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.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Oct 13, 2015
In this photo taken on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, Syrian armored vehicles get ready to move near the village of Morek in Syria. The Syrian army has launched an offensive this week in central and northwestern Syria aided by Russian airstrikes. (AP)

Russia’s big power play in Syria, the US response, and where this could go.

Oct 13, 2015
The bare landscape of Crimea, Ukraine, offers little protection in warfare, and German infantrymen hug the ground to escape enemy fire, Jan. 7, 1942.  (AP)

We’ll talk with historian Tim Snyder, who sees resource wars behind past genocides and says climate change now raises the danger again.

Oct 12, 2015
A portion of the cover of Larissa MacFarquhar's new book, "Strangers Drowning." (Penguin Press / Courtesy The Publishers)

An extreme commitment to others. Larissa MacFarquhar joins us with stories of those who sacrifice almost everything to do good.

Oct 12, 2015
Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman talks on his phone outside the newly constructed jail as prisoners are transferred into the facility in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (AP)

Step one in sentencing reform: 6,000 federal prisoners will go free at the end of this month. We’ll dig in.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Meet The Interns, Fall 2015
Friday, Oct 9, 2015

Meet our Fall 2015 interns! (Better late than never, right?)

More »
Our Week In The Web: October 9, 2015
Friday, Oct 9, 2015


More »
Rep. Daniel Webster: ‘I’m Gonna Sell This Message’
Tuesday, Oct 6, 2015

When House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced his retirement and resignation from his position last month, it surprised both his Party and the Washington political establishment.

More »