Gregory Orr's Aesthetic:
Poetry’s value and purpose — to connect us to the essential aspects of our own emotional and spiritual lives.Orr shot and killed his younger brother in a hunting accident when he was age 12. Two years later his mother died at age 36 after a routine hospital procedure. In 1965, he worked as a Civil Rights volunteer in the south, was abducted at gun point and held in solitary confinement for 8 days.
We translate our crises into language — give it symbolic expression…array the ordering powers our shaping imagination has brought to bear on these disorderings.
The act of making a personal lyric shifts the crisis to a bearable distance to the symbolic but vivid world of language, and actively does so. We shape this model of our situation rather than passively endure it.
These disordering experiences gave him a terrifying sense of how fragile human life is, how easily and quickly people can vanish. He lived with the burden of guilt and anguish. His parents in their own despair could not console him and they never spoke of the hunting accident.
His high school librarian and honors English teacher introduced him to poetry. He wrote a poem that changed his life.
He says the awareness of disorder generates in the human mind a spontaneous ordering response of the imagination.
Isak Dinesan wrote that “any sorrow can be borne if it can be made into story…”
Richard Wilbur wrote, “My first poems were written in answer to the inner and out disorders of the Second World War and they helped me, as poems should, to take a hold of raw events and convert them, provisionally, into experience.” (“On My Own Work,” 1966)
Orr desperately needed to write about the deaths of his brother and mother. Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait” showed him “something lucid and wonderful could be made out of dismaying personal material,” that he, too, “might bring language and shaping imagination to bear on the specific and agonized circumstances of [his] adolescence.”
As the old proverb says, “…the willow that bends in the wind survives; the oak that resists, breaks.” We survive disorder when we let it enter, when we open to it, rather than resist or deny its power and presence. The ability to open up is akin to Keats notion of negative capability.
Orr’s poems shimmer and I call them “secular incantations.”
Orr's Bio from Poets.org:
Gregory Orr was born in 1947 in Albany, New York, and grew up in the rural Hudson Valley, and for a year, in a hospital in the hinterlands of Haiti. He received a B.A. degree from Antioch College, and an M.F.A. from Columbia University.
He is the author of nine collections of poetry, including How Beautiful the Beloved (Copper Canyon Press, 2009); Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved (2005); The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems (2002); Orpheus and Eurydice (2001); Burning the Empty Nests (1997); City of Salt (1995), which was a finalist for the L.A. Times Poetry Prize; and Gathering the Bones Together (1975).
He is also the author of a memoir, The Blessing (Council Oak Books, 2002), which was chosen by Publisher's Weekly as one of the fifty best non-fiction books the year, and three books of essays, including Poetry As Survival (2002) and Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry (1985).
He is considered by many to be a master of short, lyric free verse. Much of his early work is concerned with seminal events from his childhood, including a hunting accident when he was twelve in which he accidentally shot and killed his younger brother, followed shortly by his mother's unexpected death, and his father's later addiction to amphetamines. Some of the poems that deal explicitly with these incidents include "A Litany," "A Moment," and "Gathering the Bones Together," in which he declares: "I was twelve when I killed him; / I felt my own bones wrench from my body." In the opening of his essay, "The Making of Poems," broadcast on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Orr said, "I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive."
In a review of Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved from the Virginia Quarterly Review, Ted Genoways writes: "Sure, the trappings of modern life appear at the edges of these poems, but their focus is so unwaveringly aimed toward the transcendent—not God, but the beloved—that we seem to slip into a less cluttered time. It's an experience usually reserved for reading the ancients, and clearly that was partly Orr's inspiration."
Orr has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and two poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2003, he was presented the Award in Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was a Rockefeller Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Violence, where he worked on a study of the political and social dimension of the lyric in early Greek poetry.
He teaches at the University of Virginia, where he founded the MFA Program in Writing in 1975, and served from 1978 to 2003 as Poetry Editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He lives with his wife, the painter Trisha Orr, and their two daughters in Charlottesville, Virginia.