I am closing in on the final page of New York Times poetry columnist (now THERE’S a job) David Orr’s You, Too, Could Write a Poem. Naively, I thought it was a book about writing poetry from a man who reads poems for a living. Not quite. It’s a collection of Orr columns that have already appeared in the Times, the first of which is called “You, Too, Could Write a Poem.”
But even that is a curveball of sorts. If you think that the first essay, at least, is about the democratic nature of poetry writing, you’d be wrong. It is Orr’s take on the notorious “Best of” series, wherein bookstore shelves are annually littered with titles like The Best American Poetry (and, beyond that, you can scratch poetry and pencil in words like “Essays,” “Sports Writing,” and “Short Stories”).
The trouble with any “best of” book is that it is only as good as its editor. The other, even bigger, problem is that choosing the best of anything in any given year is positively Sisyphean. We might as well call it The Approaching-Best Poems According to Our Guest Editor of the Year, Who Has Many Connections and Prejudices That Will Surely Show Themselves on These Pages. But that would be unwieldy. And tough to fit on a cover.
Orr gets into this a bit himself, when he writes, “What this series stands for isn’t excellence, aesthetic or otherwise, but the idea of poetry as a community activity. ‘People are writing poems!’ each volume cries. ‘You, too, could write a poem!’ It’s an appealingly democratic pose, and it has always been the genuinely ‘best’ thing about the Best American series. The only problem is that poetry isn’t really an open system; it’s a combination of odd institutions, personal networks, hoary traditions, talent, and blind luck. It’s both an art and a guild, in other words. And if basic participation is possible for anyone with a heartbeat and a laptop, the requirements for the deluxe plan — the true ‘Best American’ plan, if you will — are obscure to all but a handful. The negotiation between what we now call the ‘best’ and what we’ll later call the ‘great’ never ends; each year the Best American Poetry offers a new compromise, and each year the truce is broken, the sides are marshaled, and the oldest argument begins again.”
Being a neophyte to the world of published poetry, I cannot help but wonder at words like “odd institutions, personal networks, hoary traditions, talent, and blind luck.” From that suspect line-up, I feel most ready to point at personal networks, for isn’t that true in ALL institutions — political, commercial, academic, and beyond?
And in the name of clarification and elaboration, what are these odd networks and hoary traditions Orr speaks of? The talent and blind luck make not only sense, but dollars. You need talent to write “good” poetry, I’m sure, but it is not necessarily the coin of the realm in the country of the published. Sometimes blind luck is the only currency that gets an outsider through the customs gate. And which gate? With which poem as ID?
So, yes. I’m well into Orr’s book and, even though it was misleading, the title essay did entertain and intrigue me, only I wish Orr would share more of what he knows about this byzantine world, this mysterious oligarchy of poets rich in connections, talent, and traditions (both time-honored and for-breaking, which is equally time-honored).