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Line / Break | Season 2 with Gregory Orr
The Line / Break season two finale features poet and philosopher Gregory Orr!
Gregory Orr and our host, Ryo Yamaguchi, discuss classic literary figures, from Wordsworth to Whitman, and the renewal that each of us can find within ourselves.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:00):
Hey, everybody. I’m Ryo Yamaguchi, the publicist at Copper Canyon Press and you are watching season two of our interview series Line/Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We began Line/Break as a way to connect during the severe lockdowns of the pandemic and we’ve had so much fun seeing poets on screen, hearing poems, talking about writing, books, and life that we simply had to keep this series going.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:24):
Thank you for tuning in. So, this is a momentous episode. It’s our last one of the season, and no better than Gregory Orr to be joining us on the momentous occasion of his book, or really it’s a book of books whose depths have been an invigoration to me these past months. I’ve been privileged with vast correspondences with Greg about poetry’s history, the secular and devotional and the word. And I’m so excited to bring some of that conversation here.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:52):
So, let me introduce Greg Orr. Greg, thank you so much for being here with us. We’ve talked in the past about your morning writing practices, and I want to begin by asking if you received the poem this morning.
Gregory Orr (01:06):
Received the poem, a gift given to me from somewhere.
Ryo Yamaguchi (01:11):
Gregory Orr (01:13):
Yeah. Well, I work every morning. I just have done that for, I want to say 40 years, but I think it’s longer, let’s say 50. And so, I write every morning. I write lyric poems. A lot of it has to be given to me, something has to happen. On the other hand, because I write every day, you hope… all poets hope to receive something new and wonderful in the mental mail each morning. But in reality, of course, what I do 90% of the time is I rewrite material that I’ve got, old poems.
Gregory Orr (01:56):
I mean, I hope to get new poems or an old poem to see in a new way or that comes together with other old poems and forms a lyric sequence, which is the kind of thing I love to do, that thematically linked lyrics and stuff. Anything like that counts as access to joy, which is to say writing poems or agonizing over them, whatever.
Ryo Yamaguchi (02:25):
I think it’s a wonderful way to put something I’ve tried to… I’ve been having many conversations with people about the professional stress of the creative process of publish or perish kinds of things and wanting to get at something that you’ve just so succinctly described, which is access to joy and that the poems provide this vehicle for that. Yeah. Do you find that? Are your writing experiences joyous every morning, even as you agonize?
Gregory Orr (02:52):
As long as you’re willing to fuse joy and agony together, which I think most lyric poets do, sure. It’s the thing that makes you happiest in the world. For me, it makes me happiest to play with language and hoping somehow the language I’m playing will give me some access to something, some kind of human mystery or experience or whatever. So, when you say publish or perish, I would have to say for me, the whole story has been write or perish.
Gregory Orr (03:36):
When I wrote my first poem at 17, I thought, “Okay, maybe I can keep living.” And up until then, I would’ve put most of the bets on the other side of the question of live or die. And so, it was first back to life and then to the incredible joy and mystery of writing poems and reading them and thinking about them. I love to think about, “What is poetry? Why do we write it? What is it for?” And of course, it’s lyric poetry. It’s for the economy of the human consciousness.
Gregory Orr (04:18):
It’s not a product. So, which is, well, I mean, it goes out into the world, but you’re not going to get a lot of money for it.
Ryo Yamaguchi (04:32):
I have to share here a joke, which maybe I’ve shared in the past, but I like to tell a joke that I will write a little poem on a slip of paper and then jam it into the ATM just to see what happens. Maybe we’ll get $20,000.
Gregory Orr (04:43):
I mean, your lucky day. Who knows?
Ryo Yamaguchi (04:45):
Gregory Orr (04:48):
“Oh, here comes Ryo again. We really messed with his head and give him five bucks for this one.”
Ryo Yamaguchi (04:58):
Yes, yes, you should. That’s a coffee. That works great. Actually, the point of commercialism, which I bring up and you bring up here too is something that our trusted intern, Apollo, has a question about this that we’ll get to you in a bit.
Ryo Yamaguchi (05:13):
This is an occasion. Well, so it’s wonderful to think about what you’ve said earlier too, is the write or die. And maybe I don’t want put it so violently or so bleakly, but this need to write, this need to have that… I think sometimes people think of it as expression, but there’s maybe a solipsism that goes to that. I like what you’re saying of just like, “Well, I just want to think about poems.
Ryo Yamaguchi (05:38):
I want to be in the space of poems. I want to ask this question.” And I feel privileged as a poetry publisher that I begin every morning with that question of “what is poetry, what is its purpose, both to me and to others?” But when you live that daily in a quotidian way, then you amass this body of work. And so, I want to share for a moment this, since we both just got it in the mail.
Ryo Yamaguchi (06:00):
I just got this yesterday and it’s like the books, I also want to show the spine just to show how substantial the collection is. Oh, so excited. I’m really, really so excited. The pages feel great. When I picked it up for my mailbox, just the weight, the weight felt so familiar to me in kind of a medical school way, but I want to talk about its assembly. But before we do, I thought maybe let’s open with a poem from it, if you feel willing and ready to maybe read something from here.
Gregory Orr (06:26):
Sure, sure. I should say it’s 530 lyric poems, which is to say that those are autonomous, verbal, imaginative artifacts, but they all seem to me linked as a kind of lyric sequence through various kinds of human experience. And so, I thought what I would do is read the first two poems and then the last poem in the sequence, just for what that is. None of them have any titles, one or two exceptions. “Even before speech revealed your secret, there was looking.
Gregory Orr (07:25):
Even before song that gave you away, there was gazing. The beloved felt your eyes upon her, he dimly understood why you looked at him that way. Speech, the eyes, the stare and the glimpse, the glance that lingers.” And the second poem, the sequence is a pun on eye, as in what you see with, and I, as the pronoun for the self. Let’s get back to expression later. “Her eye and my I, her gazing creates me. His voice in my ear, I’m seized by hearing.
Gregory Orr (08:33):
Now, because of the beloved, I come into being. Under her touch, all of me shudders.” So, that’s the advent of the beloved. Well, I’ll read one really short poem too, just because-
Ryo Yamaguchi (08:59):
Yeah, yeah, please. Yeah.
Gregory Orr (09:00):
The other one was short, but this is excessively short. “To be alive, not just the carcass but the spark — that’s crudely put, but if we’re not supposed to dance, why all this music?” And then, the last poem in the book, I began with the advent of the meeting with the beloved and stuff. “This is what was bequeathed us. This earth the beloved left. And leaving left to us. No other world but this one, willows and the river and the factory with its black smokestacks.
Gregory Orr (10:10):
No other shore, only this bank on which the living gather. No meaning but what we find here, no purpose but what we make. That, and the beloved’s clear instructions, turn me into song, sing me awake.”
Ryo Yamaguchi (10:40):
Yeah, Greg, that’s so wonderful. I’m so glad to hear these selections in this very brief span of the poems you selected, describe this arc that runs throughout the whole book. But one thing that I also feel in these poems a lot is this distended occupation of Genesis or of these generative encounters, the encounter with the beloved.
Ryo Yamaguchi (11:08):
It’s funny, the poems always throw me way off track of my question schedule. So, I’m just going to skip to another question here that I had, that was a little bit later on that I want to ask, which is thinking about this idea of encounter and with these poems and thematically tied to the beloved, the question comes up, which is, who is the beloved, what is the beloved?
Ryo Yamaguchi (11:30):
And I want to contextualize this a little bit by the fact that these poems all seem to write to the beloved, about the beloved, for the beloved, to someone else in recognition of the beloved. And I want to contextualize that question a little bit about who’s the beloved and also what is your orientation or what are the poems’ orientations in this three-dimensional way around them, if that makes sense?
Gregory Orr (11:56):
Sure, sure. Well, the first thing I’d want to say is that the poems began to come to me in mid-January, 2003. The way they came is they announced… a voice announced itself in my brain, and it announced itself with a phrase, “the Book that is the resurrection of the body of the beloved, which is the world.”
Gregory Orr (12:29):
And the reason I mention that is because the story seems to me, not just about the beloved but also about these other terms of “book” and “resurrection” and “body” and the world itself. And to go back to the question of beloved, when I heard that phrase in my head and wrote it down on a piece of paper, as I was being instructed to do, the only capitalized word in the phrase was “Book,” and this was capitalized. It became very clear to me because somehow when I heard the phrase, I also knew what it meant. So, all that happened in a single moment there. And I knew that the Book was not any sacred text.
Gregory Orr (13:24):
The Book is this gigantic anthology of all the lyric poems and songs that have ever been written by humans in whatever culture, in whatever time. It’s like this gigantic cosmic jukebox or something. iPod the size of the moon, whatever. It’s there. It’s this incredibly giant secular resource for spiritual purposes. Spiritual purposes being to sustain us and to explain to us the mystery or to marvel over the mystery of what it is to be alive.
Gregory Orr (14:01):
And so, “Book was capitalized.” It’s there. It’s the big thing. A Book that is the body of the beloved. Beloved was not capitalized. And I never do capitalize it. And that seems to be really important just as it’s important to say that the Book is not a religious document, it’s secular, it’s humanistic, whatever. 30% of the people just stopped listening. Anyway, the beloved is not as, say, in Sufi poems, sometimes the metaphor for the divine, the beloved is a human mortal being.
Gregory Orr (14:48):
The pronouns I fool around with, of course, because everything moves around. There’s a lot of metamorphosis going on, but the beloved is mortal and shares our mortal fate, but she’s also, or he’s also, or it — my first beloved was a cat, when I was a kid — also, something outside us that brings us into relationship with otherness, which is to say into the world of meaning. And so, the beloved is… I use a phrase from Sappho’s “Fragment 16” to try to understand it best.
Gregory Orr (15:36):
She says, “Whatever one loves most is beautiful.” And that seems to me, this incredible lyric claim that what we love becomes the beloved. What does Yeats say in some poem, he said, “For 20 minutes, more or less,” — he’s sitting in a coffee shop at a crowded London store, this is Yeats, he’s an old man.
Gregory Orr (16:07):
And he says, “My body of a sudden blazed, that for 20 minutes, more or less, I was blessed and could bless.” And there’s some kind of state, and we don’t know what it is, what happens. But one thing we know is that it happens in relation to some other being who takes on this astounding quality. It could be a person, usually is. It can be persons. It can be a creature, obviously.
Gregory Orr (16:44):
It could be a tree or a mountain or a place you loved. All these things seemed to me, obviously, I don’t think it could be an idea. I fear the idea that it becomes abstract because the beloved I think is what brings us into the world and is ultimately recognized. Even after the beloved is lost, they’re brought back by poems and songs. That’s what the book is for, it brings the beloved back into life, into our lives, but also brought back by the world itself, by the recognition that ultimately the beloved is the world, is the willows and the river and the factory with its black smokestack. That’s it. Yeah, sorry.
Ryo Yamaguchi (17:40):
No, no. I mean, please keep going on…
Gregory Orr (17:45):
I think I don’t have to go on.
Ryo Yamaguchi (17:45):
I hope we will. Yeah.
Gregory Orr (17:46):
It’s best just to ask questions like, “What’s your name?”
Ryo Yamaguchi (17:53):
I have that question too, but I decided to forego it. Yeah, yeah. What I’m really… what I’m so encouraged by in listening to you speak about this is this idea of, well, the capacity for the beloved and that the beloved… so this capacity, but then also these are things that we’ve talked about. I mean, I’ve brought up things like the dialectic and we talked about Sufi poets a while ago, and I was very eager to really disentangle or re-entangle the devotional and the secular.
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:28):
But one thing that I really hear in your response now is this idea of this beginning with radical encounter. I love the way you put it, which to me echoes again, maybe German philosophy or something of this, like being brought into relation with something with the world, with something that’s outside of yourself.
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:44):
But one thing I really hear in this too as you’re talking is that it’s not just that you’re receiving something from this encounter but that you’re in commercium. You are brought into relation, you are reciprocating. And that’s what I love about the Yeats quote, “I am blessed and can bless,” or I’m paraphrasing it.
Gregory Orr (19:00):
Absolutely, yes. The reciprocity of relation is at the heart of it when Buber writes in early pages of I and Thou, which I think is a beautiful document. He talks about this mutuality, reciprocity, and I think that’s the story.
Gregory Orr (19:19):
I have to say, to go back to the issue of writing and being the lifesaver, I do emerge as a human biography out of a traumatic loss, out of being responsible as a young kid, 12-year-old kid, growing up in the country, responsible for the death of a younger brother in a hunting accident. And two years after that, when I was 12… and two years after that, my mother died overnight.
Gregory Orr (19:53):
And so, the only reason I mention that is because when we talk about self here, the lyric, what I experienced from that, one of the things, trauma is two things. It’s many things, but two things come to mind, in my crazy mind at the moment, one is that they destroy the self. Traumatic violence can, especially when you’re young, just fracture the self. The other thing that it does is it isolates the self. And my experience was of extreme isolation after that, after my brother’s death and just being unable to speak to anyone or to speak about it to anyone.
Gregory Orr (20:44):
And two paths opened up for me, one was a social action. And when I was 18, I went south to Mississippi as part of the Civil Rights Movement back in 1965 and just ended up jailed and kidnapped and beaten, all of which were just part of the story. That was fine, but they also discouraged me from further high-risk social activity. The second thing was poems.
Gregory Orr (21:24):
A high school teacher showed me some poems and encouraged us to write. And to me, writing was just suddenly… there was a way to live in the world and to be my… for me to live in the world. But it’s also, it wasn’t me. It was poems. It was words. And so, a lot of the book is about the beloved, but the beloved is also language. It’s also imagination. It’s also poetry itself, which is not an idea. Poetry is not an idea. It’s a thing we make out of words in order to understand and communicate what we experience.
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:05):
I want to hold onto this idea that poetry is not an idea. I love that. And that’s helpful to me. I want to linger a little bit on the-
Gregory Orr (22:12):
I’m sitting down each morning and putting words on a page. I mean, where is the idea here? These are words, those aren’t ideas. I make ideas, but they also have ink and other things.
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:26):
Yeah. The best I’ve been able to musters that poetry is an entity of some kind.
Gregory Orr (22:31):
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:33):
I want to-
Gregory Orr (22:34):
You did study philosophy.
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:35):
Oh, yeah, I did. Yeah. Personally, I’m very… can I say philosophy is a hobby of mine, if I may, but yeah.
Gregory Orr (22:43):
It’s a good hobby. I mean, it’s trying… it’s the means of the mind trying to understand what it’s all about, right?
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:51):
Yeah, yeah. When I find the inner, well-
Gregory Orr (22:52):
But don’t forget that Plato said that poets and philosophers have an ancient quarrel. They never get along.
Ryo Yamaguchi (23:02):
Gregory Orr (23:02):
Yeah. Of course, we don’t get along with ourselves either.
Ryo Yamaguchi (23:06):
Exactly. Yeah, the infighting. I feel part of my soul is trying to find that togetherness, that accord with each other. But I have so many things to say about the structure of philosophical books as being modernist type. It’s like, James Joyce could have written The First Critique or whatever. Let me go back to… I want to pause on the idea of trauma, which you bring up.
Ryo Yamaguchi (23:29):
In the harrowing story of your brother’s death and also of what that precipitated in ways. A tremendous colleague, Apollo Deal, really wrote some moving statements about trauma and healing from this “Selected” here. And I want to read one of his questions verbatim if I can. So, just give me one moment here to find it. Yeah. So, Greg, so “in trauma, in this moment, this moment when you get shattered, there’s this part that’s surviving it also.
Ryo Yamaguchi (24:05):
But then, you need to survive the survival, you need to heal. What does poetry look like as a space of healing? What does poetry look like as a space of recovery for you?” I think you were just touching on this, so if you could elaborate. Yeah.
Gregory Orr (24:19):
Sure. Well, one of the things that I think about is… you’d mentioned expression before and Wordsworth, when he wrote the preface to the Lyrical Ballads back in 1790? Yeah, sometime back then. He defined poetry two times in that incredibly interesting document, at least it’s interesting to me. The first time he says poetry is a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion. Okay.
Gregory Orr (25:03):
And that sounds cool and that worked for the Romantics in some ways, and it does seem to sound like expression. Five pages later, he says, “It’s emotion. Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.” Now, we’re going to cut Wordsworth a lot of slack here because he’s writing at the beginning of the 19th century.
Gregory Orr (25:31):
And when he says “emotion recollected in tranquility,” I’m going to translate that into “trauma recollected from a place of safety.” And I’m willing to go with that’s what he meant in a way because he was also a traumatized orphan at a very early age and so on and so forth. And if you have any sympathy, if you read him sympathetically, you’ll see that. But what I think that second meaning, emotion recollected in tranquility or trauma recollected from a place of safety is exactly what poetry can do, which is that it’s very difficult.
Gregory Orr (26:18):
And we all discover this when we’re young poets. We think, “Oh, if I can just express, let what’s in me gush out, we’re golden. We’ve got a poem. This is it. This is what it’s about.” And we do that and it’s exciting. But we also learn after a while that mostly those poems don’t hold up, having maybe raw material for a poem, so forth. But that spontaneous overflow often has about it… it’s a factor of release, but I don’t think it’s a factor of healing.
Gregory Orr (26:57):
Trauma recollected from a place of safety, that is to say: from some years later or time later or place later. I really don’t… I’m not authority on when this will happen. I could say when it happened in my life, but everybody discovers it on their own, if they do, that going back to a past event, going back with the language, with imagination, with the structure that lyric poetry is, allows you to shape some of that material. First to articulate it and then to shape it.
Gregory Orr (27:39):
And when you shape it, you’ve changed your relationship to the material. When you are a traumatized person, you are a victim of experience. It’s all there is to it. There’s no other way to think about it. But when you go back as a maker of poems to a painful moment and you dramatize that moment in language, you are not a passive victim. You are an active shaper of your experience, an active maker of your own being and your own… You’re affirming yourself. Now, we’ve talked about poetry as self-expression, fuck that.
Gregory Orr (28:22):
What we really mean is affirmation of your being, of yourself. And if you are not going to affirm yourself, who is? Especially if you’ve been traumatized. When the stability and the integrity of this self has been deeply threatened. What poetry is? What’s beautiful is that poetry can become for some of us, ourselves in a different body, in the body of intensified language and imagination in the focused moment of the lyric poem. And so, it’s a removal from the ongoingness and confusion of this self into a moment of clarity and symbolic significance.
Gregory Orr (29:16):
Even if we don’t know what it means, nothing says we have to know what our poems mean or control what they do. Most of who have worked in with language and imagination for all that time, we know we’re just moving in the dark, touching things as we go and hoping we’ll find… well. We call this dancing on the web. It’s a start like some psychotic spider, something starts. And I just start bouncing around that. Sorry.
Ryo Yamaguchi (30:00):
I like the spidering-
Gregory Orr (30:02):
It’s all connected in my brain, but I don’t expect anybody to see that.
Ryo Yamaguchi (30:07):
No, it’s a wonderful forest. I apologize, Greg. I’m just a little bit overwhelmed, honestly, well, by what I see as an encouragement here in this idea of being an agent of your experience, that the poems enable you to be an agent of this experience and especially an experience to which you had otherwise been victim. It’s a power flip of course, right? But I don’t want to… that almost is almost too crass a way, I think, of thinking about it.
Gregory Orr (30:32):
No, it’s true. There’s a sublime egotism in having the nerve to write a lyric poem, but it’s also courage. The Spanish poet Machado says at some point, he says that, “In order to write a lyric poem, you have to imagine that you’re at the center of the universe.” Well, of course that’s morally and logically ludicrous, of course. But it shows that – what do scholors call it? – momentary suspension of disbelief when you have to just go.
Gregory Orr (31:16):
And of course, you’re not just going with yourself, you’re going with language, you’re going with a phrase that you hear or some image, or who knows what you’re going with. But you do have this momentary illusion, delusion that you are at the center of the world. Frank O’Hara’s got a wonderful poem, autobiographic or literary or something. I’ve forgotten that. I got it around somewhere. But anyway, here I am. That was an idiot. I was a kid. Everybody hated me. The birds flew away and here I am, the center of this universe making this poem.
Ryo Yamaguchi (32:02):
Yeah, incredible. I think of that as there are a few rare audacities that we ought to embrace, hope, the audacity of hope maybe being one of them. The audacity of the centrality of one’s being in the universe is something to embrace perhaps every once in a while, especially in the pursuit of a poem. Yeah.
Gregory Orr (32:18):
Okay. So, you’re guilty of introducing the word audacity. So, I’m going to go with that and give you one of my favorite quotes in the world.
Ryo Yamaguchi (32:25):
Gregory Orr (32:28):
Okay. This is from Emily Dickinson. It’s practically a deathbed letter and it’s as usual, it’s as pithy as her poems, her letters. They’re just so amazing. So, there’s some archaic language and situations in here. “Pugilist” is a boxer and Jacob is the poor son-of-a-bitch in the Bible who had to wrestle the angel all night and was seriously wounded and so on so forth. Then, finally, I guess he demands a blessing from the angel before he is going to let the angel go.
Gregory Orr (33:12):
The angel says, “Hey, it’s dawn. I got to get out of here. I got a day job.” So, here’s Dickinson, “Audacity of Bliss, said Jacob to the angel, ‘I will not let thee go unless I bless thee.’ Poet and Pugilist, Jacob was correct.” She talked about… you said power flip. I mean, Jacob says to the angel, “You’re not getting out of here until I bless you.” What’s wrong with Jacob?
Gregory Orr (33:56):
He thinks he could bless an angel that’s trying to kill him. And in some translations, by the way, that encounter isn’t an angel, it’s God. In any case, it’s an unfair battle in there, but because he’s a poet as well as a pugilist, he has the audacity of bliss. And that’s pretty amazing. Nobody would say Emily Dickinson was a Cheerful Charlie.
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:21):
Gregory Orr (34:22):
No. I mean, what we’re talking is we’re talking is the vicissitudes of consciousness, but in certain moments, there’s the audacity of bliss that creates amazing things.
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:34):
Gregory Orr (34:35):
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:37):
That’s so incredible. There’s so much in that poem, like poet and pugilist, I want a t-shirt that says that. Yeah.
Gregory Orr (34:45):
Wouldn’t that be great? Poet and Pugilist. The back says, “Audacity of bliss!”
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:52):
See? Exactly. That’s wearing the poem. So, you brought up something, I’m seeing an avenue here just to get to a little bit of a different realm of conversation, but you brought up earlier this idea of in this audacity of the being in the center of the universe and creating the poem, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re looking for answers.
Ryo Yamaguchi (35:18):
We are just, we’re wrestling with the poem. And I want to pause on that because I know we’re both fans of Krista Tippett and the On Being podcast… and I’m not certain if she just had a really nice profile in the New York Times, just a few days ago, I’ve been actually meaning to send it to you. I assumed you saw it. And in there, she brings up… the whole profile and the whole interview is really about hope, how do we find hope in these very uncertain times.
Ryo Yamaguchi (35:41):
And she brings up the idea of living the question, what we’d call uncertainty or something like that, living this question, and we’ve been talking in this conversation about looking back, being from a place of safety and looking at trauma from there, and looking back. I’m kind of curious to look forward at this moment. And yeah, if you feel that poetry itself has a unique role in looking toward the future and whether in apprehension and anxiety but also maybe in hope too.
Gregory Orr (36:15):
Absolutely. So, it has to. I mean, at least… you mentioned the word hope. One of the phrases that comes up in the Selected Books of the Beloved is “hope and courage.” That seemed to me, for some reason, they were linked, the need to go forward calls for hope, but it also calls for courage because we know how dark it is. And we’ve experienced loss. I guess what I’m partly saying in the book, partly what this sequence is about is about renewal.
Gregory Orr (36:56):
I told you the originating phrase, the resurrection of the body of the beloved. We know that within us is renewal, or we know within the world is renewal. We know that a beloved may have died or vanished or disappeared, but another beloved maybe out there or is out there has to be found. I mean, again, part of the imaginative project for me and the insistence on the secular is to say that the lyric imagination, my lyric imagination, goes back to the natural world as vegetative world. So, that one cannot help but feel hope in spring, one cannot. It’s part of a sense of that renewal is built into the world.
Gregory Orr (38:06):
And it’s not obviously as simple for us, we’re mortal creatures. We live on a… if the vegetative world lives on a cyclic renewal world, we’re in a linear world. We’re here, we live in time, we’re going to die. And I don’t think we’re going again, me to some other world, but I do think that we have to live bravely in this world and give it everything. And also, open ourselves to renewal, which is say open ourselves to poems. I mean, when you read a poem, you discover a poem that you’ve never heard of before and you read it and you love it.
Gregory Orr (38:58):
What’s happening? You’re being renewed. You’re feeling hope and excitement and joy in some form, even if it’s a sad poem, because it means you’re not alone. “Oh, my God, this person felt this degree of agony about their experience or their being in the world. And yet, they shaped it into this beautiful song.” The paradox, that totally depressing sad poems are also beautiful, are also in some sense an affirmation of the ability of the human spirit to affirm itself, which is to affirm life. And we’re not the only… I’ll shut up.
Ryo Yamaguchi (39:55):
Oh, no, it’s so incredible. I love this. Well, as you’re mentioning, the idea of a poem is an exercise of renewal. That is on so many levels, I mean, one thing I think of is… I like to say also to folks that one of my favorite things to do once I’ve finished reading a poem is to go to the top of the poem and read it again. And then, one must do that all the time. I have a great quote here from Jorie Graham-
Gregory Orr (40:22):
That’s so lovely.
Ryo Yamaguchi (40:22):
I have a great quote here from Jorie Graham that I won’t be able to read verbatim, but she’s talking about line break and this idea of when you encounter it, when you get to a line break in a poem, it’s this precipice. You’re on the edge of the cliff and you have to fall off. And where do you find yourself? But just rebirthed right back at the beginning on the next line. And it’s a wonderful… this wonderful exercise that also just extends all of that.
Gregory Orr (40:50):
In lyric poetry, because it’s so compressed and intensity is its hallmark, every line, every end of a line is an existential crisis and opportunity as well. I mean, what people have done with line breaks. Much fun.
Ryo Yamaguchi (41:11):
So, I think this brings us to a good point. I find myself often in this show of getting to a point where I’m curious. I’m mindful of time so I think we have maybe opportunity for one other entity here in the interview. Okay. So, I have a question for you. I have another question for you, and let me state this by saying in this brief time that we’ve been talking, let’s see, we’ve talked about Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson. We’ve talked about Yeats.
Ryo Yamaguchi (41:35):
We’ve talked about Sappho. We’ve talked about Kant and Hegel, and… oh, boy, I’m probably missing. I mean, we alluded to Rumi. So, look, we are in this ecosystem, we’re in this realm of spirits, which are all these poets and these writers, and I feel encouraged a little bit when you’re saying that the realm of nature is cyclical. It comes and it’s immemorial, or so we hope.
Ryo Yamaguchi (42:06):
And I feel this, of course, about swimming in the history and in the citations that occur throughout the Selected. And so, my question for you is a little bit of… and again, this is a little bit germane to the time that we are now in history and in the world. But if you see these stories as being unified by possibly a metaphysics or maybe some folks have called a monad or archetypes, do you see these stories and these voices overlapping?
Ryo Yamaguchi (42:36):
Do you see them saying the same poem in a collective way and/or if they are, if there’s anything that’s particularly germane or useful to us now or to you now in this particular moment in history, in this linear moment of our history? How’s that?
Gregory Orr (42:57):
Sure. Yeah. I’m not going to… the thing I love… one of the things I love about lyric is that it’s sides with multiplicity rather than monolith. I think there’s a, as I mentioned, there’s this through line that comes out of this phrase for me, but ultimately, the multiplicity of voices in the book, multiplicity of voices, the ones I quote, are ones that have nourished me and helped me live, renewed something in me. But what are they all saying?
Gregory Orr (43:41):
In a sense, they’re saying to be alive, not just the carcass but the spark that we are supposed to dance because there is a music, there’s a music all around us. The world of being is a kind of music. And it’s telling us, “Wake up, be alive.” Even if being alive is suffering, but it’s turning that suffering into song. So, what is it?
Gregory Orr (44:21):
All my heroes were cowboys. All my heroes are poets. That is to say, there are human beings in different cultures and times that have affirmed the mysteries and passions of being in the world. And then, they’ve given them shape and form. They’re on the side of affirmative being and renewal. So, I guess that’s a through line. It’s not again, it’s more… it’s closer to Paganism than to philosophy, but it’s Whitman. It’s Whitman for crying out loud.
Gregory Orr (45:10):
“If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.” I mean, that’s a very grim vision of existence. I’ve just become the grass. On the other hand, in section six of Song of Myself, he tells us, “‘What is the grass?’ a child ask, fetching it to me with full hands.” And then, he says, at the end of that poem, he says that “the smallest sprout. And if there is, and everything goes onward.
Gregory Orr (45:49):
There is no death, but if there is, it’s different than anyone supposed and luckier,” which is a wacko Whitman thing to say. He’s taken in that mystery of mortality and loss, which is finally one of the huge mysteries, and he’s transformed it.
Gregory Orr (46:09):
But without going to heaven, without going to Nirvana or any other world. And I think that’s one of the things lyric poetry does, “Look for me under your boot-soles, but also look for me in my book. Look for me in the leaves of grass.” And, you know, that’s…, And I do.
Ryo Yamaguchi (46:32):
Yeah. I’ll take that with me for the rest of my days.
Gregory Orr (46:40):
I know Whitman. Whitman talks to us. How did that loony figure out a way to speak to us with such incredible intimacy? “I may not tell everyone, but I will tell you,” he says in one of his lines and it gives us this sense that, “Spend the night with me and I’ll show you the secrets of the universe.” I mean, it’s that erotic seduction, which is also should not be left out of the story, the role of the erotic as connection, but he creates intimacy. There’s no intimacy.
Gregory Orr (47:24):
I mean, everybody makes fun of people sometimes, usually academics, but he knew, he’s intuited, the urgent intimacy latent in the relationship between the poet and the reader. And it’s beautiful. I don’t know what I just said, but it’s true.
Ryo Yamaguchi (47:51):
No, it’s very true. And I mean, I’m so taken by this with Whitman, that he’s a poet who can… well, multitudes. I mean, can speak on behalf of a nation as its fledgling and also speak just one to one. And I think that brings us back to this idea of the beloved as an interlocutor, the beloved as the object of one’s poem. Yeah.
Gregory Orr (48:14):
And of course, Whitman is proof that it’s possible to have… if you are a democratic mystic like him, you have an infinite number of lovers. He falls in love with everybody in the crowd as he walks down the street. I mean, according to his testimony. I have no idea what he thought personally, but the testimony of the book is that everyone is as amazing as he is. And he wants to be the perfect lover, which is to say the perfect poet for him. I’m approximating from the preface to Leaves of Grass. He just connects in connection.
Gregory Orr (49:01):
He enforces. He says, “Only connect,” right? And then, they asked him, “Where’d you get that quote?” And he said, “Well, it came from Whitman,” and it is Whitman, connect, connect. Connection is meaning. We connect to words as poets. Meaning, we read a poem and it connects to us. Meaning, we connect to another person, they connect to us. Meaning, meaning just blossoming out this hope, intensity of being.
Ryo Yamaguchi (49:35):
Yeah. Well, I’m going to take… I’m taking all of this with me. And I think this is… well, I think you’ve brought us back to our initial engagement, which is this idea of being brought into relation and that connection in poems facilitating that. And again, in the context of this call to life, “Here we are, what are we going to do?”
Ryo Yamaguchi (49:57):
And yeah, yeah. I’m just been very encouraged by all of this today, Greg, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more solace in the space of poems than at this very moment from this conversation. And so, I want to thank you very, very much for that. And I think let’s leave it here for our audience. I’m so glad to have you today and to be talking about all of these things and talking about all these writers. I’m just going to give the book a one more little look here. I’m so excited to have this in my hands and I hope you are too. So, thank you. Thank you so much for being here.
Gregory Orr (50:31):
Thank you. It’s always a joy to talk about poetry with someone who’s excited about it.
Ryo Yamaguchi (50:40):
Yeah, absolutely. We could talk for hours more. I know. And let’s do so in the future in person next time, hopefully. Yeah.
Gregory Orr (50:49):
Ryo Yamaguchi (50:50):
That sounds great. Well, thank you. Thank you, Greg. And thank you all out there for joining us for this episode, and we’ll see you in the next season, season three, coming soon.