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Poetry as Survival

Gregory Orr

Publication Year: 2002

Intended for general readers and for students and scholars of poetry, Poetry as Survival is a complex and lucid analysis of the powerful role poetry can play in confronting, surviving, and transcending pain and suffering.

Gregory Orr draws from a generous array of sources. He weaves discussions of work by Keats, Dickinson, and Whitman with quotes from three-thousand-year-old Egyptian poems, Inuit songs, and Japanese love poems to show that writing personal lyric has helped poets throughout history to process emotional and experiential turmoil, from individual stress to collective grief. More specifically, he considers how the acts of writing, reading, and listening to lyric bring ordering powers to the chaos that surrounds us. Moving into more contemporary work, Orr looks at the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Stanley Kunitz, and Theodore Roethke, poets who relied on their own work to get through painful psychological experiences.

As a poet who has experienced considerable trauma--especially as a child--Orr refers to the damaging experiences of his past and to the role poetry played in his ability to recover and survive. His personal narrative makes all the more poignant and vivid Orr's claims for lyric poetry's power as a tool for healing. Poetry as Survival is a memorable and inspiring introduction to lyric poetry's capacity to help us find safety and comfort in a threatening world.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Series: The Life of Poetry: Poets on Their Art and Craft

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pp. vii

A number of people have given me invaluable help in shaping and clarifying this book. Among those whose early encouragement and advice were essential are Adrienne Rich, Sandra Gilbert, Mark Edmundsen, and Susan Gubar. Patricia Hampl and Mary Oliver read entire, earlier versions of this text and responded...

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Introduction: Everywhere and Always

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pp. 1-9

As a poet, I've always hated the fact that poetry often intimidates people. Many people I know feel that poetry is a test they can only pass if they are smart enough or sensitive enough, and most fear they will fail. Many refuse the test altogether—never read poetry—for fear of failure. Somehow something has gone wrong...

PART I: The Self, Jeopardy, and Song

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1. Poised on a Mountain Peak, Floating on the Ocean

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pp. 13-23

And where are the events of last week? Can we find them anywhere? Or that glorious summer day two years ago when we swam in the river? Where has it gone? Has it ceased to exist? "Ou sont les neiges d'antan?"—"Where are the snows of yesteryear?"—the sixteenth-century French poet and outlaw Francois Villon asked in...

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2. The Dinner Party and the Sailor at War

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pp. 24-36

A surprising number of scholars and teachers and even poets—people who claim to "know" what poetry is—will insist that only one aspect of poetry is crucial. Insist for instance, that the essence of poetry is formal coherence (order) or that only emotion matters (disorder). Maybe this one-sided emphasis is a temperamental...

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3. The Embodied Self

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pp. 37-50

In order to carry the weight of the existential crises that torment it from without and within, the self in the personal lyric needs to be more than a stick figure "I." It's a pronoun whose formidable task is to incarnate and dramatize a full range of human feelings, thoughts, memories, and sensations even as it faces the past...

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4. The Edge as Threshold

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pp. 51-58

In the ceaseless interplay of disorder and order in our daily lives, it is possible (and important) to imagine that there are certain situations where this unstable interaction can be held for a moment in steady state. One such suspended moment is the poem, which freeze-frames the interplay as language so that we can...

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5. Bags Full of Havoc

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pp. 59-82

We could do worse than to begin by noting that most commentators since the dawn of history have felt that the great themes of the personal lyric are love and death. Once we move past the governing abstraction "love" into its multitudinous manifestations, it's as if we snorkeled above a tropical coral reef and saw below us the infinite...

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6. The Two Survivals

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pp. 83-92

The difference between a lyric poet and a person who does not write poems is that the poet has an arena in which to focus his or her encounter with disorder. And the poet's struggle to engage disorder with the ordering powers of imagination and the cultural tool of language leads to a sense of having mastered subjectivity and...

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7. The Powers of Poetry

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pp. 93-113

Each culture has its own preferences or rules as to what constitutes the formal orderings of a lyric. For much of the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, poetry in English was felt to be most properly constituted by accentual syllabic meter and rhyme. On the other hand, Chinese lyric poetry of the...

Part II: Trauma and Transformation

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8. The Dangerous Angel

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pp. 117-132

According to Genesis 32, Jacob encountered a "man" on the banks of the Jabok River. This "man" was almost certainly a supernatural creature whom God had sent. Jacob and the stranger fought all night, wrestling in a violent and intimate embrace. At a certain point, his antagonist touched Jacob s thigh and threw his hip...

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9. Convulsive Transformation of the Overculture

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pp. 133-140

Sara Hutchinson is a Cherokee Indian woman interviewed in the book Surviving in Two Worlds. The "two worlds" are the worlds of contemporary, white-dominated America and the traditional world of first Americans. In the book, she does not define the term "Overculture" quoted above, and so, in adopting it, I have...

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10. Wordsworth and the Permanent Forms

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pp. 141-148

More than anyone before him, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) brought poetry down out of the high-flown literary language that so subtly served the Overculture s class interests. The language in a poem, he said, should "consist of a selection of the real language spoken by men." With that single, simple idea, he...

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11. Keats and the Ardor of the Pursuer

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pp. 149-158

Born in 1795, Keats was among the younger generation of Romantic poets who grew up when Wordsworth's influence was dominant. He came from a lower-middle-class family (his father ran a livery stable), and he had no prospects of higher education. At the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed to an apothecary-surgeon...

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12. Whitman and the Habit of Dazzle

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pp. 159-170

It might seem odd to include Walt Whitman (1819-1892) among my hero-poets who have transformed trauma into visions of human possibility, because Whitman is so insistently and ecstatically affirmative. Where is the trauma in his work? Indeed, the philosopher and psychologist William James muttered aloud...

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13. Dickinson and the Brain s Haunted Corridors

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pp. 171-181

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) could well be the ultimate poet of the personal lyric. No lyric poet has been her equal for the intensity and variety of subjective states dramatized. She has written great poems of grief, longing, wonder, loneliness, fear, love, madness, joy, anger, ecstasy, solitude, despair, desire. She has...

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14. Wilfred Owen and the Horrors of War

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pp. 182-188

In Wilfred Owen's time, during the First World War, they called it "shell shock." In the Second World War, it would be called "battle fatigue." It was only in the aftermath of the Vietnam War that the term "post-traumatic stress disorder" became established as a way to speak of the tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans...

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15. The Quest and the Dangerous Path

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pp. 189-203

As we approach our final trio of poets, we enter the contemporary world. These poets have read Freud and Jung and others. They know that the spiritual and emotional quests for meaning that began with such naive force in Romanticism have now been eroded by the skepticism and insights of psychoanalysis. The imagination...

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16. Constellations and Medicine Pouches

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pp. 204-206

These are the final lines of a grim and lovely poem that Plath s estranged husband, Ted Hughes, chose to place as the final poem in her posthumously published collection Ariel It is an image that, to my mind, partakes of a double fatalism. The first fatalism is contained in the astrological rigidity the image...

Appendix A: Sacred and Secular Lyric

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pp. 209-212

Appendix B: The Social Lyric and the Personal Lyric

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pp. 213-223

Appendix C: Incarnating Eros

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pp. 225-230


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pp. 231-235

E-ISBN-13: 9780820340111
E-ISBN-10: 0820340111
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820324272
Print-ISBN-10: 0820324272

Page Count: 242
Publication Year: 2002

Series Title: The Life of Poetry: Poets on Their Art and Craft

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Subject Headings

  • Poetry.
  • English poetry -- History and criticism.
  • American poetry -- History and criticism.
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