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Demystifying Poetry
Beautiful and Pointless

Beautiful and Pointless

With Jane Clayson in for Tom Ashbook.

One poet’s quest to make poetry more accessible to everyone.

Poetry: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”.   Well, that’s true for some – poetry can be a delightful pleasure.  For others reading poems is more like “Once upon a midnight dreary…”

Instead of a treat, it’s an exercise in frustration ending in bewilderment.

And if you do want to give it a try, how do you know where to start?  Would it be Dickenson or Poe or Whitman or Frost?

Do you have to fully understand a poem to enjoy it?  Maybe there’s a way to feel comfortable approaching unfamiliar poems.

This hour we have  a guide to understanding poetry.

- Jane Clayson


David Orr, poet and poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review. His new book is “Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry.”

Carol Muske-Dukes, current Poet Laureate of California. Her books include “Crossing State Lines” and her new collection “Twin Cities” is out in June.

Excerpt from Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry.

This book is about modern poetry. But a book about modern poetry can’t be as confidently “about” its subject as a book about, say, college football or soap operas or dog shows or the pastas of Northern Italy. That’s because poetry is poetry—it supposedly comes to us wrapped in mystery, veiled in shadow, cloaked in doubt, swaddled in . . . well, you get the idea. Consequently, the potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it’s a subject of at best mild and confused interest. This has all been said before. For decades now, one of the poetry world’s favorite activities has been bemoaning its lost audience, then bemoaning the bemoaning, then bemoaning that bemoaning, until finally everyone shrugs and applies for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Typically, because these are poetry readers we’re talking about, the titles of these lamentations and counter-lamentations are masterstrokes of stoic understatement. Like:

  • “Who Killed Poetry?” (Joseph Epstein, 1988)
  • “Death to the Death of Poetry” (Donald Hall, 1989)
  • Can Poetry Matter? (Dana Gioia, 1991)
  • After the Death of Poetry (Vernon Shetley, 1993)
  • “Dead or Alive? Poetry at Risk” (Stephen Goode, 1993)
  • “Why Poetry Is Dying” (J. S. Salemi, 2001)
  • “Poetry Is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?” (Bruce Wexler, 2003)

No matter which side the author happens to favor, the discussion tends to take on a weirdly personal tenor, as if poetry were a bedridden grandmother whose every sniffle was being evaluated for incipient pneumonia. And as with most potential deathbed scenes, the mood among the gathered family wavers between self-satisfied moralizing and an embattled, panicky vigilance.

This book is not concerned with that debate—or at least, not with the usual terms of that debate. It will not focus on events that may or may not have occurred ninety years ago that may or may not have lost an audience that poetry may or may not have possessed; nor will it attempt to determine whether poetry is dead or alive, comatose or just feeling a little woozy. Poetry may be any or all or none of those things. In the end, however, such arguments are interesting only to (some) poets, and to paraphrase Emerson, you can’t see a field when you’re standing in the middle of it. Instead, this book will focus on the relationship that exists—right now, not fifty years ago—between contemporary poetry and general readers, as well as the kind of experiences that such readers can expect from modern writing, if they’re given a chance to relate to what they’re looking at.

And there’s the difficulty. 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 “nomological necessity” – that person is often not so much annoyed by poetry as confounded by it. Such a reader doesn’t look at a contemporary poem and confidently declare, “I don’t like this”; he thinks, “I have no idea what this is . . . maybe I don’t like it?” In fact, if more people actively disliked poetry, the news would be much better for poets: When we dislike something, we’ve at least acknowledged a basis for judgment and an interest in the outcome. What poets have faced for almost half a century, though, is a chasm between their art and the broader culture that’s nearly as profound as the sea and air. This is what Randall Jarrell had in mind when he said that “if we were in the habit of reading poets their obscurity would not matter; and, once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help.” The sweetest songs of the dolphins are lost on the gannets.

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  • Sonya

    Poetry is indeed becoming more accessible. The key is getting around the university-bred and inbred gatekeepers who publish “stuff” that ordinary people feel shut out of. The New Yorker, for example, keeps publishing its tried and true stable of favorites, generally ignoring newer writers, never letting them in to reach broader audiences. “The Sun” magazine does a great job of finding newer voices.

    Also, newspapers have lost the habit of publishing poems and verses, though that was a great venue for poetry at one time. Now web sites like the Poetry Foundation’s and Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project offer some places where people can enjoy great poems by the “lesser lights” (as deemed by the incestuous university-journal-coastal publishing companies circle). Garrison Keillor’s collection “Good Poems” and “More Good Poems,” as well as Billy Collins’s “Poetry 180″ and “180 More” are full of great, accessible, understandable poems that others may deem too “common” and less erudite and therefore less worthy. But they are not.

    Popular poets today are those who minimize “thees” and “thous,” obscure classical allusions, and references to poems written long ago. Not to say that referring or alluding to images found in other poets’ poems aren’t delightful to find at times. But current poets like Rita Dove. W. S. Merwin, Wendell Berry, Stephen Dunn, Richard Wilbur, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Carolyn Forche, and, for some, Charles Bukowski (an acquired taste) are people who can touch the common person, the less educated but no less intelligent person. Poets like Louise Gluck can be less accessible. A clue is using words not found in regular dictionaries. These poets may be admired in come high-brow circles but will never be especially popular. You may argue that that’s not the goal, but poems like “The Highwayman” or Shel Silverstein’s poems resonate for a reason–and they hook kids on the power of words and the love of poetry.

    A great topic. Poetry is a secret pleasure of many a blue-collar person. Many a harried parent, or shaky grandparent. Many who seek inspiration and consolation in the power of the well-chosen word and in imagery that reaches heart and soul.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Couldn’t poetry be defined as bits of verbal expression that have become as valuable as a famous diamond — see http://famousdiamonds.tripod.com/ — not in the monetary sense but valuable to a culture. It is valuable because it is cut just so, and it lasts and lasts, and everyone sees something ineffable in it. (Otherwise ineffable.)
    People can pick up those bits and turn them into advertisements, or narratives, or share them around in whole or in part.
    As such “modern poetry” seems an oxymoron, because poetry, like the oil in the earth, is a creation of time and time’s activity.
    But you can get yourself into a sort of stupor and have all your friends around you sort of sing-songing things that otherwise don’t have much reason to be stated, and it seems to all that you’ve “traveled” someplace new. In this way, poetry is very much alive and well, though often as ephemeral as the time it takes for the smoke to lift.
    Our poetry that encapsulates new ways of thinking and seeing can be so subversive that it requires to be obscure for self-defense, I think. But it can be totally redemptive to those who need it. It can be downright medicinal, even dangerously so. Critics, you’ll never know.
    But there is poetry that comes like homemade bread, wholesome and eaten at once. Such poetry is not publicized. It vanishes before anyone tries to mummy it.
    A lot of “Beautiful and Pointless” is accessible at the Amazon link. Orr is in the tradition, it seems, of a few lawyers and judges I know who care a lot about poetry, who write it, and I think this might relate to the fact every word said in court becomes “the record,” forever, which is more than can be said for some carefully edited prose and poetry. Anyway, I look forward to a lively discussion.

  • http://twitter.com/SteveZStein Steve Stein

    One thing you can do is HEAR some poetry. There’s a lot available on the internet. Some wonderful stuff on Passover subjects from Andrea Cohen, David Pinsky and Mark Levine is on the “Vox Tablet” podcast page at Tablet Magazine right now:

  • Irv West

    This is a poem from the art film “Chelsea Walls.” It is beautiful but goes unidentified. How can someone identify the author:
    I want to be a lost poem in a stranger’s coat pocket
    That conveys the importance of you
    To assure you of my desire
    To assure you of my dreams
    I want all the possibilitiesof you in writing
    I want to give you your reflection
    I want your eyes on me
    I want to travel to the lightness with you and stay there
    And I want everything before you to follow us and can trail behind me
    I want to never say goodbye to you.
    Even on the street corner or the phone
    I want…
    I want so much I’m breatheless
    I wanna put my power into a poem to burn a hole in your pocket, so I can sew it
    I want my words to scream through you
    I want the poem not to mean that much
    I want to contradict myself by accident and for you to know what I mean
    I want you to be distant and for me to feel you close
    I want endless days when it’s day and nighttime never to end when it’s night
    I want all the seasons in one day
    I want the sun to set up before us and come up in front of us.
    I want to water up to our waists and I want to be drenched by rain up to our ankles with holes in our shoes
    I want to think your thoughts becuase they are mine
    I want only what is urgent with you
    I want to get in the way of the barriers and I want you to be a tough guy when you’re suppose to be like you are already
    And I want you to be tender
    Ant I wanna say we met for a reason
    And I want that reason to be important
    And I want it to be bigger than us, I want it to take over us
    I want to forget, I want to remember us
    And I want your smile always and your grimaces too.
    I want your scars on my lips
    I want yor disappointments in my heart
    I want your strength in my soul
    And I want your soul in my eyes
    I want to believe everything you say and I do
    And I want you tell me what’s best when I don’t know
    And when you’re lost I want to find you
    When you’re weary I want to give you steeples, cathedral thoughts, and coliseum dream
    I want to drag you from the darkness and kneel with you exhausted with the blinding light blaring on us…

  • http://twitter.com/SteveZStein Steve Stein

    Youtube has a lot of poetry. Even familiar poems can take on new meanings when you listen to them again.
    Try “The Road Not Taken” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3esjTgR2W2E), or “If…” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFaENAjk54s&NR=1).

  • Brian Gray

    What have been the effects of slam poetry in introducing people to accessible poetry?

  • Panderheggen

    I would take issue with the title of David Orr’s book, or at least half of it: Pointless. In my experience of reading poetry for many years there is little that is written that is new. What is important is not what you say, but HOW you say it. And how you say things is not at all pointless. If we could learn that in our political dialogue we could change things radically, I think. How you say what you say or write, is not at all pointless.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tzbauknight Trevor Zion Bauknight

    One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that nearly everybody seems to be able to identify “Bad Poetry” but I’ve never heard anybody explain what’s “bad” about a particular poem. Is any poetry “bad” if it makes people feel funny, or calls up emotions most people supress, or is it simply a matter of people being unable to identify “good” poetry, and so they call it all “bad”?

    • Ellen Dibble

      I suppose “bad poetry” is what we would otherwise call a rant, except it tries to acquire legitimacy by dressing itself up in rhyme and meter and decorating itself with verbal play that gets in the way rather than enriching whatever it is.
      Do we have a modern day Ogden Nash?
      Some poetry shakes you up (Emily Dickinson?). Some poetry anchors you down (hymns?). Is hip-hop modern poetry? Yep. Yip-yop. Not Poe-type poetry, but Pie-type poetry, edible now.
      Poetry is like pornography: I know it when I see it. And I guess everyone has a different vision in this regard.
      A local teenage choir wrote a poem for the inauguration of the mayor, approximately a sixth inauguration for that mayor. And the kids set it to music and sang it at the opening of the ceremony. The mayor was not pleased. In fact, the mayor is going to forgo further inaugurations by not running again. The decision was not announced for quite some time, and may not be connected at all, but might be a factor. Poetry? Not poetry? Bad poetry? Poorly targeted poetry? Funny but not universal?

    • Slp4149

      Trevor, “Good” vs. “bad” poetry is a false dichotomy. As with most things, it’s in the eye – or ear, or heart – of the beholder. A poem that has meaning for you is “good” in your estimation. A poem that has no meaning for you is not a “bad” poem; it simply has no meaning for you. Every poem has meaning for the poet and it has merit on that basis, even if on that alone.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Certain poets were my dead friends when I was younger. Rainer Maria Rilke, for instance, in German. The being dead and being in a language I barely knew were probably part of it. Serendipity. Something reached across continents, centuries, and was — I would carry that poetry book on the bus, or to waiting rooms. I just dug it up. There was a female writer whose poems appeared in the New Yorker in the late 1960s. I forget now. I’m a little embarrassed she hit so near my heart. I was amazed at how she could reach me. She was not like me; she just spoke my language in some unprecedented way. I’ve conveniently forgotten her name, like a buried love letter.
    There are not going to be similar “golden oldies” that strike so near my heart. I think you have to be discovering your voice to be so taken with a particular poet/poetry.

  • Elenita

    Similar to the experience of the caller from Russia, in Latin America poets and poetry are part the fabric of daily life. I have Chilean friends who have been reciting Neruda since childhood.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Slams were ruined for me by early constant listening to When we Were Very Young and Now We Are Six by AA Milne, which are read, if my mother is an example, at lickety-split speed. “Christopher Robin went hoppity-hoppity-hop, no matter how kindly you tell him to stop, he says he can’t possibly hop.” It’s mostly like a fast dance, with heavy downbeats. And it’s very, very hard to write, per AA Milne.
    In slams, that kind of poetry is nowhere to be seen.

  • Dr. Hing Wah


    I think writing poems with new useful information is more important than just reading poems.

    The story below is interesting.
    Verse-atility: Brookline High student follows his art, wins regional poetry recitation contest By By Rachel Stine

  • Steven

    Could someone please remind me of the name of the poem about chickens coming home to roost? thanks.

  • Slp4149

    As editor of my church newsletter, I frequently use the text of hymns to show that the text is a poem and that the words can have a message in themselves, without the melody “getting in the way.”

  • Panderhegggen

    Additional comment. I am now baffled by Mr. Orr’s choice of a title. I would presume that he does not think that poetry is pointless, therefore what would he suggest that it is by the title which is a statement instead of a question. Why not a question mark in the title. I have made my point previously that poetry is not at all pointless.

  • JohnDB

    I’d like to be reminded of the name of the chicken poem as well. Was not at all impressed with the guest. His thoughts about poetry seemed rather superficial. I don’t even like the tone of the title of the book. It was painful to hear the litany of strained metaphors describing the experience of poetry that were extracted from the book and discussed early in the interview.

    Getting back to the chicken. I thought the real zinger of the poem was its farcical nature (in a positive sense)- last I checked chickens can’t fly, and certainly can’t fill the sky. I thought it was funny and serious at the same time. This seemed lost on the guest.

  • Matt

    I have always been turned off by those who strive to define or claim to know what poetry is and then use that definition rigidly.

    If I speak or write articulately about affection for my lover and another man expresses the same sentiment with less fluency, is that any less poetic? If one is poetry, and the other is not, does that mean that they don’t have the same meaning? 2+2=4 and 3+1+4, yet one of those formulas is more elegant than the other. Elegance does not make poetry.

    If you can think about something with reverence, maybe that alone is poetry.

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  • Brennan511

    Poetry’s almost a mental illness for mescience!. Truth MEDIUM! more [too much?]
    My HOROSCOPE supposedly predicts this.
    like plasma>>>, ink paper OMG…Grammer-remember to lick the dots & cross the cheese.
    I’ll be the messiah, on an island.

  • Brett

    I’ll go with the “poetry is like pornography, you know it when you see it” definition. While whether a poem is “bad” or “good” is subjective, clearly there is good poetry and bad poetry, just like there is good music and bad music. One of my standards is, does the poem stand on its own on the page, or does it need a clever performance, even a disregard for how it stands on the page? Many slam poets would benefit from such a metric.

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  • Wilhide

    FYI — On Saturday, June 11, in the tiny town of New York Mills, MN, the Great American Think-Off will stage its 19th annual “amateur philosophy” debate.  This year’s topic is “Does Poetry Matter?”  I’m one of the finalists and will defend the “pro” side of the question.  We’ll see what happens.  The winner (for better or worse) is granted the impressive title of “America’s Greatest thinker of 2011.”
    – Doug Wilhide

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