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David Orr is a young man with the rare good fortune of combining both a vocation and an avocation. He is a practicing attorney and a graduate of Yale Law School. Orr is also a noted critic of modern poetry who writes regularly for the New York Times and for "Poetry" magazine. Orr's most recent article in the latter publication is titled "Poetry of and About", and it combines his vocation and avocation. The article examines a new anthology of poems loosely related to the law. Most readers without a serious interest in verse will be unfamiliar with "Poetry". But Orr's new and first book, "Rare and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry" develops some of the themes of the article in a way that is intended to appeal to readers with little familiarity with the bewildering world of contemporary poetry.
Orr's book is designed to introduce contemporary poetry to the large majority of readers who have no acquaintance with it. He writes in a free, informal, and inviting style which serves to invite readers who, with substantial reason, will regard modern poetry as a forbidding, arcane art form. Orr also has a gift for a quirky, idiosyncratic turn of phrase. He introduces startling and seemingly unconnected figures of a sudden and out of the blue before turning to show how the introduction pertains to the matter at hand -- much in the way some poets may introduce a difficult metaphor. How does Orr want the reader to approach contemporary poems? Many readers might think that this involves a quasi-spiritual approach or a technical approach with close attention to meter, metaphor, and language. But Orr wants the reader to approach poetry in the manner of -- Belgium. It is a matter of travelling to a foreign country about which one initially knows a little but not much. The traveler may pick up some guides and basic information in advance and then learn and follow his interest as he goes along. So it is with modern poetry which is best approached, for Orr, in a spirit of openness and adventure with the expectation that the journey will prove strange and that one may at times get lost along the way.
Orr tries to give the reader some guideposts to modern poetry. More important, he describes his own love for the art while trying to explain how and why poetry might matter to people or be important. Thus in his several chapters Orr tries to capture some themes and tendencies of contemporary poetry. He explains the current academic-like atmosphere in which poetry is written and struggles to describe the love and the hold of poetry. His chapters combine his own quirky observations and writing with illustrations which usually consist of segments of different poems that show competing tendencies in poetry. In general, Orr is most effective when he discusses specific poems and poets.
The guidelines Orr offers to modern poetry include chapters on "the personal" -- what this may be and how it is reflected in different poems, "the political" -- which examines how poetical speech sometimes is related to political speech, "form" -- a fine chapter which includes much more than a discussion of the difference between metric poetry and free verse, "ambition" -- and most of which consists of an insightful discussion of the differences in poetic style between two modern American masters who were close friends, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, These chapters are originally and easily written. I think they will help many readers as a stepping-off point.
There are a couple of depressingly gossipy chapters in the book about poetry and the modern university (a theme of the magazine article I mentioned at the outset of this review) which are less edifying to read but probably still of value for a newcomer to the world of poetry. Then Orr concludes the book with a personal and candid discussion of the broad question of the book: why read poetry at all. Here again, Orr writes in a peppery way which both acknowledges and deflates certain shibboleths. Orr points to the effort required to get to know poetry and the personal, not entirely explainable character of human choice. Orr writes:
"[I]t's hard to describe what red looks like, or how one's relationship with a child or parent feels. The same is true of poetry. I can't tell you why you should bother to read poems, or to write them; I can only say that if you do choose to give your attention to poetry, as against all the other things you might turn to instead, that choice can be meaningful. There's little grandeur in this, maybe, but out of such small, unnecessary devotions is the abundance of our lives sometimes made evident." (p. 179)
Orr is an admirer of, among others, Robert Frost and quotes this well-known American writer several times in his book. In his article in "Poetry", Orr deals at some length with Frost's poem "Two Tramps in Mud Time" with its famous concluding lines:
"My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
for Heaven and the future's sakes."
Frost's poem of earnest playfulness seems to me to capture much of the allure of modern poetry for Orr. His book should help to guide some readers in the direction of poetry.
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