Buzzed Books #60 by Amy Watkins
Gregory Orr’s A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry
Why do we write poetry?
As an experienced poet, I’m supposed to have an eloquent, compelling answer to this question. I’m supposed to acknowledge that the reasons for writing poetry are various and all valid. I’m supposed to quote Neruda. However, if I asked any of the earnest, inexperienced poetry writers in my English 101 class why they write poetry, I’m fairly certain they would all give some version of the same answer: We write poetry to express ourselves. As an experienced poet, I know I’m supposed to find that answer shamefully unsophisticated, but I don’t.
In his new craft book, A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry (W.W. Norton, 2018), the great lyric poet Gregory Orr posits that poetry is ideally suited to meet the human need for self-expression because of the way it balances order and disorder. This, he says, is why so many people, even non-writers, feel compelled to write poems in moments of crisis. The disorder of emotional extremes–grief, love, rage, desire—welcomes the order of craft, and vice versa.
This is true to my own experience. I began writing poems in middle school, first for a language arts assignment then for the fun of making the world rhyme. I kept writing poems as a way to process disorderly emotion. At that time, my family life was chaotic; grief, addiction, and poverty imposed disorder on my life, to say nothing of the prosaic disorder of adolescence. Like many children experiencing trauma, I craved the control poetry offered. In a poem, I could choose what to tell and how to tell it. I could contain and shape troubling memories. I could let in only as much disorder as I could manage, using the rules I had established.
More available than therapy and ideally suited to my personality, poetry became a way to compartmentalize and impose order on my emotions. While my reasons for writing poetry have become more sophisticated over the years, I still respond to Orr’s paraphrase of Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry: the source of poetry is “emotion remembered from a place of safety.” For me, the poems themselves–my own and those I read–continue to be meaningful, if temporary, places of safety.
As Orr explicates and complicates the sources, tools, and craft of lyric poetry for his readers, he never loses sight of poetry’s basic initiating impulse: We write poetry to express something, often something we can’t express any other way. We make poetry to remake the world or imagine a new world in words. If this sounds a bit fluffy and vague, never fear. Orr is a great teacher, and he balances the emotion and mystery inherent in discussions of poetry with concrete explanation, analysis, and wisdom, delivered in the warm, intelligent voice of a kind, slightly dorky uncle. His approach to teaching language, rhythm, and other elements of craft leaves room for poets to work in a variety of styles.
The book is clearly aimed at a less experienced audience. If you’ve studied poetry for a long time, many of the ideas and exercises are not brand new, but I think it does us good to remember how and why we began to write, and to revisit some of the lessons that shaped our understanding of our craft. In that way, I read this book side-by-side with my younger selves. I underlined passages I doubt I would have understood at 15, passages that would have blown my mind at 25, and passages I desperately want to share with my students now. I wrote in the margins, “If only you’d learned this sooner,” and, “When you grasped this, everything changed!” I worked through the poems and exercises with gratitude for my teachers and hope for my students.
If you teach writing, this is an ideal textbook. I can imagine both introductory and advanced undergrad poetry classes using this text. In the introduction, Orr admits that his Primer does not include a wide variety of poems, and I appreciate that he acknowledges this limitation. If I were using this as a textbook, I would want a really good anthology to go with it. On the other hand, by foregoing a bunch of expensive rights, Orr and his editor have kept the book very affordable: $15.95 is cheaper than any craft book I used in undergrad more than 15 years ago.
If you’re a young poet, Orr’s Primer will offer you meaningful insights into the craft of poetry, without belittling your reasons for attempting it in the first place. If you’re more experienced, it will offer you a chance to reflect and maybe even rediscover the energy of your younger poetic self.
Amy Watkins (Episodes 124, 161, 164, 192, and 209) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. She is the author of Milk & Water (Yellow Flag Press, 2014) and the art editor for Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine.