Arguing with David Orr about the value of art

I just finished reading David Orr’s book “Beautiful and Pointless: a guide to modern poetry.” Orr writes for the New York Times Book Review and obviously has read a ton of modern work. There’s much to admire in his common-sense insights into what verse has to offer the average reader. He tries to gently lead us into the mindset of modern poets in a humorous, non-threatening way. I like his plain approach; he takes pains to distance himself from the pretense and metaphor-laden earnestness that can typify this type of inquiry.

However, in general he sounds more like he is drawing up a legal brief than a poetry essay. I’m not sure I actually learned anything. I certainly didn’t feel anything. There is so little passion in this book that one wonders if the writer actually loves poetry or simply thinks he does. With only a few exceptions his examples of representative modern poetry were singularly uninteresting. He is typical of a certain mindset that I have come to associate with mainstream news critics (of which he is one). Be fair, be civil, be insightful, but never get carried away. He’s CNN not MSNBC.

This has its place. However, as a book, rather than a NY Times Book Review essay, it feels rather dead. His stance is summed up in the last chapter when he admits that he has no compelling argument why anyone should bother to read poetry! And in the title- his use of the word pointless is telling. Poetry is an unnecessary abundance, an interesting activity with no intrinsic value. We read it because we wish to, and take from it what we will. There is no more reason to read poetry than to watch a football game.

I would like to argue with Orr. If I believed him I’d be tempted to shoot myself, because my life would lack meaning. There is much art that is, indeed, pointless- I’ve made plenty of it. But the art that I love, that I turn to year after year for insight, solace, joy, humor, wisdom, delight is anything but pointless. In fact this art IS the essence of living to me, as important as marriage, childbirth, friendship. My own work may only contain a small percentage of moments that rise above the level of “pointless.” But the search for meaning IS the point, not the material itself.

My wish as an artist is that my art be useful. If it’s useful, it’s not pointless. I realize that this may sound like a plebeian conceit in some quarters, but who cares? Art dies when it becomes useless. I admit that music is, to me, a more “useful” art form than poetry, but for every piece of music I cite that is NOT pointless, a lover of poetry might cite a poem that is the same. (Poets, if this is not true, please tell me- lord knows I hope it is for your sake.)

Perhaps a critic cannot understand the meaning of art in the same way a practitioner can. When I play a song, and someone begins to weep, when I am in a funk band that causes people to lose kinetic control and drool on themselves while dancing, when I am backing up a soloist who is building to a passionate, dramatic crescendo that causes someone to leap to their feat and scream, I know in my body that I am involved in something that is useful. Granted poetry is a much more internal art form; however, I wonder if Orr has ever been to a poetry slam, or whether he is aware that the more poetry-centered aspects of hip hop culture are incredibly useful to many youth today.

And how many thousands, or millions have sought refuge in the Psalms, Kabir, Rumi, Neruda, Rilke? Perhaps the question is not whether poetry is pointless, rather it is that most modern Caucasians have lost their way and forgotten what is important? I say this because virtually every poem Orr cites in his book is by said Caucasians. I would like to sit Orr down with Jimmy Baca- he’d learn a thing or two. Baca was serving twenty years in prison when he discovered poetry, and it completely changed his life. He left prison, with poetry as his North Star, and not only became a great poet but one of today’s most passionate advocates of the transformative powers of writing for those who are at the margins of society.

Art is supposed to make you feel more alive. Its sole requirement is that it break down a door, travel inward, find a hole, and fill it. It should make us more sad, more open, more compassionate, more amazed, more angry. It reminds us of our temporary, precious place on earth, it dispenses wisdom, beauty, wit, depth that very little else is capable of. The reason I abhor so much contemporary art, of all kinds, is that it has no point. It is clever, shallow, cute, pretty, self-referential, materialistic, mean, light, stupefying. It is a narcotic, an annoyance, a bug whizzing about a small room. It has no soul.

When you hear Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, Bach’s B Minor Mass or Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, Nikhil Banerjee playing Malkouns or Salif Keita singing…anything, you know that beauty is not meaningless.

Here are three living American poets that, to me, defy the term “pointless”: Wendell Berry, Ted Kooser, Philip Levine. What are yours?

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