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Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry

3.48  ·  Rating details ·  562 ratings  ·  156 reviews
"David Orr is no starry-eyed cheerleader for contemporary poetry; Orr’s a critic, and a good one. . . . Beautiful & Pointless is a clear-eyed, opinionated, and idiosyncratic guide to a vibrant but endangered art form, essential reading for anyone who loves poetry, and also for those of us who mostly just admire it from afar." —Tom Perrotta

Award-winning New York Times B
Hardcover, 224 pages
Published April 5th 2011 by Harper (first published April 1st 2011)
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3.48  · 
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 ·  562 ratings  ·  156 reviews

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Feb 19, 2011 rated it liked it
Great title. (Check out the parenthesis with "A Guide to Modern Poetry" inside of it.) Dangerous title. (Check out the risk that it, too, may be as pointless as its subject matter.)

Anyway, you could call it a strength or a weakness that this book about poetry is not by a poet but by a poetry critic (they have such things, but I wouldn't advise wanting to be one when you grow up). David Orr carries such a title for the New York Times Book Review, no small change for a kid from South Carolina who
Sarah Wells
May 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing
I just finished Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr, and now I am sad. It isn't often that I come across a person who cares so much about poetry but is equally as honest about the state of contemporary poetry, and that willingness to illuminate the reality of modern poetry and call it like it is was refreshing, humbling, and entertaining. I'm not sad because of his honesty or the bleak portrait of modern poetry. I'm sad because he was light, funny, and accessible, an ...more
Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr is not just another book about poetry. I have read many books about poetry. About how to read it, about what it is, about different forms and styles, and about how to write it. Many of these books were excellent, some were exhilarating. But they all left me overwhelmed and as unable to talk about poetry as before (or close to).

Orr talks about these books up front and offers a different perspective: a chance to listen to a poet and
The Sunday Book Review
You want to see modern day poets called out for their bad poetry? Pick up this book. The first one to get a lashing in Jewel. David Orr complains that while the book did very well in sales, the poetry is such drivel that it's embarrassing. And it just gets worse from there.

I like poetry. Granted I am picky in what I like, but I don't think I would go as far as saying what I don't like is worthless. In this book we are given a short study on how to distinguish good poetry from bad poetry. How to
Mary Ronan Drew
Dec 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
David Orr, the poetry critic for the NY Times, tells of meeting a woman at a party and when she asked the question we all ask of new people these days, "What do you do?" he said, "I'm a poetry critic."

"Oh! How can you do that? Poetry is so . . . so PERSONAL."

And so Orr begins his slim book by addressing the question of just how personal modern confessional poetry really is. Writing about one's misery and disappointment and personal failings can start to sound the same when everyone is doing it,
Feb 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
A fun, informative book
delivered what it promis'd
to help a person such as
me, read a modern poem and
glean a degree of meaning.

This is no heavy tome, it
won't bore to tears, put to sleep,
or overly tax the brain.
No subtle coercion is
exacted. Think what you please.

If you're wondering why I'm
writing this way. Check out the
chapter on form, number three,
could it be mechanical,
resemblance or metrical?

(Ah, you'll have to read the book and see!)

Jim Coughenour
May 15, 2011 rated it it was ok
Beautiful & Pointless opens with the amusing (if not especially interesting) observation that "For decades now, one of the poetry world's favorite activities has been bemoaning its lost audience, then bemoaning the bemoaning, then bemoaning that bemoaning, until finally everyone shrugs and applies for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts." Instead, Orr commits himself to 200 pages of stalwart, determinedly phlegmatic un-moaning, steady-breathing his way to the common sense conclu ...more
Jul 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
After I made it through the first two chapters, which seem strangely condescending, puzzling through basic philosophical questions about the value of poetry for non-poets without adding much new insight beyond the author's educated frame of references, the book gets better. For instance, I like David Orr's brief, tongue-in-cheek, yet accurate summary of recent poetics:

"Still, though, we weren't quite tired of fighting about traditional forms. So a group of writers calling themselves 'New Formali
Therese Broderick
Jun 22, 2011 rated it liked it
"So please: Disagree with me." If Mr. Orr had not written that plea in his Introduction to this book, I might not have commented here.

But before I disagree, I will agree: Mr. Orr, I agree with you that poetry lovers "Probably ... just like the way it sounds" (page 11) and that the affection your father had for the sound and silliness of "The Owl and the Pussycat" is a good thing, both beautiful and far from pointless. I also agree that poetry is a "small, vulnerable human activity" (page 192).
Jan 29, 2016 rated it it was ok
Orr is the poetry critic for the New York Times. This meandering, stream-of-consciousness contemplation can be charming or witty in spots, but I don't think it has facilitated or enhanced my enjoyment of modern poetry much. Who is it aimed at, I wonder?
Aug 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
The closing sentence of the Introduction says it best: "The point is to allow you to find your own place in the poetry world, where others can come and visit." My relationship with the poetry world has been until now been unexamined and ill-defined: I have read poems required in school and various other poems, I have composed doggerel and haiku for friends, I have friends who love poetry and friends who hate poetry -- but I never fit those pieces together in frameworks that made sense for me. No ...more
Jan 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
A book with an apropos title: I'm not sure how much I'd say I learned from these essays (they tend to avoid statements that could be called sweeping), but they are lovely, and I admire their thoughtful nature and candid humor.
Diane Kistner
Oct 28, 2012 rated it liked it
If "Beautiful & Pointless" really was intended to provide "a riveting tour of poetry as it actually exists today" for an audience of non-poetry readers, I would be giving this book one star for further driving away that other "98% of the population" that doesn't read poetry. I'm rating it more highly as a mirror that the SUBSET of poets Orr writes about here--many (but not all) of the academics and their progeny--can hold up to their own faces to help them figure out why almost nobody bother ...more
Ted Burke
Apr 15, 2011 rated it liked it
David Orr is a smart writer and poet who has taken on the task to add yet another apology regarding poetry and its under the radar status with most readers, yet another attempt to make the craft less off-putting to a larger audience. It is an enjoyable book , but the joining of poet and readership is not something that can be accomplished by easy suggestions ; as usual, I adhere to the pragmatist dictum that the value of any theory is in how it works, which means, to paraphrase, the allure of an ...more
Jun 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry, non-fiction
Another book I read about somewhere, seemed interesting, so when I saw it in the library it caught my eye. Plenty of food for thought, though as the title suggests, I'm still not sure that I get the point that Orr is attempting to make.

The author talks about how hard it is to define just what a poem is; he gives some general guidelines but leaves things pretty open-ended. He gives examples to prove how slippery poets and poetry are. He describes the arguments and controversies, often obsure and
May 14, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: language
I defy you to read the first chapter and not want to read the entire book. Orr says we approach poetry the wrong way, like we have to understand it all and wring the meaning from it with grim purpose. Instead, he proposes that we approach poetry as though it were Belgium: don't expect to understand everything, realise they do things differently here, but admire the sights and enjoy the occasional glimpse of insight you do get.

The rest of the book is a run through the choices poets make, the squa
Jun 22, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2011-reads
What the personal means in modern poetry: when what seems to be a "private" identity enters the poem, and we must keep the poet-as-author "sustained in harmony" with the new identity - reconciling the friction between two versions of the poet's identity. The political: poetry's totalizing vision to which everything, even the poet himself/herself, becomes subordinate. Form: contemporary poets who write in traditional form (e.g., Marilyn Hacker); poets who don't (C. D. Wright); poets who write in ...more
Mar 29, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
I was hopeful about this book for two reasons: I thought I might recommend it to my brother, who doesn't 'get' poetry, as a beginner's guide; and I thought it would give me a sense of the poetry landscape and where my work might fit. I was mostly disappointed (definitely on the first count--you need some familiarity with the terrain for this book to be meaningful). I did get some sense of the landscape, but not in the way I thought. I found the chapter on the academy not only depressing, but als ...more
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Jul 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
I love to read, but I don’t know how to read well. I read widely, but I don’t read deeply.

So what is a fifty-four-year-old big reader with a busy life to do to correct this?

Read something that teaches one how to read deeply, of course. Of course.

I nervously checked this book out of the public library. I love poetry more than any other writing, but I know less about poetry than any other type of writing. Would I find anything of value in this book?

Yes, happily, I found that David Orr was the per
Sigrun Hodne
I love Orr's opening chapter, listen to this introduction;
... it’s not necessarily helpful to talk about poetry as if it were a device to be assembled or a religious experience to be undergone. Rather, it would be useful to talk about poetry as if it were, for example, Belgium. (…) The important thing is that you’d know you were going to be confused, or at least occasionally at loss, and you’d accept that confusion as part of the experience. … (To “get” Belgium, you need not know the Brussels ph
Jul 15, 2011 rated it it was ok
I bought this based simply on the title, not realizing it was not meant for actual poets to read, but rather those not familiar with poetry/not totally comfortable with it. That said, I can't think of a single non-poet I'd recommend this book to, for the purpose of understanding better what poets do, why they do it, and how they talk about it. Nothing here rang true for me as a poet in terms of the conversations I have with poet friends, and not much here seemed to be truly applicable only to "m ...more
Dec 03, 2017 rated it liked it
Orr has written a trim, caring, and at times extremely funny book. Unfortunately, he writes like I talk. There is so much hedging and doubling back and thick tangents completely encircling the central point that pictographically his writing would look like a hedge maze. At least when I write, I can make it stronger.

The first sentence of his introduction: "This book is about modern poetry." And then immediately, "But a book about modern poetry can't be as confidently 'about' its subject as a book
Philip Gordon
Jan 25, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2014
As a class assignment, I have been compiling journal entries in response to the content of this book. Please find them pasted after the short review proper.

David Orr manages to make a stirring case for poetry without falling too heavily victim to the 'poetry looking at itself' trap. There is some of that—it's impossible to broach the 'poetry is dying' subject without dithering into it further, and even the title of the book hints at the supposed 'pointlessness' of poetry. It's hard to argue that
Martha Silano
Nov 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
I just finished reading David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (Harper 2011), and for the most part it was an enjoyable read, mainly because Orr, besides knowing a lot about the po-business, has an uncanny ability to cause a reader like me to cackle, guffaw, and, well, LOL. For instance, "there are more transparently veiled personal references in modern poems than there are grits and South Carolina," and the whole bit about poets being part horse and part human (and thus n ...more
Robin Friedman
Jan 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Serious Play

David Orr is a young man with the rare good fortune of combining both a vocation and an avocation. He is a practicing attorney and a graduate of Yale Law School. Orr is also a noted critic of modern poetry who writes regularly for the New York Times and for "Poetry" magazine. Orr's most recent article in the latter publication is titled "Poetry of and About", and it combines his vocation and avocation. The article examines a new anthology of poems loosely related to the law. Most rea
Aug 27, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
Go to most bookshops today, and you're hard pressed to find a poetry section- if you do, you might find that the books of modern poetry are outnumbered by anthologies, and how-to books such as How to Read Poetry, or The Poetry Toolkit. At first blush David Orr's book might seem to be another in this genre, but he has set himself a slightly different task, and it's one he pulls off with a considerable amount of verve.

It's important to point out at the beginning of this review that Orr is writing
Jan 07, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
First the good news: parts of this book are hilarious, worthy of Stephen Fry. I was laughing so loudly my husband left for a quieter room to read. My 3-star rating is an average between the sections I enjoyed and the long discussions I found tedious and repetitive. However, I’d recommend buying or checking it out just to read the Introduction. Orr says new readers of poetry should approach a poem like you would approach Brazil, then proceeds to convince me he is correct. He explains that when yo ...more
Maximilian Gerboc
Sep 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I'm only now starting to read poetry, and, wanting to glean from it as much as I can, I decided to read a book about poetry. I was expecting a deep dive analysis and lists of poets in various, clearly defined genres. "Beautiful and Pointless" did so much more than that. It asked the question, why read poetry at all? In answering the question, Orr does in fact break down and summarize some poetic movements, structures, etc. But more than anything, he takes poetry off the pedestal. In the end, he ...more
May 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a very thoughtful, plain-spoken book about modern poetry by a part-time reviewer for the NY Times.

I would recommend if you are specifically interested in modern poetry. If not, it it not likely the book for you. It is not so much a guide to understanding poetry, but more of a tome about why you might like it, the reasons you might like it, and what you may gain from liking it. But it does also give explications about the craft itself, and I think this is something that can be helpful.

Nia Nymue
Oct 26, 2017 rated it it was ok
A dry and inconsistently informative book. The writer claims that he wants to share with readers how _he_ approaches reading and analysing poetry, but he doesn't seem to do this. He talks about different aspects of poetry, which goes beyond just analysing poetry to considering the politics in poetry scenes and whether poetry is a better alternative to other pursuits of pleasure. When short on time, the chapters on Form and Ambition are the only ones you need to read.

"How to read Literature" by
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David Orr is the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review. He is the winner of the Nona Balakian Prize from the National Book Critics Circle and the Editor’s Prize for Reviewing from Poetrymagazine. Orr’s writing has appeared in Poetry, Slate, The Believer, and Pleiades magazine. He holds a B.A. from Princeton and a J.D. from Yale Law School.
“it’s not necessarily helpful to talk about poetry as if it were a device to be assembled or a religious experience to be undergone. Rather, it would be useful to talk about poetry as if it were, for example, Belgium” 2 likes
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