Confession: I barely read books about poetry—except the craft of it. I read contemporary poets, the occasional article about why poetry matters, and, some years ago, once got halfway through Seamus Heany’s The Redress of Poetry. That was enough to put me far ahead of any but the academic. But a whole book on literary criticism? Nope.
But now that I’m a published poet, I decided to get more erudite, up my game, and read a book whose title intrigued me: Beautiful and Pointless, A Guide to Modern Poetry. (A glass of Cabernet Sauvignon was involved.) I expected a stiff read, possibly dry and academic book, but was curious. What would such a book be like? I waited till I had the head space to plunge into potentially heavy intellectual plowing on a subject that I don’t really need to be convinced about enjoying.
I didn’t expect to start laughing, and this was before the Cabernet took effect; I was only in the foreward. Example:
“If there’s one thing that often unites academic treatments and how-to guides, it’s the implicit assumption that relating to poetry is like solving a calculus problem while being zapped with a cattle prod—that is, the dull business of poetic interpretation…is coupled uneasily with testimonials announcing poetry’s ability to derange the senses, make us lose ourselves in rapture, dance naked under the full moon, and so forth.”
Yep, gotta keep your wits about you as you follow these intricate sentences. But before you get whiplash, author Daniel Orr steers you quickly into a way cool thought:
“When a non-specialist audience is responding well to a poem, its reaction is a kind of tentative pleasure, a puzzled interest that resembles the affection a traveler bears for a destination that both welcomes and confounds him. For such readers, then, it’s not necessarily helpful to talk about poetry as if it were a device to be assembled or a religious experience to be undergone. Rather, it would be useful to talk about poetry as if it were, for example, Belgium. (pg. xiv)
Ok, so he hooked me on the travel analogy and Belgium seemed positively prophetic, since I was supposed to be there this month. I was 'in' and forged ahead to Chap. 1, fortified with another Cabernet.
“…I proudly announced, ‘I’m a poetry critic.’ She gave me a look as if I’d just tossed a sackful of kittens into a mulcher. ‘Wait a minute,’ she said, ‘you mean you criticize people’s poetry?’”
I was now up to page 2, and, once I finished laughing, posted this to my FB status.
“…T.S.Eliot’s famous declaration that ‘the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality…’”
Well, I needed to mull that over…until the library called saying I needed to return or renew. I renewed.
I’m now up to page 8, and probably shouldn’t be recommending this book based on eight pages, but feel sure that a tour of poetry written by someone who can make me laugh continuously through the first 8 pages can probably deliver.
What the heck, it’s the holidays. We need some decompression in our lives to survive them, and poetry is just the thing. Or "Beautiful and Pointless." A Cabernet goes without saying…