David Orr, the poetry critic for the NY Times, tells of meeting a woman at a party and when she asked the question we all ask of new people these days, "What do you do?" he said, "I'm a poetry critic."
"Oh! How can you do that? Poetry is so . . . so PERSONAL."
And so Orr begins his slim book Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, by addressing the question of just how personal modern confessional poetry really is. Writing about one's misery and disappointment and personal failings can start to sound the same when everyone is doing it, and not very cleverly at that. But one of the most personal poems he knows, says Orr, is John O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died," and especially the last few lines:
"... I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
"and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing"
It made me stop breathing for a moment.
Orr quotes from dozens of modern poets and has an entertaining chapter about the formalists, one of whom includes in his book of sonnets a 14-line poem with one word per line. Is it a sonnet? I think it is and I loved it as I did all of these essays.