Book review: Beautiful and Pointless

David Orr. Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. New York, Harper Collins, 2011. 256 pages.

Poetry is in a curious place. There’s undoubtedly many poets writing great poetry out there, but the art form seems to be in crisis–even accomplished poets have a sneaking suspicion poetry isn’t getting the respect it deserves. For their part, most casual readers find modern poetry opaque and bewildering.

In BEAUTIFUL AND POINTLESS, poetry critic David Orr seeks to re-introduce the casual reader to modern poetry. He starts out by surveying books that seek to explain poetry and explaining just what he is and isn’t going to do. Then he looks at two strains in modern poetry, The Personal and The Political, considering just how vital political engagement and personal disclosure are to good poetry. In the era of non-stop status updates, The Personal is particularly interesting; being able read the world’s pet peeves 140 characters at time may diminish the appetite for confessional poetry. Or not, if it’s done well enough.

Then Orr looks at how poets contend with form and considers the question of whether it is good or bad for poets to be ambitious. Too much ambition leads to pompous, empty artistry, while too little means poets that are afraid to say anything of real consequence. Finally, he discusses “The Fishbowl” of MFA programs and the poetry business, and ends with a meditation on why, even though it has many limitations, modern poetry is a good thing to read.

Making his living writing about poetry, Orr obviously has an ear for language; this is an enjoyable book to read simply because it’s so well-written. He certainly makes a persuasive case for the casual reader to dip his toe into modern poetry, and makes the frankly intimidating art form a bit more accessible. If your appreciation of poetry has lain dormant for a while, this book may help you rediscover it.

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