Saturday, February 21, 2009

Can American Poetry Be Great Again?

My friend Elizabeth Oakes, author of The Farmgirl Poems, sent me a New York Times article that she saw posted on the Women's Poetry List about whether or not American poetry will ever be great again. It's a good article that raises a number of important questions about poetry and reading and the audience for the written word.

What do you think?

On Poetry
The Great(ness) Game

Published: February 19, 2009

In October, John Ashbery became the first poet to have an edition of his works released by the Library of America in his own lifetime. That honor says a number of things about the state of contemporary poetry — some good, some not so good — but perhaps the most important and disturbing question it raises is this: What will we do when Ashbery and his generation are gone? Because for the first time since the early 19th century, American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.

That may seem like a strange (and strangely fraught) way of putting things. But the concept of “greatness” has a special significance in the poetry world that it often lacks elsewhere — after all, in most areas of life, greatness is to be cherished, but it isn’t essential. The golf world idolizes Tiger Woods, sure, but duffers will still be heaving 9-irons into ponds long after Woods plays his last major. Poetry can’t be as confident about its own durability. Poetry has justified itself historically by asserting that no matter how small its audience or dotty its practitioners, it remains the place one goes for the highest of High Art. As Byron put it in a loose translation of Horace: “But poesy between the best and worst / No medium knows; you must be last or first: / For middling poets’ miserable volumes, / Are damn’d alike by gods, and men, and columns.” Poetry needs greatness.

Or so the thinking goes, anyway. The problem is that over the course of the 20th century, greatness has turned out to be an increasingly blurry business. In part, that’s a reflection of the standard narrative of postmodernism, according to which all uppercase ideals — Truth, Beauty, Justice — must come in for questioning. But the difficulty with poetic greatness has to do with more than the talking points of the contemporary culture wars. Greatness is — and indeed, has always been — a tangle of occasionally incompatible concepts, most of which depend upon placing the burden of “greatness” on different parts of the artistic process. Does being “great” simply mean writing poems that are “great”? If so, how many? Or does “greatness” mean having a sufficiently “great” project? If you have such a project, can you be “great” while writing poems that are only “good” (and maybe even a little “boring”)? Is being a “great” poet the same as being a “major” poet? Are “great” poets necessarily “serious” poets? These are all good questions to which nobody has had very convincing answers.

STILL, however blurry “greatness” may be, it’s clear that segments of the poetry world have been fretting over its potential loss since at least 1983. That’s the year in which an essay by Donald Hall, the United States poet laureate from 2006 to 2007, appeared in The Kenyon Review bearing the title “Poetry and Ambition.” Hall got right to the point: “It seems to me that contemporary American po etry is afflicted by modesty of ambition — a modesty, alas, genuine . . . if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense.” What poets should be trying to do, according to Hall, was “to make words that live forever” and “to be as good as Dante.” They probably would fail, of course, but even so, “the only way we are likely to be any good is to try to be as great as the best.” Pretty strong stuff — and one wonders how many plays Shakespeare would have managed to write had he subjected every line to the merciless scrutiny Hall recommends.

Yet many of Hall’s points are still being wrangled over more than 20 years later. In 2005, Poetry magazine published a round-table discussion entitled (naturally) “Ambition and Greatness,” in which participants were alternately put off by the entire idea of “capital-G Great” (as the poet Daisy Fried put it) or concerned that, as the scholar Jeredith Merrin suggested, the contemporary poetry world might be trying “to rewrite ‘great’ as small.” What no participant did, though, was question the im plicit premise that greatness isn’t something American poets can take for granted, but rather something they should subject to the analysis of a panel. No one, for instance, said, “Well, obviously we are living in an age of great and hugely ambitious American poetry, so let’s talk about [insert name(s)] and how we all admire and envy [insert work of timeless relevance].” No one even mustered the contrarian hyperbole with which William Carlos Williams greeted “The Waste Land”: “It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned to dust.” Instead, the panelists bickered mildly over Elizabeth Bishop (who had been dead for more than 25 years) and Frank O’Hara (who was born 15 years after Bishop but died in 1966), with Adam Kirsch concluding, “Good and enduring as they are, . . . there is something not quite right about calling them great, in the sense that Eliot and Whitman and Dickinson are great.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for either poet. And yet the ambivalence about Bishop’s status in particular is worth pausing over for two reasons. One relates to the structure of the poetry world, and I’ll get to it shortly. The other has to do with the fact that, as I touched on above, words like “great” have a tendency to get a little squirrelly when applied to complex disciplines like poetry. In relatively straightforward activities, such words aren’t as much of a problem. If we’re looking at a series of foot races, for example, it’s not hard to see who finished first the most times (or had the highest average finish), and as a result, whether we call a given runner “great” or “excellent” or “terrific,” we’ll generally have the same thing in mind. Not so with poetry. A list of “great” poets will look quite a bit different from a list of “perfect” poets, which may have almost no overlap with a list of “spectacular” poets, which in turn may be completely different from a list of “sublime” poets. When we talk about poetic greatness, we’re talking about style and persona, even when (or maybe, especially when) we think we aren’t.

OUR largely unconscious assumptions work like a velvet rope: if a poet looks the way we think a great poet ought to, we let him or her into the club quickly — and sometimes later wish we hadn’t. If poets fail to fit our assumptions, though, we spend a lot more time checking out their outfits, listening to their friends’ importuning, weighing the evidence, waiting for a twenty and so forth. Of course, this matters only for poets whose reputations are still at issue. It may have taken Emily Dickinson 100 years to get into the club, but now that she’s there, she’s there. For contemporaries and near contemporaries, though, falling on the wrong side of our intuitions can mean trouble, because those intuitions give rise to chatter and criticism and scholarship that can take decades to clear away.

What, then, do we assume greatness looks like? There is no one true answer to that question, no neat test or rule, since our unconscious assumptions are by nature unsystematic and occasionally contradictory. Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.” And the persona we associate with greatness is something, you know, exceptional — an aristocrat, a rebel, a statesman, an apostate, a mad-eyed genius who has drunk from the Fountain of Truth and tasted the Fruit of Knowledge and donned the Beret of. . . . Well, anyway, it’s somebody who takes himself very seriously and demands that we do so as well. Greatness implies scale, and a great poet is a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way.

It’s risky, then, to write poems about the tiny objects on your desk. But that’s exactly what Bishop did — and that choice helps explain why she was for a long time considered obviously less “great” than her close friend Robert Lowell. As the poet David Wojahn noted in a letter in response to Poetry’s panel, Lowell was “probably the last American poet to aspire to Greatness in the old- fashioned, capital-G sense.” Lowell had the style: his poetry is bursting with vast claims, sparkling abstractions and vehement denunciations of the servility of the age. And Lowell had the persona: he was a thunderbolt- chucking wild man from one of America’s most famous Bostonian lineages. Bishop, on the other hand, had neither. Her poems open with lines like “I caught a tremendous fish,” and she’s invariably described by critics as “shy,” “modest,” “charming” and so forth. Yet it’s Bishop’s writing, not Lowell’s, that matters more in the poetry world today. “What is strange,” the poet-critic J. D. McClatchy writes, “is how her influence . . . has been felt in the literary culture. John Ashbery, James Merrill and Mark Strand, for instance, have each claimed Bishop as his favorite poet. . . . Since each of them couldn’t be more different from one another, how is it possible?”

It’s possible, one might answer, because Bishop was a great poet, if we take “great” to mean something like “demonstrating the qualities that make poetry seem interesting and worthwhile to such a degree that subsequent practitioners of the art form have found her work a more useful resource than the work of most if not all of her peers.” But our assumptions about how greatness should look, like our assumptions about how people should look, are more subtle and stubborn than we realize. So in certain segments of the poetry world, the solution has been to make Bishop what you might call “great with an asterisk.” In particular, there has been a persistent effort to pair her with the less-talented but greater-looking Lowell, a ploy that resembles the old high school date movie tactic of sending the bookish plain Jane to the prom with the quarterback. (When her glasses are slowly removed by the right man, she’s revealed to have been, all along, totally hot!) In reviewing “Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell” for the Book Review recently, William Logan carried this tendency to its logical if nutty conclusion, depicting the two poets as star-crossed lovers despite the fact that (a) Bishop was a lesbian; and (b) Lowell’s only romantic overture to Bishop in their 30-year friendship — and this was a man who would’ve made a pass at a fire hydrant — was met with polite silence by its intended recipient. Yet while this flight of fancy is almost comically unfair to both writers, it does give us a workable if unwieldy model of greatness. Bishop wrote the poems, Lowell acted the part, and if you simply look back and forth fast enough between the two while squinting, it’s possible to see a single Great Poet staring back at you.

Which brings us to the point I mentioned earlier about the structure of the poetry world. Greatness isn’t simply a matter of potentially confusing concepts; it’s also a practical question about who gets to decide what about whom. Our assumptions about poetic greatness are therefore linked to the reputation-making structures of the poetry world — and changes in those structures can have peculiar effects on our thinking. For most of the 20th century, the poetry world resembled a country club. One had to know the right people; one had to study with the right mentors. The system began to change after the G.I. Bill was introduced (making a university-level poetic education possible for more people), and that change accelerated in the 1970s, as creative writing programs began to flourish. In 1975, there were 80 such programs; by 1992, there were more than 500, and the accumulated weight of all these credentialed poets began to put increasing pressure on poetry’s old system of personal relationships and behind-the-scenes logrolling. It would be a mistake to call today’s poetry world a transparent democracy (that whirring you hear is the sound of logs still busily being rolled), but it’s more democratic than it used to be — and far more middle class. It’s more of a guild now than a country club. This change has brought with it certain virtues, like greater professionalism and courtesy. One could argue that it also made the poetry world more receptive to writers like Bishop, whose style is less hoity-toity than, say, Eliot’s. But the poetry world has also acquired new vices, most notably a tedious careerism that encourages poets to publish early and often (the Donald Hall essay I mentioned earlier is largely a criticism of this very tendency). Consequently, it’s not hard to feel nostalgic for the way things used to be; or at least, the way we imagine they used to be. And this nostalgia often manifests as a preference for a particular kind of “greatness.”

The easiest way to see this phenomenon in action is to look at a peculiar development in American poetry that has more or less paralleled the growth of creative-writing programs: the lionization of poets from other countries, especially countries in which writers might have the opportunity to be, as it were, shot. In most ways, of course, this is an admirable development that puts the lie to talk about American provincialism. In other ways, though, it can be a bit cringe-worthy. Consider how Robert Pinsky describes the laughter of the Polish √©migr√© and Nobel Prize-winning dissident Czeslaw Milosz: “The sound of it was infectious, but more precisely it was commanding. His laughter had the counter-authority of human intelligence, triumphing over the petty-minded authority of a regime.” That’s one hell of a chuckle. The problem isn’t that Pinsky likes and admires Milosz; it’s that he can’t hear a Polish poet snortle without having fantasies about barricades and firing squads. He’s by no means alone in that. Many of us in the American poetry world have a habit of exalting foreign writers while turning them into cartoons. And we do so because their very foreignness implies a distance — a potentially “great” distance — that we no longer have from our own writers, most of whom make regular appearances on the reading circuit and have publicly available office phones.

In addition, non-American writers are the perfect surface upon which to project our desire for the style and persona we associate with old-fashioned greatness. One hesitates to invoke the dread word “colonialism” here, but sometimes you’ve got to call a Mayflower a May flower. How else, really, to explain the reverse condescension that allows us to applaud pompous nonsense in the work of a Polish poet that would be rightly skewered if it came from an American? Milosz, for instance, wrote many fine poems, but he was also regularly congratulated for lines like: “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people? / A connivance with official lies, / A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment, / Readings for sophomore girls.” Any sophomore girl worth her copy of “A Room of One’s Own” would kick him in the shins.

It may be starting to sound as if greatness isn’t all that great; that it’s simply another strategy for concealing predictable prejudices that poets should forswear on their path to becoming wise and tolerant 21st-century artists. That is, however, almost the opposite of the truth. Yes, greatness narrowly defined to mean a particular, windily dull type of writing is something we could all do without, and long may its advocates gag on their pipe smoke and languish in their tweeds. But the idea that poets should aspire to produce work “exquisite in its kind,” as Samuel Johnson once put it, is one of the art form’s most powerful legacies. When we lose sight of greatness, we cease being hard on ourselves and on one another; we begin to think of real criticism as being “mean” rather than as evidence of poetry’s health; we stop assuming that poems should be interesting to other people and begin thinking of them as being obliged only to interest our friends — and finally, not even that. Perhaps most disturbing, we stop making demands on the few artists capable of practicing the art at its highest levels. Instead, we cling to the ground in those artists’ shadows — John Ashbery’s is enormous at this point — and talk about how rich the darkness is and how lovely it is to be a mushroom. This doesn’t help anyone. What we should be doing is asking why a poet as gifted as Ashbery has written so many poems that are boring or repetitive (or both), because such questions will allow us to better understand the poems he has written that are moving and funny and beautiful. Such questions might even allow other poets — especially younger poets — to find their own ways of writing poems that are moving and funny and beautiful. Which for those of us who read them, for those of us who believe in them, would be a very great thing indeed.


Rupert said...

Nice piece, tho it harrows familiar ground . . . ;)
My first writers confab was at Sewanee - Fiction was my mode, but the poets there: Hecht, Wilbur, Kumin, Wolcott, Jarman, Hudgens, Davidson and their oft-quarreling-students- at-late-night-wine-binges introduced me to the passion of history that so animates poets . . .

Ron Slate said...

I always enjoy David Orr's commentaries, even when he stretches out an opinion a bit too far. In this case, I think he's being churlish when ridiculing American poets for a fascination with major global poets. For me, "greatness" is an enigmatic topic. Although the American poetry world is rife with award committees, their choices don't seem to result in consensus on greatness. Orr makes a decent attempt at explaining why this is so -- the postmodern critique of authority in the arts, the resistance to taste-makers beyond their 15 minutes of fame. He believes, apparently, that there are no major/great poets rising up behind Ashbery and other important names now in their 60s, 70s and 80s. I'd like to hear more from Orr about this. Lowell seemed great to us because his artistic and personal transformations seemed to represent and enhance our sense of change in the 60s and early 70s. And perhaps this is the key -- there was such a thing as "our sense." The perspective today seems more dilute, provisional, confused, driven into niches, resistant to "standards" -- and happy to have it this way. Lowell had a belief that there was a substantial and identifiable audience for his work for whom "Lowell" and that word's cultural heritage meant something. I believe "greatness" will persist as a concept -- because we love to find metaphor in the lives of artists and poets (the life of a poet in his/her poems IS a metaphor for something) and certain lives are bound to gather up special significance. We may or may not see it now in the younger generations, but we will, I think. Meantime, even though David may kid me for doing so, I do love those great global poets.

Urkat said...

Let me add a few comments since this is a subject I have invested a lot of thought in. Several points:

1. American poetry hasn't reached its pinnacle. Typically, great poetry occurs when a nation has passed its prime and is in decline as America is now. If it's not done by those writing now, it probably won't be done at all.

2. A great poet is a major poet. It's not enough to write a great poem like Thomas Gray, for example. To be great, a poet must have an oeuvre, or fairly large body of work, much of it of very high quality.

3. Shakespeare holds up. Every line may not shine like a diamond, but many do. Also, he was only the greatest in an age that included many great poets.

4. While the definition of greatness is debatable, great and ideal are two different things. Pope was the greatest poet of his time, but far from ideal, and wrote no perfect poems.

5. Greatness emerges from a tradition. Great works often borrow from and build on earlier works, but we forget where they were borrowed from and so they seem to stand alone. Without Joseph Heller, there would be no Pynchon, without Shelley's Ozymandias, we would not have Yeats' Second Coming.

6. A great poet is a large talent who often builds his or her Taj Mahal from very common materials, and whose work contrasts favorably with works of the preceding generation.

martin stepek said...

Interesting but ultimately navel-gazing essay. Only future times and peoples determine what is great and what is not and even those choices change over the decades and centuries. Thus the great English poet William Blake and the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, amongst many others, were unknown and derided by many in their lifetimes. So we can't know now if current poets may be deemed great in the future.

Secondly it's irrelevant. A poet writes and that's an end to it. Whether they write great poetry or poor poetry is not really within their control, and even if it were, the poet is not the one to judge his or her own work. Just write and ignore the ego-driven yearning for greatness or fame beyond the grave. All that stuff is the junk of the mind. Write your soul out and love the process. Nothing else matters when writing poetry.

Martin Stepek

John Guzlowski said...

I got there comments from poet John Minczeski, and he said it was okay to post:

Having read David Orr's essay only once, I was struck by several things: He decries Milosz for writing some lines that just aren't great. Well, OK. How many lines in Endymion aren't that great, either. But he seems to go overboard in his dismissal of Milosz, and by implication the other Polish poets. Granted, we're at the mercy of translators here, but dismissing poets because they withstood the horrors of World War II, and who developed their own ways of creating poetry out of it, strikes me as breathtakingly easy. And then to admit that Ashbury also has some slack lines in the next sentence?

I admit I read the essay first thing this morning, as a way of putting off shoveling the driveway, but isn't Orr postulating a great man theory of poetry (notwithstanding Dickinson and Bishop): a poetry boss like Pound or Eliot with the ability to anoint his successors?

That he bemoans the democratization of poetry strikes me as rank Republicanism, along the lines of Dana Gioia's "Can Poetry Matter," which came out maybe a generation ago. Or worse, it laments the rabble of poets, the sheer numbers shat out of the burgeoning MFA programs around the country (writing, what Harvard-educated Hall called "mcpoems"), much the same way that Keats was criticized as exemplifying the "Cockney School of Poetry."

Every few years, someone comes out to lament the sorry state of American poetry. If it's not Orr, it's the president of The Poetry Foundation--sorry his name slips my name just now--who also lamented the lack of an heir-apparent to Ashbury. Meanwhile, there's the great unwashed mob of poets out there, toiling away like ants in the realm of the not-so-great: Dada poets, surrealist poets, funny poets, tragic ones, lousy ones, imagistes, and so on, none of them as popular as Longfellow was, or Byron.

The irony is that essays like this sell far better than poems do, as Jarrell mentioned in "Poetry and the Age." People actually beat their breasts for awhile. And then go back to their mcpoems. Or whatever.

John Guzlowski said...

The greatest American poet?

It's the kind of question that one would expect around this time of year -- along with the various awards that have been given out recently for TV shows and music videos and movies.

But I think that we can all agree that Orr is confusing greatness with celebrity. Celebrity is something you can pin down with data, facts like "What percent of Americans can recognize this poet's face" and "How many blog sites have included mentions of this poet."

It's not so easy to pin down greatness. It's stardust and the kiss of the muses; it's what the old gods give us to remind us they're still with us.

Marty said...

This piece just pissed me off. Check out what Terry Hummer says about it over at Mindbook.

Anonymous said...

beginning with 19th C, Whitman, Dickinson; HD, Wallace Stevens, Paul Blackburn, Marianne Moore, Robert Hayden, Nikki Giovanni, Julia Spicher Kasdorf, Madeline Tiger, Tom Weatherly, Frank O'Hara, Denise Levertov, LeRoi, if you stop at his first two books of poems, okay, okay Ashbery, e.e.c., Russell Atkins, and there are a few more or so. Some of these have won prizes, some not, but ask other poets of their influence, though in the case of some it's one or two regions of influence.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I must add don't give me a list of who your picks for great poet status are because my own are more important to me than any you may choose. I wouldn't include Nikki Giovanni for one, but I would list Audre Lorde near the top, and Adrienne Rich and Genevieve Taggard and Stephen Vincent Binet, and Langston Huges, and Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and W.D. Snodgrass, (who just died last month and was one of my earliest poet/teachers)and those names I would list as great U.S. poets are just for starters. Who said some are born great, others have greatness thrust upon them. I can't recall. But it seems to fit this discussion. I too take offense at Orr's using Polish poets, particularly Czeslaw Milosz, as some sort of poetic Polish joke. Stop it I say. I do know that the proliferation of creative writing programs is probably not going to be an assist in the long run - and is there any other in terms of poetic greatness. Somewhere along the way the U.S. university system decided there was money to be made from writer wannabes and also confused literacy with literary, I think. Chrisitna Pacosz

John Guzlowski said...

Hi, Christina, Terry Hummer at his blog Mindblog suggested that we replace the word great with the word necessary. So we would think of necessary poetry rather than great poetry.

MattParks said...

I wonder if perhaps the role of the reader isn't being marginalized in the perceived decline Orr is describing. Seems to me that the metamorphosis of the audience for American poetry has as much of a transformative effect than does the perceived "modesty of ambition" (to use Hall's phrase) of contemporary American poets.

John Guzlowski said...

I received the following comment about great poems she's read from poet Marian Shapiro:

One poem, a ‘small’ ‘great’ one, in my opinion, is the following:

You’re probably familiar with it. Another is Kunitz’s The Portrait:

and many of the others in his several books (he was my first poetry writing teacher, lucky me, when I was 16).

and the first poem that turned my head towards poetry, James Agee’s No Doubt Left. Enough Deceiving.

No doubt left. Enough deceiving.
Now I know you do not love.
Now you know I do not love.
Now we know we do not love.
No more doubt. Enough deceiving.

Yet there is pity in us for each other
And better times are almost fresh as true.
The dog returns. And the man to his mother.
And tides. And you to me. And me to you.
And we are cowardly kind the cruelest way,
Feeling the cliff unmorsel from our heels
And knowing balance gone, we smile, and stay
A little, whirling our arms like desperate wheels.

Appeared in print first in 1935.

John Guzlowski said...

Hi, Matt, your comment reminded me of something Whitman said. "To have great poets there must be great audiences."

Do we have great audiences?

Great readers?

I think the answer is pretty clear.

John Guzlowski said...

My friend poet Charles Fishman wrote:

Once a poet claims that Bishop was the true poet & wrote real (even great) poetry, while Lowell merely acted the part, I find myself losing touch with the atmosphere of the earth & drifting into the darker folds of the universe.

Urkat said...

"Who said some are born great, others have greatness thrust upon them. I can't recall."

That's funny, you can remember Snodgrass but not Shakespeare.

Urkat said...

Postmodernists eschew all standards, which has a leveling effect. Nothing can be called great, or even good, without seeming to dismiss a lot of other not-so-great poets. If greatness doesn't validate our tastes, we reject it. We wouldn't use the same scale to measure athletes or repairmen.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for passing on the term necessary, John, I like that much better I think than great when it comes to poetry. And thanks also to Urkat for reminding me it was Shakespeare who said that about greatness.I never met the bard, but W.D. Snodgrass visited our summer creative writing class (for high school students) at Olivet College several times in 1963 and left quite an impression. Christina Pacosz

John Guzlowski said...

I got this Peter Krupkowski:

I read it. Jeez, what a long winded blowhard. The term pretentious twaddle comes to mind. The piece is completely fatuous and nearly void of semantic content. If this is what passes for intellectual discourse ( of course it's in the stodgy old NY Times...) in this country; it's no wonder people will fall for just about any kind of scam and then want to be bailed out by the rest of us. I wonder if the editor who paid for this piece wants to invest in a bridge?
It's clowns like the guy responsible for this blatherskite, who turn people in droves away from poetry and literature because they are so opinionated but empty headed that no one with any sense wants to have anything to do with them. Just ask any high school kid who likes to read what it's like to face this sort drivel on a day to day basis from equally dunderheaded lit. teachers. It's enough to make you want to bring your gun to school.

Urkat said...

To Peter Krupowski:

I think you left out a few terms, like bilgewater, horsefeathers, katzenjammer, motley fools, verbal miscegenation, malapropisms, and clodhoppers.

Phil Boiarski said...

I don't agree with the premise. I have tons of American poets that I think are "great." Philip Levine, Mark Strand, Heather McHugh, I could go on, but it's not my point. Orr acts as if he is the National Poet's League sideline judge and we have not had a Johnny Unitas or Bart Starr in ever so long that he laments. And I reject his premise, we are in a time when we have lots of great poems. It is not as if Mr. Unitas and Mr. Star threw a touchdown every play. The art is vibrant and changing, being accepted by young people, being pursued by thousands of extremely devoted and talented full time poets in a way we have never seen in the history of literature. I look forward to thousands of great poems. Mr. Orr can go off in the corner with his limited vision of poetry and greatness.

Urkat said...

Whatever other characteristics so-called post-modernists and post-post-modernists use to basically discredit the past so they can dictate taste to the less enlightened, their list of great poets must include many of those in the so-called western canon, from the Greeks to at least the Renaissance. No standards they erect can displace great poets like Chaucer, Dante, Petrarch, Milton, etc. and replace them with others of their own choosing. The present may be a shooting match, but the past is done.

John Guzlowski said...

Poet and co-editor of Rhino, Helen Degen Cohen sent me the following and asked me to post it as a comment here:

Helen wrote: I've been a great fan of Donald Hall's article of the '80s -- Poetry and Ambition -- all these years. I've passed it around at our Rhino Poetry Forum monthly, I've brought it to workshops. So I'm very glad that the "argument" is renewed. Though it really is not so much about who is great as it is about trying to be greater, instead of, say, trying to get a poem into the New Yorker in order to get a job or a friend. If you can dig up Hall's essay, it's always current. And Orr's essay is likewise admirable.

I'm among those who often finds a "foreign" writer more compelling than an American one, though this may not be as true of dead poets. But we're starting a Translation Prize at Rhino this year in part because two of us found a poem in translation to be one of the most compelling and striking poems in this issue.

I do believe that too many writing programs and workshops create too many workshopped poems, though I don't know what to do about it. It's nice that so many Americans are in creative writing programs, and less nice that I don't read 99% of the poetry that gets delivered to my door, though to be fair, it's in large part a time issue -- but not entirely. And what may be added to the essay is that a country that is so busy with other aims can't possibly produce or even read or discern great poetry. Only a few of us, a very few, would find that a luxury. Hardly anyone goes panning for gold any more.