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Gregory Orr

Acclaimed Poet & Teacher

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • Poetry as Survival
  • An evening with Gregory Orr


“The Heart of Orr’s poetry, now as ever, is the enigmatic image…mystical, carnal, reflective, wry.” —San Francisco Review

“Poetry is the thread that leads us out of the labyrinth of despair and into the light.” —Gregory Orr

Considered by many to be a master of short, lyric free verse, Gregory Orr is the author of ten collections of poetry. His most recent volumes include The River Inside the River, published in 2013, How Beautiful The Beloved, and Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved. His other volumes of poetry include The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems (2002); Orpheus and Eurydice (2001); City of Salt, Finalist for the LA Times Poetry Prize; We Must Make a Kingdom of It; and The Red House.

Orr is also a writer of nonfiction and personal essays. His memoir The Blessing was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the fifty best non-fiction books of 2002. His personal essay This I Believe was broadcast on National Public Radio in 2006 and included in the anthology This I Believe (Holt, 2007). His essay about working as a teenager for the Civil Rights movement in the Deep South was selected for The Best American Creative Nonfiction (2009). His prose book, Poetry as Survival (University of Georgia Press, 2002), an extended meditation on the dynamics and function of the personal lyric, was characterized by Adrienne Rich as “a wise and passionate book.” Earlier prose collections include Richer Entanglements: Essays and Notes on Poetry and Poems (University of Michigan), and Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry (Columbia University Press).

Much of Gregory Orr’s early work is concerned with seminal events from his childhood, including a hunting accident when he was twelve in which he accidentally shot and killed his younger brother, followed shortly by his mother’s unexpected death, and his father’s later addiction to amphetamines. Some of the poems that deal explicitly with these incidents include “A Litany,” “A Moment,” and “Gathering the Bones Together,” in which he declares: “I was twelve when I killed him; / I felt my own bones wrench from my body.” In the opening of his essay, “The Making of Poems,” broadcast on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, Orr said, “I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions, and traumatic events that come with being alive.”

Orr has received many awards and fellowships, including an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA Fellowships, and a Rockefeller Fellowship at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Violence.

Orr teaches at the University of Virginia, where he founded the MFA Program in Writing in 1975, and served from 1978 to 2003 as Poetry Editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He lives with his wife, the painter Trisha Orr, and their two daughters in Charlottesville, Virginia.


Gregory Orr is the author of eleven collections of poetry. His most recent volumes include The River Inside the RiverHow Beautiful The Beloved, and Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved. His memoir, The Blessing, was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the fifty best non-fiction books of 2002. Orr has received many awards and fellowships, including an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA Fellowships, and a Rockefeller Fellowship at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Violence.


RIVER INSIDE THE RIVER (Poetry, 2013)
Three gorgeous poetic sequences that combine the intensity of lyric with the thematic scope and range of narrative and myth. In the first sequence, “Eden and After,” Orr retells the story of Adam and Eve. “The City of Poetry” explores a visionary metropolis where “every poem is a house, and every house is a poem.” River Inside the River focuses on redemption through the mysterious power of language to resurrect the beloved and recover what is lost. “River inside the river. / World within the world. // All we have is words // To reveal the rose // That the rose obscures.”

HOW BEAUTIFUL THE BELOVED (Poetry, 2009)
Gregory Orr explores the carnal ache of living and loving in this equable, full-bodied, and flowing collection. Through concise, perfectly formed poems, he wakes us to the ecstatic possibilities of recognizing and risking love, of pain transformed to beauty. His central message is joy—the urge to say “Yes”—with each poem revealing a brief moment of happiness or longing, another moment of living in the arms of the beloved. How Beautiful the Beloved chronicles not only the body of the beloved but also his or her mind, heart, and totality. Orr writes, “Not many of them, it’s true, / But certain poems / …bring us back / Always to the beloved.”

THE BLESSING (Memoir, 2006)
Orr’s gripping chronicle of his troubled boyhood is alternately self-conscious, moving, and revelatory. When he was a boy growing up in New York’s Hudson River Valley, Gregory accidentally shot and killed his younger brother Peter during a hunting excursion with their father, a philandering, amphetamine-addicted country doctor. Now in his fifties, Orr examines the corrosive effect of that loss on his parents’ marriage; the divine purpose of such loss; his destiny and the reason for his own survival amid a series of misadventures, which include the family’s sudden relocation to rural Haiti and Orr’s harrowing participation in civil rights activities in Mississippi in 1965. Upon Orr’s return from the Deep South, where he was imprisoned by local authorities, his high school English teacher took him for a walk through the David Smith fields near Lake George. Smith, the great American sculptor who had just died in a car accident, filled the fields in Bolton Landing, NY, with gigantic metal sculptures. Orr saw in them images of his own “martyr’s cross… alchemized and shining, metamorphosed… into a hundred expressive shapes…. Here was my blessing.” And there, a writer was born. Orr’s understanding of the tragic events of his life through the prism of art allows him to find serenity and stability. One can only wonder what the next installment of Orr’s life will look like on paper, for this one never fails to entertain, mystify, and surprise. —Publishers Weekly

CONCERNING THE BOOK THAT IS THE BODY OF THE BELOVED (Poetry, 2005)
This book-length sequence of ecstatic, visionary lyrics recalls Rumi in its search for the beloved and its passionate belief in the healing qualities of art and beauty. It is an incantatory celebration of the “Book,” an imaginary and self-gathering anthology of all the lyrics—both poems and songs—ever written, and it pushes the ecstatic lyric into epic realms. Gregory Orr discovers the Beloved in everything, everywhere, and reconnects us to our emotional lives. Each poem highlights a distinct aspect of the human condition. Together, the poems explore love, loss, restoration, the beauty of the world, the beauty of the beloved, and the mystery of poetry.


BLESSING (excerpt from memoir)

Do I dare say my brother’s death was a blessing? Who would recoil first from such a statement? A reader, unsure of its context, but instinctively uneasy with a sentiment? Or me, who knows more of the context than I sometimes think I can bear, having spent most of my life struggling with that death because I caused it? Can I keep my own nerve long enough to work my way through the strangeness of that word?

In French, the verb blesser means “to wound.” In English, “to bless” is to confer spiritual power on someone or something by words or gestures. When children are christened or baptized in some Christian churches, the priest or minister blesses them by sprinkling holy water on their faces. But the modern word has darker, stranger roots. It comes from the Old English bletsian which meant “to sprinkle with blood” and makes me think of ancient, grim forms of religious sacrifice where blood, not water, was the liquid possessing supernatural power—makes me remember standing as a boy so close to a scene of violence that the blood of it baptized me.

—from The Blessing

Do words outlast
The world
They describe?
Do the things
Fall away,
Leaving only
The husks
Of their names?

And what does
Their perishing
Ask of us?

Lift up, lift up:
A song
Could redeem them.
A poem
Could fill them
With life again.

Don’t we owe
The world
At least that much,
That gave itself
So freely to us?

***

Hold off, rain.
Of course, my garden
Craves water.
But the peonies
Are in full blossom.
If you fall now,
Their petals will
All be scattered.

Wait a day.
Let them feel
The pure joy
Of opening.

Fall tomorrow,
Then you can show
Them love
Is also a shattering.

—from Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved