Lyric Poetry Saving Grace
Pinsker, Sanford, The Virginia Quarterly Review
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. …