David Orr On Greatness, Or Word Vomit

The delovely and delightful Amy King tagged me to comment on the essay by David Orr that appeared in the recent New York Times' Sunday Book Review. If you haven't read it and can manage to get through it without vomiting a little in your mouth, here's the link. If you don't feel like tasting your own bile, let me just boil it down for you: Orr contends that John Ashbery is the last "great" poet, then writes nearly 3,000 words wondering if any of today's contemporary poets can be "great." Wait...I really need to go throw up. 

Here's an expanded version of what I wrote at Amy's blog:

Orr’s “essay” exhausts me. This kind of introspective masturbation masquerading as literary “critique” bores the shit out of me. Chances are the poets I consider great wouldn’t pass Orr’s sniff test, and thank god for that. I’ve been writing poetry for about 20 years now and I know that some of what I've written has moved, motivated and provoked readers. That’s great enough for me. My body of work will live on as long as there is a world wide web, since that’s where most of my work resides, or will eventually.

  Like irascible Bill Knott (who I disagree with on poetics, but quite admire for his chutzpah in getting his work in front everyone and not caving to press whims), I plan to put all my work online one day and then the world can read it, not read it, decide if it’s great or mediocre. Only our egos and fear of death make us so manic to find our place in “history” and secure our “greatness.” Orr’s essay is just another in a long line of “death of poetry” pieces that come around every year or so. It’s another tale told by and idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. No one died and left David Orr the arbiter of greatness. Write on, poets. 

Oh, and check out Reb Livingston's take on "greatness." I would say both Reb and Amy are great, but I'm sure Orr would disagree.


Score one for synchronicity, Coll--there's a wonderfully erudite essay on "craft" versus "art"(or at least that's the way I see it) in the current issue of The Chattahoochee Review. The author discusses how American literature never appears to reference European or Latin American or Eastern Literature(read: World Literature), etc.
It's interesting to see that in both discussions of general(short stories, plays, novels) literature, and also poetry, there seems to be some made-up "set of rules" that are now considered inviolate, that one is supposed to follow, to be considered "great".
I will state what is probably obvious, here:
There's General FICTION(which is quite broad, and even includes "genre" writing), and there's Literature(I'm not being "snobby", but Literature is more than entertaining, it is illuminating--it helps us "see" the world differently). There's also Poetry which is clever, witty, political, and yes--even didactic(which is to say, it serves a purpose, but it will never be "literature"). Then there's Poetry that moves us BEYOND the page, poetry without an "agenda", that, like most great literature, asks more questions than it answers.
But there's NO FORMULA for the Literature.
Formulas, I believe, are for science, and advertising--not Literature!.
Anonymous said…
I bet you aren't going to get a bunch of comments on this one because people will be to afraid to piss off Orr. Dont want to blow a possible review in the New York Times. Chickens. I don't write poetry but even I know there are great poets writing now.

Well I did manage to get some way in to his piece without vomiting, Collin, but I began to drift off and can see why this kind of thing would exhaust you and struggle to understand just what it is he means by greatness.

Should my fragile ego and fear of death ever tempt me to want to find my place in "history" (joke!), I will refer to your good words here.
Collin Kelley said…
Andi..thanks for trying. Orr is obviously not interested or a reader of contemporary poetry. He lost all credibility with that "essay."
The chances of a poet getting reviewed in the NYT seem SO tiny. What do they take on, maybe 4 books of poetry a year? (It's still better than most mainstream news book sections.) I don't think people should be afraid to take on Orr.

CK: I agree that Orr's a pain in the ass. But I like reading his pieces (this one included, though less than I liked the Billy Collins review from a few years back) because he annoys me. Maybe I'm a masochist. One of my issues with this piece, though, is that at the end of it, I honestly can't tell what he believes regarding "greatness," if anything. Half of what he says about what "we" want and what "we" think of as great seems to be making fun of "we" rather than buying into it.

He's the bouffon clown of poetry reviewing ... which is kind of agreeing that it's sound and fury signifying nada, but it effectively makes people uncomfortable and has, by sheer force of irritation, its own generative energy :) As the number of bloggers who felt inspired to retort seems to indicate. But almost all the substance of his piece came from riffing on Hall.
nolapoet said…
Hey, Collin... I think there are two interesting points that Orr offers up for discussion.

First, he asks us to define what we mean by "great." Second, he asks poets to aspire to their (our) best possible work, rather than sitting on our laurels. I don't see anything reflux-worthy there. I do see people making ad hominem attacks on the writer (or the writer's perceived persona) rather than addressing his points.

A more productive/interesting avenue of criticism might be how you personally define "greatness." Beyond that, how does one define "greatness," and how does one's definition apply when yoked to the word "poetry?" To "poet?" To "a poet's body of work?" To a single "poem?"

An even more interesting question of definition arises when we use the term "contemporary." For example, does "contemporary" mean post-WWII to the present anymore? How and where has the timeline changed since 1945 (not merely where does this or that school of poetry's beginning fall on the timeline)?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, as GSU has proposed new MFAs take not one required contemporary poets class, but three. You heard right. Three. All well and good--if a poet is not up on contemporary poets, AND if one reads more than just contemporary poets.

AND... more than just white male poets, emphasis Southern, which is the main stock-in-trade of what seems to be called "contemporary" poetry of late, with maybe a token Bishop and maybe Rich and maybe Jorie Graham in small does and MAYBE, every couple of years, some one other token female poet on the reading circuit. There are SO many exciting and strong women poets working out there who never get asked to read their work. We're fortunate in having A.E. Stallings and Chelsea Rathburn locally, but there are tons more--I'm thinking of April Lindner, Kathrine Varnes, Amy Lemmon, Erica Dawson, and so many others who are putting out strong work but aren't necessarily on the reading circuit. Especially where women are concerned, finances, teaching duties, and childcare/aging parents
often pose particular travel problems.

As I've always made it my business to read current poets OTHER than the starfucker short list of contemporary greats on the lecture/workshop/conference circuit, as well as heavy-hitters like Spenser, the Beowulf poet(s), etc., I don't worry too much about missing something.

Not getting trapped inside "contemporary" poetry (which I still define as post-WWII to the poresent, pending deeper analysis!) also gives me a larger pool of work with which to compare not only other current poets' efforts, but also my own.

In the end, as you say, one has to decide whether one is happy with one's own work (i.e., "Is this REALLY the VERY best I can do?") and let everyone else take it or leave it.
nolapoet said…
Pardon previous typos. They lurk invisibly until I press SEND.
Collin Kelley said…
Good points, Robin. For me, "contemporary" poetry began with with Lowell's "Life Studies" in 1959 and that shift toward confessional work. Thanks for weighing in! Like M.C. noted above, if nothing else Orr gave poet bloggers something to write about.
jaxx said…
i taste bile at just the THOUGHT of ashbery as any kind of a last great anything. personally, i think his work sucks -- nothing but self-referential deliberately-obscure bullshit.

for my money, some of the great poets of today (apart from you, dear collin) are ellen bass, tony hoagland, jeffrey mcdaniel, the late DA levy, mark doty, patricia smith...
Anonymous said…
The reaction to Orr's piece has been histrionic by many bloggers, and while he does make some good points he negates his entire argument by casually dismissing every poet crafting verse today. Perhaps this was not his intention, but that is the way it came across. The state of "modern" poetry is terrible and I don't see it ever correcting course. Poetry has drifted too far off course. The real argument is who allowed that to happen.
Anonymous said…
Woah. How many of you commentors actually *read* his piece? There seems to be a lot of confusion about what he is saying. If you read beyond the first paragraph, it is OBVIOUS that he is not claiming -- not even remotely -- that Ashbery is the bst poet alive. Wow.

Nolapoet is on target: Orr's piece is about various complicated mixed-up things poets and readers mean by 'greatness'.

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