Over four decades, Gregory Orr has established his reputation as a master of the lyric poem. Throughout his career, which also includes books of essays and criticism and an award-winning memoir, Orr has primarily written short free-verse poems, but in the past decade he has turned to writing long sequences comprising of short poems in such books as Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved (2005) and How Beautiful the Beloved (2009). His newest, River Inside the River, consists of three such long sequences: “Eden and After” retells the story of Adam and Eve; “The City of Poetry” explores a place “where every poem / Is a house; / And every house, a poem”; and the third, titular sequence explores redemption and language. All are themes that have been present in his work from the beginning. Orr and I spoke recently about the changes in his work.
You said that your newest books have been “a pivot toward something,” which is a phrase I like. How would you characterize the shifts in your work since Orpheus and Eurydice (2001)?
The first thing that persists is being a lyric poet—that’s going to persist across any change. For me, that means concentration of language in a given moment of time. What I’ve always been interested in is getting the emotional, imaginative, linguistic intensity of lyric but also getting the scope of narrative. There are two phrases that work as central nodes for my imagination. The first one is “gathering the bones together.” That came from a poem in my second book, The Red House (1975), when I was still working on personal material but working in a way that made my poetry less accessible than I might have hoped. The phrase comes from a seven-part sequence that concerns my brother’s death in a hunting accident and my responsibility for it. I was trying to use imagination and language to engage that story, but the central phrase was this kid wandering in a field gathering bones. That’s a pretty grim image.
The big change for me and my writing was going from “gathering the bones together” to the phrase “gathering the poems together.” That came to me in early 2003—it just appeared in my head. It concerns a concept that I call the Book, all the lyric poems and all the songs ever written and recorded anywhere in any culture in any time. Suddenly the difference between these two phrases—poems and bones—spoke of a transcendent kind of story in which each of us, as poets or songwriters, is writing these poems for our own purposes, but then once we’re done with them, they go into the Book and then anybody can access them and their testimony about human experience, suffering, mystery, joy.
Somehow, when this phrase appeared in my head—“the Book that is the resurrection of the body of the beloved, which is the world”—I felt unburdened by the grim story of my early life, the guilt and sadness and shame I could never quite shake. I had always valued clarity and simplicity, even though my material in the early work was pretty anguished and personal. This new perspective doesn’t mean that people you love don’t die and so on and so forth, but it doesn’t have that burden of anguish. The newer poems also have a kind of simplicity and clarity that’s accessible to the point where they could be mocked for their accessibility, but I don’t really care. I’m having a great time.
In your memoir you wrote about coming to understand “poetry”—which is different from “a poem”—and how it helped you address your feelings. It’s interesting to hear you speak about how dealing with these events took decades longer than the period described in the memoir.
One can understand the redemptive power of poetry and still not be redeemed. I struggled for years with a despair and melancholy that stemmed from feeling responsible for my brother’s death and from losing my mother at an early age. It’s one thing to say that producing expressive lyrics is going to help you cope and survive. It’s probably a step beyond that to say it can heal you. When I heard that phrase in my head, I would have to call that a moment of grace. I’m willing to go with the weirdness of that story. I don’t have to apologize for that, it just happened.
When I read my poems to an audience now, I feel as though I’m meeting them at least halfway. When I read my earlier work to an audience, I felt that it was asking them to participate in an anguish that wasn’t theirs. That’s not a bad thing, but I’m happier now that I’m still writing about the mysteries of being alive but that somehow there’s more being delivered.
How is writing a sequence different from writing thirty shorter poems?
There are two answers to that. One answer has to do with the books Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved and How Beautiful the Beloved and “River Inside the River,” the third sequence of the new book. I think of those as being part of a continually unfolding lyric sequence that does not have a plot. It just explores some terms—beloved, resurrection, the book—and it’s creating a lyric myth as it goes along. Let’s put this in parenthesis, poem as inspiration. Don’t think about it, because nobody likes the term.
Those poems pretty much came to me and I wrote them all down because it was exciting to be hearing them. But when I was done, I chose some and threw away others. Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved is chronological—it presents the poems in the order they came to me and how they came to me. Sometimes I don’t hear them for a long time, and then sometimes I’ll hear five in a day. That’s a weird way to do business if you’ve been a professional poet your whole life, because I’m very disciplined. I write every day. But with those poems, it’s like my imagination says, This is not the way we’re going to do business.
In the sequence “Eden and After” and in Orpheus and Eurydice, did you have a model for telling narratives in short lyric poems?
The beautiful thing about myths is that you’re never telling a myth, you’re retelling it. People already know the story. You don’t have to create a narrative structure, and you don’t have to figure out where it ends. As a lyric poet, you can take the moments of greatest intensity in the myth, or the moments that interest you most, or the ways of looking at the story that you think would be most fun to rethink—you don’t have to do the whole story. You want to know what human mystery can be revealed by retelling it. D. H. Lawrence said that myths are symbols of inexhaustible human mysteries. You can tell them a hundred, a thousand times, and you’ll never exhaust the mystery that’s coded into that story. That may be a little hyperbolic, but I believe it.
Is your editing process more about writing many poems and then eliminating some of them to create the right flow?
When I was a really young poet I saw a movie about Neruda. He must have been an old man—all of about fifty-five years old! In the movie he’s writing a poem and says, I just write my poems down, I don’t rewrite them, I just do it. And I’m thinking, What a jerk. He doesn’t understand that this is a craft, this is agony, this is hard work. I hope I never get to be as stupid as him—just believing what he writes rather than being a difficult critic of his own work.
Now, of course, I throw away most everything. When I was a young poet I would rewrite a lyric poem two hundred times. I’d say I’m working hard, making it better. Maybe I was, I don’t know. I’ve been doing it for fifty years now. Something changed and I’m more accepting of what happens.