The Paris Review's Robyn Creswell on Poetry as a Foreign Country
Beautiful and Pointless, by New York Times Book Review poetry columnist David Orr, is an engaging book about contemporary verse, aimed at that large swath of readers for whom poetry is, as he puts it, “a subject of at best mild and confused interest.” Rather than offering another defense of poetry, or arguing why it is good for us, or lamenting its lack of an audience, Orr aims to provide a guidebook—a Let’s Go! or Lonely Planet—to that odd and occasionally beguiling place, the Land of Poetry. For the reader who regards modern poetry as foreign territory, Orr suggests that the most useful sort of criticism will be the kind that gives you a sense of the landscape, the strange or surprisingly familiar habits of its citizenry, and a few phrases in the local language. After that, if you decide you like the place, you’re free to explore on your own. “As with a vacation in Belgium,” Orr writes, “all you need is a little patience and the motivation to book your tickets.”
It’s an intriguing analogy. It suggests that the critic's job is not so much to tell you how Shakespearean sonnets changed the history of the form, or why poetry is the noblest of human arts, but rather how to get around a new city, and which museums you don’t want to miss. I wonder about two things—and intend to ask David about them during our panel on Monday evening. The first is what does motivate the potential traveler to book a ticket to the land of poetry? Real foreign countries have ministries of tourism, television advertisements, posters that whet our appetites for beaches and exotica. Poetry has none of these things (though it does have National Poetry Month). But if poetry really is a kind of foreign country—and the comparison is worth thinking about—then what are its signal attractions? My second question is, why Belgium? It was, rather famously, Baudelaire’s least favorite country (he wrote a wonderfully vicious tract called "Pauvre Belgique"). Few people think of taking a vacation there. It is neither exotic, nor known for its beaches. Is Orr setting the bar too high, or too low?
Robyn Creswell is the Poetry Editor at The Paris Review. Tonight he'll join David Orr, Sam Tanenhaus, Dwight Garner, Laura Miller, and Tree Swenson at Housing Works Bookstore in New York for a discussion on "poetry and the public." Full details can be found here.