Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Little More on Orr

Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.”

-- David Orr, "The Great(ness) Game," The New York Times Book Review, Feb. 22 2009

As soon as I read the part above, I thought, a) So the poems we think of as great are more likely to contain sweeping abstractions rather than concrete images? Whatev, and b) Someone must write that sestina.

I tried. It didn't quite want to be a sestina, though. Still, what the hell—it's a draft. I stole a line from Engman's "Another Word for Blue" in the 4th stanza.

Orr Not

There is a canary singing at the head of this poem.
It’s a minor app, a blaring yellow widget to catch
your eye, let language work its wiles on the soul, or brain,
or whatever we can call the locus in the meat
that feels, now that the idea of souls, of gods, of nations
are dying, or at least suffering severe sniffles.

This poem planned to be a sestina, but its soul
resisted. It suspects that greatness—at least in language—
lies now in prose, or in pieces. It has heard the canaries
singing in the coal mines, proclaiming the nation
immune to meter and rhyme, obsessed with widgets,
cell phones, reality TV—trends that make MFAs sniffle

as their wrists go carpal from repeating those six
words over and over. Sestinas? Villanelles? What
greatness of soul is possible, making language macramé
in a world of hi-res pixels? You want some sniffling words
to be universal in a nation made of one-way streets,
trains gang-tagged silver and canary yellow, widgets

that work on one brand of PDA and make
the other sniffle, freeze, crash? “Greatness”? What
does it even mean? It’s a mutant canary dyed pink,
singing in a baroquely shit-caked cage.
There’s a place a block
from here where they never heard of free verse.
A place?
Try every bar across the nation. And the girl at the till

at the hot dog stand at Whitman’s rest stop on the Turnpike
thinks he's a chocolate maker. Where is she in “Greatness”?
It’s a widget that will be outdated by next week; she’ll still
be grilling franks. Time doesn’t move the way it did for Frost.
I trust "canary" more than I trust "nation." What soul left
is broken into pieces. Greatness needs a hardwood floor to settle,

and this nation’s potholes and steel plates shift.
Give me your tired of language, your poor snifflers
off the boat, the manuscripts and machetes in their gym bags
the widgets of dreaming. Give me your Twittering canaries,
their ADD effusions on the blogs. Pile it up; sweat it in a pan.
See what comes out. That laurel crown crumbled years ago.


JeFF Stumpo said...

OK, now THIS should be a poetry-blog meme. I'll take a shot at it in my free time over the next couple of days :-)

M. C. Allan said...

hey jeFF -- yeah, it's a good meme; I expected it would be everywhere because the selection of the six seemed to beg for it. (And I thought about tagging some people, but felt too guilty to tag anyone for a sestina. Those mofos are a beast to write!)

mountaingoat said...

For something that started on a lark, that's actually a very fluid piece of writing (your poem, I mean).

As for the Orr thing ... I'm tired of people trying to tell me I have to write "like an American"--which is what he's doing in this passage you've quoted here, basically, by excluding certain words due to their being too "abstract", I guess, but also I think too "Old World." Seems to me that one can use any word one likes, and that what matters is how the word is used, that is, what's the sensibility accompanying the word, and is it embedded in a real complexity of language and meaning? Besides, who says a poet always writes in his own voice? Sometimes we write in "his" voice, and "her" voice, and "its" voice. Hell, I'm not even writing this thing here in my voice. There's plenty of room for the use of all kinds of things Orr would probably exclude (on the basis of their stinking of old-fashioned "greatness"), so long as we keep in mind that factual honesty is not in poetry's definition; or rather that poetry has an expanse not available to other forms.
I think it's called dramatic monologue? But sorry to go on and one and one about it, thanks for writing about it, redhead.

Maggie May said...

ahha you brave girl! great response poem. i've never written a response poem. (it's fun to keep writing response poem.)

Anonymous said...

hi carrie
vqr has a good essay on poetry magazine, with some comments on orr such as:
Wiman’s stable of writers—Orr, Dan Chiasson, and Peter Campion chief among them—generally are brilliant and intense prose stylists—thoughtful, erudite and well-read thinkers, and passionate writers of clear rhetoric. That is to say, they resemble Logan. Also, like Logan, with some commendable exceptions, their work tends toward the arrogant, masturbatory, spiteful, bombastic, and mean-spirited hatchet job.

-- mouse

M. C. Allan said...

Hey Mouse: That's an interesting piece. I don't read "Poetry" often enough to have seen any trends in their reviews, but I do know both Campion and Chiasson are poets in their own right. Is Orr the only one of the bunch who's purely a spectator?