally perplexed. Unless OutKast has more experience in outer space than I think they do. Even beyond that, even if you look at stuff like… If you think about social media and the way this stuff works, people are still very interested in creating personal symbolism. You see people spending a lot of their time choosing ringtones. You see people spending hours and hours picking their photographs for their Facebook page. I think for a lot of people, poetry serves—or can serve—a similar function. People have relationships with poems. It’s sort of a pseudo-relationship, as I say in the book, but it is something that feels real to you. You have to be a little careful with that kind of a thing, because going too far down that line of thinking might lead you to think poetry is like therapy or something, which it’s not. But it does really serve a symbolic function for some people. And, honestly, it’s also short, which doesn’t hurt.
AVC: To address the notion that poetry is the ultimate representation of the power of language, you compare the poem “Self-Portrait” by William Carlos Williams with “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. Both were published in 1963. Both are “important.” But you seem to be suggesting that one affected poetry, while the other affected the world.
DO: Part of what I’m trying to do there—and to an extent, I should say the comparison there is deliberately set up to be unfair to William Carlos Williams, who is a great poet. I’m not in any way trying to suggest that William Carlos Williams is negligible. And Martin Luther King is obviously incredibly important. I’m not trying to bash on Williams. What I’m trying to point out is that a lot of poems aren’t really intent on doing the kind of things that we sometimes talk about poems doing. Which is to say, symbolizing language at its most charged and most powerful. A lot of poems are doing something that’s a lot quieter and subtler. Now, you could say, “The quiet, subtle thing is also charged and powerful.” But at that point, you’ve kind of loaded the dice in favor of poetry to a degree that’s not really fair to other activities. I think what poetry does really well is be poetry. It’s very, very good at doing that. And it’s a really worthwhile activity.
Looking for more than that—or something other than that—can be a mistake. If you read a lot of poetry, it can handle a lot of emotional and intellectual investment. There are a lot of other activities that can do that also. But the fact that poetry can do it is not any small or negligible thing. It’s actually a pretty big deal. Ultimately, the book tries to arrive at that point more through demonstration than through argument. In general, I’m trying to show by going through all of these different arguments for and against—the way the arguments proceed and the way I think about them should kind of be an indication of how much poetry has come to mean to me. If it has come to mean something to me, then maybe it could mean something to you as well. At least that’s what I hope it does.
AVC: A lot of people seem to enjoy bashing William Carlos Williams. You write about your friend in high school, forced to read “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and mocking the poem’s opening lines, “So much depends upon this poem sucking.”
DO: I hated that poem in high school. I have to admit that I still sort of hate that poem. William Carlos Williams was a wonderful poet, but I can’t abide that poem. It’s a legacy of childhood.
AVC: “The Red Wheelbarrow” seems to have become the go-to poem to mock when making fun of modern poetry in general.
DO: I know. You’re absolutely right. It really has become that. It’s funny, because some poets hold it up for the opposite reason and say, “This is the great example of modernism.” Really, to me, it’s a kind of minor poem by William Carlos Williams that shouldn’t be held up by anybody for anything. [Laughs.] There are a lot of better poems by him that you could hold up. I will stop, because again, I don’t want to pick on William Carlos Williams, whom I actually like quite a lot.
AVC: In your chapter about ambition, you take a little swipe at Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky in describing how he overrates a particular Polish poet. You remark how we tend to romanticize foreign poets from “countries in which writers might have the opportunity to be, as it were, shot.” You argue that “we have a habit of exalting foreign writers while turning them into cartoons.” Can you elaborate on that idea?
DO: One of the reasons I’m mentioning Robert Pinsky there is that he is a really well-known figure as a poet and a critic, and he can take the criticism and probably laugh it off. But it’s symbolic of a much larger thing in the poetry world, which is this tendency to sort of valorize poets from other countries out of a sense of insecurity that American poets have. I don’t really quite know what to make of it. It certainly goes on. Part of it has to do with the image of poetry that I talk about a good bit in the book, which is this idea that it’s this world-defying art form filled with people who are hurling these amazing speeches about as if they were lightning bolts. And the fact is, most American poets, when they look around and are being honest with themselves, realize that’s not what we’re doing most of the time. But you don’t want to give up on that image, which in some ways comes from [Percy Bysshe] Shelley. So you look for people who might need it somehow or another.
The most obvious targets are sometimes these poets from authoritarian countries where they’ve been threatened with death. People really gravitate toward that. I should be careful to say here, I’m not trying to say that poets from these countries are not actually good poets. A lot of times, they’re really good poets too. It’s just, there’s something about the threat of violence and the fact that it implies that you really matter a lot that seems to mean a lot to American poets. Because American poets are often most worried about not mattering. If someone’s threatening to kill you, then you plainly matter. The psychology is a little clumsy here, but I think it’s basically accurate. I think a lot of us feel that way. I feel that way sometimes. When I’m picking on Robert Pinsky, really when I’m picking on anyone in the book, I’m picking on myself too. We all have these sorts of thoughts.
AVC: Your book does a lot to strip away the mythology of what poets are and how they operate in society, but in other places, intentionally or not, you seem to build up their mystique. For instance, you offer the image of the poet as a centaur, this half-man, half-horse who doesn’t know how to eat in a restaurant or graze in a field. You also describe a poet as “a mixed creature looking for purity.”
DO: It’s a famously marginal art. It attracts people who like margins. A centaur is something that obviously exists on the margin. You’re probably right. I’m trying to do two things at once: trying to strip away an old identification for poets and trying to supply, maybe not a new one, but some indication of how we might go about building a new one. Something that’s based on what we actually do, rather than something somebody did 250 years ago. Or maybe didn’t even do then. I think it’s pretty admirable to be a poet these days. I’m not saying it’s more admirable than being something else. It’s probably more admirable to be a fireman. But it is admirable, and it’s difficult. In some ways, part of that chapter that you’re talking about, I want people to understand why it’s difficult and why it might be worth admiring even if you’re not a poet.
AVC: In the chapter “The Political,” you describe a Hillary Clinton rally from the last presidential campaign where one of her supporters describes Obama as “a poet, not a fighter!” His eloquence is often used against him. When poetic language is used in the actual world, do you sense there’s a resistance or hostility toward it?
DO: What you’re asking has to do with rhetoric. It’s about our embrace of rhetoric and our suspicion of it. It’s actually a little bit beyond my expertise. Poetry, I know quite a bit, but rhetoric is another question. But I think what you’re getting at is that it’s a suspicion of both poetry and of rhetoric, and they’re not the same thing. They’re very closely related, but they’re not quite the same. It’s the idea that we’re compelled by things that are fictions, but we’re also suspicious of them. We see this kind of overblown or manipulative language as being fiction. As a poetry critic, I love this kind of thing. But there are people who act as if it’s poison or something. It’s a problem you always have if you communicate well. I guess my book is very much an argument in favor of rhetoric and in favor of poetry. But we’re always going to have our opponents. Back in the day, before poets spent all their time worrying about whether or not they mattered, they used to have to worry about their opponents. I think our opponents haven’t worried about us in a long time. It would be nice if they worried about us again.
AVC: At one point, you say “religion is no longer attractive for many poets.” Why do you think that’s true?
DO: Again, that is a subject that is a little bit beyond my expertise, but it’s certainly the case that poetry, largely in the past, was written by the clergy or people associated with the clergy. That’s obviously no longer the case. It hasn’t been the case for quite a while. It has to do in some ways with just the fading of religion in public life. We don’t currently work in a political system that’s dominated by the church. And, there are many, many churches now, instead of just one state church, or maybe two, depending on what country you happen to be in. It’s not as big a part of public life, and honestly, a lot of poets are not religious anymore. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it does seem to be the case. There are some poets who do write religious poetry, but you have to scramble around a bit and look for them. Why that is the case is maybe a bit of a mystery, and probably more than I can speculate on here. It all depends on how you count poets, too. If you count poets as being mostly people who are in the university system, then you can talk about the fact that the church doesn’t play a really big role in most universities. That’s probably why you don’t have a lot of religious poetry. Of course, that’s leaving out a lot of poets who some people might describe as amateurs, but might be quite good. So again, it’s very hard to say.
AVC: One of the more depressing revelations in the book is when you mention that the best-selling debut volume of poetry ever published by an American is Jewel’s A Night Without Armor. How do you go about doing your work with that knowledge in the back of your mind?
DO: [Laughs.] I don’t think it’s really discouraging. It’s just one of those things. We have certain ideas in this country about poetry, and most people aren’t big poetry readers. Jewel has a lot of fans, and there’s really nothing wrong with her putting out a book and people buying it. She’s not a really great poet or anything, but that’s sort of okay. If I put out a pop recording, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be very good either. It doesn’t really bother me.
AVC: But you didn’t put out a pop record. She put out a book of poems.
DO: I’ll tell you what. If people told me 500,000 people would buy it, I’d put it out tomorrow. [Laughs.] I’d put it out this afternoon!
AVC: In your book, you write, “Poetry is a small, vulnerable human activity no better or more powerful than thousands of other small, vulnerable human activities.” It’s hard to imagine you really believe that, considering how much of your life you’ve devoted to that “small, vulnerable” thing.
DO: Well, maybe not thousands. Maybe dozens. [Laughs.] Are you asking if I believe that line, or do I think it’s true? Yeah, I think it’s true. Is poetry better than painting? Probably not. Is poetry better than cooking? Well, poets would say that it was, but I’m not sure too many chefs would. Is it better than sports? I don’t know. People get a lot out of sports; it means a lot to a lot of people. Again, you get into these complicated questions of how you value things. I think it’s better not to get too bogged down in that and just say, as I think I do in that chapter, if you do choose to value this activity, it’s worth the effort. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to, and I think it’s a valid one. I hope it’s a valid one, since I’ve invested a lot of time in it so far.