You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘David Orr’ tag.

Markings on wood, from the African art collection at the Brooklyn Museum: Beautifully ambiguous

Poems, poets and poetry provide a parallel universe that sometimes helps make a little more sense of my own huddled world of paintings, painters and art. A good example is this excerpt from an essay by Joel Brouwer that appeared on Poetry Foundation, In Praise of Promiscuous Thinking: On Charles Bernstein’s Attack of the Difficult Poems and David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless:

I understand the impulse to talk about poems. Poems are objects in the world. They appear on bus kiosks, in magazines, on makeshift stages in coffee shops, at weddings, in classrooms. They exist, like raccoons. We see or hear them. It’s natural to want to talk about our impressions of them, and what they’re up to. “This poem is confusing me.” “That’s one big damn raccoon.”

It’s harder to talk about poetry. Poetry is a subject, not an object. You can’t see poetry; you can only see poems. Poems are poetry like raccoons are nature. It isn’t nature that’s made a nest in your attic and given birth to four more mewling natures, batting their little black claws at the air. Poems, not poetry, have baffled you, or made you laugh, or reminded you that, in the words of Holderlin, “The flock of swallows that circles the steeple / Flies there each day through the same blue air / That carries their cries from me to you.” I have over time developed some methods for talking about what a poem is doing. I have no idea what poetry is doing.

Subject and object. Racoons and nature. This is really good.

Brouwer continues in a direction that continues to speak to me:

I don’t need Bernstein’s or Orr’s critical positions to be correct or incorrect—–I don’t need them at all—–but I want them to be…oh, let’s say “lovable.” (I choose the term in part because it’s embarrassing, vague, and dorky; criticism marked by cool, clear confidence is exactly what I’m trying to discredit.) By a lovable criticism, I mean a criticism that allows space for its readers’ imaginations without compromising its own convictions; which ventures its ideas rather than asserting them; which would rather start a conversation than end one; which not only speaks but also listens; which admits and embraces uncertainties. A lovable criticism is a criticism willing to make itself vulnerable, willing even to embarrass itself.

And are these books by Bernstein and Orr lovable? They are. Each ends with passages I find strange, ambiguous, and open to interpretation, and so, to my mind, lovable. Indeed, the extent to which each book’s closing contradictions can be engaged but not resolved is precisely the extent to which each is lovable.

What is “strange, ambiguous and open to interpretation”—that’s a credo I can live with. And by.


A vacant loft in Chelsea that we just happened upon recently. Ah, the provocation of empty space. It always excites my “if only!” energy.

Often discussed, but still a furtive topic: How does an artist finds his or her voice? An identifiable style, that creative stride that becomes signatory?

The search for that essence is part of what gets tracked by art historians in studying the trajectory of every canonical artist. When does it appear? How does it come to be? Who are the influences from which it is fashioned?

As I said, it is furtive.

David Orr begins his recent review of two books of poetry by Matthew Zapruder and Rachel Wetzsteon* with his take on this topic:

According to conventional wisdom, younger poets are engaged in “finding their voices” — a process often described in terms that make it seem like a cross between having an epiphany and having an aneurysm…

Many readers think of a poet’s distinctive style as being “found,” rather than, for example, “built.” They suppose it arrives as “an unstopping flood,” rather than in dribs and drabs and half measures. They believe it’s a matter of, yes, inspiration.

And in some ways, it is. But it also isn’t. The achievement of a style is like the achievement of an individual poem writ large: it’s a delicate balance of confidence and guesswork, as the writer simultaneously relies on what’s worked in the past, bets on what might work right now and tries to leave a little room for things that might work in the future. It’s like baking a pie with a recipe in one hand and a wish list in the other. Some poets manage the feat in their first books (Bishop), others take a couple of outings to get things right (Larkin) and still others pass through multiple styles over the courses of long careers (Yeats, Auden). The process is fascinatingly byzantine, but it’s not really a matter of “divine prompting”; rather, a poet arrives at a style through the same combination of staggering labor and jolts of luck that most complex activities depend on.

“Staggering labor and jolts of luck that most complex activities depend on.” In other words, the rag and bone shop plus a dose of good fortune. If only that was all any of us ever needed to achieve the convergence of our work and our imagination. Meanwhile, it’s chop wood and carry water.

* Rachel Wetzsteon is a poet I have written about a several times here:

Meanwhile’s Far From Nothing
One More From Rachel’s Hand
Throwing up a Curse That Comes Back a Blessing

Atesse, from a recent series of paintings

One aspect of having online access into every nook and cranny of the world (as well as the latest thoughts of millions of bloggers) is being able to see into the extraordinary range of human passions. I’m not referring to the largest engine of human cyber passion, pornography, but the myriad of quirky unexpected subgroups. Now every person whose is just crazy about 12th century Scottish coins or training small dogs to knit scarves while pushing a baby carriage can find each other and convene.

It does cause me to pause and wonder just what it is about a particular activity or field of study that captures the passion of a person. There are the large rivers that carry lots of us, like being a sports fan. Then there are the smaller streams that we might have believed were just rivulets only to discover lots of other people floating along that same waterway. I know a guy whose many eccentricities have included a life long passion for airlines. It didn’t stop at hanging around airports and tracking the serial numbers of American Airlines jets: he would force his wife and family to spend their vacations near the bone yards of retired jets so he could keep track of his favorite planes. One of the first things I discovered when the web became ubiquitous was that plane spotting is a huge passion all over the world and not as peculiar a passion as I would have supposed.

My passions are more familiar but they run deep. I have been painting since I was 17. I have never grown tired of making or looking. It is the first thing on my mind when I wake up and has been for most of my life. There’s just no logical explanation for how deep a passion can run.

I thought of the nature of passions reading David Kirby’s review of David Orr’s new book about poetry, Beautiful and Pointless. From the review:

In the end, poetry matters to the people it matters to for the same reason that anything appeals to anyone, which is that they love it. Orr uses the title of the poet Edward Hirsch’s book “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry” to suggest that people who fall for poetry fall hard. In a book filled with excellent quotations, he surprisingly doesn’t cite James Dickey’s line — “What you have to realize when you write poetry, or if you love poetry, is that poetry is just naturally the greatest god damn thing that ever was in the whole universe” — but essentially his book says just that.

This will come as no surprise to many. But what makes “Beautiful and Pointless” different from thousands of other defenses of poetry is that, according to its author, poetry differs from music and stamp collecting in that people’s love for poetry is measurably greater than their love for any other activity. Poetry fans don’t just love poetry a little; they really love it.

Which brings to mind a few lines from one of Mary Oliver’s most popular (but still memorable) poems.

From “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.


Nicholas Baker’s writing ranges between forceful and compelling tirades (like his exposure of the wanton destruction of books by the San Francisco Public Library in favor of microfilm) and those excessively detailed, slightly OCDish, minutiae-driven novels that can sometimes be just a little too much. But I always pay attention to what he’s paying attention to. He has a mind that picks up obscure but worthy transmissions from the cultural ether.

His latest book, The Anthologist, is—happily (or so I am hoping since I haven’t actually read the book yet)—about the world of poetry. The review in the New York Times by poet David Orr is worth the read for anyone who has an interest in that complex, fish bowl self-conscious, vital yet narrow demi-monde.

Here’s the way Orr sets this up:

Nicholson Baker has written a novel about poetry that’s actually about poetry — and that is also startlingly perceptive and ardent, both as a work of fiction and as a representation of the kind of thinking that poetry readers do. “The Anthologist” is the story of Paul Chowder, a semi-successful, middle-aged American poet trying and mostly failing to write the introduction to an anthology called “Only Rhyme…”

Mostly what Chowder does is talk about poetry. And then talk some more. And then, you know, a little more. This wouldn’t be an exciting prospect — it would, in fact, be a dreadful prospect — except that Chowder is possibly the most appealing narrator Baker has invented. He can be amiably whimsical (“God I wish I was a canoe”) and then amiably bizarre (“Either that or some kind of tree tumor that could be made into a zebra bowl but isn’t because I’m still on the tree”). He is heartsick (“My life is a lie”), childlike (“I just want to sit and sing to myself”) and perhaps more than anything else, funny without being brittle (“I had the touch. I was good at what I did. And what I did was drive to poetry readings”).

That’s so funny and so endearing—identifying one’s true skill set as being good at driving to poetry readings. After all, somebody has to do that work.

Orr’s final paragraph is insightful in more than just its reference to The Anthologist, and worthy of a share here as well:

There’s a hoary but still useful distinction to be made between poetry as the chilly, brilliant, stellar sweep of millions of combinations of words over centuries — as the product of thousands of minds moving upon silence, in Yeats’s phrasing — and the warmer, occasionally sentimental way in which individual readers find meaning in the smaller, match-lit pleasures of stanzas, words, lines, and bits of trivia or gossip. This latter aspect is what Baker has set out to capture in “The Anthologist.” It’s easy to underestimate this project, because in its lesser incarnations it so often comes swaddled in layers of hokum about feelings and hearts and “being human.” But it’s a vital part of poetry. “Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing,” Chowder says. Well, no. But also: yes. We read poems because they have a knack for mattering. And how pleasing it is to be so gently, so poetically reminded of that.

That phrase, “a controlled refinement of sobbing” reminded me of another description by a memoir-centric writer (sorry, but I can’t remember who it was—maybe Rafael Yglesias?) who described his experience of producing a novel this way: “I wrote for six months, then I cried for six months. It was back and forth between these two until the book was finished.” A big believer in the power of the tear, I can stand up and say yes to that division of labor.

Peculiar to poetry is a preconceived expectation of “truth”. David Orr’s essay in the Times Sunday Book Review captures some of this response in spite of cynicism in the culture about literary authenticity, particularly following a spate of memoir writers whose manufactured memories and inaccurate portrayals were exposed and condemned.

Orr starts with an anecdote of a poetry reading where one of the poems is about the death of a child. Afterward a member of the audience comes up to the poet to say how sorry he was for his loss.

“I appreciate that,” says the poet, “but the thing is, I’ve never had any kids. That was just a poem.”

Orr continues:

The point, of course, is that the news we get from poetry isn’t like the news we get from newspapers…What’s curious is that poetry’s “emotional truth” is so often equated with actual truth — which is to say, poetry is perceived as conveying genuine information about the author’s innermost self. It is, we like to think, “personal.” But the concept of “the personal” is hard to pin down because it can involve both personal feelings (which are subjective) and personal facts (which aren’t). Sylvia Plath is often considered an intensely “personal” poet because of her work’s singularly ferocious sensibility, but her poems contain relatively few names of the people, places and events that figured in her private life. Robert Lowell’s writing, on the other hand, is considerably less concentrated than Plath’s, yet contains far more information about who Lowell was, whom he slept with and what disease killed his uncle Devereux Winslow (Hodgkin’s, in case you were wondering). That both Plath and Lowell are thought of as “personal” says a great deal about the confusion associated with this word, and the potential for more confusion that arises whenever we decide that poetry is the best medium for conveying private information.

The waters are further muddied by the two strategies most often associated with “personal” writing, which we might call the authentic and the confessional. The notion of authenticity is essential to poems that focus explicitly on identity, ethnic or otherwise. The poet gives us seemingly reliable testimony about a way of life and thereby infuses his work with the personal flavor that readers desire. Similarly, confessional poems — and yes, they pop up long after confessionalism’s heyday in the 1960s — use the intimacy of an exposed secret to make us think that lines aren’t merely lines but a statement of personhood. The unifying factor here is that both strategies depend upon facts outside the poem to anchor that “personal” sense. If Seamus Heaney’s oeuvre were revealed to have been written by a Portuguese guy living in Toronto, or if Anne Sexton were actually a mild-mannered soccer mom, it would disrupt our entire sense of their poetry. At the same time, though, it would be wrong to say that Heaney’s or Sexton’s appeal depends completely upon autobiographical data. Exactly why we take personal poems so, well, personally remains a mystery and a muddle.

It IS a muddle and a mystery. I don’t think it can be unpacked, and I was heartened that Orr seems to agree.