I've been impressed by the lists and comments readers have contributed. As I suspected, there is some general overlap on the lists and also a great deal of diversity, suggesting variance in how we might define "greatness."
Most of the writers on everyone's lists enjoy powerful reputations, which always makes me wonder if we associate "fame" with "greatness." Do we all really think Wordsworth is great, or, is all of the information out there proclaiming his greatness just noise in an already noisy world? And, even more interestingly, does knowing (and acknowledging) Wordsworth's greatness confirm our own intelligence--our own ability to see and determine greatness?
Is cultural literacy just one big cycle of self-congratulation?
A few years ago, I asked one of my classes to name the five most important living Americans. A couple of students offered up "Donald Trump." I was flummoxed. Big-haired, sure. Rich, okay. But great? Really? Great? But, we often mistake "prominence" for "importance." We certainly do that with celebrities and sports figures--who is to say we don't also do that with poets?
Tommasini was chided by some readers for the role "influence" played in his rubric of greatness. Influence is different than prominence, but they are linked. For him, the frequency (and degree) a composer like Bach affected other composers is telling. The problem with influence lies, again, in exposure. A relatively unknown writer is less likely to be influential when no one knows about her--think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, or Emily Dickinson. So, while I'm wholly sympathetic to influence, I'm also a tad skeptical of it.
For others, greatness is less about the internal accomplishments of a piece of music or literature but its ability to alter the world. The literary critic Jane Tompkins has advocated for a new barometer of literary greatness--what she calls "cultural work." Tompkins argues that even though most scholars and professors praise writers like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, they actually sold very few books during their lifetimes and made almost no impact on American society at large. Tompkins contrasts them with writers like Brockden Brown, Susan Warner, James Fenimore Cooper, and especially Harriet Beacher Stowe. All four of these authors were wildly popular, and there is evidence that their books had great influence on the day-to-day lives of Americans. In the case of Uncle Tom's Cabin, it changed history. It was the first American novel to sell over a million copies, and it is probably the most important factor for galvanizing middle-class white Americans against slavery. And yet, as a work of art, it is considered "sentimental," "cliched," "emotional," "predictable," and, well, just lame. Very few scholars or authors identify it a "great" novel, but it was, without a doubt, the most important American book of the 19th century.
Poems tend to incite revolutions less than other works (think of Thomas Paine's great political pamphlet Common Sense or Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels), but poetry does have a great reputation for being the genre of literary resistance. I can tell you right now that for me, a poet's ability to affect social movements, to alter political discourse, and to be a mouthpiece for the oppressed will, in some way, figure in to my own notion of greatness. For me, greatness is not just about scope or ambition but inclusion and transformation.
But, what about you? What are your criteria for greatness? What must a great poet possess beyond a turtleneck and a beret?
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