The author of more than ten books of poetry, three books of essays, and a memoir, Gregory Orr has spent decades devoted to the art of the transformative lyric. As he writes in Poetry as Survival (University of Georgia, 2002), lyric poetry “has a crucial role to play in our psychological, imaginative, and spiritual lives.” For Orr, the reading and writing of poetry is an essential part of the human experience, and his own poems are themselves testimonies to the transcendent ways by which our world may be translated into words.
Few poets are as apposite as Gregory Orr to speak to how crisis and sorrow fracture as well as shape our lives. And yet what trauma destroys and disrupts, poetry rebuilds. Poetry allows us to remember trauma from a place of safety—safety in time, years or even decades removed from the instance of loss, as well as safety in the order, the form into which poetry asks us to craft our experiences of both pain and pleasure. In his memoir The Blessing (Caged Owl, 2002), Orr revisits the events of his childhood and young adulthood that have shaped much of his work, including the death of his brother in a hunting accident. In seeking to make meaning out of these events, Orr has traced a common thread through lyric traditions across time and cultures, a thread that insists that we use poetry in order to survive, to give expression to “unfolding drama of self and the forces that assail it.”
Orr’s most recent books include River Inside the River (Norton, 2014), How Beautiful the Beloved (Copper Canyon, 2009), Concerning the Book that Is the Body of the Beloved (Copper Canyon, 2005), and The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 2002). Orr has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the recipient of the 2003 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and has served as a Rockefeller Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Violence. In 1975, he founded the MFA Program in Writing at the University of Virginia, where he continues to teach today.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Orr to discuss his recent body of work, focusing on the roles of memory, meaning, and myth.
The Fourth River: In your memoir The Blessing, which was published fifteen years ago, you write about the death of your brother and the six years following that incident, which you’ve explored quite often in your poetry over the decades. In this book, as well as in the books of poetry that have followed it, I’ve noted an interest in, or even obsession with, meaning. With making connections in order to make sense of the world, especially in the face of trauma and great loss. The writer has their own purpose for writing, their own connections they need to make to find meaning in the world. Would you agree?
Gregory Orr: You know, connections are meaning. When you connect things, you’re already on the path to meaning. It wasn’t until my second book of poems—this is seven books before my memoir—that I could speak directly, or even indirectly, about my brother’s death. And yet, that trauma had an obsessive presence in my life. By “an obsessive presence,” I don’t mean, “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” or, “I thought about it day in, day out.” Writing The Blessing—writing about those events in prose, through the expansiveness of prose,freed me from that biographical or autobiographical material that in a way I don’t exactly understand. But, about a year later, my work changed, as far as I’m concerned, as a poet, rather radically.
TFR: This is the work that we find in Concerning the Book that Is the Body of the Beloved?
GO: Yes. I can identify when that radical shift happened. It’s pretty simple, anecdotally. I can say that I woke up one morning, January of 2003, a little after I finished the memoir, maybe a year after, and I heard this phrase in my head: “The book that is the resurrection of the body of the beloved, which is the world.” I heard that phrase as clear as a bell. Okay, so we hear things in our head sometimes. But I also knew what the phrase meant. It meant a lot of things. Really in a sense most of what I’ve written since then comes out of that phrase, out of the different terms in that phrase.
TFR: But the “book” is not a material book.
GO: What I knew from that phrase was that the book was this gigantic invisible anthology that consists of all the songs and poems, lyric poems, that have ever been written anywhere in the world, at any time. Or, let me put it this way, it’s a jukebox as big as the moon. I’ve got mixed metaphors here. But you were talking earlier about how we write poems, the poet writes a poem for his or her own purposes. But when they’re done with that purpose, what do you do with the poem? Does Sappho burn her poems? Had they done her purpose for her? Does Keats burn his poems? Does Whitman burn his poems? No. Emily Dickinson? No, she did not, she saved them. Who are they saving them for? What they’re doing is they’re giving them to the book. They’re giving them to the world. Dickinson says, this is my love letter to the world that never wrote to me. Her poems are her love letters to the world. And they’re not gonna write back. Nobody’s gonna read her stuff for a really long time. And yet now, many of us read her poems. Why? Because they’re in the book. Everything’s in the book.
TFR: You say that poets are giving their writing to the book. But aren’t they giving it to their readers?
GO: Well, the job, for us, as readers, as people who want to live, is to download our sustaining playlist from the book. As I say, it’s invisible, but we know it’s there. We know we can find the stuff we need to live. It’s a great gift to humans that we can do that. I mentioned Sappho: there are poems of hers—and this woman is dead by the year 600 BCE—and yet, across thousands of years, I can read her poems and I can say, “Wow, this poem really helps me live.” And there are Chinese poems written in the ninth century, some of which, I think, “Wow, that is so damn beautiful.” And even its beauty makes me live. Whitman, Keats, Blake, Dickinson, they help me live. That must be the book. What is the book doing to me? It’s resurrecting the body of the beloved.
TFR: So if we can dissect this phrase further, and I’m sure you’re about to, what is “the beloved”?
GO: The beloved is anything in the world that brings us into meaning, brings us into relationship. It can be a person, it can be a place, it can be a creature. It can’t be an idea, by the way. No ideas, thank you. But it certainly can be a place. We all have, love, places, or I hope we do. And creatures—my dog is one of my beloveds, I mean I really could not live without my dog. And of course, people. Just as I said, it came to me in this revelatory kind of phrase, the resurrection of the beloved. Because that’s what poetry does, it resurrects, it rescues from oblivion, it turns the world into words and kind of concentrates and then refines them and it says, “There it is, I’ve resurrected this moment.” Maybe it’s a moment of suffering, maybe it’s a moment of joy. And ultimately, the world is the beloved, for humans. That’s what I think the last part of the phrase means. I don’t know, I just listen.
TFR: In The Blessing, as well as in your recent poetry collections, you often turn to myths as meaning-makers, or fundamental narratives of connection. I’m thinking of the centrality of the myth of Osiris in The Book that Is the Body of the Beloved, and of Orpheus and Eurydice as well as Adam and Eve in River Inside the River. These must be in the book, too. How has mythology helped you to live, and how can it help us to live?
GO: Well, the first thing I would say, again, is the theory of the book is that they’re all there, they’re all available.
TFR: Including myths or poetry that aren’t part of our home culture, especially in the Western world.
GO: It’s all there. You’re curious about Chinese poetry? Use Google. Curious about Japanese poetry? Google “Japanese poetry.” Yes, I’m interested in the human commonalities, in the struggle to find out what will sustain us in life. But I don’t want to be limited to just what’s happened in my culture. I can remember how English departments used to be—if you don’t speak English you don’t have any insight into the human condition. Of course, we’ve gone past that now. Somebody somewhere said that poetry and literature are equipment for living. It sort of is. It’s something to help us stay alive. It’s not memorizing a code of values that our particular culture is invested in.
TFR: Mythology is not a code of values, then.
GO: You mentioned Osiris in Concerning the Book that Is the Body of the Beloved. In that whole section I wanted Osiris in there because he’s a pre-Christian divine figure who is dismembered and then resurrected. I value the story of being dismembered and resurrected. I think that’s a deep myth about what can happen to people at the imaginative, emotional level, and I wanted to establish that this does not mean “resurrected” in the Christian sense.
TFR: In The Blessing, you make a connection with the Biblical myth of Cain and Abel following the death of your brother. The confounding part about that story is, of course, that God lets Cain live after he kills Abel. To Cain, this was a curse. But it might just be a blessing.
GO: It is a disturbing story. God’s decision is a very curious decision, to not kill him. That would’ve taught him a lesson. You killed your brother, I’ll kill you…
TFR: The Bible never tells us how Cain killed Abel. In Jewish midrash, it’s said that he killed him with a stone, and that after Cain founded a city, essentially starting human civilization, he built himself a house of stone, which collapsed on him and killed him, in a kind of contrapasso. The tale seems to fulfill that need of making sense, or making meaning, out of the Cain and Abel story, because it doesn’t seem to make sense by itself.
GO: Midrashic tales, there’s the raw material of Old Testament stories, and in infinite variations. It’s beautiful, and each of them is an individual act of imagination in which you’re trying to imagine yourself into this sacred story and retell it in a human world. You’re after some kind of insight or psychological truth or this or that. These stories are inexhaustible by definition, because they’re God stories, and you can’t exhaust a story that God said. That’s when you’d probably really get punished by God.
TFR: Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. Thanks for taking the time to chat, Gregory.
GO: Thank you.
Lee Huttner is an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at Chatham University, where he also teaches English and Cultural Studies. His poetry, prose, and criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in Apiary, At Length, Southeast Review, Palimpsest, Shakespeare Bulletin, and Upstart. He lives and works in Pittsburgh.