Sunday, April 1, 2007

In a Major Key

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.


Anne said...

Reginald, what a fascinating, candid post. It's good to be ambitious for one's work. Why else bother with it?

I once edited a collection of poems by a friend who'd died, and it got taken up by publishers. At the launch, which was a great success, it was unnerving to see complete strangers walking out with the book under their arm - people who'd never known her, people who'd know her henceforth only for this book.

I think a useful test is whether a poem is worth sharing with other people. Not in a 'look what I've done' sense, but in a 'look, I bet you haven't seen this before!' sense. I wouldn't claim it was 'great' poetry like Milton or Yeats, but it spoke to strangers - still speaks to strangers. That is a necessary (but insufficient) condition for greatness. I don't know about greatness. We have to mature as readers to appreciate those who are called great. And some of them are bores more than half the time.

It can be good to spend time with the non-great, the wits and entertainers, the politicos and songsters. Maybe there are great poems, rather than great poets? Maybe the word 'great' isn't terribly helpful? Enjoyable, influential, lasting...

Andrew Shields said...

"I have always relied on the kindness of strangers."

John Gallaher said...

Poets who say they don't think about such things, and don't, while reading, think these very things, I think are fibbing.

Banks said...

Reginald, this is the only blog I check on a daily basis out of the, by now almost truly, infinite possibilities in the so-called blogosphere. That is only because you are constantly insightful and thoughtful (is the order reversed?), and I appreciate the streams of knowledge in which to swim. In other words, I learn here.

However, though your frankness is so appreciated, this post is depressing.

Are you not, in some numbers of ways, discouraging those in the process of figuring out this seemingly crazy life of a creator? What feels like elitism within the academic world (only speaking for myself) intimidates a normal man trying to make sense of his normal awareness of an increasingly abnormal world. In that struggle, of course, is some desire to be a poet...whatever that means. And is it not the academic world where these major/minor/significant/insignificant judgements explicitly reside? Your post here certainly (and I agree) suggests it. I am an infant in the context of this process (though very far from that in reality). Shall I not even bother? Perhaps.

csperez said...

hi reginald,

i too am an avid reader of this blog. so much wisdom here.

as a young poet, it would help me tremendously if you can perhaps post a list in your next post (or here in the comments) on who you think are poets (dead or alive) who are "depressingly competent poets of no consequence, though sometimes of undeserved reputation." that way, i dont waste my time reading those poets and can focus just on the first rate, major key ones (perhaps also a list of major key ones who help guide my reading as well).

thanks so much!

Steve Fellner said...


Thank you for a wonderful post about a much neglected and important topic: vanity. And I don't mean that in a backhanded way. I was hired at SUNY Brockport to teach creative non-fiction and it is interesting to see how many narrative plunge into victim trops once the writer realizes he has made any confident, vain claims about themselves.

It's funny. After so many years of trying to get a book of poems out, I was disappointed that I wasn't transformed when it finally happened. Instead I was forced to be confronted by my own mediocrity (often I have to work real hard just to be mediocre; it's hard for me_ Is it any surprise that during my teenage years the movie cgarcter I most identified with was Salieri from Amadeus? :))

So I've been forced to ask myself: why do I write? why do I do this if I am nothing more than a mediocrity, when my book is nothing more than an insignifcant act. This is the personal answer I came up with: if my work wants to promote kindness (and when I say that I don't mean that I avoid writing politial poems that deal bad, sad things, but I mean poems htat want to identify, name, critique bad, sad things), and in my insignifance, along with most other poets' kindness, CUMMULATIVELY, together, and only cummulatively, we've created something, we've channeled our energies to make the world a little less mean, alittle less hostile. It doesn't feel like much when you're doing it, and definitely isn't going to bring me much of anything directly, but it's something, and that isn't that bad of a life.

Steve Fellner

Collin Kelley said...

Let's keep in mind that Reginald's list of "great poets" is his own opinion, and others will, no doubt, disagree with his choices. Personally, I don't like to be told who I should like or not like, and who, in one person's opinion, isn't "great" enough to read or survive for the ages. And while I don't disagree that we should all strive to be "first-rate," there is a whiff of desperation in this post I didn't quite expect you from Reginald. I think your place in poetry is secure.

Steve Fellner said...


A whiff of desperation? I think that sort of psychologizing isn't helpful or useful ultimately. And in this case: based on a woeful misreading of the post.

Again: Reginald Shepherd's post is about vanity. Look at the textual evidence in the excerpt C. Dale Young excerpted on his blog. I don't think there's anything desperate there.

I'm curious how you would read a text like Love and Fame by John Berryman. Which I love more than The Dream Songs.

And even if it does seem desperate, what's wrong with desperation and anxiety?

Those are my favorite emotions.

Steve Fellner

Collin Kelley said...


One would have to ask if any type of blog posting such as this is "useful" or "helpful" or just another attempt at marginalizing other poets whose work you don't like. Reginald, who I happen to admire, has his opinion (and in this case I didn't care for it), I have mine and you have yours. That's what is so great about blogs. Everyone gets to have an opinion..."woeful" or otherwise.


Reginald Shepherd said...

I'm very glad to have gotten so much response to this post. This is clearly a topic about which people think quite a bit, even if they don't often talk about it.

Anne, like you, I look for poems that make me want to share them: the poem has spoken to me as a stranger, and I want it to speak to others. I also agree both that we often have to learn to appreciate great poetry--we must grow into it, as it were--and that much great poetry is, in fact, quite boring, often while still being great. Not everything of value provides immediate pleasure. I certainly spend most of my time with the non-great. The air can get pretty thin up there on the Olympian heights. And there are many reasons to turn to poems, some of which don't involve questions of greatness at all. I think that there are great poems _and_ great poets. Some great poems are written by great poets; some aren't. I would say the test of whether a poet is great is how many great poems he or she has written, or perhaps what proportion of his or her poems is great. I would say, though, that the words we use matter--it is poetry we're talking about, after all. An enjoyable poem needn't even necessarily be "good," and certainly many influential poems are from from great. And there are many reasons a poem can last besides greatness.

Andrew, if I am reading your quote correctly, we are in complete agreement. To write is to rely on the kindness of strangers, to hope that something one writes will find a home among those we've never met and probably will never meet.

Banks, thank you for your kind words about my blog. I put a lot of work into it, so I'm happy that the effort pays off. I can see how this post could be depressing; it's a depressing topic for me in some ways, as I tried to make clear in the post. I'm not sure, though, that it's fair to file its concerns away under the heading "academic." Keats was deeply concerned about his place in the literary tradition; he very much wanted to write immortal, great poetry, and he was far from an academic. If anything, academics might be _less_ concerned with these questions than writers are. Academics tend to be more interested in what they have to say about a text, in explicating a text, interpreting it, placing it historically or socially or intellectually, or just taking it as an occasion to express their own concerns, than in evaluating it. It's poets who are most preoccupied with this question, who worry about where their work stands in relation to the work of the great, who worry whether their work will last, and who worry about how their work shapes up beside their contemporaries' work. I certainly don't wish to be discouraging, though discouragement and disappointment are part of the process of being or becoming a writer (I don't think that one ever ceases becoming a writer, that one ever _is_ a writer once and for all). It's important to have goals and standards and ambitions for oneself, as a writer, as a thinker, and as a reader, and by definition that means that sometimes one will fail to achieve those goals, one won't live up to those standards. But the aspiration is what keeps me going, keeps me striving and reaching. So it's also an encouragement, to do more, to be more. As for elitism, poetry is about the least "elitist" artistic pursuit around: it requires no special equipment, no great monetary investment, and no special training that one can't provide oneself if one is disciplined and determined. It just demands the ability and willingness to read and write seriously and intensively and to think about what one reads and what one writes. One can read and write on the subway or the Greyhound bus--I've done both. And though books can be expensive, there are still libraries full of books that can be read for free.

CS, I'm glad to see that you're still reading. But with regard to your request that I post a list of poets not worth reading: as we used to say in my old neighborhood, you must be tripping. But seriously. I like to think of myself as an honest and forthright person, but to post such a list would be professional suicide. As Collin points out, your list would be different from mine anyway. Making those kinds of decisions for oneself, determining what matters for you and what doesn't, is part of the process of developing as a reader and a writer.

Steve, it's good to read your comments again; they're always very insightful and interesting. What I took most from your comments this time is that we all have different reasons for writing, different goals that we are trying to achieve, and that those reasons, those goals, can change over time, just as we as people change over time. Samuel R. Delany writes of having wanted to be a great novelist and at a certain point in his middle age realizing that wasn't going to happen, at least in his own estimation. But that didn't stop him from writing more of his marvelous books, any more than Strauss's determination that he wasn't a first-rate composer stopped him from composing. I know that I'm a good poet, but I honestly don't yet know whether I have or will attain the goals I set for myself as a beginning writer and have held to since then. As I wrote in my response to Banks' comment, both the confidence and the doubt drive me forward. I like your idea of writing to contribute to making the world a better place, specifically (if I'm reading you correctly) by encouraging people to see and think more clearly about the world around them, a world that includes poems. I'm wary of giving poetry a function, but if it must have one, I think that the attention we pay to poems and their elements as things in themselves and not just means to an end, reading just for the sake of the experience, is a model for treating people and things in the world as ends rather than means.

Collin, Thanks for your comments. I must agree with Steve, though, that you have misread the post, both in matter and in tone. I made no list of "great poets," nor would I. I did mention a few poets who have inspired me, and I said that I thought they were great. That is a quite different thing, since I made no claims either to inclusiveness (this is a list of all of the great poets) nor to eclusivity (poets on this list are not great). Nor did I tell anyone who they should like or not like, and who isn't "great" enough to read or survive for the ages. The closest I came to that, which is not very close at all, was to say that there are many poets writing now whom I don't find to be consequential. I'm sure most people feel that way, though everyone's list of such poets will undoubtedly differ. As for the question of desperation, I think that Steve Fellner has addressed that well, and I thank him for it. I am definitely anxious about whether my work will be remembered, but for a writer to have no such anxiety would be an example either of hubris or of lack of ambition. And as John Gallaher points out, a lot of poets just don't want to admit that they think about such things.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Collin, I am usually not interested in the sorts of debates in which people often engage in blogworld in general and in blog comments streams in particular. But I am quite confused by the animus this post seems to have raised in you.

The post simply doesn't say the things that you claim it says. It makes no list of "great poets," it makes no attempt to tell people what to read, nor does it marginalize other poets whose work I don't like.

I would be curious to know where specifically in the post you see these things being said.

Collin Kelley said...


Thanks for replying. Obviously, you did not post your list of "great poets," although I'd be curious to see who is there, but I'd also be curious to see who is on your list of "competent" poets who have an "undeserved reputation" – whether they be dead or living.

I think what bothered me about the post is that you make a sweeping generalization about "good and bad" poets but offer up Eliot, Stevens and Keats as examples. Those are safe answers. Who inspires you now? Who do you find merely competent? Who has an undeserved reputation?

If you're going to divide poets into major, minor and "make no difference to the world at large," I say be honest and name them.

I think that's my major concern, perhaps not articulated as well in the other comment.


Andrew Shields said...

The "kindness of strangers" line came to specifically in response to Anne's phrase "still speaks to strangers." And you read it the way I felt it: the poet who tries to get published hopes that his/her work will speak to strangers, and hence he/she relies on their kindness, their openness, their willingness to check his/her work out.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Collin,

It's an amusing novelty to be accused of dishonesty. I've usually been considered to be honest to a fault.

It's not a lack of honesty that keeps me from naming names. I have no desire to dwell in the kind of negativity that such a list entails. I also see no reason to make enemies of people who, whatever I think of their poetry, have (as poets) done no harm to the world, at least as far as I know. As I wrote in my post "The Mirage That We Call Poetry," there is room for all kinds of poetry, including poetry that I consider mediocre. I just don't want to have to read it--it bores me at best and depresses me at worst. But I resent it when such work gets undeserved attention and acclaim. In the case of Ted Kooser, I do name the name, because he _is_ doing harm to the world. His textbook _The Poetry Home Repair Manual_ leads aspiring poets astray, disdaining and rejecting almost everything that makes poetry interesting.

Simply to list poets whose work I dislike would be pointless and uninformative without the kind of extensive commentary and explanation I have neither the time nor the energy to waste on things that don't matter to me. Auden said that he never wrote reviews of books he didn't think were because he didn't want to give attention to things that hopefully would wither away of their own accord. That seems a wise policy to me. There is enough good work that doesn't get the attention it deserves without wasting that attention on bad or mediocre work.

Collin Kelley said...

I appreciate your response, Reginald. I think we just have some fundamental differences about what constitutes good, bad and mediocre.

I didn't appreciate Ted Kooser until I read his last collection, "Delights & Shadows." I think it's some of the most beautiful poetry I've ever read. It's a shame you feel he is doing a disservice to poetry. I've been very inspired by it. Hopefully, that won't lead to mediocre work. ;-)

I'll continue to follow your blog with interest. I sat in on your panel at AWP about queer myth and found it very informative.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Collin,

Thanks again for your response. I don't know whether or not we have differences about what consitutes good, bad, or mediocre poetry, let alone fundamental differences, because we've not talked about what our respective criteria are for such determinations. We know that you like Ted Kooser's poetry and I don't. But that's only a single example. In any case, it's not Kooser's poetry that bothers me. It may well be better and more interesting than his ideas about poetry. Such is often the case: at its best, the work transcends the person. But as I wrote, in his poetry writing textbook Kooser dismisses all that's interesting and distinctive about poetry, aiming for a transparency (his image is that of a glass boat) in which the poem as such disappears. I can see no point in writing poems if one's aim is for the reader to see through the poem and not even notice the language. Besides his book, I have heard Kooser praise a poem because all its language was completely ordinary, and tell a class that poetry readers hated mystery and wanted to be led by the hand through a poem. If all one wants to do is to convey information, there are more efficient ways to do so than through poems.

I also wanted to say that I have no power to marginalize anyone. My opinions or even my argued positions have no practical effect on anyone else. Marginalization is an actual thing that happens to actual people and groups of people. It's not simply a matter of someone expressing a preference or or an aversion. I dislike this kind of intellectual and linguistic slippage, by which the editor of Poetry magazine gets called a cultural commissar, for example. Sorry to be argumentative, but this has been bothering me, and so I needed to say something about it.

In my last comment, by the way, I meant to write, that "Auden said that he never wrote reviews of books he didn't think were good." That last word accidentally got dropped out.

Thanks for reading and commenting, and I'm glad that you enjoyed my presentation at AWP. It was my first time attending the conference, and I found it a wonderfully affirming experience, especially given my isolation down here.

all best,


csperez said...

hi reginald,

thanks for responding! and i suppose such a list would be quite damaging to you ;) hee hee...sometimes i forget...anyways, thanks for this wonderful advice:

"Making those kinds of decisions for oneself, determining what matters for you and what doesn't, is part of the process of developing as a reader and a writer."

i write it in my notebook ;) thank you ;)

in the meantime, i will continue wading thru eecummings's collected work (im on page 734) ....ugh....


scotland said...

Dear Mr. Shepherd, Anyone intrested in poetic 'major/iety or on a higher plane a hand in what might be considered a current 'poets bible' should take a gander at the epic ,Der Volkemenne Capel Meister, written by the german composer Joseph Mattheson at the height of the Baroque period in European music.

This author's work remains historical evidence of trained, top-notch composers relying on language, its basic elements, its structural forms (poetic and retorical) and philosophic/critical limits of that time. An Encyclopedia/Complete: detailing such diverse subjects as organ maintenance,the training of singers,ancient history and myth, as well as fully revealing the inner school knowledge common to chapel and free-lancing composers of the period.

My own poetic major/iety is limited to a Tucson AZ. T.V. news spot during a 1996 poetry slam at a national retailer in town. I opened with a very theatrical selection from my "long poem" Alphabetangles. Thinking rightly that it would be a crowd pleaser,I recieved a climax of laughter speaking the immortal phrase "Till this rotting sham shall prove to shame, Us Underpaid Underlings Undermine Underware!",and progressed to the final,second round. There I didn't fare so well, losing to a cowboy/prison poet after I changed strategy and performed "The Other Wing" a substantive poem, thinking I would now be listened to for my earlier effort. It was spooky and I commanded a full minute of silence upon closing.

Anyway, out of the odd assortment of reading or whatever that evening I was the only one to make the 10:00 O'clock news and a morning show spot. This fame besieged me from time to time during my winter stay in the area. People would come up to me on the street and in stores acknowledging my curious call to fame. They mostly said they were watching while in bed and that I was waving my arms all over the place.
On another front I remember a 'cat' at the peoples park in K.C. circa. 1971, his most memorible line was "Two Mugunda scouts waiting for moon clearance" FAR OUT, eh...

Henry Gould said...

In my view there are two basic criteria for such greatness :

#1. An innate aesthetic sense; an array of artistic talents applied vigorously and effectively.

#2. A passionate engagement with the contested fields of human experience : history, politics, justice, knowledge, truth, love & war.

Because the poet feels this imperative (conscious or unconscious) impulse to engage, he or she becomes a "necessary" voice in the culture at large - the poems become naturalized in society, inescapable.

To sum up, it's a conjunction of art (or aesthetics) and theme (or truth).

michael said...

i don't care about the popular pastime of hierarchializing prejudices in my pillow book of little lies.

but i am like that old Greek poet who, on hearing someone singing a song, asked it to be repeated till he had memorized it.

there are songs i hear & want to hear again. as a kid i used to place a cassette recorder next to my AM radio.

some poems i want enough that i will copy them out by hand.

buying the book is a convenience. what i feel is a tug.

perhaps "greatness" is simply that tug, felt from beyond the grave.