Gregory Orr would never assert, as W. H. Auden did, that “poetry makes nothing happen.” More likely he’d counter that permanent retirement for this over-quoted (out of context) phrase is long overdue. For Orr, poetry is crucial and transformative. It saves lives. It saved his.
Listen to his informal reading of “Gathering the Bones.”
The quiet intensity of his voice matches that of the poem, which retells a traumatic event from his childhood. The poem was written fifteen years after the accident. Though decades have passed since writing it, it’s clear the memories recounted are still vividly alive for him. That’s what we’d expect. What’s surprising, or at the very least moving, is that Orr, or anyone, could survive such an event and go on to be creative and productive and to not lose the capacity for joy, love and finding some peace in this life. Orr has said this was possible because of poetry.
Which brings up another hackneyed notion about poetry: You have to suffer to be a poet. Sharon Olds has applied a very clear and direct logic to this topic: All the poets we study are human. All humans suffer. Therefore, all poets suffer.
We all have to face loss, the death of loved ones, and many of us have experienced trauma, abuse, deprivation, exploitation. We know everyone suffers. Perhaps the better question is: what do we do with our suffering? We all know people who share theirs in destructive ways, who bring more suffering into the world. Some people enter helping professions, their own experiences having made them compassionate healers. Some people make art.
Such categories are not neatly siloed, not even in an individual. But poetry, and lyric poetry in particular, seems to have emerged to help us find relief, self-expression, and connection. As Orr points out in Poetry as Survival, lyric poetry exists in every culture and every language presently on earth, and existed in every ancient culture we know of.
For Orr, it’s a tragedy that poetry is sometimes seen as academic or elitist: it is a universal art. And so, although he’s been a university professor for decades, his poems wear his learning lightly. What’s difficult for the reader in Orr’s poems is where he takes us, not how he gets there. Even when he’s writing in traditional forms the language is natural and concise. His images are quickly and vividly drawn. Everything is at the service of looking. We might sometimes find it difficult to look where he’s pointing.
Many of Orr’s poems have the quality of centered stillness we associate with the Asian poetic tradition, where the speakers can seem almost transparent, what we know of them revealed through what and how they observe. In Orr’s poems, this calmly observant eye is also turned inward, and does not turn away. It is impossible to know which came first: the willingness to look or the poems. Perhaps one is not possible without the other, and this offers some insight into what he means when he says poetry saved his life.
Something transformative had to happen for the young man who wrote “Gathering the Bones” to grow into a poet who can ask:
If we’re not supposed to dance
why all this music?
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