The Proof is in the Pudding – American Poet Gregory Orr’s Ongoing Healing Journey Through Poetry

American poet Gregory Orr (1947- )

A Song of What Happens

If I wrote in a short story
Or novel that when my father
Was young, about thirteen,
He and his best friend
Stole a rifle from the car trunk
Of a man who worked
For his family, then took
paper plates from the kitchen
And went out into a field,
intending to toss them
Into the air and shoot them...
That there’s been an accident
And he killed his best friend.

Sad, but believable—it happens
More often than you’d imagine
In the country.
               But then I add:
My Dad grew up, married,
Had four sons, gave each
Of the two oldest
Shotguns when they were
twelve and ten
so that they could all hunt pheasants.
And when I turned twelve,
He gave me a rifle—a .22.
And that same year
We went hunting deer
In a far field in our property
And my gun, that I didn’t know
Was loaded went off
And killed my younger brother
Who was standing beside me.
Two boys, my father and I,
Barely in their teens,
Killing two others they loved
By accident—
That kind
Of coincidence isn’t credible
In fiction, much less in a poem
Where you’re not allowed
To describe too much
Or explain, or ascribe motives
Because each word is precious
And the fewer you use
The better the poem.
                    And yet,
I’m telling you it’s true,
It really happened.
                   All of us
Can you see the pattern here—
Two young boys kill
Someone they love
By accident.
            But do you
Think God planned it?
And if so, why?
Do you think my father
Unconsciously arranged
A repetition, hoping
It would end differently?

I’m happy for you if you
Can explain it
To your satisfaction.
I can’t.
       I’m only telling you
About it, because
It’s factual; it happened.
And because I want you to know
how strange life is.

Gregory Orr (1947- ) from The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019

American poet Gregory Orr practices, in his own poetry, what he so often preaches, and what he most recently makes a compelling case for, in his wonderfully fine recent book – A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry: that writing and reading poems can bring order out of disorder, can heal. In his book he says: Lyric poets have always claimed that expressing emotions in words can heal, bringing a transformative sense of release and relief. And years ago Orr made similar claims in his book of essays: Poetry as Survival.

I cannot recommend A Primer for Poetsenough. A treasure chest of wisdom from forty years of teaching. It is filled with great poems,craft elements and writing prompts but it views the process of poetry, both reading and writing it, through a lens of seeing how poetry serves to hold words together – to forge them into solid but dynamic structures that contain and channel the chaotic inner and outer experience that we humans seek to express.

Because of the holistic way Orr looks at poetry (not separating the poet from her/his poetry) Orr’s new poetry handbook stands alone as a book a novice reader/writer or experienced reader/writer can learn from! A handbook of poetry and poems as life expressed in art not just an art form to be dissected and analyzed.

As I have learned to understand poetry through great teachers during the past fifteen years I would say that Orr has been one of my most influential teachers. He along with Canadian poet Patrick Lane. Teachers both through their courageous and redemptive lives and poetry. But Orr, especially now, a huge influence after I have been able to read the breadth and depth of his approach to poetry through his A Primer for Poets…The way he marries craft and its healing and ordering impact on reader and writer in a painful and disorderly world. His book, like few others, explains why poetry as therapy is no new-age idea and why it works. I see it’s efficacy in my poetry therapy work week after week.

Now, in his early seventies and recently retired from a forty-year-or-so  university teaching career, Orr continues to use poetry, as he would say, to restabalize his self, so horrifically destabalized by the accidental death of his brother Peter. If you look through Orr’s extensive poetic ouevre you will find poem after poem (including a number in the latest book) about the awful day when his brother died through the gun Orr was carrying. His practice of continuing to heal from that catastrophic experience.

But before his new book none of them I have read go quite into the journalistic and existential detail that his poem above does. Never, that I have seen, does he  so clearly outline his incomprehensible family history: that his father, who killed his best friend in a hunting accident as a boy, armed his own boys at an early age and then watched as Greg accidentally killed his brother. And even now at his age Orr’s utter bewilderment about this. How could such a thing, such a pattern be allowed to happen?

And what this poem does so revealingly is demonstrate the power of what he calls two critical aspects of poetry – craft and  quest. Craft is self explanatory. It is the use of structural elements to order words in a certain way for enhanced musical effect and for heightened impact and meaning. Quest, he claims is the intersection of your own personal life and the art of poetry in your time and place. It has to do with poetry and what poetry wants to do with you. It has to do with coming to understand who you are and who you hope to be when you are reborn through language and imagination as a poet.

You can see in his radical use of words that he is proposing that poetry is far more than an art form or craft. He says it is an act of huge personal transformation. And the four questions he associates with quest are: Where did I come from? What am I? Where am I going? and what am I here for?

In Orr’s poem it is easy to see the huge quest he is on still to make sense of a tortured family history. It may be harder to see the craft because of the plain-spoken nature of his poetry. But the craft is there. Short lines. The Lyric I. Declarative sentences. Then opinion, thinking ( that kind of coincidence isn’t credible…). Then a tangential discussion of what poetry is. Then the claim that the story is true.

For me the critical craft element is how he moves from the lyric I to the collective us or you or what he calls the mythic or collective tone. His focus widens dramatically to a place of trying to make existential sense of what the narrative told us. Now this is is not just his story. It’s our as well. These patterns in a life. And then the huge question that the collective us so often ask: But do you think God planned it? And Then his retort that includes a collective you: I’m happy for you if you/ Can explain it. Then after one more you he turns back to the I. And no longer is there questions,  a searching for an answer. Fully in his lyric I he states: It’s factual; it happened. Then his I addresses the collective: And because I want you to know/ How strange life is.

The quest seems evident. Orr finding a way to heal from a tragic event that has defined so much of his life. Trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. And so important in this poem, Orr telling us, the “you”, I want you to know/ How strange life is. And maybe in this trying to remind himself that in the end maybe that is all he can say. How strange life is. And in this find some kind of peace.

While I have recommended strongly Orr’s A Primer for Poets... I want also to recommend his latest book, The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write.  Crammed with wisdom. Hard won. And a celebration of lyric poetry like few others. So many poets he celebrates in his poems. And I am so moved in the book by how Orr continues to struggle to understand religion and God  in light of what happened to him. Many poems wrestling with this and yes, one about Jacob and his wrestling! For a searing look at his turn away from religion especially the day his brother died buy the book and read the poem And so.

But to end this blog post this poem: this shout of courage, resilience and hope. And the integrity of the shout coming from Orr and his history:

Into a thousand pieces?

Into a thousand pieces?
Must this rending
Really precede mending?

Scattered everywhere?
Some, lost in the dark,
As if never
To be found again?

Maybe life’s trying
To tell me
My heart
Was too small.

Now I start to regather
And when I am done
Maybe it will be larger-

a thousand and one.

Gregory Orr, ibid





  1. Liz
    Posted August 30, 2019 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Another tremendous post a Richard and two more books to buy ….

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted August 30, 2019 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    Hi Liz: You loyal reader you! Means so much to have such a thoughtful reader and poet reading my stuff!

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