You, Too, Could Read A Poem

My review of David Orr’s essay collection

I strained and soaked in every curated detail at the Metropolitan’s El Greco exhibit back in 2009. The exhibit moved from unknown Byzantine artists to Picasso and Pollock all by way of El Greco’s work. I went in with a little background and left feeling like an expert. I still have exhibit’s book on my coffee table.

At its best, the New York Times gives me that same feeling. This book by the New York Times poetry columnist does what the Met and NYT do best: make everything as simple as can be, but no simpler while inspiring me to learn more.

My first glance at Orr’s title I thought it would teach me how to write a poem. But that’s not the book. The book is a series of essays on different topics and poets in contemporary poetry.

I use contemporary because modern is loaded term. The modernists wrote a century ago, Ezra Pound or TS Eliot — those poets have become our ancestors or demi-gods. Post-modernists Ginsburg and Ashbury are like our uncles. They provided an example of what poets and poems and epigraphs should be to this generation. This generation starts with Fredrick Siedel whose dark, sexual poems predate everything Fifty Shades.

My exposure to poetry ends with the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry — and just the first quarter — I didn’t make it past Stevens. Stevens, Frost, Dickinson and Whitman formed the bedrock of my poetry reading. I’ve started reading Fredrick Seidel’s Widening Income Inequality and picked up Orr’s other book The Road Not Taken, which analyzes popular culture’s misinterpretation of Frost’s poem.

Good poets make good prose: Faulkner wrote poetry, Robert Penn Warren, Sylvia Plath, Marget Atwood come to mind. Poe did too but not so well. Orr is a fantastic prose writer. I didn’t read most of the poets he writes about, but I will. Reading poetry improves my writing and speaking. Poetry forces focus on word choice and rhythm. It reduces themes and feelings to the the atomic level. It’s the double espresso in a land of lattes and ice coffees. Like a doppio at 3 PM, reading a poem picks me up and makes happy.

Orr leads with “You, Too, Could Write a Poem”. Like the book itself the first piece sets out to democratize an aristocratic institution. The first essay takes on the yearly Best American Poetry. Poetry for the Barnes and Noble set. Good news: if you are good terms with the yearly rotating editor you can get published.

Orr uses the glacier metaphor to describe the death of poetry. It is an old tradition that’s been around for ages. It doesn’t go away over night. But drips away slowly.

Poetry doesn’t belong in ivory towers. Entertainers like Bob Dylan or Eminem should be part, but not all of the conversation. Art flourishes when the middle takes action. It’s time for the NYT set to be part of that conversation. You, too, can get involved.

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