Poet Gregory Orr reading at the 2012 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

Poet Gregory Orr reading at the 2012 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)


With his new book, River Inside the River: Poems, Gregory Orr set a high bar for himself. His intention: to write three lengthy pieces that combine the intensity of lyric poetry with the thematic scope of narrative and myth. Fortunately, Orr’s literary talent and personal experience make him the ideal poet to realize such an ambitious project.

“I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions, and traumatic events that come with being alive,” Orr once told NPR.

The power of the written word has been the central theme in Gregory Orr’s work. In his book Poetry as Survival, he describes the delicate relationship between text and reader:

“Some readers have a higher threshold for disorder and need more disordering in the poems they read. Others have a lower threshold and need a larger proportion of order to disorder in the poems that give them pleasure or that resonate meaningfully with their own experiences. The essential point is that for a poem to move us it must bring us near our own threshold. We must feel genuinely threatened or destabilized by the poem’s vision of disordering, even as we are simultaneously reassured and convinced by its orderings.”

With River Inside the River Orr takes this philosophical position one step further by situating his own poetry and essays within a larger literary tradition, a chain of influence that includes the Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, William Blake’s prophetic poems, Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.


Given that Orr’s book focuses on weighty themes like loss, redemption, death, and free will, it was a surprise to find so much wit in these poems. The simplicity of form and language puts Orr’s sense of humor, as well as his musicality, on center stage. Much like the Bible itself, River Inside the River is an epic blending of philosophy, poetry, and narrative.

The first sequence, “Eden and After,” is Orr’s retelling of Adam and Eve and their banishment from the Garden of Eden. (This is my favorite section of the book, and I’ve included an excerpt from “Eden and After” below.)

Orr has re-imagined the Biblical story as a moving and humorous tale of longing, discovery, and finally, acceptance. The flawless Eden is not enough for Orr’s Adam and Eve. It’s words that set Adam and Eve on “Their own path…Like a wound / Worn in the earth / By feet repeating— / Always to the garden’s edge.” In Orr’s universe, perfection and eternal life are not sufficient. It is impermanence, the fragility of nature, love, and life itself, that heightens awareness and creates larger meaning. Joy and suffering are inextricably linked.

The poems are a meditation not only on worldly imperfection, but also on the capacity of language to offer its own form of salvation. River Inside the River suggests a parallel between a poet creating poetry, God creating the world, and Adam creating names for all of the animals. The power of words and the power of creation are one in the same, as described in John 1:1-4:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

Some critics have argued that language is reductive and possesses the power to “kill” the experience, the person, or the object being “captured” in text. But Orr understands that words, poetry in particular, also have the power to give life, not only to the author, but to the reader and to the person or experience being described. Language has the power to both heal and commemorate. Reading River Inside the River it’s easy to imagine Orr breathing life into his words, much like God breathing life into the dust of the ground when he created Adam in Genesis.

Here is Orr talking about experimental poetry and “the covenant between the word and the world” in a recent interview with Mary Ellen Redmond for The Drunken Boat:

It’s as if there are always two things in every word. One of them is the music of the sound, and the other is some part of the word that wants to go towards something else in the world or something inside us. It doesn’t work with abstract nouns, but it certainly works with “clover” and “grass” and “maple” and “sparrow….”

Gregory Orr (Photo by Tricia Orr)

Gregory Orr (Photo by Tricia Orr)

Whitman has this wonderful poem where he talks about a “a noiseless, patient spider.” And the spider is there all alone on a promontory and it sends out from itself “filament, filament, filament” to connect up to things. It’s not a web-building spider; it’s the kind that sends out the single threads. And Whitman says: That’s me. I am all alone like an isolated spider unless I can send out these filaments of language to connect me to things. To bring about that connection which is the basis of all meaning. Well, that’s what language does.

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. It’s the name of isolation. It’s the name of everything that made life unbearable for me when I was a young person starting at the time of my brother’s death and not changing until I discovered writing poetry in my last year in high school.

At first, writing for me, as it is for many of us, was an outpouring of emotion in language onto the page. I had no ability to shape that language, no clue that the bringing of form and coherence would be gratifying to me, would bring me back toward the world of meaning. But from the outset, I understood that one function of language is to be expressive of what a self feels, sees, thinks, remembers. From the outset, I was excited to feel I could write about what I saw; write about I felt. I couldn’t make much sense of the world at that point, but merely turning the world into word was exhilarating to me.

“Eden and After” ends with Adam and Eve’s realization that they must create a new home for themselves:

No longer could
They sleep beneath
The trees, trusting
Branches not to break.

It was a habitation
They had to make:
Four walls and a roof—
A place to live,
A world inside the world.

This is the perfect segue to the next section of the book,” The City of Poetry,” in which Orr creates a visionary metropolis where “every poem is a house, and every house is a poem.” In this part of River Inside the River, Orr takes us on a virtual tour of poetics, imagining the the poets Blake, Whitman, and Rimbaud as figures in an imaginary landscape.

Orr wanders about this landscape too, his life experiences creating constructions of significance, which he explores both inside and out. While Orr expresses a deep empathy for Adam and Eve in “Eden and After,” his personal biography becomes more integral to the poems in section two of River Inside the River.

Eighteen and a volunteer
In the Movement,
I was kidnapped at gunpoint
In rural Alabama
And imprisoned
In a solitary cell
In a murderous town.
After the beatings and threats,
They let me keep a book of Keats.

I was sick and scared. It seemed
Likely I would die there.

I read his nightingale ode–
How he rose above his woes.

The poem was my ladder:
Rungs and lifts of escape.


Poet Gregory Orr (Photo courtesy the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation)

Poet Gregory Orr (Photo courtesy the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation)


Once again, it is Orr’s own relationship to language that he places under the knife…

Until I heard Neruda read
His poems aloud,
I never even knew
I could fly
To the city of poems.

He had arrived
That day on a plane
For his first visit
To Manhattan, the city
Of Whitman, one of his heroes.

Vienes volando,” he intoned—
You come flying”—
Refrain from an elegy
In which he summoned
A friend’s spirit over the Andes.

I stood in the crowded room
And remembered my own loved dead.

“River Inside the River,” the final sequence in Orr’s new book, focuses on redemption and the power of language to recover what has been lost.

Memorize those lines you love,
As you tried to memorize
Every part of the beloved’s body.

Memorize, and then forget—
Let them vanish
Into that dark that’s large as death.

They’ll come again
When you most need, least expect.

River Inside the River is an arresting and accessible book. There’s little doubt that these poems were hard won for Gregory Orr. To be allowed to inhabit each of these works, to walk inside and experience Orr’s unique voice is heart-chafing. With River Inside the River Orr once again proves that poetry can indeed be a shelter, not only for the writer, but for his readers as well.


river-inside-the-river-poems-gregory orr






To Name


God wanted labels
That would stick
To fur or bark or leaf.

Hadn’t he given Adam
A tongue?
Why not have him name?






To Noun


Nouns were a giant
Adam felt the sounds
He made
Build bars around
The things he saw.

It hurt and thrilled him
To see how meekly
Each thing
Entered that cage.

How snug it fit;
How smug he felt.






To Long


How beautiful they were,
Adam thought—
These beasts and birds;
These tall grasses
And flowering trees.

And yet, how full
The universe—
As if there were no room
For words he ached to say.

Shouted aloud, they
Might displace
The very things
He wished to celebrate.

Therefore, he sang
A dense and wordless song
That filled the only
Emptiness he knew:

Inside him,
Near his heart
Where a rib had been removed.






To Choose


God planned a static planet,
With plants that bore
No offspring—as if
Acts had no consequence.

But Eve was there to change
All that by choosing…
To show Adam losing
Was illusion
If you took it all inside you:
The bright fruit, the garden’s
Beauty, the day’s delight
And the night sky with its stars…

Show him how, within you,
It would ripen
And give birth to things
Beyond yourself and your imaginings.








To the trees, leaving
Came naturally—
A green extension
Of their being.

But for Adam and Eve
There was no

It meant
A tearing loose.

True, the mind
Might circle back
As memory—
What leash
Could hold it?
What wall
Could keep it out?

But to hear the gates
Clang shut behind you
Was to know the sound of final.






To Notice


In Eden, Adam
Had been so busy
Making up smug
Nouns of dominion,
He hadn’t watched
What each beast
And bird was up to.

Now he had time
To study them
And saw they wanted
The few, same things:
Peace and quiet for most;
For others, a piece
Of food to pursue
Then a shady place
To rest
And chew it over.

Adam chewed it over,
Thought it through—
It dawned on him
That outside Eden
They were eaters or eaten.






To Love


Grieving came from leaving Eden
But leaving Eden was not grief—
It was a lesson in lessening—
How things, diminishing,
Become more precious.

Water seeps from two hands
Cupped to hold it—
Skin tight against skin
As lips seek it:
That liquid
That is life
And slips






To Say/To Save


Eve sensed this
Was something
Words could do
In a fallen world:

Move a thing’s
Briefly outside it.

Now, her praising
Had new purpose:

As she spoke aloud
Each flower’s name
She felt her saying save.





About Gregory Orr

gregory-orrGregory Orr is the author of twelve collections of poetry, including the most recent, River Inside the River: Poems (Norton, 2013). He is also the author of a memoir, The Blessing,  which was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the fifty best non-fiction books of 2002. His autobiographical essay on his experiences as a volunteer in the Civil Rights Movement, “Return to Hayneville,” was reprinted in Best Essays of 2009, Best Creative Non-fiction 2009, and Pushcart Prizes.

In addition he is the author of Poetry as Survival  (University of Georgia Press, 2002), a consideration of the survival function of the personal lyric for both writers and readers. His personal essay “This I Believe” was broadcasted on National Public Radio in the spring of 2006. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He is a Professor of English at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1975 and was the founder and first director of its MFA Program in Writing. He lives with his wife, the painter Trisha Orr in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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All poems © Gregory Orr. These poems appear in River Inside the River: Poems (Norton, 2013) and were reprinted with express permission from the author. All Rights Reserved.