This piece continues some of the thoughts I explored in my posts “Why I Write” and “Daring to Disturb the Universe,” and in my correspondence on the topic with Mark Granier.
Like Stephen Spender, I think continually of those who are truly great. I strive to write work that lives up to theirs, while always fearing that it may never attain those heights.
It’s clear to me that some poets are more important than others. The world is awash with poets who have no reason to be writing, who make no difference to the world at large or to the world of poetry. I’m not speaking of the outright bad poets, but of the sea of depressingly competent poets of no consequence, though sometimes of undeserved reputation. Richard Strauss supposedly said, “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I’m a first-rate second-rate composer.” While I both admire his clear-eyed self-evaluation and recognize the boast within it, I am not so sanguine. I want to be a poet who matters and I want to read poets who matter. I want to be first-rate.
Some might say that dividing poets into major and minor is presumptuous or arrogant. This is a fair charge, but we all do this whether we admit it or not. We all decide that some poets are more important than others, although we may not articulate it in those terms. Listing one's favorite poets is often, though not always, a version of this ranking process. Who doesn’t think that his or her favorite poets are better, are more important, than the poets he or she doesn’t like?
A word like “major” always implies comparison, whether explicit or implicit, to its opposite, whether one calls that other “minor” or something else. The distinction, how it is to be made and what it means, troubles me. I worry about making it, and I worry about not making it. By T.S. Eliot’s criteria in his essay “What Is Minor Poetry?” almost every poet who ever wrote is a minor poet. (In my heart I wonder, “Would I be among them?” and fear the answer.) As Mae West reputedly said, goodness has nothing to do with it. For Eliot, poetic excellence is a necessary condition for poetic majority, but hardly a sufficient one. I wouldn’t want to emulate his sweeping judgments, especially because much more poetry matters to me than seems to have mattered to him. But still, the question haunts me, perhaps only because of my own personal ambitions as a poet (which are not the same as my poetic ambitions as a poet).
When reading a poem, a selection of poems, a book of poems, I ask myself, “Is this interesting? Is this engaging? Is this individual? Is this distinctive?” I frequently ask myself, “Is this worth reading? Was it worth writing?” Too often the answer to all these questions is “No.” So much work has no reason for existing besides that the poet could, and presumably wanted to, write it. That’s not enough if one is going to present the work to the world. I write in part for the dead, for the poets who made me want to be a poet, placing little votive gifts on their altars, hoping that my offering will be acceptable. I think it’s more acceptable than most, but most poets don’t even try for that. They write for themselves and for their coteries.
Despite the spell that Eliot can cast on me, I don’t ask myself when reading a poem or book of poems, “Is this major?” I do think, when I read some of the people who’ve most inspired me, like Keats or Stevens or Eliot, “This is great poetry.” It would be more accurate to say that I think of some poetry as great than that I think of some poetry as major. But while my college mentor Alvin Feinman made a point of only reading great poetry, I am not so pure or so high-minded. I read, enjoy, and learn from much poetry, both of the past and of the present, that I wouldn’t think of as great. And there is some great poetry I can’t bear at all.
The question of whether something is of major accomplishment (which isn’t equivalent to, “of major length”) is one I ask much more of my own poetry than of others’ poetry. I want to do my best, but I know that sometimes one’s best just isn’t good enough. My ambition from the time that I began writing was to be a great poet. I haven’t gotten there, but I still have hopes. At the same time, given the changes in the cultural climate and the role of art in general, and poetry in particular, I wonder if such a term even has any meaning anymore, or if it does, what that meaning is. Poetic greatness may not be simply a matter of individual accomplishment but of social context, a social context that no longer exists, and perhaps never existed in America. But my doubts and my questions don’t erase the aspiration to greatness, even if it is impossible or no longer possible.
As Mark Granier points out, a major poem is one that opens up new possibilities, breaks new ground in some way or another. It’s a poem that creates ripples in the river of time, perhaps something like the stone in the stream in Yeats’ “Easter 1916,” momentarily halting the flow, or at least forcing it to bend, to accommodate itself to an object that won’t be moved and can’t be ignored. Henry Gould, in a comment on my post "Short Thoughts on the Long Poem," also mentions a thematic ambition, an attempt to take hold of some larger topic or idea. The Waste Land certainly qualifies on both counts. But a great poem need not be major in scale. Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” is a great poem, and it’s only thirteen lines long.
When measured against the world, let alone against the universe, any individual is insignificant, though I don’t think that diminishes the value of individual lives. My recognition of my own insignificance fuels my writing: I want my poetry to mitigate that insignificance. I try to write work that will be remembered. Whether one’s work is remembered also depends on much that has nothing to do with its merit. Reading an article in The Writer’s Chronicle about a public library in Fairfax, Virginia that’s discarding all books not checked out in the past two years, including literary classics, doesn’t give one much hope for the possibility of literary immortality. No longer can one count on one’s book sitting on the shelf waiting for the right reader, sleeping in the library until awakened by a reader’s kiss.
Sometimes I wonder why I care, since I won’t be around to know whether I’m being remembered. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but if there were one, I suspect that I’d have other things with which to occupy myself than worrying whether people were reading my poetry. Unless the afterlife is like that in the recent novel The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, in which people continue after their deaths so long as someone remembers them, and fade away when they’re forgotten. In the novel, to be remembered indirectly doesn’t count, but a poem, or a book of poems, allows one to live on in the minds of people one has never met. However one defines it, to be remembered is the only immortality we can have.