They come in waves, the books in which experts, so-called, attempt to redeem poetry for the general audience, whatever that is. The impulse is understandable, as poetry is truly a marginal activity, but the idea of a one-book solution for a symptom of cultural decline is ludicrous. Generally, publishers and authors are in on the joke of treating poetry’s strangeness as a problem rather than a saving grace. And yet, and therefore, the handbooks keep rolling in.
David Orr, an attorney whose poetry reviews appear often in The New York Times Book Review, has entered the discussion, but his contribution is more of the same rather than a clarifying riposte. In Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (Harper; $25.99), he takes a calisthenic view of poetry: it’s not too strenuous but better at elevating the mental equivalent of cardio levels than, say (though he wouldn’t say it), parts of the Times. It has looked for the past twenty years as though the only people left in the country interested in poetry are professors and poets; the art could use more independent auditors. Orr has published a few poems, and however one might react to his critical portfolio of likes and dislikes, he gives no reason to believe he is subliminally campaigning for his own work.
Beautiful and Pointless is frustrating in argument, example and style. Used selectively, deflating remarks can keep a dry subject lively. Poetry is seldom dry enough, though, and anyway Orr is not selective; the steady drip of ingratiating jokes suggests insecurity. Robert Hass’s poem “Bush’s War” makes him especially anxious. The poem’s drift from wanting to say something about the invasion of Iraq to commentary on German landscape, cuisine and literature prompts apt questions and evasive sarcasm from Orr—“For whom is this poem intended? What is it hoping to achieve? And how can we get our hands on some of that asparagus?” Some answers: the poem is intended for Americans; Hass diagnoses a collective guilt-induced amnesia, illustrating how any culture can slide into barbarism and aggression. As for the asparagus, if it’s what you’ve been paying attention to, you’ve proved Hass’s point.
There’s a better critic in Orr struggling to get out. He identifies the mediocrity of most contemporary poetry—the neglect of form, the glorification of poetic fashions—but rather than diagnose and prescribe, he apologizes for the intrusion. Chalk it up to the small-t times—just as elsewhere in the country, Orr looks straight at the problem and chooses not to do anything to fix it, preferring to minimize and gloss it over. It’s right there in the title. The beautiful part is promising; the reverse psychology of the pointless, not so much.
On the subject of his own seduction by poetry, that of Philip Larkin’s, and in the brief memoir concerning his father’s stroke and the poetry he read to him afterward, Orr is quite good. What Beautiful and Pointless suggests Orr needs is an interlocutor who also knows something about poetry and can help keep him on topics he knows and cares about. Someone to remind him to take courage. On his own, Orr lacks nerve.
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Kenneth Goldsmith suffers no such chutzpah deficit. A sculptor and former creative director in advertising, Goldsmith has emerged as the un-leader of the conceptual poets, a mutually-assured-relevance cohort that takes its cues from the conceptual artists of forty years back. Sample Goldsmith titles include the radio transcriptions Traffic, The Weather and Sports; the poet owes his notoriety to Day, a repackaging in book form of a single issue of the New York Times. As Goldsmith will be the first to tell you, these texts are reductions to absurdity of the practices of Andy Warhol, John Cage and Marcel Duchamp. Something of the source lives on in the copy of the copy; presented as poetry, the books are elegant and superfluous and far from the worst ways available to ruin your eyesight.
Uncreative Writing (Columbia; $22.95), Goldsmith’s first essay collection, is superfluous and inelegant. It begins with a noncontroversial premise, that the recent history of art is a progression from the trace of the movement of the human hand to ever-more-sophisticated reuses of existing images. When he’s providing exposition, Goldsmith is as solid as you would expect the curator of the encyclopedic avant-garde Internet library UbuWeb to be. When he tries to extrapolate a future direction for writing from that history, he deserves to be laughed at, not with: “Earlier, I focused on the enormity of the Internet, the amount of the language it produces, and what impact this has upon writers. In this chapter I’d like to extend that idea and propose that, because of this new environment, a certain type of book is being written that’s not meant to be read as much as it’s meant to be thought about.” Setting aside the basic problems with the prose—the misuse of “enormity,” the confusion of agency, the unclear referents—there’s a basic problem with the concept. This notional book he describes might well be sold as a bill of goods. Goldsmith cites Sol LeWitt’s instructions for drawings as precedent: big mistake, as LeWitt’s achievement rests not on the textual descriptions of his works but on what he gives us to look at.
Goldsmith relies on a remark of William Burroughs’s collaborator Brion Gysin—that writing is fifty years behind the visual arts—to support his modest proposal to replace creative writing classes with exercises in plagiarism. As satire it’s OK, but as coursework it would be unnervingly close to academic fraud. Then again, if you wrote sentences like Goldsmith’s, you’d advocate for plagiarism too.