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Lyric Poetry’s Saving Grace

ISSUE:  Summer 2003
Poetry as Survival. By Gregory Orr. University of Georgia Press. $44.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.

At a time when review space for poetry books seems even stingier than usual and when only amateur enthusiasts give a fig about the state of contemporary versifying, two stories about poetry elbowed their way into wide public attention. One was the mind-blowing gift of $100 million that Ruth Lilly of the Lilly pharmaceutical fortune gave to Poetry magazine; the other was the bruhaha that Amiri Baraka, New Jersey’s Poet Laureate, kicked up with a poem entitled “Somebody Blew Up America.” Baraka has never met a conspiracy theory that he didn’t like, and in the case of the destruction unleashed on 9/11 he had no trouble believing that George Bush and the Israelis were in cahoots. His source for such errant foolishness? The Internet and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery dating back to the days of Czarist Russia. The controversial poem received extensive coverage in The New York Times (how could it not?), but this is not the attention that does the cause of serious poetry any good.

Much has been written about the apparent standoff between the public appetite for newsprint and a more private yearning for what poetry regularly provides, but William Carlos Williams probably said it best: “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” Poetry—and more particularly lyric poetry—is not concerned with the large cataclysms that shake Wall Street or the halls of Congress. Instead, the personal lyric is “a means of helping individuals survive the existential crises represented by extremities of subjectivity and also by such outer circumstances as poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one.” Lyric poetry helps us to survive by translating our crisis into language, and then by so shaping it into art that the original trauma can be partially, sometimes even wholly, transcended.

Orr means to make the case for lyric poetry not to the few who are already true believers but rather to those who wrongly believe that poetry is for the other guy—too erudite, too opaque, just too damn hard to interpret. “I never liked poetry in college” is a widely shared sentiment even among those who majored in English. Orr’s book is out to calm the poetry-shy and to make available a wide range of lyric poets, including Keats, Wordsworth, Whitman, Dickinson, Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell. In each case, Orr identifies the trauma that caused the respective lyrical impulses to be born, and then shows how the poetry that resulted successfully dealt with the original crisis.

Orr makes no secret of the fact that in talking about Poetry as Survival, he is exploring aspects of his continuing effort to deal with a childhood hunting accident in which his younger brother died. Orr has written about this horrible event previously, in poems and a memoir entitled The Blessing. The result brings both an intensity and a limitation to his discussion of lyric poetry. The intensity is evident whenever Orr talks about an individual lyric poet-hero such as Theodore Roethke or Walt Whitman. In Roethke’s case, the alternating currents of attraction and repulsion are captured in the painful/joyous memories of “My Papa’s Waltz,” while in Walt Whitman’s case, Orr focuses on what homosexual inclinations must have meant at a time when people could not easily make their exit from the closet.

Because Orr is such an attentive reader, one does not disagree with him lightly. However, I do not think of lyric poetry as entirely circumscribed by trauma (although being “hurt into poetry,” as Auden once said of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, is one way to get there); celebration of the sort that the Psalmist generates when he lifts his eyes up to the hills is certainly another, equally credible source for the lyric impulse, as is the announcement that “I shall make a poem” in counter-distinction to “Thus did the Lord spaketh unto me.” Put in simpler terms, lyric poetry is a way of writing “Kilroy was here!” on the walls of the world. Such poetry unashamedly announces, “I loved” every bit as often as it shares an interior recognition that “I suffered.”

Still, one easily forgives Orr for whatever limitations his study might collect. That he cannot tell us, with any specificity, just what Emily Dickinson’s trauma was is hardly a disgrace; no other literary critic, now—or I dare say in the future—can either. What is cause for celebration, lyrical and otherwise, is the wide learning that Orr brings so easily (and so clearly) to his pages. As with many contemporary poets, nothing quite so annoys as the realization that poetry intimidates so many would-be readers. The truth is that very few serious poets cultivate “difficulty”; indeed, most work hard so that their lines can be read with satisfaction and understanding. Granted, it’s not easy to find the right words and to put them in the right order (that’s the essential difference between lyrical outbursts that remain mere “outbursts” and genuine poetry), but Orr reminds us of something that may ultimately be even more important than matters of craft—namely, that lyric poetry speaks to the tormented heart of its creator as well as to those who find a solace of their own in reading transcendence at work.


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