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On Greatness

[This essay was written in March 2009, over at my blog Chicks Dig Poetry, at the urging of fellow Red-Roomer Amy King, and in response to David Orr's essay "The Great(ness) Game," which appeared in the New York Times.] 

  Anyone who has spent time in a debating society (guilty) recognizes that Orr is taking an extreme posture in order to clarify the issues for a general audience. Polarization is memorable; equivocation is boring. This doesn’t bother me. Folks, after all, this is space in The New York Times Book Review that might have otherwise gone to 2009’s umpteenth book about Lincoln or Darwin.  

 The key is just to blow past the straw men. Slamming Czeslaw Milosz by cherrypicking a few weak lines out of “Dedication,” an otherwise killer poem? Lines that have already had to go through the filter of translation? Really? But it’s easy to get sidetracked, by awe and vitriol, from making more substantive points. 

 Accepting his terms of debate, let me respond with some premises of my own:

  Walt Whitman was not a Great poet. He had an ear for musical, moving rhetoric that could have easily taken speech or essay form. He pandered to public opinion. 

  Pablo Neruda was not a Great poet. He lacked discipline as an editor and reviser. He wrote political poetry that bordered on propaganda, and had a weakness for lovelorn sentiment.

  Emily Dickinson was not a Great poet. She absconded on her responsibility to address the issues of her age. Her work does not show any significant stylistic evolutions: those dashes mark the canter of a one-trick pony.

  Now, prove me wrong. 

  I make these assertions not because I truly think Whitman, Neruda, or Dickinson are not Great. (I’ve actually hosted “Flirting with the Masters” poetry readings devoted to two of the three.) But I want to point out that once you peel off such a subjective label, it’s hard to get it to go back on straight. The label has lost some of its sticky. 

  Usually, people use one of two techniques to assign Greatness. The first is to cite individual poems as proof. This is a treacherous path. For every “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” there is an “O Captain! My Captain!” The quality of available translations, or archiving of the poet’s oeuvre, comes into play. 

  The second technique is to cite the influence of that poet on subsequent poets. I like this approach, and one of the better sections of Orr’s essay is when he quotes J.D. McClatchy on the reach of Elizabeth Bishop’s influence to poets as diverse as John Ashbery, James Merrill, and Mark Strand. This tactic implicitly honors poets who have been active community builders through correspondence, mentorship, or editing. And it also gives us a way to un-anoint poets who were anthologized as “Greats” by peers, but have since been recognized as uneven or better suited to other genres. (Thomas Hardy, I’m looking at you.)

  Does this mean that Greatness requires a certain curatorial instinct toward your work? Absolutely. Sorry if that seems distasteful, but there was a reason William Blake treated each poem as work of visual as well as verbal art. Walt Whitman ghost-wrote one of his own reviews. Emily Dickinson, even as a recluse, cultivated a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higgingson—who drew her attention via his “Advice for Young Writers” piece in The Atlantic. 

  Want more? Langston Hughes already had a book coming out, but craved the mainstream attention that could come from tucking his poems under Vachel Lindsay’s supper plate. Pablo Neruda wrote a memoir that took great care situating himself in the constellation of great artists: Federico Garcia Lorca, Borges, Picasso. Ted Hughes did not want to die without having putting Birthday Letters out there in response to a generation of Plath fanatics. 

  Poets have always been egoists. Careerism is not a “new vice” bred by MFA programs, as Orr claims. It’s a tradition as old as the troubadour pleasing the court.   So what’s the problem again? Orr dredges up Donald Hall’s essay on “Poetry and Ambition,” suggesting epic drive is lacking in today’s poets. I just don’t believe that. A.E. Stallings is translating Lucretius. Thomas Sayers Ellis is not only writing provocative poems, he’s articulating a poetics of sound. Kenneth Goldsmith is probably tucked away in his conceptual mad scientist’s lab right now, giggling as he pours a test tube of adverbs into a beaker of train times. 

  Love or hate the contest system, I think it has caused more poets to think in terms of big, book-length “projects” than ever before. Some of the results are startling, whether they end up winning the National Poetry Series (Tyehimba Jess’s leadbelly) or come into the world via an Espresso Book Machine (Michael Schiavo’s Mad Song). Read Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life or Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler before you tell me today’s poets lack ambition. 

  So ambition is at hand. Careerism is at play, but it always has been. Why does Orr find it so hard to slap the shiny foil medallion of Greatness on the next generation? 

  Well, if one goes with the tactic of assigning Greatness based on demonstrable impact—influence on peers an subsequent generations—then we do have a slight problem. And Orr is right to lay that problem at the feet of the almighty MFA, but he’s so entrenched in knee-jerk criticisms that he fails to elucidate why. The problem is that graduate programs obscure genuine stylistic lineages because “influence” becomes conflated with “mentorship.” Direct exposure to Great or Great-ish Poets becomes a tangible commodity. You admire a poet’s work? You pay to go have her sit on your thesis committee. 

  We end up with these strange artifacts of first books where a Big Name poet might be thanked in the liner notes—or featured in a blurb on the back cover—and we don’t know if there is genuine resonance in style, or if he/she just happens to know the student through an academic setting. And I admit, this is disheartening. It lacks the romance of James Tate backpacking around Italy in search of Ezra Pound. But it’s not a genuine roadblock; it just means we have to be a little more patient. I would venture that if the first book used to be the keystone of a poet’s aesthetic affiliation, for this and future generations it will turn out to be the second or even the third book, after the dust of networking has settled. 

  As Annie Finch recently pointed out, T.S. Eliot was primary in advancing the idea that Great poets must situate themselves in a tradition. While listening to craft lectures at the Sewanee Conference this past summer, I could hear poets beyond mid-career lay the groundwork for their critical affiliations. Mary Jo Salter talked about her mentorship at the hands of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Amy Clampitt. Mark Strand spoke movingly of the luminous, active truths in Wallace Stevens’s work. 

  But this doesn’t prove that Mark Strand is a Great poet (though I think he could be), or that Mary Jo Salter is a Great poet. What will really seal the deal is when Eric McHenry gives a craft talk citing Mary Jo Salter, which then allows us to connect him to Elizabeth Bishop, and only then will Salter be caught in the net of Greatness. Or when Michael Dumanis talks about studying with Mark Strand at Johns Hopkins, and learning to appreciate Wallace Stevens from there. Jorie Graham, for all her detractors, could be a Great poet. Somewhere out there is a brilliant, emerging, twenty-something poet who traces her work from Graham to Adrienne Rich. That’s a craft talk I want to hear. But maybe the youngster goes straight to enthusing about Rich, and Graham becomes the competent instructor who provided a stepping-stone to a Great poet. That's how we know. 

  The trickle-down of influence takes time to show itself. Time is not something you have when you are a poetry critic on deadline for The New York Times. Maybe Orr’s concern is not really that after Ashbery, there will be no Great poets. Maybe his concern is that there will be no Great poets we can talk about just yet. 

  But isn’t that usually the case? Ashbery sets up an unrealistic expectation because, let’s face it, he’s astonishingly viable for his age. Most of the Greats don’t stick around long enough to get such a complimentary preview of their eulogies. What on earth will Ireland do after Seamus Heaney dies? 

  Stephen Burt has a great quote comparing Ashbery to T.S. Eliot, who was the “last figure whom half the English-language poets alive thought a great model, and the other half thought incomprehensible.” If that doesn’t capture some of the vexing temptation and maddening incoherence inherent to the process of trying to label a poet “great,” I don’t know what does. But I honestly believe there are poets we will soon recognize in terms of not only their own craft, but their influence. Rita Dove comes to mind. Robert Creeley. 

  Have patience, Mr. Orr. For the rest of us, well, the job is just to keep writing.

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A well-written and engging response...

and I agree with you that it's more satisfying (and stimulating) to read a well-crafted polemic than the usual "notwithstanding" hedging of academic essays. The one aspect of greatness in poetry which you don't mention -- and one which is also applicable to other arts like painting -- is that "greatness" is not necessarily evident during the poet's lifetime. Sometimes his or her greatness stems from an ability to understand poetry differently and realize it in new structures or syntax that did not fit the contemporary model of good writing, but prove highly influential later on. Chaucer's contemporaries probably thought he was nuts for working in common English, and I'm sure Blake's peers considered him at best a crank with some artistic abilities, rather than the great Romantic poet he is now perceived as. Wordsworth's stock has probably gone down to the extent that Blake's has risen over the years, and yet Wordsworth was more highly regarded during his life. The Post-It notes of posterity...