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Gregory Orr on poetry and meaning

June 10, 2013

“If you say, oh language is a game. Words are just music. Syntax is a joke. Communication: who needs it? Let’s have fun. Let’s play with words. Of course, play is an important part of poetry. But to turn it all into play, to turn it all into sounds and to give up this aspiration to connect meaningfully to the physical world, to the past or to objects and people seems to me solipsistic, narcissistic, [and] nihilistic. Now, you can do all those things and have fun, but ultimately it seems to be the end of meaning….

So, at that point, I got off the contemporary linguistics train, the experimentalist train…. As a poet and person, I come from a place where trauma is a primary experience, so when any theory announces that the world doesn’t mean anything, I’m thinking—I already knew that. I knew that when I killed my younger brother in a hunting accident when I was twelve. I knew that when my mother died overnight when I was fourteen. That’s when I realized that the world doesn’t mean anything. That it’s filled with horror and violence, an arbitrary meaninglessness. So meaninglessness doesn’t have any attraction for me. In fact, it’s the name of the horror.”

* * *

“I think the personal lyric is omnipresent in human societies: it’s an absolutely basic way we make meanings out of experience, especially those experiences that have a powerful emotional component. To me, poetry is about survival first of all. Survival of the individual self, survival of the emotional life. The personal lyric links the inner world of subjectivity to the outer world we all share and inhabit as bodies in space. I’ve never understood the charge of solipsism against the lyric. We are individual body-selves in the world, that viewpoint is ethically and existentially primary. As Thoreau says in the opening page of Walden: “We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well.” I find those sentences (which I hear spoken in a self-aware, tongue-in-cheek tone) to be an articulation of a universal situation, not just American Romanticism. In the personal lyric, we have the self giving voice to its situation and inviting the reader along by way of identification: “become me” invites each lyric poem- “what I assume you shall assume” in Whitman’s words. The issue of lyric has never been one of solipsism for me, but one of whether or not the speaker is interesting. If the speaker is lively, imaginative, deep, engaging, then I want to know more about that person and how he or she sees and feels the world. I want, for the space of that poem, to give myself over to that person, to assume what they assume, to “become them” and grow by such an odd and obvious process.”

David Foster Wallace on irony

February 24, 2013

“Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving…The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years.”

Annie Dillard on artists

February 16, 2013

“How can people think that artists seek a name? A name, like a face, is something you have when you’re not alone.


There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows.


When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination.


What can any artist set on fire but his world? …What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready to hand?”

Annie Dillard on turning

February 16, 2013

“There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times.”

Annie Dillard on control

February 16, 2013

“We are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all.”

Agnes de Mille on uncertainty and leaps

February 16, 2013

“The moment one knows how, one begins to die a little. Living is a form of not being sure, of not knowing what next or how. And the artist before all others never entirely knows. He guesses, and he may be wrong. But then how does one know whom to befriend or, for that matter, to marry? One can’t go through life on hands and knees. One leaps in the dark. For this reason creative technique reduces itself basically to a recognition and a befriending of one’s self. “Who am I?” the artist asks, and he devotes his entire career to answering.

There is one clue: what moves him is his. What amuses or frightens or pleases him becomes by virtue of his emotional participation a part of his personality and history; conversely what neither moves nor involves him, what brings him no joy, can be reckoned as spurious. An artist begins to go wrong exactly at the point where he begins to pretend. But it is difficult sometimes to accept the truth. He has to learn who he in fact is, not who he would like to be, nor even who it would be expedient or profitable to be.”

Wendell Berry on imagination

February 8, 2013

“The term “imagination” in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb “to see”. To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly and understandingly with the eyes. But also, to see inwardly with the minds eye. It is to see not passively, but with a force of vision, and even with a visionary force.”

Adrienne Rich on what it takes

January 31, 2013

“You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.”

Sherman Alexie on what it takes

January 31, 2013

“If one reads enough books one has a fighting chance.”

Erasmus on household budgeting

January 31, 2013

“When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes.”