Love and fear: Kirby, Orr and poetry criticism

by on Apr.20, 2011

[I started to write this last week meaning to expand on it, but I haven’t been able to, so now I post it anyway.]

I’ve been running into a lot of articles with ambivalent (at best) views of the way we talk about poetry – ie “criticism.” There seems to be some anxiety that the way we are talking about poetry is corrupting our experience of the poems; that it’s somehow (like an illegal alien) taking the place of the true text, that it is separate from the poem.

Exhibit A: David Kirby’s review of David Orr’s book “Beautiful and Pointless” in the New York Times Book Review this past Sunday (and, also I suppose Orr’s book by implication).

In some sense The New York Times Book Review is a huge exhibit A. They almost never publish any review of poetry, but they publish plenty of screeds (often by Gregory Orr) bemoaning the current, corrupted state of poetry. If they publish poetry reviews, it’s mostly re-issues of work having to do with either Robert Lowell or Elizabeth Bishop. Occassionally the reviewers review each other. It seems the NYBR is opposed to poetry as one of its basic principles; a strange principle for a book review.It has a fundamentally nostalgic view of poetry.

I’m not sure if I should talk about Orr or Kirby, though they do seem in league, because Kirby’s review is somewhat incoherent. It’s hard to see what is Kirby’s ideas and what are Orr’s.

The idea of Orr, according to Kirby (who seems to endorse this idea wholeheartedly) is that poetry should be “loved” – and what loved means, according to Kirby, is that you just love it, you don’t interpret it, which is not love. Love has to be direct; it cannot involve discussions. It’s uncorrupted by interpretation.

Kirby recollects going to a Poetry Out Loud contest (I’ll post my feelings about this projec ti a separate post) and having high school teachers (those lowly squares!) accosting him with questions about the meaning of the poem. They have all kinds of ridiculous interpretations of the poem, but Kirby disappoints them by telling them it doesn’t mean anything.

Or, rather, it “deals with”: “the promises we break and how they limp around and gaze at us reproachfully while enjoying an immortality denied to the promises we’ve kept.” Uh… that is precisely an interpretation. Why do the lowly high school teachers have to be regulated in their interpretations of his poem? Why aren’t their interpretations valid?

Because it’s not true “love.” Or as Kirby writes:

The teachers thought that my poem said one thing but meant another, and that it’s the reader’s job to figure out what the poet is really saying. No wonder poetry doesn’t have a bigger audience. Who has the time?


“… nobody listens to a Jay-Z song and says, “Hmm, I wonder what he meant by that” and a well-made poem works the same way.

Except Kirby is totally wrong (not to mention nauseatingly patronizing): plenty of people wonder what’s going on in Jay-Z songs! The Internet is full of discussions what various pop songs mean! Or look at any discussion group of Bob Dylan’s songs – they’re loaded with interpretations! I agree that some high school classes might be too “code-ish” in their interpretations (find the theme type of readings), but that doesn’t mean there can’t be any interpretations.

The foolishness of this claim is of course that Kirby himself has to provide a correct interpretation of the poem; poems are not pure “love,” they are always involved in interpretations and webs of relations within culture.

This rhetoric of purity and “love” seems part of the same idea of the Authentic Art Work that forbids translation. It is opposed to counterfeits, to the foreign, to replication; it is invested in an Original that is directly connected to an interiority (the love, straight from the heart, involving no language). It is interesting that this ideology – which claims to be about love and feelings – so often is employed to regulate people’s approaches to reading/writing poetry.

Poetry is, according to Orr, “beautiful and pointless.” And this thesis doesn’t seem to allow for any discussion. It just is.

This kind of enforced anti-intellectualism of Kirby, so pervasive in institutions of poetry dresses itself in the garbs of democracy (and anti-elitism), but is in fact incredibly elitist. The insistence that poetry cannot be talked about is a kind of enforced paralysis – you may interpret it in some way, but whatever way you interpret it is wrong. Not love.

Kirby mentions the way people have somehow come to take Auden’s famous “September 1939” as a poem about 9/11. He doesn’t explain his thoughts about this (or Orr’s), but it seems to me you can’t have it be about 9/11 unless by interpretation – by creating a comparison.

I think poetry is often very interesting. When I run across something interesting, I want to talk about it, I want to tell other people about it, I hope other people have interesting stuff to say. Thus Montevidayo.

One thing that really irritates me are poets who think of themselves as Poets, something pure and brilliant, and who think that writing reviews or publishing or editing is “beneath them.” This is the worst kind of recipe for maintaining the status quo. It’s also very much a time/place specific idea. I don’t know of any other place where poets don’t write about poetry.

This is where I’ll give Kirby and Orr credit, since in the end they do write reviews for the NY Times. I just wish they were more open to the dynamics of contemporary poetry and didn’t just reprimand all the time.

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