The Secrets of Poetryland
David Orr reveals what poets and readers need to know about each other.
Guidebooks, especially guidebooks to poetry, make me nervous. I can't help feeling ambivalent about authoritative maps, wherever I'm headed—but in particular if I'm delving into poems. That's why David Orr, the New York Times Book Review's poetry columnist as well as a poet, is a guide after my own heart as he seeks not just to initiate the uninitiated in his new book, Beautiful & Pointless, but also to hold a mirror up to the poetry world itself. He starts from this brilliantly accurate characterization of what it feels like to read a poem, which should be up on the wall in every high school English classroom:
When a nonspecialist audience is responding well to a poem, its reaction is a kind of tentative pleasure, a puzzled interest that resembles the affection a traveler bears for a destination that both welcomes and confounds him. For such readers, then, it's not necessarily helpful to talk about poetry as if it were a device to be assembled or a religious experience to be undergone. Rather, it would be useful to talk about poetry as if it were, for example, Belgium.
As Orr understands, a reader of poetry should expect to be disoriented. He urges readers to "consider the way you'd be thinking about Belgium if you were planning a trip there. ... The important thing is that you'd know you were going to be confused, or at least occasionally at a loss, and you'd accept that confusion as part of the experience." And his astute diagnosis is that the same should be true not just of the general reader, whom he defines as "a smart, educated person who likes Charlie Kaufman's movies and tolerates Thomas Pynchon's novels, who works in a job that involves phrases like 'amortized debentures' or 'easement by estoppel' or 'nomologicical necessity' "—in other words, a professional accustomed to knowing his way around. Experienced poetry readers and practitioners also risk getting too comfortable with what has become a very insular conversation. At its best, as Wallace Stevens says, poetry should "resist the intelligence/ Almost successfully," meaning it shouldn't quite make sense, thereby expanding the reader's—and poet's—notion of sense a bit.
But it takes an intrepid navigator like Orr—who isn't afraid to get on poets' nerves or urge readers out of their comfort zones—to get the exploration going. In a book that he clearly hopes not just tourists will read, he sets out to help readers get better acquainted with poets but is just as interested—or more—in nudging poets to take stock of themselves and how little they know about who their readers might be. He doesn't suggest poetry should be easy—to read or to write—but he thinks it shouldn't create so much alienation between readers and poets.
So who are these poets, anyway? Orr says they suffer from the fact that "even if most people don't know what poets do, the average person feels that whatever it is, it must be spectacular." Orr cuts them down to size, an exercise that turns out to be bracing for all concerned. Poets spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in front of computers typing, or else reading, or else worrying over the fact that they can't muster the concentration to read or write. When not writing, poets also preoccupy themselves with "sending dozens of envelopes filled with poems to literary magazines read by, at most, a few hundred people," mostly fellow poets.
No wonder their world is what Orr calls a "chatty, schmoozy, often desperate reality." There are, as you'd expect, the drunken book parties and the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conventions, which are more like returning to college—or is it high school?—than anyone would like to admit. And Orr reports at length on a full-blown scandal, "the Foetry eEpisode," capitalizing on the gossip while also issuing a cautionary tale: Inbred cultures beware! Between 2004 and 2007, the Web site Foetry.com, run by a man named Alan Cordle, took aim at corruption in the supposedly anonymous book contests that land many poets their small and university-press-publishing contracts. Orr describes the site "stocked with outraged allegations of favor-trading, creepy insinuations about people's personal lives, and buckets of name-calling (including my personal favorite, 'foet,' which referred to careerist poets)." People got hurt, at least one prize was shut down, and targeted poets like Jorie Graham basically stopped judging contests. It was ugly, often petty, and it made headlines outside of Poetryland. It was enough to make you forget that what poets really are is craftspeople: They make intricate little things out of very carefully chosen words, presumably at least in part for other readers to examine.