'You, Too, Could Write a Poem' is literary criticism at its best

New York Times poetry critic David Orr is like the smart, provocative guy who is invited to every dinner party because he’s so insightful and makes people laugh.

You, Too, Could Write a Poem By David Orr Penguin Books 400 pp.

Don’t be fooled by the benign-sounding title of David Orr’s collection of reviews and essays, You, Too, Could Write a Poem. Orr, the award-winning poetry columnist for The New York Times, is not an advocate of the anyone-can-write-well philosophy. Instead, he’s an advocate of good poetry, and his rigorous, witty criticism is some of the best and most distinctive.

If the words “poetry criticism” make you think, “I’m outta here,” consider some of the intriguing introductions in this collection, which brings together Orr’s finest reviews and essays from the past 15 years.

His “Hit Parade,” for example, opens with “In late 2002, the radio host Garrison Keillor committed an act of inadvertent but undeniable depravity: he published a poetry anthology for average readers that sold pretty well.”

Thirty pages later, “The happy couplet” announces that “Weddings, as everyone knows, are extraordinary – which is to say, they’re occasions to do things you wouldn’t usually do, like wear a boutonnière, eat a five-pound lump of cake, or pledge your eternal soul to a person from Delaware.”

And the stuffy-sounding “Annals of Poetry” announces, “The history of American poetry, like the history of America itself, is a story of ingenuity, sacrifice, hard work, and sticking it to people when they least expect it.”  

Orr could easily stick it to people as well, given his keen intelligence and deep understanding of the subject matter. Yet throughout this engaging collection, he’s like the smart, provocative guy who is invited to every dinner party because he’s so insightful and often makes people laugh.

The dinner conversation, so to speak, in the first half of the book touches upon a wide range of topics, including young poets modeling spring fashions for O Magazine (a sure sign of the impending apocalypse, Orr suggests); why the dreaded question, “But what is this poem about?” never goes away; and why the character played by Robin Williams in the movie “Dead Poets Society” is a poor example of how to teach poetry.

Orr soon shifts to deeper issues such as the tremendous difference between O’s huge readership and the small audience for poetry, the choice poets make to use ornate or plain language, and how one actor and poet (Stephen Fry) skillfully writes about how to have fun with various forms of poetry.

Orr structures many of his pieces the way a lawyer would, examining a position in detail and addressing counterpoints. This shouldn’t be surprising since Orr earned a law degree at Yale after graduating from Princeton. (He is now a professor of the practice in the English department at Cornell University.)

Eventually, he arrives at a fascinating conclusion, as in this section from “The Great(ness) Game”: “When we lose sight of greatness, we cease being hard on ourselves and each other; we begin to think of real criticism as being ‘mean,’ rather than as evidence of poetry’s health.... Perhaps most disturbing, we stop making demands on the few artists capable of practicing the art at its highest levels.”

Orr raises many fundamental questions: Are there great poets writing today, and what does “greatness” mean? Can poems be flawed yet effective? Why do some good writers suffer in oblivion?

He also explores the role of academia in contemporary poetry and considers some current literary fashions, such as the use of one or more epigraphs at the beginning of a book of poems.

Much of the book focuses on critiques of major poets including Louise Glück, Robert Hass, Elizabeth Bishop, and Jorie Graham, and on some younger writers such as Matthew Zapruder and Rachel Wetzsteon.

These reviews are always thoughtful and memorable, and sometimes surprisingly creative, as when Orr assesses the book “The Trouble with Poetry,” by Billy Collins, by writing his own version of the title poem, which includes these lines:

But the teasing that this writer does
is harmless, really, and contrary
to what some critics have suggested,
the problem with his work

is not that it is disrespectful,
but that it is not disrespectful enough;

Both casual readers and serious poets can benefit from reading “You, Too, Could Write a Poem,” which not only provides stimulating reading but exemplifies what Orr says is the highest compliment you can pay to a poetry critic – to think of his writing the next time you encounter a good poem.

Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry for both The Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.

[Editor's note: This review originally misstated Mr. Orr's title at Cornell University.]

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