Fresh, vigorous, spirited views on poets and their work.
Award-winning New York Times poetry columnist Orr (The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, 2016, etc.) gathers 45 essays and reviews that amply demonstrate his irreverent wit and shrewd insights about poets, poems, and poetry readers, “all five of them.” “I don’t like poetry,” he announces at the start, nor does he like poetry criticism, “unless it’s written by someone who cares about criticism almost as much as he cares about poetry.” Certainly, Orr cares about conveying his views in pithy, often elegant prose and—perhaps bringing to bear his training as a lawyer—defending those views with exacting analyses. Despite his obvious erudition, the author is never a snob. Reflecting on the Best American Poetry series, he concedes that the series promotes the “appealingly democratic” idea of poetry “as a community activity. ‘People are writing poems!’ each volume cries. ‘You, too, could write a poem!’ ” But Orr, who celebrates the “virtuosity” of technique in poets such as James Merrill, distinguishes between what the series deems “best” and what is truly great. In “Oprah’s Adventures in Poetryland,” Orr considers a special issue of O, The Oprah Magazine that featured fashions modeled by young women poets. “Only a snob or an idiot,” he admits, “complains when the magic wand of Oprah is flourished in his direction.” Although he applauds her for popularizing poetry, he regrets that nowhere in the issue does anyone consider “the actual experience of reading a poem.” That experience is central to all of his essays: about Elizabeth Bishop, for example, whose work he finds characterized by “curious restraint”; poems by actor James Franco; and Louis MacNeice, whose reputation, Orr finds, is justifiably ascending.
Orr says the greatest compliment for any critic “is to say that you found yourself thinking of his writing the next time you encountered a good poem.” He abundantly deserves that same praise.