Saturday, February 28, 2009

Orr on Greatness: Who Is, Who Ain't, Why We Should Care

God bless the New York Times for continuing to struggle with poetry and to allow its reviewers and critics to take it on in a serious way. I love the Post for having poetry in every issue of Book World--at least until they killed the print edition of Book World--but the Poet's Choice column always seems a little like a poetry ghetto, what one might do with a dead (or dying) art: Serve up little samples, then have an expert explain why people should eat them.

The Times keeps reviewing poetry books as though they matter and as though people care. Granted, the Book Review includes poetry less frequently than I'd like, but it's there on a semi-regular basis, maybe once a month, and it's talked about seriously. And the paper also has David Orr weighing in with an ongoing commentary about poetry. He's a schnarky sonofabitch. I'm often irritated after reading his pieces. But that's OK with me. Sunday mornings can get too bland.

Last week Orr had some typically provocative things to say about the state of the art. The whole column is worth reading, but he starts off with 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.

What I love about Orr is that his essays almost immediately make you start arguing in your head. I immediately thought, "What? What is he talking about? There are plenty of great poets working today! And what about those we don't even know about yet? I can think of at least three poets I know personally who might qualify -- either right now or as the years pass. And I don't know that many people."

Orr gets more interesting.
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.

He goes on to Donald Hall's famous essay, "Poetry and Ambition," in which Hall accused American poets of lacking the aspiration to write great poems. "Contemporary American poetry," Hall wrote, "is afflicted by modesty of ambition—a modesty, alas, genuine ... if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense." No reason, Hall argued, to spend your life writing poems unless your goal was to write great ones.

When we talk about "greatness," Orr writes, "the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping -- unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical ... Greatness implies scale, and a great poet is a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way."

So does every single one have to be great? Does every poem have to have soaring ambition? Is a poem about a teacup inherently less great than a poem about a big "concept"? Doesn't that PoMo thing that Orr brought up call into question not only the nature of ambition, but the viability of Great Subjects?

Any ideas for contenders for the Ashbery Slot? Ideas about what, now, qualifies someone as A Great Poet? What makes a Great Poem? Some of my favorite poets (Jane Hirshfield, for example), those who I regard as having great technical skill and emotional impact, work on a "small" scale, taking on limited spheres that are often no wider than the few out a kitchen window or the way a single thought moves and grows in the mind. Does that mean the poet is not great, or that the poems aren't? Or is that smaller scale the only trustworthy realm when thinking in absolutes seems to have such terrifying effects?

P.S. I like Orr's writing. It's challenging and interesting. But sometimes it seems loaded with so much provocation and tongue-in-cheekiness that I'm not sure how much I've just been drawn in by a nicely written bit of sophistry ... I don't know, after reading the piece, whether Orr believes a word of what he wrote. The one sentence where I thought I could see the real man:

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.

That, to me, sounded like a man who's taken a lot of crap over his own "meanness." And as much as I wouldn't have wanted to be the subject of some of his reviews, I agree with him.

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