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 divide between land and sea, or 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.
Nor is that disconnect reduced much by the two primary ways in which contemporary poetry is discussed on the shelves of your local bookstore or library. You might call these approaches the Scholarly Model and the How-to Model. A book written according to the Scholarly Model is exactly what it sounds like—an academic treatise intended to add glitter to a young professor's résumé—and its typical structure runs as follows:
1. Introduction; in which the author makes a general statement about the poetry world, often including some kind of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other discussion of formalism and the avant-garde, neither of which will mean much to anyone without a subscription to Poetry magazine;
2. Middle section consisting of three or four chapters devoted to individual poets, one of whom will be John Ashbery; and
3. Conclusion; in which the author argues for more narrative, or more personal detail, or more attention to language itself, or more poets whose names are palindromes, or more poems involving otters, etc.
Books written according to this formula can be hugely enjoyable and smart, but they don't have much to say to the general reader. Even a modern classic like Robert Pinsky's The Situation of Poetry is addressing a state of affairs in which its intended audience is already thoroughly situated.
Ironically enough, the How-to books can be even less helpful. These are the volumes with titles like How to Embrace Poetry or Writing Your First Poem or Opening Your Heart to Verse or something equally reminiscent of a do-it-yourself guide to window treatments crossed with a Hallmark card. The problem here is not that such books are written in bad faith or contain inaccurate information; on the contrary, they're among the best intentioned items to be found in a Barnes & Noble, and their documentation of sonnets, sestinas, and iambic trimeter is usually impeccable. The problem is that many good readers don't understand, as a basic matter, how to respond to the art form. As a result, the How-to Model's combination of technical information and platitudes can resemble a golf lesson that consists solely of being told what a nine iron is and how crisp the air can be at St Andrews on a fine September morning, without a single remark about how one actually goes about playing golf. Or to put it another way, the poetry world has been very successful at discussing instruments, classifications, histories, and theories; it's been less successful at conveying what it really means to read poetry, and by extension, why such reading might be as worthwhile as watching the director's cut of Blade Runner.
It might therefore help to change our idea of what learning about poetry should be like in the first place. After all, if there's one thing that often unites academic treatments and how-to guides, it's the implicit assumption that relating to poetry is like solving a calculus problem while being zapped with a cattle prod—that is, the dull business of poetic interpretation (" ... and here we have a reference to early Stevens") is coupled uneasily with testimonials announcing poetry's ability to derange the senses, make us lose ourselves in rapture, dance naked under the full moon, and so forth. We seem trapped between a tediously mechanical view of poems and an unjustifiably shamanistic view of poetry itself. If you're a casual reader, then, it's easy to feel that your response to the art is somehow wrong, that you're either insufficiently smart or insufficiently soulful. Any of us may be both those things, of course, but that's an issue that should be resolved after the reader's initial response has been fairly accounted for.
What, then, is that initial response most "like"? When a nonspecialist audience is responding well to a poem, its reaction is a kind of tentative pleasure, a puzzled interest that resembles the affection a traveler bears for a destination that both welcomes and confounds him. For such readers, then, it's not necessarily helpful to talk about poetry as if it were a device to be assembled or a religious experience to be undergone. Rather, it would be useful to talk about poetry as if it were, for example, Belgium.
The comparison may seem ridiculous at first, but consider the way you'd be thinking about Belgium if you were planning a trip there. You might try to learn a few useful phrases, or read a little Belgian history, or thumb through a guidebook in search of museums, restaurants, flea markets, or promising-sounding bars. The important thing is that you'd know you were going to be confused, or at least occasionally at a loss, and you'd accept that confusion as part of the experience. What you wouldn't do, however, is become paralyzed with anxiety because you don't speak fluent Flemish, or convinced that to really "get" Belgium, you need to memorize the Brussels phone book. Nor would you decide in advance that you'd never understand Belgians because you couldn't immediately determine why their most famous public statue is a depiction of a naked kid peeing in a fountain (which is true). You'd probably figure, hey, that's what they like in Belgium; if I stick around long enough, maybe it'll all make sense.
Poetry is best thought of the same way. English verse has existed for nearly a thousand years (more if you count Old English artifacts like The Dream of the Rood); it's impossible for most readers to take in even a tenth of the best poetry written in that time, to say nothing of the criticism and translated poems that are equally a part of our poetic heritage. The art form is enormous and perplexing, and at least half of it is of interest only to scholars and the certifiably disturbed. So the best most readers can hope to do is amble across the landscape, taking time to visit some of the less obvious attractions as well as the racy ones, pausing to nap in a shady spot or to sample some of the local dishes, even the ones that smell like wet dog. Like all foreign countries, poetry has customs and rules that should be respected, but you don't need to have memorized the entire catalogue of local rituals in order to make the trip worthwhile. As with a vacation in Belgium, all you need is a little patience and the motivation to book your tickets.
This book will try to help you…
About the Author
David Orr is the poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review. He is the winner of the Nona Balakian prize from the National Book Critics Circle and the Editors Prize for Book Reviewing from Poetry magazine. Orr's writing has appeared in Slate, Poetry, The Believer, and Pleiades magazines. He holds a BA from Princeton and a JD from Yale Law School. (Author photo by Tom McGhee)