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.”
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.