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Posts Tagged ‘David Orr’

The Most Misread Poem in America

September 11, 2015 | by

Everyone knows Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”—and almost everyone gets it wrong.

Frost in 1913.

From The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, a new book by David Orr.

A young man hiking through a forest is abruptly confronted with a fork in the path. He pauses, his hands in his pockets, and looks back and forth between his options. As he hesitates, images from possible futures flicker past: the young man wading into the ocean, hitchhiking, riding a bus, kissing a beautiful woman, working, laughing, eating, running, weeping. The series resolves at last into a view of a different young man, with his thumb out on the side of a road. As a car slows to pick him up, we realize the driver is the original man from the crossroads, only now he’s accompanied by a lovely woman and a child. The man smiles slightly, as if confident in the life he’s chosen and happy to lend that confidence to a fellow traveler. As the car pulls away and the screen is lit with gold—for it’s a commercial we’ve been watching—the emblem of the Ford Motor Company briefly appears.

The advertisement I’ve just described ran in New Zealand in 2008. And it is, in most respects, a normal piece of smartly assembled and quietly manipulative product promotion. But there is one very unusual aspect to this commercial. Here is what is read by a voice-over artist, in the distinctive vowels of New Zealand, as the young man ponders his choice: Read More »

David Orr: Lost in the Archives, December 1985

May 9, 2011 | by

Philip Larkin.

Philip Larkin was the first poet I understood. He wasn’t the first poet I could write a reasonably coherent college essay about (that was probably George Herbert), nor was he the first poet whose poems I memorized (Vachel Lindsay, although in fairness, I was twelve). But Larkin was the first poet whose sensibility I felt I grasped in most of its dimensions: he appeared not as a blueprint, but as an actual structure. And a very peculiar structure at that. When I think of Larkin, I imagine a cathedral filled with cheap gray metal desks, or possibly a strip mall with a belfry. Indeed, Larkin combines so many opposed elements of lyric tradition and modern consciousness that he comes close to being the writerly equivalent of a folly—and he has a folly’s ability to seem simultaneously monumental and embarrassingly personal.

Yet people still often describe this complicated figure in one of two fairly straightforward ways. The first is to claim that Larkin is a wry poet of good-natured grumbling and resolute sanity, a portrait that has the virtue of being so inaccurate as to form a likeness in negative. The second way, which became more prevalent after Andrew Motion’s dirt-dishing biography was published, is to claim that Larkin was a nasty man whose poems are filled with secret nastiness that reveals the fundamental nastiness of … well, something really nasty. Great Britain, maybe. (I’ve written about some of these issues before; you can read further here, if you’re curious.)

Maybe it’s enough to say that Larkin—like Stevie Smith, like Bishop—is the kind of poet we seem bent on reducing, in part because he often seems desperately eager to contain something about himself. One of the more interesting perspectives on Larkin appears in an essay by Donald Justice from 1995. Justice’s nominal subject is Larkin’s short yet masterful poem “Coming,” but the real topic is exactly this kind of restraint:

It has been claimed for Larkin that he was never sentimental, never brutal. But the truth is that I find him both sentimental and brutal, though in different poems, or in different parts of the same poem … Irony, diffidence, skepticism, wit: not all of these together are enough to keep out a certain unreasonableness of feeling—the sentiment, the sentimentality—that keeps rising up out of Larkin’s poems. Actually, it is what saves them. Doesn’t everybody really know this?

Everybody doesn’t know it, actually. Even now.

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David Orr: Lost in the Archives, Spring 1974

April 18, 2011 | by

W. H. Auden.

The best thing about The Paris Review, aside from the editors’ formidable liquor stash, is the magazine’s sense of history. Sure, there are older American literary journals (The Yale Review was founded, no joke, in 1819), but The Paris Review has had a consistent idea of itself for longer than many publications that predate its debut in 1953. Of course, that consistency makes some aspects of the magazine vulnerable to, oh, for example, parody. But it also makes The Paris Review’s archive a useful tool with which to survey an art—and one’s personal response to that art—over several decades. So for the next month or so, that’s what I’ll be doing for the gracious and impeccably shirted Lorin Stein, and the equally gracious (and presumably impeccably shirted) Thessaly La Force.

Let’s begin at the beginning, which for me was the spring of 1974.

In the poetry world, this was a season of uncertainty and transition, as seasons in the poetry world so often are. The popularity of the “deep image” style associated with James Wright and W. S. Merwin was just beginning to wane; John Ashbery was on the brink of arriving at his full prominence (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror would complete the only hat trick in the history of the major poetry awards in 1975); and W. H. Auden, whose hand both stirred and hindered several currents in American poetry, had died only a few months earlier. In fact, Auden is the subject of the “Art of Poetry” interview in the Spring 1974 issue, lending a poignant touch to that meticulously casual series. This being Auden, things get pretty droll pretty quickly:

INTERVIEWER:  Do you have any aids for inspiration?

AUDEN:  I never write when I’m drunk.


INTERVIEWER:  Have you read, or tried to read, Finnegans Wake?

AUDEN:  I’m not very good on Joyce.  Obviously he’s a very great genius—but his work is simply too long.

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Paris Review–NYT Poetry Summit!

April 11, 2011 | by

Come to Housing Works this evening to hear our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, talk with New York Times critic (and culture diarist?) David Orr about his new book together with Sam Tanenhaus, Dwight Garner, Laura Miller, and Tree Swenson. On the FSG Web site Creswell gives a preview of their talk.


Staff Picks: Anne Roiphe, Fanny Howe, Now’ruz

March 18, 2011 | by

Katie and Anne Roiphe.

Two nights ago, in one long fit of insomnia, I read Anne Roiphe’s memoir of midcentury Paris Review shenanigans, Art and Madness. —Lorin Stein

At night, I have been switching between Fanny Howe’s new collection of poems, Come and See, and David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. Howe is plainspoken, serious, visionary; Orr is companionable, smart, fun. Last night I dreamed they were having a conversation, but this morning I can’t remember what either one said. —Robyn Creswell

I liked Charlotte Silver’s Modern Love essay from a few weeks ago, about a young couple obsessed with the romantic rituals from the fifties. —Thessaly La Force

This week is Now’ruz, the Iranian New Year, and I’ll be celebrating on Sunday by trying to synchronize a tricontinental diasporic Skype chat with relatives and friends. For now, the least heart-breaking way into Iranian culture is the cooking, and there’s no better introduction to that than Margaret Shaida’s classic, The Legendary Cuisine of Persia. Of course, on the day itself, I wouldn’t dream of eating anything other than the customary sabzi polo mahi, but I’ve always been drawn to Shaida’s description of the koofteh Tabrizi, an immense meat dumpling that encases an entire stuffed chicken. Before the advent of the food processor, “considerable strength and stamina were required to pound the ingredients together into an adhesive mixture. One lady from Tabriz told me to knead the mixture until my arms fell out.” —Jonathan Gharraie

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Sex, Hastily, Then Beignets

March 15, 2011 | by

For a long time now, we’ve been thinking that our friends over at The Awl should start a culture diary of their own—and now they have! And with no less an eminence than David Orr, poetry critic of The New York Times Book Review. Hot, hot, hot!