The Great(ness) Game
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 poetry 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 implicit 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 émigré 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 Mayflower. 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.