by Gregory Orr
The University of Georgia Press, 2002
Poet Jack Ridl recommended Poetry as Survival. And I will be forever grateful to him. The book is like nothing I’ve ever read on the value of poetry for healing and wholeness.
Gregory Orr’s story is stark. He killed his brother. Playing around with a shotgun when they were young, the gun, held by Orr, discharged accidentally. The horror of that fact, that moment, that memory will never leave him. Poetry and writing help him survive. Orr quotes author Isak Dinesan to support his conviction (and hope) that, “Any story can be borne if it can be made into a story, or if a story can be told about it.”
It is lyric poetry that Orr discusses – that poetic form that keeps our eyes and ears and heart focused on human emotion, human response to tragedy, to loss, to longing. He probes how the writing, reading and listening to lyric poetry have helped people through generations and across cultures survive personal suffering and loss.
In every chapter he intersperses his own story and poetry with the poetry and stories of others who have suffered as well as other great lyric poets (Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, Owen for example) in an artistic montage, even collage if you will. Chapter by chapter he bears witness to poetry’s healing power, offering his observations in two parts: Part I – The Self, Jeopardy, and Song and Part II – Trauma and Transformation. And, if the reader is interested, he offers three appendices. Three more scholarly writings on the subject: Sacred and Secular Lyric, The Social Lyric and the Personal Lyric and Incarnating Eros.
I draw frequently from this book in a writing group I lead for Hospice. It is a group where those whose loved ones have died, can express themselves through writing as well as preserve stories of loved ones they or others forget. More than one person in that group has chosen to borrow my copy of Poetry as Survival when I bring it to share. They do not keep it long however. Not because they cannot bear to read it – but because of their need to own their own copy. They need to be able to underline, turn over the corners of pages so they find again, when they need them most, the passages that gave voice to their sorrow as well as their hope – for tomorrow.