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Write Like: A Poetry Critic, The New York Times’s David Orr

Orr’s piece in the New York Times Book Reviewon an O magazine photo shoot with young poets is a perfect example of how to write about something you know a lot about, when confronted with someone who may know less. Plus, it’s unpretentious, a quality that automatically separates it from an entire class of criticism on the very same subject: poetry. In describing the reasons why the O piece failed to resonate, Orr—rather than taking down O—explained why verse has slim chance of awakening an audience via an extremely popular vehicle. Said another way, he sets us up with wit so he can hit us with an idea. The wit earns the idea.

Here is the wit:

First, only a snob or an idiot complains when the magic wand of Oprah is flourished in his direction. (I have a book about poetry for general readers out next month, and my publisher broke land speed records attempting to get copies to the Oprah people before their issue closed. Alas, we were too late, which means the world will never know how I look in a Kiton suit — for the record, the answer is “grateful.”) Second, O has been running an intelligent and professional book section under the direction of the former Publishers Weekly editor Sara Nelson for some time now, using excellent critics like Francine Prose. You could do considerably worse than get your book news from O. Finally, it’s all too easy for Important Literary Folk to sneer at anything involving fashion. It’s so girly, you know, and real writers are never girl — ah. So the lingering gender biases of the literary world are often at play when readers cringe at the pairing of poetry with the stuff of women’s magazines. There is also a regrettable tendency to underestimate the wit and perceptiveness of the fashion industry — which is a silly business, true, but certainly no sillier than publishing, as anyone who’s read “The 4-Hour Body” should be aware. (The Times’s own T Magazine has seen fit to outfit the poet Terrance Hayes in Dolce & Gabbana.)

And yet. “Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets.” The words are heart-sinking.

And here is the idea:

Yet one must fill the yawning chasm with something: Magical Poetry Talk, a fashion shoot, some lists, the wisdom of Sting, whatever. I wish, though, that they had found space for someone — not a critic, necessarily, just someone willing to be honest — to talk about the actual experience of reading a poem. Not why poems are good at rehabilitating people. Not where poems come from. Not what they can help us do, or forget, or remember. Not what the people who write them are wearing. Just what reading one of them is like to one person. If the chasm is to be ever so slightly narrowed, it seems to me this is how it will be done.

If Orr had begun with an attack of Oprah or models or glossy magazines, he would have lost us, even those of us who love poetry. Attacking Oprah, models and glossy magazines is beside the point. (But it’s aligned with the point.) Instead, he describes the place of verse in our lives, he forgives a failed attempt to shift this place, and then he poses a subtle suggestion about how to place–and experience–poetry. And then he reprints a poem. It is an elegant arc.


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