What follows is an interview with poet David Orr. David is the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review. His first book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, was named one of the twenty best books of 2011 by The Chicago Tribune. Orr is the winner of the Nona Balakian Prize from the National Book Critics Circle and the Editor’s Prize for Reviewing from Poetry magazine. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate, Poetry magazine, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Believer, among other publications. He holds a B.A. from Princeton and a J.D. from Yale Law School.
Much of your work as a poetry critic, especially in your fantastic recent book Beautiful and Pointless, seems to be devoted to demystifying poetry as an art form. Do you think it’s fair to say that at least in terms of issues such as accessibility and relevance (or the public’s perception thereof), modern poetry stands in a similar relation to the contemporary literary arts as conceptual or performance art stands to the contemporary visual arts: i.e., as an art form predominantly practiced and consumed by an insulated artworld elite? If so, what do you think might be contributing to this perception of contemporary poetry, especially in light of poetry’s storied tradition of being perceived as altogether otherwise?
About ten years ago, the critic A.O. Scott, who is generally sympathetic to poets, described American poetry as “a self-satisfied, self-perpetuating, and not especially welcoming museum world.” That sounds uncomfortably close to correct, with the exception of the word “museum.” Museums look backward by necessity, whereas contemporary poetry is often fixated on the New New Thing. In this sense, and many others, poetry is more like a small academic department. As you might know, poetry is now intimately (and perhaps irrevocably) tied to the American university system in a way that it wasn’t only fifty years ago. This is largely because of the development of creative writing departments, which made it possible – in theory, at least – for poets to make a living by talking about poetry. That relationship affects poets and poems in a number of way, some of them positive (a paycheck is always nice) and some of them unhelpful. Most obviously, the relationship can sometimes cause poets to struggle to imagine an audience that doesn’t consist almost exclusively of students and teachers.
To what extent might exposure (or the increasing lack thereof) be playing a role in shaping public perception or poetry? Do you think any major stylistic, compositional, interpretive, or critical shifts within poetry itself might be playing some role as well? Is there something uniquely American afoot?
Well, to understand any art form, you need to understand the context in which moves are being made. So you either grow up absorbing that context almost unconsciously (as we do with television writing and pop music) or you acquire it somehow. The problem for American poets lies in the “somehow.” Poetry isn’t taught well in high schools for the most part, and while university instruction can be wonderful, it carries with it the price I mentioned in response to your first question. I do think many contemporary poets have worked hard to improve the situation, sometimes at the expense of their reputations among grad students and angry people on the internet. And yes, it’s certainly true that poetry occupies a smaller space in American culture than it does in, for instance, Russian culture. That’s always been the case with a couple of notable exceptions like Robert Frost, and it’s hard to know where to place the blame or credit for that.
Many now consider some of John Donne’s poems so virulently misogynistic as to preclude any modern, morally progressive audience from receiving the same aesthetic pleasure so readily imparted to its less enlightened Elizabethan kin. Do you think that the fundamental aesthetic/artistic value or worth of a poem changes over time, specifically in relation to changes in audience background, preferences, taste levels, discriminative capacities, relevant attitudes, etc.? Or do you think that a poem’s value (at least qua poem) remains fixed but that a poem’s audience can change in certain ways that better facilitate the proper appreciation/engagement with the poem (and thereby better able to discern its value as such)?
This is one of those chicken or the egg questions, isn’t it? Different groups of people feel differently about poems over time, so is the “problem” – if that’s the right word – with the poem or with the audience? Maybe a helpful way to think about this kind of question would be to imagine poems as being like (not the same as, but like) people. We seem different to other people depending on circumstances and across generations – and that’s okay. You or I could never know Lincoln the way someone in 1864 knew Lincoln, for example, but that’s far from saying we don’t have any understanding of Lincoln. I think that imagining poems this way helps us to avoid worrying about things like “fundamental value” – what’s the value of Lincoln, after all? It’s just not a frame that quite fits the picture.
That said, I do think we can make value judgments about technique, because technique is premised on historical conventions (which are the next-best thing to rules). So Swinburne, for instance, is a technical virtuoso. That’s a close to a fact as you can get in poetry. But being a technical virtuoso isn’t the same as being a great poet, which returns us again to the difficulty of trying to find a core/center of a poem that we could make an ahistorical judgment about.
Many critics believe that criticism ought to function as a purely descriptive guide for the potential audiences of a work and that the critic, at least in her capacity as such, ought to avoid making any interpretive or evaluative claims about the work. On this view, just as the function of a map is simply to provide the traveler with the relevant topographical description of the area (so as to facilitate navigation through that area) so too is the job of the critic to describe a work and its features so as to facilitate audience interpretation/evaluation of that work—just as making evaluative claims about that topography (rolling hills, tranquil rivers, dead-end towns, poorly designed interstates, etc.) lies well outside a map’s purview, so too does making such claims about a poem or its features (elegantly composed, the cacophonous alliteration, a thematic dead-end, its crass appeal to an even crasser sentimentality). Some critics, however, think evaluative claims not just an important part of criticism but thoroughly essential to its purpose. As a critic, where do you see yourself as falling on the evaluative dimension of criticism and to what extent might your experiences as a poet contribute to that?
Oh, I’m all for evaluation! And that’s for two reasons. The first is that I’m not sure it’s possible to be “purely descriptive” when talking about a contemporary poem – that is, unless you’re simply going to repeat the thing. As soon as you start making remarks like “In the first two lines, we find X,” you’ve already gone partway down the road of evaluation, because you and your audience will have some response to X that triggers the machinery of opinion. (Mapmaking may not be so far removed from this, actually, since deciding how to represent, say, disputed boundaries could be construed as evaluative.) So if you have to go partway, you may as well go all the way. And that relates to my second reason for favoring evaluative claims, which is that I think people give such claims far too much weight by refusing to make them. No critical proclamation has yet killed a good poem to my knowledge. Acting as if that could somehow be the case gives far too little credit to poets and poems, both of which have historically demonstrated levels of durability that would impress a cockroach.
Through my Irish Language study I’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to the works of Irish Language poets Cathal Ó Searcaigh and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, the latter of whom wrote a wonderful poem detailing his disdain for English-language translation of his poetry.
Amanna, Éiríonn tú tuirseach
de chluasa falsa Éireannacha.
Féin-sásamh an monoglot a deir leat—
“It sounds lovely. I wish I had the Irish.
Don’t you do translations?”
—Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, “Aistriúcháin” (1997)
Given poetry’s uncompromising stylistic spirit along with the vagaries, subtleties, complexities, and idiosyncrasies of the particular language in which a poem is written (dialect, patois)—not to mention the particular manner in which that poem itself is written in that language (idiolect)—one might think translation in poetry becomes less about whether or not that the poem survives intact and more about whether or not the battered corpse that inevitably comes out the other side bears enough of a passing resemblance to the original to warrant an open-casket service. What are you experiences with translation, both as a poet and as a critic?
This is always an interesting subject. It’s particularly interesting to me, since I speak only English, yet have somehow been assigned to review multiple books in translation over the years. (Surely this is because of my worldly demeanor?) My feeling is that a poem is inevitably going to change species when translated. By this, I mean that the act of translation does something to (or with) a poem that is different in kind from what happens when we read a poem out loud versus silently, or when we change the typeface to 24 point comic sans, and so forth. A translation turns an alligator into an animal that is vaguely alligator-shaped, but definitely not an alligator. What is especially odd about translation is that the alligator-shaped animal is then judged by two different audiences. The first knows the original poem, and will be looking for suitably alligator-ish behavior, while the second has no idea what the original poem is like, and would happily be entertained by a zebra or a marmoset. And then there is the additional question – and apologies as I belabor this metaphor – of whether certain types of animals lend themselves more easily to the business of imperfect replication.