In the introduction of Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry author David Orr notes,
The potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it’s a subject of at best mild and confused interest.
While I suspect there is at least one more group — people who actually have no interest in poetry — I consider myself to be a person in Orr’s second category. I’ve read poetry, and I have some poems that I enjoy, but I don’t feel like a poetry conversationalist nor someone who could intelligently recommend poetry to another reader. In that sense, I think I was an ideal read for Beautiful & Pointless, which I nerdily read in one sitting on a Friday night (I know, I lead an exciting life).
Orr, a poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, wrote the book to look at the relationship between contemporary poetry and readers, and explore what experiences a reader can expect when reading modern poetry. He goes on to explain,
This book will try to give you 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.
I’ve quoted a lot from the introduction, but I think that’s important to really get a sense of what this book is about. It’s not a how-to guide for poetry, or even a book arguing for the importance of reading poetry. Beautiful & Pointless might better be described as a series of essays on poetry, in which Orr tries to address what he sees as the most common confusions or objections the average reader has when it comes to reading or talking about modern poetry. The book tries to de-mystify these qualities, addressing:
- “The Personal” or why we often think of poetry as such a highly-emotional form of writing.
- “The Political” or why we think about poetry as political action.
- “Form” or why we often get bogged down in discussions of what “kind” of poem a piece should be classified as.
- “Ambition” or what poets are trying to do with their writing.
- “The Fishbowl” or a look at the context that contemporary poets are writing in.
- “Why Bother?” or a discussion of why experts say to read poetry.
Orr’s author bio notes that he is both a lawyer and a poetry critic, which comes through quite clearly in the style of the book. Until thinking about this book, it didn’t occur to me how much both lawyers and poets need to focus their attention on language. In a sort of lawyer-ly way, Orr builds the book on asking questions and exploring multiple logic-driven answers, while making is points with an intense attention to words and language — a fact that is both curious and frustrating.
I suspect an example of what I mean would help. In the middle of one chapter, Orr spends two pages exploring different meanings of the word “ambition” and what it could mean for poets. He then uses these different meanings to tease out why certain poems are considered More Important than others. This was a frequent structure to his arguments — wordplay then logic. In some cases this was interesting, in others I just wanted Orr to get on with the book. I suspect various readers would respond the same way, but with different sections that I flagged.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, in the end, Orr refuses to make an argument to answer the question of, “Why should I bother to read modern poetry?” I thought it was odd that Orr never answered that question definitively and really didn’t argue the merits of reading poetry over other pursuits. Instead, the book ends up being more of a guide for things to know and think about if you are a reader curious to try more poetry. As Orr puts it near the end (emphasis mine),
Poetry is a small, vulnerable human activity no better or more powerful than thousands of other small, vulnerable human activities. And poetry, even more than many of these other activities, needs a history with its readers. It needs to have been read, and thought about, and excessively praised, and excessively scorned, and quoted is melodramatic fashion, and misremembered at dinner parties. It needs, in a particular and occasionally ridiculous way, to have been loved.
It’s clear that Orr does, in fact, love poetry in an occasionally ridiculous way, and is not afraid to treat poems with both deference and a touch of snarky humor. While I may not have agreed with everything Orr suggested in this book, I marked passages and made faces in the margins more than any other book so far this year, and for that I’m supremely glad to have read it.
P.S. When I finished reading the book, I went online to see what I could find out about Orr as an author and poetry critic. As I went deeper into the Internet rabbit-hole, I found this 2006 review Orr wrote of Billy Collins’ collection The Trouble With Poetry. What’s awesome is that Orr wrote the review in the same style that Collins writes most of his poetry, with a number of really smart and chuckle-worthy points. And Orr’s last three stanzas nails both what I love and what I want from Billy Collins:
In the end, what we need
from a poet with Collins’s talent
is not a good-natured wave
from writer to reader,
or a literary joke, or a mild chuckle;
what we need is to be drawn
high into the poem’s cloud-filled air
and allowed to fall
on rocks real enough to hurt.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher.