04/24/2011 06:48 am ET Updated Jun 24, 2011

Beautiful And Pointless: New York Times Poetry Critic Says Poetry Isn't Relevant

To hear David Orr tell it in Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (Harper, April 5), all is well in the poetry world. Sure, there are some problems associated with institutionalization and careerism, but it's pretty much the best of all possible worlds, and if there isn't a widespread audience for poetry, that's all right too, because poetry just isn't that important or relevant or earth-shaking anyway. Heck, poetry doesn't even have a special province on language; other activities--normal human conversation, doggerel, Rumsfeld's speech--are just as interesting in terms of linguistic possibilities.

For at least two thousand years poets and critics have been either defending poetry or deriding it in the most passionate of terms, from Plato's attack to Shelley's defense. In the poetry wars of the last thirty years, Robert McDowell, Dana Gioia, Donald Hall, Lyn Hejinian, and Ron Silliman, to mention just a few rhetoricians, have treated poetry as the highest of arts, measuring the culture's health or illness according to the quality of poetry being produced.

But here comes Orr--lawyer, New York Times poetry critic, and Poetry magazine reviewer--to squeeze all the passion out of poetry criticism, telling us that he came to the profession after having "acquired enough knowledge about poetry [in college] to feel that I ought to be telling people how (not) to write it. By my second year of law school, I'd published my first review in Poetry magazine." In Beautiful and Pointless, he takes on modern poetry in curiously laid-back language, full of complacent qualifiers and modifiers, choked with asides that strangle the least hint of strong judgment. Orr wants to remove poetry to a realm of cultural irrelevance, presuming its marginality and wishing readers to come around to his point of view.

A curious, but very revealing, thing about the book is its lack of intended audience. Orr says that he wants to "give you a sense of what modern poets think about, how those poets talk about what they're thinking about, an individual poetry reader relates to the art," and that he wants an "interested outsider to understand what poetry readers are talking about when they're talking about poetry." His chapters include "The Personal, The Political, Form, Ambition, The Fishbowl (which focuses on the sociology of poetry), and Why Bother?" This schema, and the explanation for the motive behind it--to make the context of the performance of poetry or talking about poetry clear to outsiders--gives away the subterranean impulse driving the book, which is to remove poetry into safe sub-classifications that deny a total picture to outsider or insider alike.

The book is not pitched at a level of detail or complexity that a practicing poet--even a beginning one--would derive much understanding from, except as it reiterates modes of (journalistic-critical) discourse about the qualities of contemporary poetry; the same lack of detail or insight would prevent a true outsider from learning anything useful about poetry, except, as Orr makes explicit, how current poetry critics (like Orr himself) talk about poetry in the organs of poetry reviewing (like the New York Times and Poetry).

The book comes down to the critic-reviewer justifying his ways to an audience that will never care about it, since we can safely presume that the outsider is unlikely to take poetry reviewing seriously, or will have any time for it. Which is precisely what Orr is happy with, i.e., for the outsider not to get worked up about the extremely marginal activity known as contemporary poetry.

Why deny that criticism has any larger social function? Why deny the book a large or passionate or serious audience? Why cut his own argument down at every step instead of letting it develop into a substantial mass, coalesced around first principles?

This is not incidental. The fact that the structure of Beautiful and Pointless hints toward no possible audience for the book is central to an understanding of its logic. David Shields recently argued in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto that imaginative fiction is no longer culturally relevant; only memoir is. Lee Siegel, in his forthcoming seriously flawed book Are You Serious: How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly (Harper, June 28), argues that serious fiction, of the type represented by the New Yorker avatar John Updike, is no longer culturally relevant, since we're--well, since we're no longer serious people able to appreciate serious writers like Updike. (This book, in its vain pretensions, its deliberate tamping down of passions by its mainstream reviewer-critic, this time closely associated with The New Republic, bears more than a passing resemblance to the wellsprings of Beautiful and Pointless, and deserves an extended treatment all its own.)

We have here the phenomenon of the pseudo-critic arguing with circular language that criticism itself is pointless, that there is not only no audience for fiction or poetry, but that there is no implied audience for criticism itself. The neoliberal/neoconservative establishment is deeply invested in propagating this message about the political irrelevance of literature. That's what Beautiful and Pointless is really about.

Orr's lawyerly inclination is evident in how he dismantles the apparently large themes he's taken up--The Personal, Ambition, etc.--and reduces them to banal questions. The framing is where he suavely elides the crux of the problem in each case. Since the late 1950s, with the ascendance of Robert Lowell--and later Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman--confessional poetry has been probably the dominant poetic mode. Is confessional poetry a deviance from the main tradition of poetry? Is it good poetry, what has it yielded over fifty years, and how does it measure against the Romantics, for instance? What is its public function, what does it have in common with confession in other literary genres, and should it be the focus of teaching? Other similar questions can no doubt be pondered.

But here's Orr's framing of "the personal":

One way to explain why poems filled with seemingly personal information don't automatically have a personal effect would be to say that their disclosures can quickly become conventions. The information may still be artfully deployed, and the risk involved is still substantial--but that risk is the normal risk of technical failure, not the peculiar risk of personal embarrassment.

In other words, confessional poetry doesn't necessarily result in personal embarrassment because such poetry yields to conventions--like any poetry. Duh!

Elsewhere, Orr remarks: "We understand the context in which memoirists work, we appreciate that while such writers are indeed telling us secrets, they are also 'putting on a show' for us that we're entitled to find good, bad, boring, or electrifying. We're not so sure about poets." Orr seems worried that such confusion exists; he seems to suggest that wider acquaintanceship with modern poetry might lessen such confusion--perhaps. Moreover, the chapter is sparked by Orr wondering at a party, after Orr hesitantly introduces himself to a stranger as a poetry critic, if he isn't seen as cruel because poetry, after all, is understood as the ultimate expression of personal vulnerability. Orr seems to be propelled toward a remarkably constrained view of the critic's function, a defensive apologia that seeks readers' pardon before the fact and stops at that.

The major problem with regard to politics and poetry, it seems to me, is that contemporary American poets have generally decided to be apolitical. Sometimes they go out of their way to inject politics into their poetics--as on the occasions of Bush's wars or Obama's election or the Hurricane Katrina disaster--but they quickly retreat, are uncomfortable with the posture, and as a lot believe that poetry should have no business engaging with politics. A political worldview tends to saturate poetry from other regions of the world, even when the poetry is not explicitly political. There are explicit institutional reasons why poetry with a political attitude is verboten.

At the same time, poetry with a political charge has never ceased being written in America, despite the onslaught of confessionalism. I'm just reading Tony Trigilio's Historic Diary and the young poet Harmony Holiday's Negro League Baseball, and have been rereading Amiri Baraka's early poetry, as politically resonant as anything one can read today. It remains true, however, that American poetry--like American literature in general--is shy of class and economics, and this is the biggest question to be addressed with respect to politics and poetry.

But here's Orr's tame formulation:

One of the problems with political poetry, then, is that like all speech, it exists at the mercy of time, history, and other people. But that doesn't mean poetry itself is passive.... A poet is always engaged in battle, though the opponents may be unclear, the stakes unknowable, and the victories and defeats felt far away, in different domains, by people other than himself.

Note again the effect of the languorous, constantly hedged-in prose style, which makes any strong assertion impossible. Poets either write political poetry, or they don't, who knows, what does it matter as long as they're trying to write good poetry, whatever that is. This does not seem to me a substantive critical analysis with respect to poetry and politics today.

Orr is equally noncommittal when it comes to form, another area where critics have spent immense firepower over the last decades. Here's Orr's lawyerly formulation of the problem of form:

Like all forms, mechanical forms give the poet an extra tool for communicating meaning, and that meaning is no less effective for being explicitly rule bound.

This is in the context of Orr's own postulate of "categories of categories," namely "metrical form...resemblance form... [and] mechanical form" (confusing, yes). With respect to meter, resemblance, and mechanics, Orr concludes--well, he concludes nothing, as when he says, "Forms like the sonnet inhabit this same uncertain space [something being bigger than the sum of its rules], and that may explain their remarkable persistence." What Orr never explicitly states--because it's a contentious argument, the subject of passionate debate over recent decades--is the idea that form drives meaning. Form is political. It's easy to make fun of the notion held by some avant-garde poets that form is fascist, or at least unacceptably conservative, but form is all-pervasive, everyone writes in form, the language poets as much as the new formalists.

Again, the discussion falls between the chairs--neither the practicing poet nor the curious outsider is likely to benefit from Orr's superficial analysis of form. He offers the example of experimental poet Karen Volkman's "sonnet," which reads in part:

Blank bride of the hour, occluded thought
wed to waning like a sifting scent
of future flowers, retrograde intent
backwards blooming as a nascent naught
staining minutes, rumorous, uncaught.
You callow hollow of the efferent,
the apsis-axis of my implement,
ague body, unboundaried, portionless plot
no chart remarks.

Orr concludes about this poem: "Without bothering too much over whether this is 'modern' or 'experimental' or 'radical' or 'proper' or whatever, it's worth asking: Is this interesting? Is it a sonnet? It's both, I would say--and that is enough." In fact, Volkman's seems to me a poem not worth excusing on the basis that it's "interesting"--it's an example of some of the worst fripperies of language poetry: skating on the surface of verbal juxtapositions and conundrums, without letting the reader enter into deep meaning--precisely the aim of language poetry. To say that it is "interesting" does not do the critic any honor, even in a short expository book. Is this poem a parody? Obviously, at some level it is. Yet Volkman, one presumes, would not take it kindly if it were treated in a light-hearted manner. She wants to score some political points. Yet are these political points so obscure as to elude everyone? If that's the case, why is this poem "interesting?"

I would have to say that the most important issue a critic could address with respect to contemporary poetry is why so much of it is unambitious--and this connects integrally with the lack of an audience for poetry.

Orr's answer is functionalist (whatever is, is, and is good), evoking Mark McGurl's thesis in The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing that because there are so many creative writing programs in the country, this must mean they serve a useful function. Orr realizes that a major part of poets' business is getting published--frequently and early, in order to get tenure, but he isn't bothered by it.

His framing of the question of ambition comes down to time-specific preferences for particular styles. Orr feels that Robert Lowell was considered the greater poet compared to Elizabeth Bishop, but that time (or shall we say political fashion?) has been kinder to Bishop over the long haul. According to Orr, Lowell's style was the one readers associate with ambition: it "involves abstraction, overt deployment of rhetoric, words that connote bigness, philosophical name-dropping, and so on." He makes a more disturbing comparison, noting that Bishop's "style is less ponderous and hoity-toity than, say, [T. S.] Eliot's." Orr suggests that "Bishop's 'modesty' and 'charm' might have been concealing ambition--and that the ambition in question was to be Great." Another reading is possible, however. Poets today have the intellectual resources to accomplish more "modest" work like Bishop's, not Lowell's--hence the rise in Bishop's stock.

Bringing the discussion up to date, Orr finds that Jorie Graham, Geoffrey Hill, and Derek Walcott today are considered the epitome of ambition, while the quieter Kay Ryan finds the label elusive. Clearly, again, Orr's sympathies lie with Ryan. Orr knows that the question of ambition is integrally related to the institutional structures of poetry teaching and publishing today, yet he not only evades the question but turns it into a politically correct direction by saying that ideas of ambition and greatness come from poetry instruction where Eliot, unfortunately from Orr's point of view, still holds sway. The particularly distorted definition of greatness--which Orr is unhappy with--typified by rhetoric and abstraction should be noted. In the case of Derek Walcott, one of today's truly great poets (so say I), ambition accrues not as a direct result of style but his style being a result of his politics.

Walcott, clearly, is unteachable. Ryan, to a certain extent, is, and Sharon Olds, very easily, is. We need a solid institutional account at this point--for example, why certain poets aspiring to greatness (Clayton Eshleman or Robert Kelly might be examples)--are excluded from workshop consideration. Orr's meaningless answer doesn't suffice:

There is no 'true' way to be ambitious, just as there's no 'proper' way to write poetry; instead, we exist in a flurry of possibilities that will bring to mind either snowflakes or bullets, depending on your disposition. We invent, we borrow, and we do our best.

And surely the best we try to do is good enough, right?

When it comes to the business of poetry--"the fishbowl," as Orr calls it--Orr is at his blandest, perhaps because here are the most troublesome questions of corruption in the poetry "guild," as Orr admits it's become. Contemporary American poets often talk about the act of writing poetry in their workshop poems, as in the exemplary Billy Collins poem "Workshop":

I might as well begin by saying how much I like the
It gets me right away because I'm in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.

Orr evaluates it thus:

Is this the great work of our age? Probably not. But it's pleasurable writing, and certainly no worse than what we'd have if poets all worked in splendid isolation punctuated only by yelling matches and the occasional affair. However we may romanticize it, the poetry world of the past was often a cliquish mess, and we're surely better off under today's regime.

This is yet another declaration of faith in the current pseudo-democracy of poetry, as being the best of all possible worlds--not ideal, but not bad--and notice Orr's strawman of an equally corrupt past. It skips over the rampant corruption in the necessarily shark-infested waters of the guild, where minor shades in reputations lead to tenure and awards, and publication is a crap-shoot heavily favoring those in the good books of the guild masters.

Some years ago the website exposed the obvious corruption in small and university press poetry book publication (almost all first books are published through contests), where well-known poets like Jorie Graham judged in favor of their friends or students. This, actually, is only the tip of the iceberg, not the most remarkable form of corruption. Foetry wasn't a momentary jolt to the impartial standards of academic poetry, but its very essence. However, this is how Orr justifies the corruption:

In such arrangements, the idea of fair play doesn't typically extend to people outside the group. Nor is that attitude necessarily to be criticized: If you and your friends are struggling to get attention, it hardly makes sense to spend each brief moment in the spotlight talking about the gang down the street.

In other words, it's okay to exclude outsiders when you're supposed to be impartial judges! In fact, Orr takes the example of Foetry admonishing corrupt poetry judging as an example of the system working--somebody bothered to take the trouble to expose the corruption, which goes to show that university poets are expected to uphold standards. Only a lawyer would engage in this sort of reasoning.

The great partisans of poetry throughout the ages have treated it as a matter of life and death. Viz. Baudelaire or Rimbaud or Rilke or Pound or Mayakovsky or Akhmatova or Brodsky--or even Walcott and Hill. For Orr, and the brand of bland criticism he represents, poetry ought not to be valued higher than any other trivial pursuit. He ends his book with a chapter called "Why Bother?" where he makes this negative case for the pursuit of poetry:

If we exclude early childhood, the average person has approximately three hundred thousand hours of waking life. Can we say with confidence that a thousand of those hours should be devoted to an obscure art form whose entire national audience could be seated in a typical college football stadium with room to spare? Are we so sure of what poems have to offer?

Orr rejects poetry's special claim to precision and clarity of language by countering that "the best we can do is to say that only through poetry can we understand poetry." Orr offers no consolation to those curious about poetry: "I really do believe that poetry is hard to recommend." Precisely how Shields and Siegel feel about fiction--there's a trend here, and it's being fully capitalized.

With friends like these, poetry doesn't need enemies. Orr writes, "There is no outside position that can give us perspective on a system that not only is enormous and protean, but that we ourselves inhabit." I thought that was the job of the critic--without perspective, what is the point of a book of criticism? A critic must have some standards, any standards, without which criticism is--beautiful and pointless.

Anis Shivani's debut book of criticism is Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (July 2011).