Orr’s guide is not really a guide to reading poems as such, although the chapter on Form does a bit of that. Rather, it is mostly a guide to the established Poetry Business and to how most writers who aspire to formal recognition play the game, willingly or not. If you love or like some poems, that us, if some speak to you in ways that matter, you may be interested in the oil and grease and gears and noise behind the machines that make published poetry. Or not.
If you are wondering, in the words of the last chapter, “Why bother?” then I would not start here. There are several other books that offer you a way into reading poetry so that you might discover the ones that matter to you and are good art:
A Poetry Handbook Paperback
by Mary Oliver
How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry
Orr offers this humble, and somewhat underwhelming reason:
“I can only say that if you do choose to give your attention to poetry, as against all the other things you might turn to instead, that choice can be meaningful. There’s little grandeur in this, maybe, but out of such small, unnecessary devotions is the abundance of our lives sometimes made evident.”
This is good for those of us who write poetry to read. It steadies us in our hope and ambition to the small crystals we may once in a while produce. It helps us to keep our egos under control.
But as a reader of poetry, I have heard some poems sing loudly to me in a clear voice that really mattered. Just as certain music has reached me. Certain visual art. Certain movies and plays. There is a reason why we humans keep doing this stuff.
Orr diminishes Rita Dove when she writes that “[p]oetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” He says that can happen in writing that is not called a poem. Yes. Poetry in Dove’s sense is the right words that sing out, loudly or quietly. And this can occur in any place where a writer writes. Poems and the are artifacts. Orr does not clearly make or care to make this distinction.
For me, as a sometimes published poet, one way outside the academic and conference and MFA and workshop world of the Poe-biz, this book helps me remember to keep two ambitions separate: 1. The ambition to write an artifact that centers around the distilled and powerful saying of meaningful questions and experiences. 2. The ambition of being published enough and recognized enough so that more readers may give what I write a chance.
The rest is beautiful and pointless noise in the system.