A series of tragedies during his youth left Gregory Orr confused and disillusioned. Now, the University of Virginia professor believes poetry – and the making of poems – has helped him live and heal.
I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive.
When I was 12 years old, I was responsible for the death of my younger brother in a hunting accident. I held the rifle that killed him. In a single moment, my world changed forever. I felt grief, terror, shame and despair more deeply than I could ever have imagined. In the aftermath, no one in my shattered family could speak to me about my brother’s death, and their silence left me alone with all my agonizing emotions. And under those emotions, something even more terrible: a knowledge that all the easy meanings I had lived by until then had been suddenly and utterly abolished.
One consequence of traumatic violence is that it isolates its victims. It can cut us off from other people, cutting us off from their own emotional lives until we go numb and move through the world as if only half alive. As a young person, I found something to set against my growing sense of isolation and numbness: the making of poems.
When I write a poem, I process experience. I take what’s inside me — the raw, chaotic material of feeling or memory — and translate it into words and then shape those words into the rhythmical language we call a poem. This process brings me a kind of wild joy. Before I was powerless and passive in the face of my confusion, but now I am active: the powerful shaper of my experience. I am transforming it into a lucid meaning.
Because poems are meanings, even the saddest poem I write is proof that I want to survive. And therefore it represents an affirmation of life in all its complexities and contradictions.
An additional miracle comes to me as the maker of poems: Because poems can be shared between poet and audience, they also become a further triumph over human isolation.
Whenever I read a poem that moves me, I know I’m not alone in the world. I feel a connection to the person who wrote it, knowing that he or she has gone through something similar to what I’ve experienced, or felt something like what I have felt. And their poem gives me hope and courage, because I know that they survived, that their life force was strong enough to turn experience into words and shape it into meaning and then bring it toward me to share. The gift of their poem enters deeply into me and helps me live and believe in living.
Gregory Orr has taught at the University of Virginia since 1975, where he is Professor of English. He is the author of nine collections of poetry and is the recipient of National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships. Orr lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, the painter Trisha Orr.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.
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