Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Remote Poetry Festivity, Bookwise Anyway

In an effort to sympathetically align myself with O, Miami, I figured I'd read a new book on contemporary poetry by a critic named David Orr, Beautiful and Pointless, which got a good review in Slate. It's a short book, just a couple of Metro North rides long. I like reading accessible nonfiction when I feel like I'm more or less exactly the target audience -- in this case, pretty knowledgeable and interested in art in general, but not much about poetry in particular. And I feel I have a pre-existing stake in the topic, since it analogizes very closely to modern classical music.

It's an admirably straightforward book, and I'd recommend it, but I think Orr misses a big piece of the puzzle.

He very directly states his agenda -- not writing a how-to-read kind of book, but filling in the context about "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." He supplies that context crisply, in chapters covering the extent to which poetry is inherently personal (less than assumed); the importance of form (not supremely so); and the professional and academic world of poetry, how it affects both what poets do and which poets are taken as significant.

It's informational and relatable, and Orr takes time to deflate the kinds of stereotypical claims about poetry that are either romantically fuzzy or academically obscure. He doesn't quote all that much poetry, and a generous handful of those excerpts are there to show off an unfavorable aspect. I came out wanting to read Elizabeth Bishop and Kay Ryan, but not with a big list of threads to follow. It's not that kind of a book.

What I think is missing is a basic account of why reading poetry is pleasurable in the first place. Knowing the context helps you enjoy more things, I think. But talking about art has got to start with the emotional reaction you get from it, and Orr skirts this point a few times. That emotional effect is always tied into your aesthetic reaction: for some reason, you construct an arrangement of words and juxtaposed ideas, and it's emotionally transfixing. Except that in modern art, where the overt emotional content is frequently muted (if it's not scorched into something disturbing), it's a much more subtle effect and therefore really hard to enjoy at first.

I don't know how you teach that, but I think you have to look at the problem squarely. I guess you want to find lucid modern poetry, where you can attend to the imagery floating through it and the surprising scene changes, and also enjoy the brush strokes of the words. (The Amanda Lamarche poem Pete just read for How Pedestrian seems to fit that bill, even if it's inexplicably downcast. So does the first poem that Orr remembers liking, Philip Larkin's "Water.") As opposed to needing to crack something completely cryptic. That's the level I suspect you need to zero in on. I don't think there's much help in being aware of the world poets that live in.

Again, I think there's a big parallel in how people talk about modern classical music, and there's a real void where you'd talk more subjectively (or, hey, poetically!) about how the expressive thread of a piece moves and skips around. That's not really the nuts and bolts of harmonic practice or form, but that's what you need, as a listener, to pick up on if you're going to be pulled in emotionally. So I wonder if there's a similar fruitful yet underexplored conversational area in modern poetry. I've wandered off my turf here, so maybe there's good writing about this someplace? I'd like to know about it. And I'd still like to know more about modern poetry, too, at least the lucid kind.


Blogger Pete said...

Read George Oppen!

"Clarity, clarity, sure clarity is the most beautiful thing in the world, /
A limited, limiting clarity //

I have not and never did have any motive of poetry /
But to achieve clarity."

5/03/2011 3:43 PM  

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