Orr, Gregory (Simpson) 1947-
ORR, Gregory (Simpson) 1947-
PERSONAL: Born February 3, 1947, in Albany, NY; son of James Wendell (a physician) and Barbara (Howe) Orr; married Trisha Winer (a painter), March 3, 1973; children: Eliza, Sophia. Education: Attended Hamilton College, 1964-66; Antioch College, B.A., 1969; Columbia University, M.F.A., 1972.
ADDRESSES: Home—Charlottesville, VA. Office—Department of English, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22903.
CAREER: University of Virginia, Charlottesville, began as assistant professor, became professor of English and director of graduate program in writing, 1975—; University of Hawaii, Manoa, visiting writer, 1982—. Poetry consultant, Virginia Quarterly Review, 1976-2003. Gives readings at colleges, universities, and Library of Congress, and for British Broadcasting Corp.
MEMBER: Poetry Society of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: Discovery Award, Poetry Center of Young Men's-Young Women's Hebrew Association, 1970; poets' prize, Academy of American Poets, 1970; junior fellow, Society of Fellows at University of Michigan, 1972-75; fellow of Transatlantic Review at Bread Loaf Writers Conference, 1976; Guggenheim fellow, 1977-78; National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1978-79, 1989-90; sesquicentennial associate of Center for Advanced Studies, 1981-82, 1987-88 and 1993; Fulbright grant, 1983; Virginia Prize for Poetry, 1984; Los Angeles Times Poetry Prize finalist, 1986; Rockefeller fellowship, 2000; American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, 2003.
Burning the Empty Nests, Harper (New York, NY), 1973.
Gathering the Bones Together, Harper (New York, NY), 1975.
Salt Wings (chapbook), Poetry East, 1980.
The Red House, Harper (New York, NY), 1980.
We Must Make a Kingdom of It, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1986.
New and Selected Poems, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1988.
City of Salt, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1995.
Orpheus and Eurydice, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2000.
The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2003.
An Introduction to the Poetry of Stanley Kunitz, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1985.
Poetry as Survival, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 2002.
The Blessing (memoir), Council Oak Press (San Francisco, CA), 2002.
Contributor to books, including The American Poetry Anthology, edited by Daniel Halpern, Avon (New York, NY), 1975; The Generation of 2000, edited by William Heyen, Ontario Review Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1985; Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, Morrow (New York, NY), 1985; The Bread-loaf Anthology of Nature Poetry, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini, New England Universities Press, 1993; and The Wesleyan Tradition: Four Decades of American Poetry, edited by Michael Collier, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1993. Contributor of poems and translations to literary journals and popular magazines, including Harper's, New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Nation, Paris Review, Poetry Now, and Antioch Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Gregory Orr's poetry meditates upon the nature of life and death based upon his own experiences in childhood and beyond. A professor of poetry and creative writing at the University of Virginia, Orr has published consistently for more than a quarter of a century, and his work has evolved in style and substance to include a wide variety of verse techniques. Poetry reviewer Steven Cramer observed: "Blessed with the curse of fame at twenty-six, Orr became neither a one-hit wonder nor a recycler of self-derivative tunes. Instead, he has quietly attended, and attended to, his own thirty-year singing school. Burdened with the curse of 'a long story/of torment' to tell, this mature lyricist has found, for himself and for us, the forms that affirm."
When Orr was twelve, he accidentally shot and killed his younger brother while hunting. A few years later, his mother died unexpectedly. These events shape his poetic voice as he repeatedly seeks to come to terms with his trauma. Donald Barlow Stauffer in Contemporary Poets emphasized the "burning intensity … compactness of language, and … wise placement of a striking image" that characterizes Orr's verse. Stauffer added that a "sense of change versus selfhood is central to Orr's search for a way out of a potentially crippling youthful experience toward the renewed innocence of an emotionally integrated adult." As a result, his poetry moves from confronting the pain of his childhood to becoming a confident teacher, husband, and poet.
"Orr's first two books featured the surrealism that was one of the dominant period-styles in the 1970s," wrote Charles Molesworth in the New York Times Book Review. However, Molesworth added, the poems in Burning the Empty Nests and Gathering the BonesTogether possess "a wan, almost glum intensity" which distinguishes them from other poems composed in that mode. In comparison, Orr's fourth book, The Red House, "has much plainer writing, with a concentration of subjects drawn from rural Virginia. … It'sa private, whispered poetry," noted the reviewer, who sees Orr as one of many poets "whose emotional concerns are with a personal past." Washington Post Book World contributor Alan Williamson felt that all of Orr's best poetry relives the traumatic events of his youth. "The Red House concludes this story, in the almost heartbreaking last poems of the title sequence," the reviewer commented. Williamson believed that Orr's poems about other subjects, also "tragic in tone," are among his best.
In his Poetry review of The Caged Owl, Cramer wrote: "Always a lyric poet for whom the image provides the surest access to epiphany, Orr in his figurative language evolves away from metaphor, simile, and the totemic emblem to perceived details chosen for their emotional resonance. … I suspect that Orr's excellent essays on poetry have helped underwrite his deepening authority." Cramer went on to describe some of Orr's poems as "small miracles of sound insight and incisive sound." A contributor to the seventh edition of Contemporary Poets concluded that Orr's poems are attractive for their "utter honesty and directness, their refreshing lack of pretension, their flashes of humor … and their frank, sensitive, and circumspect treatments of sexual love, sometimes set against a background of death and dissolution." Matthew Flamm, reviewing The Caged Owl for the New York Times Book Review, noted growth in Orr's work, seen primarily by "the hard-to-decipher parables giving way to a quietly observed naturalism."
In 2002 Orr published a memoir of his first nineteen years of life that deals frankly with the tragic accident that caused his brother's death as well as the family dynamics in the wake of the accident. The Blessing details Orr's private suffering as a teen and the unexpected serenity he received after discovering poetry and art. The poet told Publishers Weekly that he decided to write the memoir while witnessing his father's decline from cancer, realizing that writing would provide closure that would never be forthcoming from his father or siblings. A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote of the work: "Orr's gripping chronicle of his troubled boyhood is alternately self-conscious, moving, and revelatory." In her Booklist critique of The Blessing, Donna Seaman concluded that Orr "has distilled the anguish of his youth right down to its holy bones."
Gregory Orr contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
I was born on February 3, 1947 in Albany, New York in a hospital where my father was completing his residency. At the time, we lived on an isolated farm about twenty miles southwest of Albany in the Heldeberg Hills. The farm had only just gotten electricity and my mother lived there with three babies in diapers and no hot water and no furnace those first years. How my parents, who had both grown up in cities in comfortable surroundings, came to settle in such a place is a bit of a mystery. My father had returned from several years in the Navy during the Second World War and he apparently felt the wish to have some distance from his neighbors—more than he had had on board a ship in the South Pacific. What my mother thought of this I don't know, but she had three boys in three years; and a herd of goats and a cow as well. Each day my father drove off on the hour-long, back-road journey to Albany and returned late at night.
My mother had been raised in the suburbs of Boston and had briefly attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology after high school, hoping to become an architect. With the outbreak of the war, she had gone to Cornell to take some courses in aircraft design and then gone to work for Curtiss-Wright, an airplane manufacturer. She met my father during the war, they got married, and her career became subsumed in his life.
My mother's family included old New England-Quaker inn-keepers on one side, the other side going all the way back to an early arrival in Massachusetts in 1630. My father's family came from Scotland to Canada only a few generations before. My father's father ran away from a farmhouse in Ontario when he was fourteen and made his way to the States, finished high school and then began newspaper work. He eventually became city editor of the New York Tribune. From there he went into politics and then become a public relations executive for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). My father grew up in Yonkers in rather privileged circumstances, attending Horace Mann School and then Hamilton College briefly. His own decision to establish a rural general practice was partly inspired by a woman doctor, a Dr. Perkins, who practiced for seventy years in the Heldeberg Hills and whose idealism and dedication to her patients and community affected both my parents.
When I was four, we moved from the farmhouse to a nearby small village, Rensaleerville. This move followed the death of an older brother, Christopher, who climbed out of his crib one night, swallowed some sugar-coated pills, climbed back into his crib and was comatose the next day when my mother found him (my father having left before dawn for medical school). I'm never sure if I remember Chris, but I clearly remember his absence: the family photo album my mother kept, with the names and dates written under each snapshot—looking through it as a child and seeing the glue spots where the photos had been removed and below that Chris's name in blue ink in my mother's precise hand.
Rensaleerville was a village of about fifty houses set in a narrow gorge along a stream below a large waterfall that, in the nineteenth century, had powered seven separate mills. Now only one of those mills still stood, empty; the rest were only elaborate labyrinths of slate foundation along the banks. The town itself was from an earlier century: when my elder brother Bill and I were old enough to go to school, we were summoned by a bell that rang out over the village—a bell in a little belfry, tugged into its slow "bongs" by one of the teachers yanking a rope below! The school itself looked like a little wooden church: one big room on the ground floor, another above it, and the bell tower on top. There were two teachers and it only went as far as sixth grade (after that, you took a bus twenty miles over the hills to a central school in a larger town). One teacher taught first, second, and third grades: all in the same room, moving her attention from one group to the next, trying to keep us all busy. Upstairs, the other teacher taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grades in the same way. I loved that village, loved exploring the stream and the woods around the falls. I even loved the school, especially the weekly visits by a visiting music teacher and another by an art teacher. When they came, we'd all crowd into a single room and sing songs (I thought his round, silver disk of a pitch pipe, that he sounded before we attempted each song, was a magical object) or draw some assigned theme in crayons (the teacher, too, would draw on the theme, to demonstrate his artistry, and he'd bestow his drawing on the student whose work he most favored that week).
At the end of my fifth year, my father had completed his residency and we moved about forty miles away, to the small town of Germantown in the central Hudson River Valley. There my father set up his practice: a small office in the village, house calls every morning and evening within a radius of twenty miles of the town. We lived outside town on a small farm with hayfields, a huge barn, some sheds and a chicken coop. I learned to drive a tractor and cut hay that we baled to feed a small herd of riding horses my father began to gather. I spent a lot of time outdoors exploring the woods and fields, wandering along a stream behind our house catching and releasing turtles (spotted and painted mostly; the occasional snapping turtle)—these amphibians fascinated me at the time. I was a bit on the dreamy and withdrawn side, but this part of my childhood, like the earlier time in Rensaleerville, seemed quite idyllic. I used to love to go on house calls with my father, listening to him talk about ideas and books as he raced over the dirt roads, reading in the car outside the farmhouses as he doctored inside; or to go on weekends with my mother to farm auctions up and down the valley—to see the whole contents of an old house hauled out piece by piece onto the front lawn into a crowd of strangers, and we kids free to prowl about the house and outbuildings with always, in the background, the auctioneer's manic chant urging the bidders on.
My father was a person of adventurous enthusiasms—this was partly temperamental, partly, I suspect, a consequence of his having become in medical school addicted to a regime of amphetamine pills in the mornings and sleeping pills each night. This was a fairly-common peril for doctors of his generation; nor did he ever feel this "habit" was anything but a rational utilization of his pharmaceutical knowledge to meet his practical needs (my own view on this topic is best expressed in a poem "If there's a god … "). I don't think he acknowledged or was aware of the fact that among the side-effects of this central nervous stimulant were a recklessness and an intense, unpredictable, emotional volatility. Often, we kids, as his sidekicks, were the beneficiaries of his adventurous spirit, but some of his activities were ill-advised and under-supervised. Such as his sudden interest in guns and hunting. By the time I was ten, I had my own shotgun and went pheasant hunting with my older brother and father in our back fields. For my twelfth birthday, I was given a .22 rifle. This sort of thing (children with guns) is not unusual in the countryside, but the lack of supervision was: none of the rifles were locked up (there were about five by now, plus my father's always-loaded pistol kept in his bedside drawer) and Bill and I were free to roam the woods with our respective guns after school.
When I was twelve, I killed a younger brother, Peter (who was eight), in a hunting accident on the first day of deer season in November of 1959. That event was the turning point in my life. A number of my poems have addressed the event directly ("Gathering the Bones Together," "A Litany," "A Moment") and many more have evoked it indirectly (among them "The Doll," "Song of the Invisible Corpse in the Field," "Silence"). Still others, many others, have expressed the sense of sudden, irreparable loss and the consequent despair, guilt, and terror that might accompany such an awareness. Nor was the horror of that day confined to my brother's death. That same day my mother told me that when my father had been my age, he and his best friend had smuggled a rifle and some paper plates out of the house, and gone to a field to toss the plates in the air and shoot at them as if they were skeet. Somehow, my father killed his best friend in that field with the rifle. I never heard about this earlier, uncanny death again. My father never spoke of it, nor my mother after the day of Peter's death. It wasn't until twenty-five years later that I met a cousin who told me it was common (though haunting) knowledge in her family, and only ten years ago that I spoke directly with my father's older sister and learned what facts and details were known about that earlier death. Once again, as with Christopher's death, the sudden death was met with silence in our family and each of us left to deal with his or her feelings and experiences as best we could. My own sense of guilt and horror was profound and I'm sometimes as baffled as anyone as to how I survived. Certainly, I know I wished to die.
A year later my father moved out of the house and it seemed as if the marriage would end in divorce, but then my father proposed one last effort to "bring the family together again": we would relocate for a year to an American-run hospital in the backcountry of the island of Haiti. We moved there and things seemed to be going rather well, though I doubt my parents' marriage was healing. I myself enjoyed my time in Haiti immensely: I was fourteen and freed from any structured schooling. What I learned that year, I learned on my own, mostly reading literature. The rest of the time, I was free to explore the countryside on long walks up into the hills or across the valley. Haiti is a desperately poor and beleaguered country; the poverty, illness, and malnutrition of its citizens are beyond American imagining. But it is also a country full of mystery and beauty and its citizens are friendly and cheerful out of all proportion to their daily suffering. I also treasured my time there because I imagined I was in a place where no one knew of my brother's death and I could shed the outer shame of public knowledge, if not the inner shame and despair of my own conscience. About eight months into our time there, my mother entered the hospital for what was to be a routine surgical procedure. Why she chose our hinterlands hospital over one in the capital (six hours away), I don't know, but it was a fatal choice. She developed an infection and died the night after her operation. My younger brother and I visited her the afternoon of her operation and we could clearly see her suffering. This visit has been the scene of several poems ("Song: Early Death of the Mother," "Everything," "Haitian Suite").
We left Haiti within a few days of my mother's death. My secret hope had been that someday I would be able to talk to my mother about my brother's death. With her death and the consequent impossibility of that healing conversation ever taking place, I felt a deepening of my isolation and despair. As is the way with kids, I even imagined that I had been the indirect but real cause of her death. What was left of our family (Bill, sixteen; myself, fourteen; Jonathan, twelve; Nancy, five), returned to Germantown and we did our best to resume our lives there. Our return was rather desolate: my father was trying to rebuild his practice and was seldom home; we kids were on our own pretty much, living now a good fifteen miles from Germantown itself and several miles from the nearest neighbors. Within a year, my father remarried.*
I was pretty profoundly alienated from school and everything else by this point. And yet one turning point experience awaited me in that unlikely building known as Germantown Central School. During my senior year, the high school librarian, Dorothy Irving, arranged to teach an honors English class which pulled seven of us out of the rest of our class of thirty-six and brought us to a side room off the library every afternoon. There we talked, read, and wrote poems, essays, short stories, and plays. We also traveled, to Albany to see a ballet; to New York to see a Chekhov play. Cultural horizons opened in all directions of the compass. But the main liberation for me was interior. In that class I wrote my first poem and that experience changed my life forever. The thrill I felt as I put words on a page and felt them creating a world (not just describing a pre-existing one) was the first experience of joy I had had since my family tragedies had begun. I've written about that experience (and much else up to my eighteenth year) in my memoir The Blessing. My experience of poetry writing in Mrs. Irving's class was a revelation to me. I felt that this was all I wanted to do with my life: write poems. (It could also be said that everything else I might imagine doing with my life seemed either pointless, or not powerful enough to offset the despair and melancholy set going by the violent and sudden family deaths).
During the spring of my senior year, I took an unauthorized leave from school—hitch-hiked up into the Catskills on the other bank of the Hudson, ending up in Woodstock, and saw there a poster for a civil rights organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which was organizing a chapter in the nearby city of Kingston. The next weekend I drove down and joined and began investigating the one other avenue of meaning that seemed credible to me besides poetry: the avenue of activist dedication to a social-political ideal. The first political demonstration I took part in was at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in the summer of 1964. Our project was to support a delegation from the Freedom Democratic Party of Mississippi that was attempting to gain recognition from the national Democratic party. The FBI had just located the bodies of three missing civil rights workers (Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney) who had been killed in Mississippi, their bodies bulldozed into a red clay dam. People in our group carried three giant drawings of these young men and I remember being deeply moved by the sight of their faces: they were transfigured. It seemed to me that martyrdom had bestowed a powerful and morally efficacious significance on their lives and I longed for something to do that to my own. This quest continued through my first year at college where I joined a local chapter of the Friends of SNCC (SNCC standing for Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) and culminated in my traveling south the following summer (1965) to work as a volunteer political organizer in Mississippi.
After my mother's death, I was not much of a student anymore, with the exception of my excitement about writing. I graduated from high school and was admitted to Hamilton College in the fall of 1964. Though it was a fine school in terms of conventional academic studies, it was quite conservative and not at all congenial to my only real dream: learning how to write poems. Still, I stayed with it for two years, as my friends there dropped out or flunked out. I was determined to hang on until I could figure out where I wanted to be in a positive sense, and so I contented myself with hitch-hiking every weekend I could to New York City, where a number of my Hamilton dropout friends had settled on the Lower East Side and begun the marginal and dynamic life explorations that would soon earn the label "hippie" from Time magazine. The one thing I loved about Hamilton was taking the courses taught in ancient civilizations by Herbert Long. These courses were primarily Greek literature and history and that interest has stayed with me as an amateur's passion ever since. On my own, I discovered Yeats, Dylan Thomas, and Keats as early heroes and also became fascinated by the French Surrealists as a movement. I admired their insistence on the power and importance of imagination, but even more I longed for the emotional and intellectual connections I fantasized as they all, poets and painters, gathered in some café to drink and talk passionately about the meaning and purpose of art.
In the summer of 1965, when, at eighteen, I was old enough to do so, I volunteered as a political organizer in Mississippi under the auspices of the recentlycreated Freedom Democratic Party. I drove down alone to Mississippi, went through an orientation program, and was assigned to help out with a fieldworker's strike in the Delta cotton county of Bolivar. I was only there a few days before we were called in to help with a demonstration in the state capital of Jackson. This led to my being arrested along with about two hundred other demonstrators. Although the arrest itself (being filmed by news media) was peaceful, the reception we demonstrators received at the closed-in, off-limits county fairground was expressly planned by the authorities to permit a free expression of violence by the state troopers who greeted us as we piled off the closed trucks we had boarded after our arrest for parading without a permit (see "On a Highway East of Selma" or several chapters in The Blessing). We (men, women, and children) were sporadically beaten with clubs for a good deal of the first afternoon. The next day things settled down to a non-violent routine as we began our term of confinement in the large empty buildings of the fairgrounds. Although the authorities offered to free us on payment of individual bail, our organization leaders wanted us to stay there as long as possible to frustrate the (unjust) system and make the city pay for our upkeep. I stayed ten days and then received a call from my father's lawyer asking me to come back north for my father's sake. I agreed and left the fairgrounds that day.
I also left Jackson, Mississippi that day, only to find myself around dusk on state route 80 between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. I say "found myself" but actually I was found (apprehended) by two armed vigilantes in a car with a siren concealed in its grill. They had noticed my New York plates and pulled me to the side of the road with their siren. I assumed they were police until I saw them get out of their cars: no uniforms, no badges, only pistol belts on their hips and their pistols drawn. What followed was a terrifying roadside interrogation complete with a dual promise: a) I was going to be "dumped in the swamp" and/or b) I was going to be put in jail by them for … for what? They'd searched my car and found SNCC pamphlets and that was all the proof they needed that I was a civil rights organizer. They took my wallet and sped away, giving me orders to follow in my car. We turned off the highway and snaked our way down a narrow road that did, indeed, show swamp on both sides and little else. Twenty minutes later, we arrived in the hamlet of Hayneville and I was stowed in a small jail, deeply (absurdly?) grateful to still be alive. I spent seven long days in solitary confinement there (again, the memoir tries to give a sense of what that felt like) and then was suddenly released. I fled north and did my best to recover from the multiple shocks and reality lessons I had been given during that sojourn in a dangerous place at a dangerous time.
The disillusionment with political activism was deep—the principles still seemed right to me and worth fighting for, but not at the price of my own life. Nor was I as shocked as my friends when, a few years later at an anti-war demonstration in New York City, we saw undercover police (identifiable to each other by small orange lapel buttons) turn a peaceful demonstration into a melee by suddenly punching the people next to them, precipitating a situation in which the uniformed police felt justified in charging the crowd swinging their nightclubs right and left. If the politics of direct social change was to meet such violent and under-handed resistance, then it seemed a route of little hope to me. Art seemed to offer a more promising route of transformation—one where the force of an individual imagination could be more effective. Although art's social/political transformations were indirect and far from immediate, they had the advantage of offering me personal hope as well: especially with lyric poetry, the survival and transformation rewards are personal first and only secondarily social and political. This final shift of commitment toward art/poetry was sealed by a visit to the Adirondack home of the sculptor David Smith late in the summer of my return from Mississippi and Alabama. I was taken there by Mrs. Irving. Smith had just died in a truck accident and left a huge field full of abstract sculptures—walking there (trespassing, really) I was convinced that lyric art was the purest and most powerful expression of the human longing for meaning and expressive beauty. That time in David Smith's field was as formative in its way as my brother's death six long years before and this experience is the subject matter of the final chapter of my memoir.*
In the summer of 1967, after two years at Hamilton, I transferred to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. If Hamilton was a conservative academic school, then Antioch was extremely progressive and unstructured. I came there hoping to receive training in my ambition to become a poet. I was disappointed in that there were no organized courses in poetry writing at Antioch at the time, but "creativity" was valued almost as highly as progressive political activism and so I found an encouraging atmosphere though minimal guidance. I took advantage of the structural freedom and independent study courses to educate myself in poetry and writing. While there I trained myself to write every day, internalizing a discipline that could help me regulate my powerful but inchoate desire to write. When the poet David Ray passed through, he was kind enough to read some of my poems and to recommend me to a former student of his, Geoff Hewitt, and this resulted in my first national publication in the anthology Quickly Aging Here. During my senior year, I met Mark Strand, himself an Antioch graduate of the previous decade, and at his suggestion applied to Columbia University's School of the Arts to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree. While there I studied with Strand and with Stanley Kunitz. My work with Kunitz was probably the most formative experience in my writing life. I met him my first year at Columbia (1969), just as he was about to publish his collection The Testing-Tree. The way his poems were autobiographical, passionate, and yet transcendent at the same time gave me a model to aspire to in my own work. It was clear that he, too, had trauma at the source of his imaginative being (in his case, a father absent through suicide before he was born, and a beloved stepfather suddenly dying when he was fourteen). He was the first poet I read and knew who seemed able to dramatize the autobiographical without becoming trapped in the realm of the private and self-indulgent. He became my teacher in 1969 and this has evolved into a continuing and sustaining friendship. My book on his work (Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry) represents a partial repayment for all he has taught me.
It took me three years to graduate from the two year program at Columbia. I was working full time in a bookstore, living close to the bone (see "Hotel St. Louis, New York City, Fall, 1969") and not very stable. On the other hand, I was writing a great deal and had (by great luck) my first collection, Burning the Empty Nests accepted by Fran McCullough at Harper and Row before I received my Master of Fine Arts degree in the spring of 1972.
In June of 1971, while working as the assistant night-manager in a bookstore near Columbia, I met my future wife, Trisha Winer. She was a student at Sarah Lawrence, in the process of transferring up to the Rhode Island School of Design and destined to become a painter. We were married in March of 1973 (our two daughters are Eliza, born in 1982 and Sophia, born in 1986). Donald Hall had read (and recommended) my manuscript as a poetry consultant for Harper and Row and he then contacted me and said he planned to nominate me to the University of Michigan Society of Fellows, a three year appointment for post-graduate study or work of various kinds. When I was awarded that fellowship in 1972, Trisha and I moved out to Ann Arbor, where we met Donald and his wife, Jane Kenyon. I worked on my second collection of poems out there (Gathering the Bones Together) and Don, Jane, and I began to meet regularly to discuss each other's poems. This informal workshop was one of the most gratifying exchanges of spirit and response I've ever known, and both Don and Jane became dear friends.
When my time at the Society of Fellows was over, in the spring of 1975, I was offered a job at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. We arrived in Charlottesville at the same time as Ann Beattie and her then husband, David Gates, and the four of us bonded as we adjusted to life in a small, somewhat-Southern university town. Peter Taylor and his wife Eleanor Ross Taylor made us feel welcome in a department more congenial to scholars than writers. I had never consciously aspired to being a teacher, but had seen it as the best means of supporting myself and my family as I continued writing poetry. However, it wasn't long before I realized that it was a pleasure and privilege to teach the reading and writing of poetry at the university level. The pleasure I get from teaching continues to this day. During my first year at Virginia, I became involved with the Virginia Quarterly Review and was asked to serve as its poetry editor, which I did until April, 2003. In 1977, I was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and we spent half of the year in New York City while Trisha studied at the New York Studio School and I wrote in our apartment. I was tenured at the University of Virginia around 1981 and promoted to full professor in 1987. I received the 1984 award of the Virginia Prize for Poetry and two National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowships, the first awarded in 1978, the second, eleven years later in 1989. In addition, I was given an Award in Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in the spring of 2003.
In 1980 I published my third collection, The Red House. The title refers to a farmhouse where we lived from the time I was six until around eleven—in other words, up until shortly before my brother's death. "The Red House" was a nineteen-poem sequence of lyric-narratives that I hoped would give shape and expression to some of the joy and intensity I had felt growing up in a rural area. I was after those experiences where subjectivity, experience and the mysteries of being intersected and my epigraph for the sequence, from Wordsworth's The Prelude, expressed the attitude I felt: "Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up/Fostered alike by beauty and by fear." At the time, Trisha and I were living in a farmhouse outside Charlottesville, and I felt an echo between my current home and my childhood home, my current contentment and the intensities of my childhood. However, sequences have a way of determining their own shape and structure and so, by the thirteenth poem in the sequence ("After a Death"), I had overstepped my intentional bounds and found myself writing about my brother's death and, later ("Song: Early Death of the Mother"), my mother's death also. It seemed, once again, that these losses insisted on their rightful presence in a dramatization of my childhood.
In 1982 a bequest left to the University of Virginia English department provided a sudden source of financial support for creative writing. Working with the chairman, I designed and established a Master of Fine Arts degree program which for the first time allowed us to bring graduate students to the University for the express purpose of learning about writing. This program has flourished since, becoming one of the most highly-regarded such programs in the country, and I'm proud to have initiated and designed it.
In the fall of 1982, a few months after the birth of my first daughter, Eliza, I was invited to teach for a semester at the University of Hawaii. Later, the following spring, I took part in a Fulbright program that involved a writer's exchange with Yugoslavia. For about a month, Marvin Bell and I traveled throughout Yugoslavia. Even then, ten years before the savage war that tore that federation apart, we were made aware of the tensions and deep animosities. I remember meeting the great poet Vasko Popa, who felt his task was to provide an image of (imaginary) unity for his country through his poems. He felt it could be done through shared folklore and a collective pronoun "we." "Over here, we Yugoslav poets have solved the problem of diversity by using the word 'we' instead of this 'I' you American poets are always using," he told us over wine in a Belgrade café. I remember thinking: Whitman creates his (imaginary/ideal) America through an "I" who extends outward toward others in an excited curiosity and a sympathetic identification (he "becomes" them at various times); but we American poets suspect a coercive political pressure in the pronoun "we." What I was feeling then, in talking with Popa, was something about the way the lyric poem, with its personal perspective, makes its social contribution. I'm still haunted by images from the Yugoslav trip, especially of Sarajevo, which seemed a truly functional merging of the country's three cultures and religions and then later, in the war, was, for that very reason, chosen as a target of special destruction by the Serbian-led forces.
My fourth collection, We Must Make a Kingdom of It, appeared in 1986 from Wesleyan University Press, to be followed shortly by a fifth collection, New andSelected Poems, from the same publisher in 1988. The new section contained poems where, for the first time, I tried writing about my experiences in the civil rights movement in the mid-sixties ("The Demonstration," "On a Highway East of Selma," "Solitary Confinement"). I was experimenting with a kind of verse paragraph (I resist the term "prose poem" and prefer Baudelaire's term, "rhythmical prose," which he used in the preface to his great, posthumous collection Paris Spleen). These verse paragraph poems allowed me to bring in much more contextual information than I could usually handle in the lyric form I favor, and I hoped they could gracefully absorb the historical and political information needed to create a vivid and convincing sense of my experiences in the Deep South at that time. Ultimately, I've come to feel that I wasn't able to do justice to this life material until I wrote about it in my memoir, The Blessing, which was still a good decade or so in the future.
In October of 1985 my second daughter, Sophia, was born. Around this time, at the invitation of Ellen Bryant Voigt, I also taught part-time in the Warren Wilson low-residency MFA program outside Asheville, North Carolina. I found the faculty and students to be the most enthusiastic and informed group I had ever encountered as a poet, and preparing lectures to deliver there allowed me to explore my long-held ambition to think and write about poetry. My involvement with Warren Wilson culminated in co-editing with Ellen Bryant Voigt a collection of talks given over the years at the school. The royalties from this book, Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World, go to a scholarship fund for the school. In 1993 I published a collection of essays about poetry titled Richer Entanglements. Much of the material from that book came into being in relation to the Warren Wilson program. I stopped teaching at Warren Wilson in the early 1990s, but I've since enjoyed sporadic summer teaching at the Centrum workshop, the Prague Writers Workshop, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.*
In 1991 I became seriously ill for about eight or nine months with an auto-immune illness probably related to an infected tick bite and inadequate treatment for Lyme disease. It may well have been one of the variants on the still only partly understood disease Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Whatever it was, I was perpetually exhausted and, for a terrifying several months, there was an encephalitic aspect to the illness that left me unable to think at all or to understand words written on a page. For the whole length of the illness, it seemed possible I might never write again—I could no longer understand words clearly, let alone take pleasure in their sensuous existence or feel the dance of language that is essential to writing poems. For all of my wife's kind ministrations and nursing, the sense of isolation was terrible and, because I couldn't communicate what I was feeling, the experience was a disturbing echo of the horrible alienation I felt after my brother's death. This bleak time had some consolations: I heard from and came to know Floyd Skloot, a fellow poet whose courageous and informed struggle with his own fatigue syndrome illness gave me a sense that I was not totally isolated.
With the return of my health, I was energetic enough to exercise and travel again. Maybe it's an offsetting of the sedentary nature of my poem-writing, but all my great joys involve movement through landscapes. My happiest family memories are of hiking with my wife, children, and dog in the Blue Ridge. And I love traveling. Before the kids came along, Trish and I tried to travel for several weeks each year: England, France, Italy, Greece, Crete, Turkey, the Czech Republic. After the kids arrived, we had marvelous group expeditions through the Southwest, Northern California, and the Northwest.
In 1995 I published my sixth collection, City of Salt, with the University of Pittsburgh Press. This collection was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Poetry Prize. Around this time, I also began teaching at the Summer Institute of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, giving lectures that related poetry to the thematic or historical artistic focus of the various sessions. In poems in the first section of that book, I revisited the deaths of my mother and brother for what I hoped was the last time. I knew these events still haunted me, still had a power to hurt me and undermine my being and that it was still important for me to address them in poems and do my best to transform that grief, terror, and guilt into the strange affirmation that even the most painful poem is. But I also hoped to move past those issues, and the last section of the book addressed the perils and delights of parenthood. My own parenting was occasionally beset by fears made larger by my past experiences and I saw that, even as an adventurous toddler, my own daughter was trying to teach me an attitude about life:
Round and round; bow and kiss.
I try to teach her caution,
She tries to teach me risk.
("Father's Song," from The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems.)
In the late nineties, I found myself casting around for a new way of writing. One section of City of Salt had made use of cultural artifacts like paintings and mythic situations, including a scene from the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. I was eager to move beyond the limitations of my own autobiographical life and also to extend my lyric impulse beyond the confines of a single lyric moment or scene. As so many poets before me, I suddenly saw that by basing a sequence on a myth, I could gain access to a narrative structure that moved through time and was thus able to dramatize more complex and changing relationships. And best of all, the story is already there, already told and, by many readers, already known: so, I faced the delight and challenge all myths pose: the re-telling of the myth for a new audience, the project of "making it new." D. H. Lawrence says somewhere that myths are the inexhaustible symbols of human mysteries—no matter how many times they are told in how many various ways, they will still continue to reveal meanings about the human heart. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice drew me for multiple reasons: Orpheus was the earliest poet we hear of in Greek legend, from back where poetry and magic were intertwined (he spoke the languages of animals and birds, could move rocks with his song); his passionate love for Eurydice and her sudden death addressed two themes of my life and of many lyric poems (I felt my brother's and mother's loss in her death); his descent into the realm of the dead to retrieve her and his ultimate failure and despair—I felt I could inhabit all these incidents and scenes and bring them alive with emotions from my own life experience. The sequence was freeing in numerous ways. Among other things, I got to speak through other voices: not simply Orpheus, but also Eurydice, Persephone, Hades, the dead, and even animals and the maenads who finally destroy Orpheus.
This sequence also led me to other things. When I completed it, it consisted of poems: a slender book and yet I knew I wanted the poems to appear as a book, on their own rather than as a large section of another book. I contacted Sam Hamill at Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Washington. For decades, Sam's press had been making some of the most beautifully designed and printed books in the country and I felt that he might be interested and might do justice to my hopes for the book. To my joy and surprise, Sam not only accepted Orpheus and Eurydice but offered to bring out an updated selection of my previous work. In the spring of 2001, Copper Canyon released Orpheus and Eurydice and in the spring of 2002, The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems which contained selections from the previous eight books and forty pages of new poems as well.
During the 1990s I worked on two other books also: a memoir of my childhood and adolescence and a theoretical book on the personal lyric or "I" poem about personal experience. By coincidence, both of these books were completed around the same time as the poetry collections, and the year 2002 saw the publication of both as well as my new and selected poems volume.
The memoir took its title, The Blessing, from an essay I had written several years earlier for a magazine I had become associated with: Sacred Bearings: A Journal for Survivors, published by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Horizon Institute. My association with the magazine came about through an invitation from its editor and founder, Roberta Culbertson, the director of the Institute on Violence and Culture at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Over lunch in the early spring of 1999, Roberta told me she was going to publish a magazine for survivors of traumatic violence. Her work with political refugees and survivors of torture had convinced her that there was a spiritual dimension to the struggle to heal from violence, and that poetry, essays, short fiction, and the visual arts were or could be important aspects of that dimension. She asked if they could use some poems of mine for their first issue. As we talked, it became obvious that we shared many ideas and attitudes about the subject and the upshot was that I joined the editorial board and agreed to write a brief essay about some aspect of poetry, trauma, and healing for each issue. Over the course of the next three years, we produced five issues of the magazine and it continues in a modified version, though I have had to step down from its editorial board because of other commitments.
Working with Roberta and my other colleagues on the board, I was able to think about and try to articulate what I had always intuited: that the lyric poetry I valued most and that had most helped me live (both by reading and by writing it) was deeply connected to my own experiences of violence and trauma. This connection was not a simple one, but it was important.
All my life I have felt that what seems to me humanly important about lyric poetry is not understood well or communicated well in academic settings and English departments. Too often and too easily, poetry is presented in our colleges and universities as an elite cultural product whose human value and purpose is unclear but also unchallenged: imposed from outside by professorial fiat. Working with the board of Sacred Bearings (a retired business executive and former dean of a commerce school, a political activist foundation director, a professor of psychology and journalism, and Roberta, a Ph.D. in anthropology) allowed me to speak and think about the purpose of poetry outside the conventional framework of an English department, and I felt enormous encouragement for the theoretical book I was writing as well as a real sense of purpose in the magazine itself. In one of the autobiographical essays I wrote for the magazine, I explored the strange etymology of the word "blessing"—its contemporary meaning concerns conferring spiritual power or grace through some gesture (perhaps a sprinkling with holy water at a Christian baptism), but the French verb "blesser" means "to wound." And the Old English word "bletsian" meant "to sprinkle with blood." In the uncanny conjunction of these three meanings of the word, I felt a shiver out of my own experience of my brother's death. A fatal wounding; I had been close enough to be sprinkled with blood. But I wasn't killed. Why? The survivor's essential question: Why was I spared? It's a question that can haunt and torture survivors, but it suddenly (in that odd word "blessing") seemed to me to suggest something else: that I was spared for some purpose. It's not easy to see or say what that purpose is (for myself or any survivor), but the asking of the question "Why was I spared?" is itself the beginning of the answer, because it initiates a quest for meanings. In my own case, the meanings led me to poetry: the reading and writing of it. And to a firm belief that art can transform trauma (and other intense subjective dimensions of experience) into shapes of imagination and meaning. And that these shapes and articulations can help sustain other people. I know certain poems and certain poets have helped me to live. I know that this survival function of lyric poetry is both very simple and also very profound.*
This thinking took me in two directions. In relation to my memoir, The Blessing, it allowed me to write about the various sufferings and catastrophes of my childhood and adolescence with a sense that they could be (and were, are) redeemed by my involvement with the reading, teaching, and writing of poetry.
In relation to my theoretical book (written for a general audience), the ideas allowed me to think seriously about the purpose of lyric poetry outside the context of the academic teaching of poetry in our culture and also outside the generalized prejudices against poetry as an elitist art form. It's my sense, expressed in Poetry as Survival, that the personal lyric poem (the "I" poem about experience), whether as short poem or song, exists as a human resource in every culture on the face of the planet and every historical culture we've been able to investigate. This omnipresence of the personal lyric indicates that it performs a crucial function—otherwise it would have vanished long ago, or never appeared. That function, it seems to me, is the most basic one we know: survival. In this case, survival of the individual self in the face of existential crises. These crises can be internal or external to the self: they can be pain, suffering, war or falling in love. They can be (and are) anything that powerfully destabilizes the self. Prime among these destabilizing forces are the passions: the whole spectrum of powerful emotions all the way from joy to despair.
Poetry helps the self cope with the destabilizations of experience by suggesting that the self translate its confusions and disorders into language. Then, the self brings those disorders to poetry, which has its own ordering powers. When the disorderings of personal experience meet the primordial linguistic patternings of poetry (especially story, symbol, and incantation), then the poem is created as a symbolic model of the poet's crisis situation. This poem is an accurate model, or can be: it contains both the disorder that generated the poem and the orderings that we humans need to believe in as well. Thus, a sort of working definition of what a poem is emerges: an unfolding interplay of disorder and order, both formal and thematic.
In nine out of ten cases, the disorder is felt as the destabilizing force (as in the delirium of passionate love or the experience of catastrophic loss), but it is possible that sometimes the order is the problem: that order is oppressive and disorder is liberating, as in William Blake's poem "London" where the citizens of the town are oppressed by what Blake feels as the forces of political tyranny and religious intolerance.
Whether it is disorder or order that is assailing the self, the making of poems (or the reading of someone else's poems, of the "right" poem, the poem you need) has enormous therapeutic power. Why? Because without the poem, the self must simply endure—must even feel, in the situation of overwhelming crisis, powerless and a victim of experience. But when a person makes a poem, he or she goes from passive to active. To create is to take power over what previously had power over us, to master and shape (through imagination and the primal ordering principles) what threatened to master us. Everyone who has ever written a personal lyric (or composed a song, which is the same thing) knows this feeling of mastery: a sudden, gratifying sense of well-being and joy in completing the poem. Paradoxically, the way to the power of poem-writing involves becoming vulnerable to the disorder. The poet must approach what I call the Threshold: that place where disorder and order meet. It is only when the poet (or reader) takes the risk of going to the edge of experience that his or her ordering powers will assert themselves powerfully and authentically. Thus Robert Frost is counseling us poets to go to our thresholds when he warns: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." We poets can't give our gift to our readers unless we first take the risk ourselves—go that edge where it hurts, startles, or exhilarates us. Go to the edge.
My theory of the personal lyric is an expressive theory. It's based on a sense that biological evolution put us together a bit oddly: when we have intense experiences there is always an emotional dimension that accompanies the events. When a crisis is happening, this emotional dimension can interfere with our survival actions, can threaten to overwhelm our decision processing. Poetry can function to help us process the emotional dimension of our experience so as to restore the balance and our own psychic equilibrium. But what can also happen in crisis is that the brain short-circuits our emotional dimension entirely—we suppress our feelings during the crisis and go on "automatic pilot" (what psychologists call "dissociation"). In these cases, the dissociation is functional: it allows us to go through the crisis or trauma without being distracted by our emotions. But this dissociation can persist long after the crisis, and we can find ourselves in a situation where the experience of the event is cut off from our emotions: we have gone numb. In cases like this, poetry can help us reconnect our emotions to our experiences. I think Wordsworth was speaking about this quality when he defined poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility." I paraphrase Wordsworth's definition as "trauma remembered from safety or a safe place." I've seen this in my own poem and poems of others: how we wait (need to wait) a long time after some experiences in order to write about them; need to feel "safe" before we dare go back and attempt to reconnect feeling and experience in the single wholeness of a lyric poem. I also think of two famous readers of Wordsworth's poems (John Stuart Mill, the philosopher, and John Ruskin, the art and cultural critic) who both testified to having been "saved" by Wordsworth's poems—brought back from despair and depression and reconnected to their feeling lives through the act of reading his poems.
There are two survivals involved in the personal lyric. The first survival is the poet's own. In an urgent, authentic lyric, the poet is engaged with some real issue and the writing of the poem is helping them dramatize it or come to terms with it. But there is a second survival: that of the reader or listener. When a poem really matters to a reader, it is because the reader has identified with the poem's speaker and endured the poem's disorders and orderings as their own. Thus, the poet's victory in poem-making becomes the reader's victory, and the sign of that victory is the feeling of hope and courage which the loved poem gives. Lyric poems "invite" the reader to identify with the poem's speaker: that's what Whitman is after in the opening lines of his great, personal lyric sequence, "Song of Myself," when he says: "What I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
Part of Poetry as Survival is about the dynamics of the personal lyric: the different forms that disorder can take, and the different forms of ordering also. I quote poems from various cultures and historical periods, not just the Anglo-American tradition, because my point is that there is a universal quality to this project of ordering disorder through poetry and we can find vivid and moving examples of it in four-thousand-year-old Egyptian love poems as well as in twentieth-century Russian poems about political oppression. In the second part of my book I concentrate on certain poet-heroes who seem to me to have used the personal lyric not just to re-stabilize their selves, but to create a new self, a self that inhabits their poems and discloses to us new and exciting ways of being human. These heroes include Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wilfred Owen, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, and Stanley Kunitz. It would be hard to say why I have what a critic called "an almost heroic stubbornness" of faith in the lyric poem. I think it comes out of the years of silence after my brother's death and my mother's death. I felt a great deal in those times—agonies of guilt and despair and loneliness. The pressure of those emotions is still with me, still works its way into poems. And the appropriate kind of poem for such pressures seems to me the lyric. With Poe (and Keats, too), I believe that intensity is the highest quality I'm after in art. That thought led Poe to claim that only a brief poem made any sense, since emotional intensity cannot be maintained for long. And when I first started writing poems, the brief, intense fragments that are all we have of the Greek poet Sappho seemed to me some ideal to aim for. They still do. Blake, Keats, Wordsworth—all my heroes of poetry are firmly in the Romantic vein, with its commitment to the lyric poem. To me, Whitman's "Song of Myself" is a lyric sequence, and Emily Dickinson, a quintessential lyric poet, seems the closest rival to Shakespeare in our language. The High Moderns—Pound, Eliot, Stevens—they never meant much to me. I can admire various poems of theirs, grant them varying degrees of genius, but I don't feel an excitement about their project or a connection with their ambitions for poetry. I think the human scale, the intimate scale, of the lyric is important to me, even seems almost a moral quality. I also suspect myself of an egalitarian bias, a desire to believe that poetry is an inclusive art when it comes to audience. Thus William Carlos Williams matters to me more than his contemporaries, and a poem like "Of Asphodel that Greeny Flower" seems more wonderful than Pound's Cantos or Eliot's Four Quartets.
Of course, one of the things that can frustrate a lyric poet is scale and scope. If you are after intensity, then you value the way lyric poems tend to compress language and meaning into a small, passionate space (Dickinson's poems, or those of Gerard Manley Hopkins). I follow Blake's dictum of lyric/visionary faith: that one can see "a world in a grain of sand" and "a heaven in a wildflower." That is, that concentration on a single particular and palpable object or subject has the power to open up toward vaster implications. As if one had to pass like a stream of sand through the narrow waist of the hourglass in order to open up into a vaster space beyond. Or, to switch the metaphor, my lyric faith is like that episode of the old Superman TV show I saw when I was a kid: villains had stolen the huge diamond that decorated the idol's forehead. The villains and the stolen jewel had vanished into the volcano's maw (served them right). But how to replace the lost diamond that the islanders needed to complete their image of the deity? Superman solved that with science and a little lyric faith: he took a lump of coal and squeezed it in his fist while beads of sweat stood out on his brow: a million pounds of pressure over a million years and the dull lump of carbon becomes its crystalline form: a faceted diamond radiating back light in all directions. And isn't that neat trick an instance of lyric faith? If you take the right raw material (the right theme, the right scene to dramatize) and compress it intensely, it transforms. Instead of being inert and dull of surface, it suddenly sends back light in all directions. Voila: the lyric poem. All joking aside, I believe in this homely image for the project of lyric concentration, the small poem with big ambitions. But what's missing from such an image, such a project, is scale and scope—the power to effectively dramatize the larger issues of human being. My most recent thoughts on how to do that concerns the lyric sequence: a series of lyrics that sketches out a narrative or thematic structure without falling into the tedium of going from A to B to C to D. The lyric, after all, likes to leap from peak to peak, or to plunge into abysses also; it's just the dull plodding along on level ground that it can't stand.*
My next book of poems (completed as of summer 2003 and accepted by Copper Canyon, but not yet published or titled) will be a book-length sequence of lyrics that tries to gain itself some metaphysical scope and scale without sacrificing lyric intensity, brevity, and simplicity of diction. My themes, throughout my career, have been the typical lyric themes of love and loss, eros and death. In the new book/the new sequence, those themes have been rolled over into a new mode. In my earlier work I tended to write my theme (read "my life") as love, then loss, that is, first the emotional connection between two humans and then the breaking of that connection (a tragic structure, one that ends in death or loss). Now, in the new book, I begin with loss and move on to love, that is, to affirmation on the far side of loss or death. Such affirmation "beyond loss and death" doesn't have anything to do with a religious faith (I am relentlessly secular), but with a belief in the power of lyric poems to "resurrect the beloved." Such a resurrection takes place in poems or songs, in any shaped human articulation that concentrates feeling in language.
Thus I imagine a book (a Book) that has been being created since the dawn of time: it is an anthology of lyric poems and songs. This book is both invisible and readily available to everyone; it exists everywhere and nowhere; contains all the poems ever written or just the single poem you need in your darkest hour. In other words, the Book embodies a series of paradoxes that different poems in the sequence dramatize and explore. According to the sequence, every poet writes poems hoping to place them in that book. Readers go to that book looking for poems when they need them: when their joy or sorrow is too great, when the beloved has died and can only be revived (can always be revived) in a poem. And a reader who cannot find the poem he or she seeks may well write the poem needed on a sheet of paper and slip it into the book. So, the sequence unfolds, working what I hope are constant and shifting variations on its central themes and images. If the themes are loss, resurrection, and love, then the central image-symbols are: book, body of the beloved, and "world."
The sequence begins with a brief supporting-role appearance by the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris. Osiris was a god killed (by his brother) and torn asunder. His torn limbs were gathered together by his sister/wife Isis, who revived him, resurrected him. In the Egyptian mythological imagination, the death and resurrection of Osiris was also connected to the seasonal drought and flooding of the Nile River valley, a cycle of "death" and renewal that, in my sequence, connects the human body shape of Osiris to the larger landscapes and objects of the natural world. My sequence places the body of the beloved at the center of the project/process of resurrection through poetry, but the beloved is also identified with the surrounding world in an imaginative logic of the sort that identifies Osiris with the whole huge natural process of drought and flood and returning vegetation that has always sustained life in the Nile Valley. In my sequence, the beloved is both a human figure and also the world beyond: the world of nature reached and related to by way of human emotional commitments. This sketch of the project doesn't (perhaps can't) make logical sense: it is only meant to make imaginative sense. And that imaginative sense emerges through the unfolding of the sequence itself and convinces, as poetry always does, poem by poem or not at all.
My excitement about the sequence has much to do with a sense that I am remaining true to the themes that experience taught me: the centrality of death and loss to human experience, the importance of emotions, the value of and longing for love. But these themes are now present as celebration rather than as tragedy. It's as if I hadn't sufficiently realized my own fundamental faith: a faith in the transformative power of poetry, especially lyric poetry. When I consciously add my faith in poetry's transformative power to the life equation of my experience, I see that loss and death is not where human life ends, but where imaginative life and its affirmations begin. Poetry emerges on the far side of loss, which, in the logic of the imagination, seems to indicate that death and mortality are not the victors in a war against our human longings, but only a part of the story, a part of the process of human affirmation that sustains us individually and as a collective project.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Poets, seventh edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Wyatt, David, Out of the Sixties: Storytelling and the Vietnam Generation, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1993.
American Book Review, May-June, 2003.
American Poetry Review, number 4, 1975, Greg Kohl, "Transparency and Prophecy"; July/August, 1981; November-December, 2003.
Booklist, October 15, 2002, Donna Seaman, "Writers Remember: Two Literary Memoirs," p. 379.
Choice, November, 1985; January, 1987.
Iowa Review, winter, 1981, Hank Lazer, "On Gregory Orr."
Kayak, November, 1975, Alan Williamson, "Silence, Surrealism, and Allegory."
New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1980; November 10, 2002, Matthew Flamm, review of The Caged Owl, p. 20.
Pequod, Volume 15, 1983, David Wyatt, "Falling and Returning: The Poetry of Gregory Orr."
Poetry, July, 2003, Steven Cramer, "Poems Will Be Poems," p. 211.
Publishers Weekly, July 16, 2001, John F. Baker, "Success at Last," p. 70; March 18, 2002, review of The Caged Owl, p. 93; August 5, 2002, review of The Blessing, p. 64; September 16, 2002, Joseph Barbato, "Fields of Redemption," p. 47.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 8, 2002.
Sewanee Review, January, 1996.
Valparaiso Poetry Review, spring-summer, 2002, Edward Byrne, "Three Decades of Poetry and a Lifetime of Survival."
Washington Post Book World, January 11, 1981.