The Sunday Poem : Gregory Orr’s River Inside the River

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.

poetry-as-survival-orr

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.
                                                   Oddly,
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.

 

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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
Confining—
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.

 

 

 

 

 

Departure

 

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

But for Adam and Eve
There was no
Precedent.

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
Away.

 

 

 

 

 

To Say/To Save

 

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

Move a thing’s
Death
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. 

By | 2016-11-11T21:50:05+00:00 06.07.13|Greatest Hits, The Sunday Poem, Words|5 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

5 Comments

  1. alice b fogel June 9, 2013 at 10:18 am

    After reading some of what Greg Orr says about meaning and language play, and his exit from the “experimentalist train” of poetry, I was surprised to see that his new book has an abstract expressionist painting on its cover! I have been a fan of his work since I was a teenager, and I’m intrigued by his thoughts of poetry as survival and how, while we may have different thresholds for disorder, we all need to be taken to that threshold to transcend the pain of the physical world and define the boundaries of our sense of things. So I don’t understand why he is saying that if I love pushing language into what we unfortunately call “experimentalism,” that means I am saying that life is meaningless. Is that painting meaningless? Of course not everyone would agree, but I think that painting tells us that we can experience the painfully incomprehensible and the joy of being, simultaneously. And I love being reminded of that truth. My personal challenge as a poet is to learn how far I can push syntax and language and form into surprise and change while still serving the world of meaningful feeling. I want to push at my own threshold, see how far I can go in the discomfort of the wilderness beyond the garden’s edge. Where that edge or end of meaning is is different for me than it is for him, as he acknowledges, so why can’t he accept that some poetry that doesn’t reflect meaning for him may do so very movingly for me? It’s not language as a game; it’s language as reach. It’s the tantric use of material tools (words, thoughts, naming) to transcend the material–just as the painter does with paint, or the mystic does with prayer. And, as is the case for Orr with his own use of words and form, it’s one practice that I need for my survival. Thanks for a stirring morning read, Michelle.

    • Jeffrey Gross June 9, 2013 at 12:27 pm

      Nice point, Ms. Fogel. Mallarmé’s “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui” is a wonderful example of a poem that’s almost pure language play, yet certainly implies a world of “meaningful feeling.” Although far from being disordered it’s (playfully) almost over-ordered…

    • Michelle Aldredge June 11, 2013 at 6:07 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful responses Alice and Jeff. It’s probably best if I don’t attempt to speak for Greg here (since he can speak for himself), but I suspect he would have no issues with “language as reach,” which you so bracingly describe.

      RIVER INSIDE THE RIVER is full of playfulness, and the simplicity of form and rhyme lends a playful nursery-rhyme quality to the book, especially the first section on Adam and Eve.

      It seems to me that it isn’t playfulness or pushing the boundaries of language that Orr is questioning. I interpret his interview with The Drunken Boat as a statement against the nihilism that is often inherent in postmodernist criticism and writing (particularly in academic circles). To argue for the usefulness of poetry, as Orr does in his work, is to swim against the mainstream of contemporary critical theory.

      It may not be popular or “cool” to make this argument, but I suspect that most readers read for reasons other than the pure love of language and word play.

      Language poets argue that language dictates meaning rather than the other way around. The last thing I want is to get into a debate about language poetry, but Orr clearly places himself in the other camp of poetry.

      Are there poets out there who push the boundaries of language to the edge, without losing the thread of meaning. Of course. The work of Caitlin Doyle and James Arthur (both Sunday poets) springs to mind.

      I think the real question is how do we interpret “emptiness”? Do we see it as nihilism or do we see it as a blank slate of possibility (much as a Zen practitioner would)?

      Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings” are a fine example. John Cage once said that they were “…airports for shadows and dust. Mirrors of the air.” I agree entirely. But there are some viewers who look at these same works of art and see nothing. From their perspective, Rauschenberg is communicating zilch. These viewers simply aren’t willing to meet the artist at “the threshold” that Orr describes.

      Cage is an interesting case in point. I’m am a huge John Cage fan, particularly his compositions and essays. But I must confess that I find some of his poetry quite challenging. I understand the point–to appreciate sound and words and language in and of themselves, to embrace the conceptual and the randomness of life, but this doesn’t mean I enjoy the experience of reading Cage’s poems (as hard as I might try). To use Orr’s idea, I have a certain threshold for disorder and randomness, and for some reason it is much higher with music, sound, and visual art than it is with language.

      So I suppose that bring us back to Orr’s idea of writer and reader and “the threshold for disorder.” Taste is a slippery beast. We can try to describe it and we can claim certain critical positions, but in the end doesn’t it all boil down to what we’re willing to pay attention to? To what resonates with us? Doesn’t the art we love hinge on life experience, intuition, and education? As you so eloquently point out, that threshold is going to be different for each and every one of us.

      • Jeffrey Gross June 16, 2013 at 2:27 am

        Apropos of John Cage, I hope you’ll indulge me as I post a URL for a video of the composer appearing on a game show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSulycqZH-U. It may be well known, but it was new to me. It goes nicely w/ the themes of art and play. And Cage’s facial expressions are priceless.

  2. […] If there is an narrative arc to this collection, it is this transfiguration from innocence to knowledge and the all-important discovery of free will. It reminds me of Gregory Orr‘s poem “To Choose,” from his marvelous collection River Inside the River: Poems (featured here on Gwarlingo): […]

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