Gregory Orr is famous and has won major awards. John Smith is a retired high school teacher from New Jersey who is a poet, well respected locally but unknown otherwise. Orr has blurbs from such luminaries as Albert Goldbarth, Ilya Kaminsky, and Naomi Shihab Nyef. John has blurbs from poets who have won grants and are well thought of, but not exactly headliners. I was asked to review Orr. I chose to review Smith. So why am I putting them together?
First, both inhabit the same generational orbit: Nam, eastern spirituality mixed with a dose of overcoming the dark spots through mindfulness, meditation, a sometimes didactic sense of wisdom that would not be out of place at a weekend retreat on Rumi. They do not draw their powers from decorative displays of language, and tend to have some of the traits inherent to the deep imagists, to Bly and James Wright and Galway Kinnell, but Orr is more sparse, less likely to let his lines breathe in an expansive form of pontification. Smith is more likely to experiment—even with shaped poems. He does not have a reputation to live up to and can be less confined in the competing poem of his name. Orr is confined to Orr. To his credit, he is trying to break free and I see this book as being the awkward manifestation of a voice change. But to the poems:
The River Inside the River: Gregory Orr
The River Inside the River is divided into three parts, the first being a sequence of meditative poems on Adam and Eve in the garden,(and, to an extent on exile as a form of growth and the superiority of becoming over mere being). The second part is a meditation on the “city of poetry” (sort of Orr’s gloss on the Kingdom of God, and Williams’ the city as poem) and the third section is a sort of culmination of the two previous sections. The title of the book should be a tip off that mystification and simplicity, the simplicity of mystification, and the mystification of simplicity are going to be a huge factor. Forget reading previous Orr. If we judge this book by itself, there is much in it that is part of the didactic-self-empowering- pocket wisdom market. Someone who fell in love with Gibran or with the messages in Rumi, or with the spiritual transports over nature in Mary Oliver might not be at all troubled by this book, except that Orr—the part of Orr that is a good poet—knows better. Inside his comfort zone (and this is definitely a comfort zone poetics for intelligent white middle class baby boomers who want to congratulate themselves on their evolved selves) there lurks a book-saving sense of affliction. This would make those who traffic in spiritual uplift fault the book. For me it is the one thing that saves The River Inside the River from bombast and the self-help section of the supermarket.
Orr’s comfort zones never succeed in being wholly comfortable. They fall apart. There is a shrillness, a shrike among the wild geese as to who is impaling the butterflies to a thorn. This is not negativity. This is the real truth teller in Orr. There is also a false “truth” teller who is a more artful version of Kung Fu .The real truth teller broaches trouble that cannot be tied up in a neat spiritual bow of epiphany and put out with the recyclables. Poets who traffic in either positive or negative energies are not often worth reading: rather, Orr, at his best, offers the sort of trouble Stephen Dunn, another wise poet, suggests we should always keep on our road to being too pleased with ourselves. But before I get to that saving grace let me quote a little from a poem in each section and tell you why it annoys the bejesus out of me:.
From the first section:
With their embrace
to choose death.
This is bad Gibran and it is faux mystical. Adam and Eve now inhabit a “choice” culture” but this choice that is death will, by the laws of yuppie epiphany, be superior to eternal life because after all, becoming is always better than being; and, in addition to choice, our culture is a sort of whore for endless flux– Faust’s striving, but with a dose of eastern equivocation to keep it from being ferocious. I’m giving these lines too much credit here. What really annoys me are the enjambments which cause a sort of stage whispery feeling, an unnecessary pause between “they chose,” and “each other”. This is language reduced to summing up, language which seeks to have no flourish except in the spaces, the caesuras of the white space which, for me, happens to often in such poetry to be effective any longer. This contrivance gives everything a falsely hollowed hush. Written out as a sentence, one can see it as a fairly plain statement:
With their embrace they chose each other which is to choose death.
I understand that, according to Harold Bloom, this is a new spiritual age in which wisdom literature is waging a comeback, but where’s the rhetorical majesty, the eloquence, the form rather than the mere information of wisdom? How do we keep a poetics of spirituality from being a fucking fortune cookie on steroids?
Anyway, that’s in section one. In section two, there is more memoir-like narrative, more Wordsworthian prelude and confession about Orr’s catastrophic origins (he accidentally shot his brother and killed him as a child). Here, one might expect the poet to fully be conscious of his era: on how we are hung up on self because we no longer really have any confidence in it. We lust for serenity because we are detached from our violence by drones, and video games, and the fact that there are always immigrants, poor whites and blacks to fight our police actions while we buy new yoga mats. Occasionally someone shoots up a school and we never tie it to ourselves. How could it be us? Unlike our parents, we don’t scream or shout. We are protected by our violence, our casual viciousness by the cult of the cool, the mellow, the politically correct the suburban disaffection. When all that fails, we go camping, and re-connect to the earth. How nice.
I have admired much of Orr’s work in the past, and I expect him to get at that fly in the soup not to spoil the soup, but to make it honest. All soups, even the soup of eternal truth contain a certain percentage of insect parts. Here, in the second section, he writes:
In the middle of my life
in the middle of the city,
I got lost.
Thanks, Mr. Divine comedy. What he says in this poem is: “you can’t count on any guides. You have to risk discoveries you can’t predict. Otherwise, you’re only half alive”.
OK…risk, choice, self, uncertainty, these are the basic wisdom tropes of the baby boomer .Generation. Generation X answers them with a sort of knowing nihilism. Generation Y embraces a sort of sociopathic code of bon homie (one of the traits of true sociopaths is a kind of easy, breezy charm and a sense of nothing personal, dude). Of course, I’m nut shelling generations, and I don’t think any of this is wholly accurate, but neither are these too easily uttered forms of wisdom. Right after this poem, Orr has a beautiful section, more ecstatic, less self consciously wise, and more surrendered to a high level of lyricism (and the image of the white flag brings that home)::
of the city–
I love this. This little and perfect moment is too rare. This is cryptic and lyrical and resists the sound of the fortune cookie. As a kid, we would add “in bed” to all fortune cookie statements. Let’s apply this to my previous quotes from Orr:
In the middle of my life
in the middle of the city,
I got lost (in bed)
With their embrace
to choose death… (in bed)
I am not trying to trash Gregory Orr. I think he has written a superb body of work, and has influenced two generations of poets for the better, but this is a comforting of the already too comfortable. It has none of the ferocity, and embattled engagement with the spirit found in the best mystical and devotional traditions. The River Inside the River, while well-crafted and engaging in parts, does not have the wicked sense of humor one finds in the great midrash poems of the late and ought to be better known Enid Dame (her book Lilith and Her Demons is decidedly not preachy, though it is wonderfully wise). I am pissed off because, for a culture that says “it’s complicated” about everything (thereby dismissing all further discussion) the comfort zones of easy wisdom poetry seem as simplistic as self-help books, and the hypertrophy of telling our truths seems to have precluded the eloquence and decorative might with which we tell them. But this stuff sells, and I would not be shocked if this won some major awards. Here’s my problem with the intentional lack of eloquence: “Death be not proud, nor honor long,” has the weight of rhetorical eloquence behind it. My grandmother saying: “never marry a short man; they’re a bag full of cats,” has imagination and colorful speech behind it. If she changes that to: “It might be a mistake to marry a short man with many insecurities,” then is this really the same message? Does it have the same flavor, or sinew, or the sheer joy of the figurative behind it? Hell no. It is neutral and devoid of figures and decoration, and this might be my biggest qualm with this sort of spiritual schtick: not that its truths are too easy, but that their utterance has no spice and is as bland as a fortune cookie.
From the last section:
The beloved came,
Nothing beautiful stays.
Tell me why stating the obvious in incremental bits of information with the drum rolls of white space, and the caesuras of conjunctions and parataxis, makes such statements poetry? Nothing gold can stay has the glamor and eloquence of invention: nothing beautiful stays is mere statement. This third section is the best in the book because in it, Orr is most unsure of his epiphanies, and his summing up manages not to be a cozy summing up, but there is still much of this nutshelling wisdom and it creates a strange effect, the effect of a haiku master who thinks himself profound. The poems seem brief and spare, yet long winded and preachy; they seem too close to the Dali Lama’s ghostwritten self- help books, and the self-esteem movement, and forms of 12 step. If these spiritual traditions do not find themselves a meter making ground in some language tested by full aesthetic rigor and doubt beyond the obvious , then to what art do they aspire? If they aspire to the artless, they are certainly getting there.
Putting these qualms aside (and I am willing to admit that it may just be my discomfort with aphorism and my own generations love affair with its self-satisfied “seeking’) there are moments in The River Inside the River where Orr’s gentle and sad humor and his sincerity and simplicity win out. He can be wry and self-effacing, like Stephen Dunn. He can be dark when it is necessary. He can, in his love poems, give up the wise man for the ecstatic. At such moments his language seems neither derivative nor simplistic. If he did not believe his own mottos too readily, or if he arrived at them honestly (writing toward the truths, rather than the poems being excuses for the truths) I might feel better about being told “nothing lasts.” It might not bother me to be clobbered over the head with truisms along the lines “of change is the only constant”. (Orr never literally says this, but it’s one of themes of the book). I don’t mind when Whitman expounds the obvious to me. Whitman has the whole of the biblical and oratorical tradition behind him. Orr’s imaging tradition eschewed rhetoric and literary conceits over a hundred years ago– before Orr was born. It is stripped of eloquence and literary devices and often comes off as mere statement or image. If I had not read Rilke, and, yes Gibran when I was 12, and if I did not have the sonorities of the King James Bible and an entire literature of proverbs, koans, Emerson, and, on the more equivocal side, Jabez and Celan and Kafka, I might be more well-disposed to these poems. But, to me, (and I will probably get called bad names for this) the overall effect of Orr’s book is to send us back to those greater works and to anger me that the devotional poem in terms of contemporary poetics is perilously close to new age positive thinking. Telling people how to live and be at peace is a multi-billion dollar industry. Do poets have to do it?
Finally, to be fair to Orr, I grew up loving MR Cogito and the far from always wise predicaments of Paul Zimmer’s poems. I believe Orr’s tradition rules out slight-of- hand verbal tricks as being somehow phony and dishonest. Also, Orr is not a poet of rhythms. He believes in flat out telling as a test of sincerity, I take my cue from the imaginary philosopher Carlos Stir: “you can’t fake sincerity; it’s already fake.” What saves this book is the young child still at the scene of the shooting, the one who has not “learned” and for whom becoming is the only hope of escape from being. When Orr comes anywhere near this sort of “unknowing” he is a wonderful poet. Otherwise, he’s a guru, and I shoot paper clips at gurus from my desk (when they aren’t looking).
Even That Indigo by John Smith
John Smith has long been a poet whose work I was glad to see in some of the local New Jersey magazines, or here and there in an anthology or two. He is a narrative poet. He is far more likely to stick to the particulars of a moment and let them imply a truth or realization rather than springing a truth on you. He is less a wisdom poet in the way of Rilke and more appreciative of the minute and the perfectly observed detail in the way of Robert Francis (though he does not have Francis’ sense of form). Like Orr, he is in his sixties. Like Orr, he has some of the tendencies toward epiphany, meditative nature lyric, sex as mystery, and a touch of the new age peculiar to baby boomers. His book is not a high concept of interconnected poems. It is a collection held together by recurrent interests: his past, his family, the experience of Nam, the possibilities of finding peace within the small detailed encounters with nature. Consider his meeting up with a possum in the poem, Stumbling Around In The Light:
Something wasn’t right.
I could tell by the way it wobbled
across the lawn, midafternoon.
Fat head the cat knew it too
and kept back, pretending to lick a paw
each time the Possum stumbled.
The uncertainty is fearful uncertainty. The detail of the cat “pretending” to lick its paw is a perfect projection of the speaker’s own diffidence onto the cat. The poem moves from fearful uncertainty to conjecture (kids might come. Perhaps the speaker can kill the possum with a shovel) to a gentle and empathetic realization that, perhaps (an important word) the Possum is no more close to dying or dangerous than the speaker (the wonderful thing here is that the speaker had just considered bashing in the possum’s skull with a shovel). Stumbling Around in The Light has the close detail, and particularity, I admire in reading Carolyn Kizer’s great poem about her encounter with a bat, or
her great blue heron poem. It is working out from observation to epiphany, but the epiphany is not certain; it could be erased in the next moment. Rather than stating that everything is tentative and transient, Smith puts us in the place of the tentative and the transient.
In speaking of minor and major poets, one can either mean lesser or greater in terms of craft or make a distinction between a poet who lives for each individual poem and a poet who must be read and judged at his full scope. Smith is a minor poet in the best sense. Orr is a major poet who has some of the faults of the major: he has given up keenness for scope, and when he is not at his best, the scope is distorted for want of clarity and the keenly observed. Smith does not have to imitate Smith as Orr has to compete with Orr, and so he can screw around with different palettes, dabble at being present in different ways. John Smith is not a competing poem with John Smith’s poetry. There are thin lined, and long lined poems in Even That Indigo. There are poems that undulate and alternate between short and long lines. Smith does not have a “look.” He is not branded. The least arbitrary aspect of Smith’s line is that he either writes stichic (no stanza breaks) in the narrative style of Bishop and Levine, or he writes in stanzas of varying lengths (what Milton called Aleostrophic stanzas), and so his poems do not have a spatial identity– a fixed look. He does try a shaped poem (no title) which refers to a painting of geese by Escher. It’s not bad except it is somewhat gimmicky (I am growing cranky in my old age and have a hard time not finding almost all shaped poems gimmicky), but it is still a decent poem. This brings me to the flaws if any of this book:
Smith isn’t taking many risks beyond the well-wrought and well-crafted poem. While in depth, the poems do not go outside safe water, and stay clear from any risky currents. The crafted detail, the economical observation that implies rather than states is easier to pull off than a grand statement or a series of “wisdom” poems. For when the grand gesture fails and the mystic moments are all clichés of shadow and dark and stone and ash, then nothing is worse—nothing more worthy of contempt; but when these grand gestures are pulled off, when the mystification and rhapsody work (as with the best of Whitman, as with Neruda), then I gladly trade in my Robert Francis’ Cedar Waxwings for Whitman’s Sixth part of Song of Myself (though I may miss the waxwings). Smith’s poems in Even That Indigo are from a school closer to Waxwings than Song of Myself. It is a poetics that does not trust any major claims, that believes God is in the well wrought details. In most of his poems, Smith is a splendid successor to a long and honorable tradition of truly observing nature, an unsentimental narrative poet: Not as florid as Dickey, not as controlled and thereby heartbreaking as Bishop, not as intensely singular in his seeing as Schuyler, not as wounded or in need of embracing the wound as Orr, but with his own virtues of humility, intelligence, and singular wonder. The final poem in the book, Cicada, might give an indication as to why I would recommend Even That Indigo over Orr’s latest work (though not over Orr). I do not think Smith the greater poet, but, at this point, he does not have the weight of his oeuvre to contend with, and is thus at greater liberty to play. In this final poem in the book, Smith is saying essentially the same thing as Orr, making the same case for the eternal within the transient, for intensity, for becoming rather than being, for the joy and passion of becoming. But I believe Smith earns the epiphany. I leave you with the poem:
Even if we could live forever,
what if we still grew old and gray
as the dusk? What if we shrank
into the top soil of the night
and woke whining for the sun
with voices so shrill and small
only termites could hear them?
I’d rather crawl from the earth blindfolded
and drag my grimy shell up the side
of the whitest tree I can find,
rather scream like a match head on fire
than smolder and never die.
I would split open my spine
just to fly for one season.