According to Gregory Orr, writing poetry saved his life. Orr, a master of short, lyric-free verse and the author of 11 collections of poetry, says, “Humans have the impulse to write because it’s a safe place to go to a page. You can speak there. Poetry makes you feel as if you’re not alone in the world.”
As part of a presentation for JWU Charlotte students on “This I Believe”, the Campus Reads book for the 2016-17 academic year, Orr shared the story of a heartbreaking tragedy that led him on a path to poetry. In Orr’s essay, “The Making of Poems”, he discusses why poetry is a personal experience, and he shared this message with students.
When Orr was 12, he accidently killed his younger brother while hunting for deer in upstate New York. “This is not your fault, it was an accident,” his mother told him.
Shortly after, Orr's father convinced his family to move to Haiti so he could work in a hospital there. Orr viewed this as great news and as an escape. But tragedy followed Orr. While in Haiti, his mother passed away after complications from surgery and he discovered his father was struggling with addiction.
Only 14 at the time, Orr began searching for a meaningful path. He became a civil rights activist in Alabama, but that, too, le to trouble when he was kidnapped, beaten and thrown in jail. By the age of 18, Orr was a broken man.
“Violence isolates people,” he says. “I was left alone with some heavy stuff.”
And this was when he started writing.
“I made it up,“ says Orr. “It was about being a rock on the side of the ocean. I wanted release and freedom from being trapped. It made me feel free. I created an imaginary world. It was an image of how I felt. Alone and isolated.”
Orr kept focusing on the blank pages in front of him, filling the lines with a life that was full of order — and disorder — making sense of confusion, and bringing it all together in the short space of a poem.
“Writing poetry can help us live and affirm our own experiences,” he says. “Reading or listening to poetry helps us live. Is there anyone in this room who would have survived without songs to get us through adolescence? We need meaning in order to live. I believe poetry and song are concentrated forms of living to help us survive.”
Orr says there is no good or bad poetry. It’s personal. The blank page serves as a way to speak and feel safe. In Orr's case, he says poetry gave him the will to live.
“You can pour your guts out. Poetry gives you relief from pressure and channels your emotional life. A poem shapes what you release into something that is coherent.”