Beautiful & pointless, by David Orr
Been a tiring couple of days.
Took a break from Mona Simpson's My Hollywood, as one of the two POV characters (Claire) was just a bit too whiny for my taste.
Started reading B&p at 8.30 in the evening and I couldn't stop reading it, well into the early morning. The chapter on "the personal", I thought, was the most interesting/educational/useful one for me (What's the appeal of Frank O'Hara, and why do we think he works when Sharon Olds sometimes/often doesn't, well, work as it suggests it should? The chapter's really on the appeal of the lyric.), followed by "ambition" (What does it say of poet A that s/he prefers Jorie Graham and poet B, Elizabeth Bishop? or poet C, Kay Ryan?; What poet B prolly meant when s/he read one of my works and said it had ambition (yikes?)--granted this one is MY set of questions/takeaway from that chapter). The chapter on form talks about meter; "resemblance" poetry (helping me deal with "form" exercises when they come next semester); and even "mechanical" poetry (Ouilipo; Christian Bok; Perec; Adair; etc.).
What I appreciate is that the text illumines these issues and gives possible explanations (to my mind, astute observations, really) as to why contemporary readers? poets? critics? say that certain poems are "good"--without making you, reader, feel that Orr's explanations are Gospel (with a capital G) that you must accept uncritically. Early on, he even encourages disagreement. Understanding the possible why's, then, allows one to clarify his/her own position on these things, and in so doing, engage in a dialogue? conversation? with the tiny world of those who believe that poetry matters (a curious thing, also touched upon by the chapter on "politics", which, to my mind, outlined certain trends in the manner in which political poems are/have been written, but which still feels unfinished--as though the thinking on this subject has not yet been completed.).
Plus, there are laugh-out-loud moments here. ( I made notes! "Hahaha!" "Hahaha!" "Hahaha!" but also: "What it feels like," accompanying the text: "When you're not entirely sure what you are, it's easy to believe you're everything (and therefore deserving of all possible praise) or nothing (and therefore deserving of the bleakest scorn). And so the contemporary poet sits uneasily in a place of unease, a mixed creature longing for purity." Hahaha.)
The book covers some ground also covered in Michael Bugeja's The Art of Poetry, though it is chatty, rather than technical--and by this I mean it shared similar concerns, but its approach is different. It says, let me tell you what I think readers (now) seem to be looking for, based on what they seem to be saying (which often doesn't make sense, therefore the resulting poetic tension that is so lionized/that seems to be the point anyhow)--and not, "Well, here's how one poet makes poems of this type (the love poem, the political poem, the extranatural poem, the lyric, etc. etc. etc.). I liked Bugeja's book, but have been looking for something beyond it to help me think past it. And B&p did.
Finally, here's part of the last para. of the back-cover blurb, which I thought might really be just sales talk, but wasn't: "Orr is...the guide who points the way, doesn't talk too much, and helps you see what you might have missed on your own...allowing each of us to appreciate [poetry] in our own way."
Here's a review published by the New York Times, and another, on Slate. Other (rather critical) reviews here and here.