Orr vs. Oprah: Poetry and The Myth of The “Great Divide”

In the first sentence of his latest piece for the New York Times Book Review, David Orr describes the “Poetry” issue of Oprah Winfrey’s magazine as a “starker” indication of “the coming apocalypse,” then spends the rest of the column backpedaling from this assessment. And in his retreat from this hyperbolic cliche, he brings up a lot of good points: the gender bias inherent in viewing the presence of poetry in a women’s magazine (although this doesn’t necessarily recuse him from the apocalyptic imagery he invokes to describe the appearance of poets in O Magazine; additionally, the title of the piece, “Oprah’s Adventures in Poetry” is more than a little condescending in tone, and intentionally or not, seems a little too reminiscent of Adventures in Babysitting), the wish that one piece in the issue had described “the actual experience of reading a poem” and what that is like for one person.

But Orr’s biggest concern with the poetry issue is that the effort does more to reveal a “chasm between the audience for poetry and the audience for O” than it does to bridge this gap, and his piece ends with an imagined set of poets (and readers of poetry) who “stare half-longingly, half-fearfully across that great divide at the golden palace of mass culture.” Orr’s tongue is in cheek here (and seriously, when is it not? Is Orr a member of the Poets’ Friar’s Club?), but he’s clearly invested in constructing the era of contemporary poetry as one very much concerned with a gap between poet and wide readership: his forthcoming book, Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, sounds very much like a bridge (and it’s a lot catchier than “Verazzano-Narrows”: that sounds like an Orr joke, doesn’t it? Maybe I can open for him on the road?).

The major concern I have with identifying a gap (and then minding it: seriously, check out these jokes!) between poetry and mass culture is  the way that the divide’s construction assumes that there are fixed camps of “poetry” and “mass culture” that are capable of having a conversation with one another. The editors of O have also bought into this construction, and it has certainly influenced their conception of poetry that might bridge a gap: Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, and even Elizabeth Bishop are presented as authors of accessible work about universal themes. In the case of Bishop, whose “Letter to N.Y.” is featured in a section titled “Poetry That Will Get You Through A Hard Time”, I wonder about the O reader who, interested in Bishop’s work after reading this poem, comes across “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” a piece whose title announces itself as having a different set of preoccupations.

Orr finds the “trouble” with poetry to be that “for an overwhelming majority of the culture, almost every poem has an inscrutable ending, even the ones that aren’t actually inscrutable.” Here we see the contours of Orr’s set of binary oppositions: whereas O will provide its imagined general audience with a “scrutable” conception and canon of poetry, Orr will provide his imagined audience with the instruction it lacks to make this work more penetrable, less mysterious.

This is a typical explanation for the lack of interest in poetry by a wider audience: if they had the right tools, the right kind of instruction, poetry would be flying off the shelves. I’m less interested in disputing the need for instruction in the reading of poetry — like Orr, I think forms of “instruction” are valuable (that being said, the nature of said instruction need not resemble  the rhetoric of the academic or the newspaper critic) — but in the way this conception of poetry and audience flattens out and tidies up both spheres. For example, what about the reader who shares Frank O’Hara’s belief that there are few poets better than the movies?

We might also consider the lessons we could learn from Ikea. Ikea sells bookshelves that can be assembled and made scrutable in less than a half hour, at which point your bookshelf will look exactly the same as the bookshelf your fellow customer brought home with her. If we apply these sorts of strategies to poetry, we ignore the fact that poems are not bookshelves. We should be wary of those who prescribe Instruction Manuals (and writing this I am reminded of a rather inscrutable poem by John Ashbery) and the ways that these guidelines construct their readers and their object of instruction.

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One response to “Orr vs. Oprah: Poetry and The Myth of The “Great Divide”

  1. Thanks for an interesting article. The general reader often turns to poetry in times of happiness or despair – it is common at weddings and funerals, showing that people have an instinctive desire for this stuff. The problem with poetry is often bad poets, bad reviewers and bad attitudes from those who would ring-fence their precious poetry safely away from the paws of the common man. Poetry speaks to our deepest needs and fears. I see no reason why it should’t be enjoyed in the same way as prose.

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