An Alphabet of Poets – O is for Orr


When Sappho wrote:
“whatever one loves most
is beautiful,” she began
The  poems of heart’s praise
That comprise the Book
Of the body of the beloved
Which is the world.

Everything in the Book
flows from that single poem
Or the countless others
That say the same thing
In other words, other ways.


To Be Alive

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?

Gregory Orr from CONCERNING THE BOOK THAT IS THE BODY OF THE BELOVED, Copper Canyon Press, 2005


Human Heart –
That tender engine.

Love revs it;
loss stalls it.

What can make it
Go again.

The poem, the poem.

Gregory Orr from How Beautiful the Beloved, Copper Canyon Press, 2009

In the winter of 2003 the American poet, Gregory Orr (1947 -) woke up with a phrase (an auditory hallucination, he calls it) that triggered an outpouring, starting that morning, of spared down koan-like poems (what he calls the Beloved poems) which have filled two books published by Copper Canyon Press and a chapbook that comes out in July. That phrase, edited a little, became the title of his first book of Beloved poems from which I have taken the poem above. And here is another from the second book:


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.

no other shore, only this bank
On which the living gather.

No meaning but what we find here.
No purpose but what we make.

This and the beloved’s clear instructions
Turn me into song, sing me awake.

Gregory Orr from How Beautiful The Beloved

The Beloved poems were a radical departure for Orr; a move away, as he says in an interview in 2010 in Image, from a reliance on metaphors and images. These poems run counter to much poetry that is popular today. But I admire them. And I admire Orr for writing so called declarative “telling” poems that manage to hold my attention; that manage to hold a mystery under their telling. The author of eleven books of poetry, most recently The City of Poetry (July 2012) and numerous books of non-fiction including Poetry As Survival, Orr is a professor of English at the University of Virginia where he has taught for thirty seven years.


Let’s remake the world with words.
Not frivolously, nor
To hide from what we fear,
But with a purpose.
As Wordsworth said, remove
“The dust of custom” so things
Shine again, each object arrayed
In its robe of original light.

And then we’ll see the world
As if for the first time,
As once we gazed at the beloved
Who was gazing at us.

Gregory Orr from Concerning the Book

In these poems Orr uses two words again and again. The Book and the beloved.  My first thought was that The Book was the Bible and the beloved, the divine,  as in Rumi’s use of it. But he is clear in countless interviews that The Book is a gigantic anthology filled with every poem and song ever written and that the Beloved is almost anything the reader can make it. Almost!

In his Image interview he enlarges on the meaning of the beloved for him: The beloved for me is first and foremost another person – but the beloved could be any aspect of reality that takes us out of ourselves, out of isolation into relationship, because relationship is meaning. The beloved could be a person, a place, a creature…” What I like about his definition is that I can choose to think of the Beloved in a way that makes these poems resonate the most for me.


The book said we were mortal.
It didn’t say we had to be morbid.

The Book said the Beloved died.
But also that she comes again,
That he’s reborn as words.

The Book says everything perishes.
The book said: That’s why we sing.



Salt on the roads melts
the ice. Salt on the heart
Hardens it.
                  That’s not
How the Book
Preserves the body.

The bitten tongue
Tastes blood, The tongue
Uttering, utters love.


Orr is not only an accomplished poet, whose declared lack of a specific religious belief doesn’t prevent his poems from containing a luminous spiritual quality, but he is for me, perhaps most importantly,  a wonderful apologist for the healing powers of poetry. He even teaches a university course called How Poetry Can Save Your Life. It saved his.


For me, my brother
Was the first beloved,
the first departure
That tore my heart.
I was so stricken
When he died
I couldn’t speak.

I was young
And knew nothing
About the book.

It was years before
I learned poems
Could be letters
The Living address
To their dead.
Years before I knew
poems in the book
Were answers they send.


Orr, while hunting, shot and killed his brother when he was twelve. It was an accident. In his book called Poetry as Survival he says: Unbearable word, this “accident.” Unbearable world.

When Orr was eighteen he wrote a poem. It changed my life, he says. I had a sudden sense that the language in poetry was “magical,” unlike language in fiction: that it could create or transform reality rather than simply describe it.

Orr’s earned wisdom about poetry’s healing power is a powerful addition to a list of poets who believe in the healing power of poetry. In the Image  interview Orr says this: The making of poems is the making of meanings. To write a lyric poem is to take the confusion and chaos inside you and translate it into words….

When you suffer trauma, you mostly do that passively, as a victim. But when you translate that experience into words and shape it, you become active. You are no longer a passive endurer of experience, but an active shaper of it. You’ve redeemed something from that chaos. Writing a poem can save your life, and reading a poem can show you that you are not alone.

Orr adds: Everything I’ve learned… reinforces my own experience that the personal lyric [poem] helps individual selves, both writers and readers, survive the vicissitudes of experience and the complexities and anguish of subjectivity and trauma.

This sentence is worth repeating: Writing a poem can save your life, and reading a poem can show you that you are not alone. This one sentence sums up for me why poetry is so important. Stanley Kunitz, twice US Poet Laureate, was an important teacher and mentor for Orr. He has a favorite Kunitz quote on poetry: It’s the voice of solitary that makes others less alone.

Simply put, reading and writing poems can help make bearable an Unbearable world. A poem can bring to the surface images and memories that like some sub-surface event can shatter our lives as long as they stay buried but become far less dangerous when brought back into consciousness.

It is important to have heroic figures in our lives. Greg Orr is one of those for me. He had many traumas in his early life, not just his brother’s tragic death ( his mother died unexpectedly 2 years after his brother), and he managed to survive them. But he has done much more than that. He has turned these experiences into the heart-breaking beauty of his art, his poetry. Especially his Beloved poems. And with this courage he helps others tp learn that they, too, can find a way to survive the traumas and vicissitudes of life through poetry.

Oh, how his Beloved poems call me to the deepest meanings found in life. How they remind me to praise when all I want to do is curse. Just consider the power of these two huge/little praise poems from a man who could have just as easily produced a litany of curses for the early heartbreaks in his life.


Praising all creation, praising the world:
That’s our job – to keep
The sweet machine of it
Running as smoothly as it can

With words repairing, where it wears out,
Where it breaks down.

With songs and poems keeping it going.
With whispered endearments greasing its gears.

from How Beautiful The Beloved


The grapes taste good.
I hope who ever grew
Them and picked them
Was paid well.

The poems in the Book:
Free as the air
they’re made of.

What a business:
Praising the beloved.
What a business
Loving the world


I was fortunate to attend a workshop led by Greg Orr last year at Image Journal’s Glen East Writers’ Conference. On a free day I was able to visit Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst with him and my daughter Libby. What a treat to hear him recite Dickinson’s poems on the spot there; to have him share the poems of one of his most beloved poets whose work so sings inside The Book! Libby also recited her favorite – Hope and we both hugged the large tree outside the house that Dickinson saw from outside her bedroom window! Talk about gifts from The Book!

At the finish of that Glen workshop with Greg Orr I felt I had met a brother, a new friend – a Beloved;  a Beloved who reminds me to keep reading inside The Book and to add my own poems there.

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