David Orr’s creative and critical work has been lauded by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.He has been a guest on PBS and NPR and called “highbrow brilliant” by New York magazine. The poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, Orr’s poetry and critical collections include You, Too Could Write a Poem,The Road Not Taken,Beautiful and Pointless and Dangerous Household Items. A native South Carolinian, David lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife and daughter. You can visit his website here.
As the spring semester draws near, Orr answered a few quick questions about his approach to writing and teaching.
Tell us how you got interested in poetry. Was it because you had an excellent English teacher? An artistic parent? An unrequited crush you hoped to win over with a sonnet?
Actually, it was because I bought the wrong book. I was taking an undergraduate survey course in English literature, and I accidentally picked up a poetry collection – Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings– that was intended for another section. It’s a very slim book, so I lost track of it on my shelf for almost a year, at which point it was too late to return it. When I finally ran across it, I was at first annoyed at having blown fifteen bucks on a bunch of stupid poems. But then I started reading it, and twenty-five years later, here we are.
As someone who understands both the theoretical and creative side of poetry, what is the value for writers in analyzing how a poem “works?”
I guess it depends on what we mean by “works.” If we mean learning what things like “adynaton” mean, then the value to writers is pretty close to zero. If we mean asking why one part of a poem seems kind of slow, while another bit seems kind of fast, and why this word in a poem doesn’t seem quite right while this other word seems exactly on target, then this sort of analysis seems not only valuable but indispensable. It’s basically the same way we learn how to do anything – it’s not like you’re going to get very far as a basketball player if you haven’t watched a bunch of games and thought about what makes particular tactics effective.
How would you describe your teaching style?
I make a lot of terrible jokes and do an awful job of concealing it when I think one of our readings isn’t very good. And if you’re wondering why I would assign a reading that isn’t very good, it’s because I think you can sometimes learn a lot from seeing something done poorly, especially where poetry and criticism are concerned. I’m told I also say, “So what do we think about this?” all the time. In fairness, this is because I would actually like to know what everyone thought about something. Responses like, “It was too long” are totally okay and sometimes ideal.
What can students expect to be writing and learning in your 305 courses?
We’re going to look at a category of writing I call “general reader criticism,” which is basically the criticism of movies or books or music and so forth that we see in places like The New York Times or The Atlantic Monthly or for that matter, Destructoid or Pitchfork. This sort of writing is everywhere, but there are very few (if any?) university classes on it. I think that’s unfortunate, because in addition to being extremely practical and frequently funny, general reader criticism lends itself to instruction much more easily than, for instance, poetry. That because this sort of criticism – unlike a lot of poetry, unfortunately – is actually aimed at us, and by “us” I mean the sort of people that we are when we’re just casually doing our ordinary business (as opposed to when we are in class preparing to Talk About Literature). And because this writing is aimed at us, we’re in a great position to say when it’s working and when it isn’t. I’m sure most people have read a review of, say, a show on Netflix and thought, “Man, what a lame piece of writing.”
In this class, we’ll talk about what that reaction means, how it’s triggered, and how you avoid it if you’re the person writing the criticism.