by Neal Whitman, Poetry Prof
We begin with a scene from Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall:
Alvy as a young boy sits on a sofa with his mother in an old-fashioned, cluttered doctor’s office. The doctor stands near the sofa, holding a cigarette and listening.
MOTHER (to the doctor)
He’s been depressed. All off a sudden, he can’t do anything.
Why are you depressed, Alvy?
MOTHER (nudging Alvy)
Tell Dr. Flicker.
(young Alvy sits, his head down
(his mother answers for him)
It’s something he read.
(puffing on his cigarette and nodding)
Something he read, huh?
(his head still down)
The universe is expanding.
The universe is expanding?
(looking up at the doctor)
Well, the universe is everything, and if
it’s expanding, someday it will break apart
and that would be the end of everything!
(MOTHER (shouting) Why is that your business?
(she turns back to the doctor) He stopped doing his homework.
What’s the point?
(excited, gesturing with her hands)
What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!
(heartily, looking down at Alvy)
It won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we’ve gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here. Uh?
So, Poetry! What’s the point? Is there one? Some believe that not having a point IS the point! David Orr, takes what I first think to be an odd position. He wrote a book with the title, Beautiful & Pointless. I say “odd,” because Orr makes his living as a poetry critic. In my “old life,” I made my living by evaluating teaching. In a way, I was an “educational critic.” Would I say that my bailywick was pointless? But, then Orr makes what I would call a “good save” at the end of his Introduction:
So, please: Disagree with me. You might be wrong of course, but isn’t that the point. The point is to allow you to become a person who can have a conversation about poems. The point is to allow you to find your own place in the poetry world, where others can come and visit.
Orr is speaking of modern poetry, as his subtitle states. Having “no point” was not always the point of poetry, as we can see, for example, in The Faber Book of Useful Verse, edited by Simon Brett. His Introduction opens with Groucho Marx who condemned all poetry as useless except for the six-line verse that begins, “Thirty days hath September…”
In a book about “my lifelong engagement with literature and language,” The Use and Abuse of LIterature, Marjorie Garber acknowledges that poetry presents a special challenge for readers. One chapter title, “So You Want to Read a Poem,” signals that, in the world of literature, poetry is its own world – perhaps an alien one. She invites us to visit a world where the paraphrase of what a poem says is not the point. Ah … I see! To circle back to Orr, it is pointless … and therein lays its beauty, or, as she suggests, it offers “tangible edginess, the sense of delighted transgression.”
Let’s close this month’s “profession” with the proposition that, if writing is one of the great inventions of humanity, it follows then that reading is the other side of the same coin. Without a reader, writing is … well, it’s pointless. As a poet, I write to be read. I would not expect anyone to read my words if randomly chosen. But, I do not pull my words out of hat, or flip through a dictionary. Even if you find no rhyme or reason in one of my poems, always there is intention. And, that, my friends, is the point of poetry.