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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.”

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