The Secrets of Poetryland

David Orr reveals what poets and readers need to know about each other.

David Orr

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, 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.

Orr keeps up the pressure on poets, urging them to take a more broad-minded view of their readers. But he shows an insider’s sympathy with what a challenge that can be. The truth is, most poets harbor two contradictory desires, and only a few extraordinary writers with some sense of public mission, or a knack for tapping into the zeitgeist, manage to fulfill them (poets like Yeats, Frost, Langston Hughes, maybe Adrienne Rich): to write immortal words that will make people around the world gasp for generations and to write really complicated poems that will impress their tightly knit community of fellow poets. These days, we don’t lack for the latter, and it can get pretty claustrophobic. Orr cites a poem by the excellent poet Rachel Zucker, name checking a fellow poet as she talks shop: “The other day Matt Rohrer said,/ the next time you feel yourself going dark/ in a poem, just don’t, and see what happens.”

Now some of the best poetry is far more esoteric and, at first, far more inaccessible than Zucker’s. But as Orr says, the question is “not about what poetry is, but about what we want it to be.” Do poets want to reach a wider audience? Orr offers a close reading of a poem by Kay Ryan, the former poet laureate, to emphasize that Hallmark sentimentality needn’t be the route to accessibility. Ryan, he observes, “relies on ‘modest’ diction (’apple crates,’ ‘nail polish’) … and her habit of concluding poems in a snappy, aphoristic manner makes it unlikely that anyone would ever call her work ‘difficult’ (even if, in many ways, it is). In other words, Ryan does exactly the opposite of what we expect an ‘ambitious’ poet to do.” Yet Ryan manages to talk about the biggest topics under the sun and is admired by poets and readers alike for her concision, skill with rhyme, and quirkiness. She’s both a poet’s poet and a reader’s poet.

Of course, Ryan’s is only one solution, and Orr does not get too invested in the debate over how to distinguish among poems that are ” ‘modern’ or ‘experimental’ or ‘radical’ or ‘proper.’ ” The bottom line is that poetry thrives in conversation with other poetry—as Orr says, “poems are always read in the context of other poems,” across languages and across centuries. But if the conversation is not also going on among all kinds of people (not just poets with MFAs in poetry who teach in poetry MFA programs), it’s going nowhere and tells us nothing about what our language means to our society.

Orr sprinkles deft close readings of all kinds of poems throughout the book. How, for instance, might “nonspecialist” readers approach a seemingly impenetrable poem like one of Karen Volkman’s sonnets, which opens “Blank bride of the hour, occluded thought/ wed to waning like a sifting scent/ of future flowers, retrograde intent”? They’ll need to look for some context, something to grab onto. Orr suggests examining the poem’s relationship to more “traditional” sonnets. As he notes, it is “metrically regular, is composed of fourteen lines, uses real words, and has a traditional rhyme scheme—but it doesn’t make sense and is grammatically incoherent.” Then he advises asking a simpler question to which everyone has his or her own answer: “Is it this interesting?” If you can say yes, then, as Orr notes, “that is enough.”

Orr is too honest a guide not to indicate gently that a guide can take you only so far. He ultimately refuses to give a hard sell to readers, though his implicit call to fellow poets to beware the inside track is more urgent. “If you do choose to give your attention to poetry, as against all the other things you might turn to instead, that choice can be meaningful” is his understated invitation to the audience he believes a poet’s words need. Poetry probably isn’t for everyone, at least not in a big way. But it will open itself to anyone who calls long and hard enough. There may be a reason that poetry hides, even after obstacles are pushed out of the way: For it to change your life, you need to go in search of it, to find it in the dark depths of obscure books—and of your own head and heart, where words figure out what they mean to each of us.