This is a reply to Adam Fieled’s excellent post, in which he responds to Amy King’s challenge to define “greatness.” Her post, I have to add, was occasioned by a New York Times essay by David Orr, “The Great(ness) Game”—a laughable piece of pseudo-intellectual drivel. Orr’s essay has succeeded, however, in spurring all sorts of commentary among poetry bloggers. It just happens that Fieled’s and King’s got my head buzzing like a late spring hive. So, by addressing Adam here, I’m also addressing Amy and David Orr and anybody else who’s been pondering the issue of poetic greatness. It’s important, of course, to read Adam’s and Amy’s posts first, or my comments will make less sense than I think they do!
Adam, so much of what you say is true, but in the end I think there’s no such thing as contemporary greatness. Greatness, I mean, is something bestowed by generations of readers—people no living (or sane living) poet can write for. Greatness is a myth in Charles Olson’s sense of the word: “What is said of what is said” [“Poetry and Truth”] Poets can’t worry about that, first because what is said by one’s contemporaries rarely aligns with the judgement of later generations, and secondly because what others say must, in the end, not be allowed to impinge upon—or divert, or pervert—a poet’s deepest expressive needs. Only by freely drawing on those impulses can any poet hope to be considered “great” someday. So you’re right, I think, to focus on the now of one’s work (it’s all we have). I would never say that poets shouldn’t be ambitious in their work, but I would argue that greatness is never “now,” and we’d all be better off not wasting our energies on the issue. For a living, working writer, it really is little more than ego indulgence.
I also believe that your focus on “now” leads you astray a bit when it comes to what a “great” poet might look like today. “The ‘great poet’ I envision for our moment carries a knife, rather than a notebook; lives on cheap food and in a Spartan way; is compelled by an instinct to survive, rather than enjoy; wants catharsis more than praxis (though both are important); is ready to tell the absolute, bare-bones truth at the drop of a hat; accepts contradictions but not without pain; is not a ‘joiner’; and believes in giving love and compassion to those who deserve it.” That problem is that all of this—except the bit about telling the truth, whatever (exactly) “the truth” might be—has nothing to do with the work itself, which after all is what determines “greatness.” Personal morality and lifestyle are irrelevant, I mean. Fools, psychotics, manipulative climbers, drug abusers, philanderers, even outright criminals have created great art—not to mention the vast majority who simply exhibited the more modest human failings common to us all. I do believe that great art springs from “the better angels of our nature” (however one wishes to characterize such Elementals), but these “angels” operate in both the best and the worst among us. What I’m trying to say is that Rimbaud’s slave trading, for example, even if it happened as Enid Starkie claims, doesn’t make A Season in Hell and lluminations bad books; it does, however, make their revolutionary beauty an even greater mystery.
Finally, some thoughts on David Orr’s essay, which started all this. Orr makes much of a spurious “greatness contest” between Bishop and Lowell, essentially claiming that the result of this contest is a settled thing, just because Bishop is currently more influential than Lowell among MFA students. My guess is that Lowell will be rediscovered, reinterpreted, and reinterred many times; the same is true of Bishop. Whether either one—or Ashbery, for that matter, even with his recent canonization by the Library of America—will ultimately be considered “great” I have no way of knowing. I do know that for me, as a writer an a reader, Lowell is the most important of these three, and no amount of aesthetic politicking will change that. The sainted Emily Dickinson talked about a good poem taking the top of her head off, but people routinely fail to quote her entire thought on the subject. In a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she wrote: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” She clearly means that “poetry” has a transcendent value, though she doesn’t make distinctions like “great” or “excellent”; for Emily poetry is something thrilling, exalting, revelatory—and subjective. I’ve experienced what Emily describes while reading poets considered mediocre, and other poets considered “great” have left me unmoved. Am I wrong? Are the poets wrong? Are the generations of canonizers wrong? These questions simply don’t matter. What old Henry James said about writers in “The Middle Years” is true of readers as well: “We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Well, “madness” is over the top for our ironic age. Let’s call it “commitment,” then call it a day.
Looking back over all the pixels spilled here, I wonder at the ability of us poets to tap massive energies for everything but our most important work!