Poetry as Survival Gregory Orr

4 posts

When “I” Becomes “Us,” the Poet Wins

Only Walt Whitman could get away with a poem called “Song of Myself.” Thing is, it wasn’t really about himself. It was about yourselves, too (the “you” in “yourselves” being anyone who reads and enjoys the poem).

In that sense, the pronoun “I” is Romulus to the pronoun “you’s” Remus. They suckle from the same breast.

Gregory Orr, in his book Poetry as Survival, is all in on the pronoun I, a topic I have written about before, though not as well as he does. He quotes William Carlos Williams who, in the preface of his book, Spring and All, writes, “In the imagination, we are from henceforth (so long as you read) locked in a fraternal embrace, the classic caress of author and reader. We are one. Whenever I say ‘I’ I mean also ‘you.’ And so, together, as one, we shall begin.”

Of course, sidetracked from WCW’s train of thought is the niggling details of connection and identification. If your “I” does not compel and fascinate in some way, then your “I” is not “me” after all. It’s just “you” looking foolish in front of a mirror.

Not that Williams had to worry on that count. He was busy eating cold plums, just as his readers were: “So sweet and so cold.”

Back to Orr’s defense of the pronoun “I”: “I’m talking now not about the ‘great’ poems; that is, poems we are told to admire by teachers and authorities. Instead, I mean poems that we personally love deeply. The poems that matter enormously to us and that help us live. Through these poems, we recognize ourselves in an ‘other.’ Through these poems, we are brought to thresholds inside us we might never approach without their help.”

Thinking like so, we can be assured that our solipsistic obsessions with self (I, I, and more I) can work to our artistic advantage, but only if we make room for others. Only then will the pronoun of self be coopted by readers who become the new “I’s” in an author’s poem, a transaction every artist should be more than willing to make. Writing for a reader called yourself and yourself alone, after all, is for the birds. And Emily Dickinson. Who, it turns out, was writing for all of us despite herself.

Paradoxically put, then, the successful “I” is one that is “everybody,” or at least an awful lot of bodies—squatters ready to move in and settle down for good. Once that happens, your first-person point of view poem can safely be called a success. Maybe even “art” if you’re lucky.

When Something Strange Pounds on Your Door…

In Gregory Orr’s 2002 collection of poetry-related essays, Poetry as Survival, he brings up a D. H. Lawrence poem I had not read: “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through.” Orr quotes the entire poem (see below) but is chiefly preoccupied with its last lines.

Let’s read it together first:


“Song of a Man Who Has Come Through”
by D. H. Lawrence

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.


First off, you can tell this was written in 1914. Only then could a poet get away with such gratuitous exclamations (!!!). Or with the now-rare “Oh.” Or with side-by-side repetitions like “fine, fine.”

A closer look at some of the word choice brings us to some interesting themes. In L5-L7 we have “I yield myself and am borrowed / By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the / world.”

It is as if the world we construct (most ostensibly in the shape of houses we hide in) is too safe, as if we must yield ourselves to a wild wind that will bear us out into the chaos that is the world. Only then will we be rewarded: “The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the / Hesperides.”

Do you have the right stuff? Clearly Lawrence did, as evidenced by the second stanza where we find “wonder that bubbles in my soul.” Necessary, don’t you think, before jumping out the door and pulling the string for your parachute?

Then, the final two stanzas. The ones that fascinate Orr. It brings to mind “The Highwayman” with all that knocking. It is as if our speaker, despite having “the right stuff” and the perfect soul for adventure, second guesses himself when hearing insistent knocking.

Fear, after all, sounds like so: “It is somebody wants to do us harm.”

But therein lies the trap. After a while, we kid ourselves into thinking everything intends to do us harm. You could call it paranoia, or you could call it many less damning things, like the well-worn expression “comfort zone,” but they’re all part of the same constrictive family.

Then, the end that Orr so delights in: “No, no, it is the three strange angels. / Admit them, admit them.”

Who are these “three strange angels,” anyway? It’s one of those magical situations where the poet is better off not explaining. That way, the angels become many things to many readers.

Orr comments: “… in the poem’s final two-line stanza, it’s as if another voice, or perhaps the voice of some other part of him, answers his fear….”

He goes on to point out the magical properties of the number three. Religion, mythology, and stories from ancient times are all rife with examples of things that come in magical troikas: the trinity, the Graces, the Magi, etc.

The word angel, Orr reminds up, comes from the Greek for “messenger.” He marvels at the strength of an adjective (as a part of speech, so seldom lauded in poetry!). Without the word “strange,” the final stanza would wither and lose all effectiveness.

More Orr: “But it isn’t just the identity of the figures that makes the poem’s ending mysterious. We also note that the same someone who knows who is outside the door also tells us emphatically what we are to do in response to the knocking: ‘Admit them, admit them.'”

“We must,” Orr continues, “…become vulnerable to what is out there (or inside us). Not in order to be destroyed or overwhelmed by it, but as part of a strategy for dealing with it and surviving it. Lyric poetry tells us that it is precisely by letting in disorder that we will gain access to poetry’s ability to help us survive. It is the initial act of surrendering to disorder that permits the ordering powers of the imagination to assert themselves.”

Chaos. Disorder. Dionysus. As Nietzsche would put it, time to set aside our inner Apollos and let the messiness in. Then, as the Bible would put it, time to wrestle with our angels. That’s called writing poetry. Struggle. Bending disorder into submission, if temporarily, if but for one poem until next time.

Do you have what it takes to “come through”?


The Mysterious Equations of Narrative Poetry, Where “Less Is More”


Story. Cavemen loved them, apparently, as do the so-called civilized types we call ourselves today. Tell me a good story, and I’m your captive till the happily ever after. Words to live by. Especially if your name is Sheherazade and your pretty life depends on it.

The last entry from my reading of Gregory Orr’s Poetry as Survival has to do with story. He quotes Aristotle, who famously said, “Men reveal themselves in deeds and acts.” (I love it when Ari gives lessons on show vs. tell.)

And if you sample poems in the various journals you submit poetry to, you will find that certain editors lean heavily toward narrative poetry. Narrative threads weave their way through lyric poetry, too. They are not mutually exclusive. I’ll yield the floor to Orr:

“Story is not simply a narrative of chronological events. Story selects and arranges (or rearranges) details and events and gestures for their symbolic significance. In prose narrative, ‘more is more’ because the goal is often to establish the complex richness and variety of the world of experience. In lyric story, ‘less is more.’ Everything that does not add to the intended dramatization is stripped away, and meaning is compressed into action and detail that reveal significance. Only that part of the world that heightens the dramatic focus is kept. Thus Aristotle in his Poetics says that if some part of a poem is removed and someone reading the poem doesn’t notice a gap or absence, then that part was never a genuine part of the poem after all.”

I love that last bit about a reader not noticing missing lines in a poem. Trouble is, the reader has to be someone other than yourself. As the poet, you often cannot see the extraneous from the essential. Every word is your baby, after all. Your mother hen instincts secretly kick in.

Aristotle’s observation also reveals the irony in assuming the job of the novelist is more arduous than the job of the poet. Yes, the novelist has his English Channel of words to swim across, but the currents and the vastness of the body itself allow for error, for digression, for the ego to occasionally break loose and pontificate. The poet, on the other hand, must work from the recent storm’s puddle on the sidewalk. That’s it. Check out the reflection while it’s there, then make do and make it work.

So I ask you, which is more difficult: “more is more” or “less is more”? If you chose the former, you’re likely the person who would select the biggest wrapped box in a line-up of various-sized gifts, too, thinking surely that size is everything. In America, we would say, “How American.” I’m not sure what they would say in other countries, but they’d say something (while shaking their cosmopolitan heads).

Back to Orr:

“Aristotle also locates the heart of story in conflict. In lyric poetry, such conflict needn’t be anything melodramatic. Merely introducing two pronouns into the opening line of a poem creates tension essential to story: ‘I saw you in the diner…’ There is a subtle, unresolved tension between the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ that seeks to be developed and resolved. You can see how subtle but real that tension is if you substitute a unitary pronoun: ‘We went to the diner.’ The reader may still be curious about what will happen next, may even curious about who the ‘we’ is, but the story tension created by the I/you has disappeared. It is this tension or conflict that is at the heart of a story, providing story with dramatic focus.

“Unlike narrative, which can have numerous characters, story in the personal lyric will have only two or three characters in order to establish and maintain dramatic focus and thereby communicate the story of the self. Here’s a personal lyric by Theodore Roethke that structures itself around story:

My Papa’s Waltz
by Theodore Roethke

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Interesting, isn’t it, how a poem like Roethke’s — one that we’ve read a million times — can be used as an example of narrative poetry. It’s so short, I never thought of it that way.

But the truth is, narrative poetry can out-flash the flashiest of fiction. And if it looks easy, look again. Then get to work, as that’s the only way your story will reach the Promised Land (which looks a lot like the word “published” to me).


When the World Slaps You, Poetry…


One of the themes running through Gregory Orr’s book,  Poetry as Survival, is the role of trauma and adversity in the creative process. The “survival” in Orr’s title speaks to the lyric poet’s need to make sense of past difficulty, hardship, and pain.

One poet who Orr quotes is Stanley Kunitz. In the first, more famous poem—“The Portrait”—an unfortunate family dynamic, a fateful triangle, is the topic, as Kunitz recalls discovering a portrait of his father, who committed suicide, in the attic. When his mother discovers her son’s find, her reaction is unexpectedly brutal:


“The Portrait”
by Stanley Kunitz

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.


The poem’s dramatic moment comes at the end where son, like the father, absorbs the sting of living with his mother, though certainly in less permanent fashion. How perfect that the speaker shares “In my sixty-fourth year / I can feel my cheek / still burning.” How perfect, too, that Kunitz resists the unnecessary word “still” before “feel” in the penultimate line. Good poetry is always cut to the bone.

Kunitz also wrote about the pain of anti-Semitism. In the first line of “An Old Cracked Tune,” he lifts a line used in a taunting jingle he often endured as a youth. Here we have a sting of another sort, a cheek still burning from the slap of prejudice. A cheek burning with anger, resentment, and yes, determination:


“An Old Cracked Tune”
by Stanley Kunitz

My name is Solomon Levi,
the desert is my home,
my mother’s breast was thorny,
and father I had none.

The sands whispered, Be separate,
the stones taught me, Be hard.
I dance, for the joy of surviving,
on the edge of the road.


Here is a video of Kunitz reading this brief poem. It is easy to see the Muse’s role in survival. Pounding the disorder of pain into the order of a lyric poem can be powerful medicine. Consider it, as you look to the thickets of your own past….