There’s often a great divide between those who feel drawn to poetry in adolescence and those who enjoy it throughout adulthood. Gregory Orr bridged that gap with “Poetry as Survival” (2002), in which he explored how poetry can help readers address and heal from trauma. Now, with “A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry,” he’s casting a wide net again and presenting luminous ideas that may help novices and teachers alike.
As Orr explains early on, lyric poetry — which allows an individual to make sense of his or her experience — has been present in every culture and age. It “helps us live by expressing our experience and at the same time moving the experience a bit away from us — to the world of words, where it can be shaped or dramatized into meaning.” That ability makes lyric poetry compelling in a crisis “because it is superbly designed to handle both aspects of experience: the reality of disorder and the self’s need for some kind of order.”
Orr’s assertions are comforting and empowering, especially since he notes that disorder can be internal or external and negative or positive, ranging, for example, from a natural disaster or the loss of a loved one to the surprise of romantic love or adventure. Poets use ordering patterns to process and convey their experiences in ways that can be paradoxically simple and complex.
The term “ordering patterns” isn’t just a euphemism for stanzas, rhyme schemes and meter. Poems are “turbulently alive with the disorder that plagues or exalts us,” and when we order our words, we create an expressive but stable structure.
Orr, who has published a dozen books of poems and has taught for more than 40 years at the University of Virginia, guides readers through classic poems and writing exercises he has used with his own students. The implication is clear: Anyone can learn to understand poetry because the impulse to engage with it has been passed down through generations.
But Orr addresses the experienced writer, too. As the book progresses, he explains the necessity of writing to the “threshold” where disorder and order meet, intensifying the sense of being alive and placing lyric poetry under the pressure of telling a story. He also shows how writers can use various poetic tools and determine where their poems begin and end as part of the revision process.
Throughout “A Primer,” Orr serves as a sage and gentle guide, sharing wisdom about the creative process and how poetry can enrich those who embrace it. Some readers may wish he had included fewer poems that were written before the 20th century. Still, the book is revolutionary — despite its stodgy title — because it shows readers how to turn an occasional, burning impulse into a lifelong pleasure.
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.
By Gregory Orr
W.W. Norton. 336 pp. $15.95