By Gwendolyn Dawson
Despite its subtitle, Beautiful & Pointless is not really a “guide” to modern poetry. I would call it more of a meditation. Orr, the poetry critic for the New York Times Book Review, doesn’t really explain the various poetic forms or the different methods for deconstructing and understanding a poem. He doesn’t give any helpful tips to the beginner for how to read and appreciate poetry. Instead, Orr describes his task as “try[ing] to give you a sense of what modern poets think about, how those poets talk about what they’re thinking about, and most important, how an individual poetry reader relates to the art he usually likes, always loves, and is frequently annoyed by.”
Using many examples of contemporary poetry, Orr discusses how poets inject the personal into their poetry (and, just as importantly, how some poets avoid the personal altogether) and how poets address and respond to current politics through poetry. There’s a chapter on form, but its main point seems to be that contemporary poets feel free to bend the rules of form.
Two chapters (titled “ambition” and “the fishbowl”) discuss the inner workings of the poetry world, from the aspirations of contemporary poets to their reactions to each other to the difficulty in getting poetry published these days, much less read. A regular reader of poetry will find much of interest in Beautiful & Pointless and is likely to discover even more reasons to love poetry. For the poetry novice, however, this book is not the best choice of a guide as it assumes a certain, not insignificant level of prior knowledge and appreciation.
In the book’s last chapter, Orr attempts to identify what makes poetry (both in the writing and reading) worthwhile. He dismisses the predominant views (i.e. poetry’s special connection to language, to ourselves, or to our society/culture and concludes that “[p]oetry is a small, vulnerable human activity no better or more powerful than thousands of other small, vulnerable human activities” such as gardening or movie watching. In the end, Orr believes we read poetry simply because we love it: it “seems beautifully pointless, or pointlessly beautiful.”
Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr is published in the United States by Harper.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License.