Sunday, February 22, 2009

Who Are the Great Poets? Why Do We Care?

David Orr's essay in today's New York Times Book Review* is interesting. He writes:

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.

But do we really need to sort the good––at least, among the living––from the great? And at what price? My sense is that the frantic preoccupation with poetic reputation among living practitioners is divisive and inimical to the best interests of the art. I would settle for a stronger sense of community among poets, and a place for any serious poet at the poetry table. One of the strangest experiences I have had (more than once)** at the AWP Conference is talking to a fellow poet while their eyes dart about the room, searching out someone more interesting, more important, to talk to.

Yes, I can laugh about it, but it makes me very tired, and sad about the whole enterprise.

At the risk of sounding arrogant, it also leads me to believe that they have never read my work.

Our first duty as poets is to write the best, most true work of which we are capable. To do so is an act of grace. Pay attention, work hard, be kind, and let the devil have the rest.


* "The Great(ness) Game," by David Orr, New York Times Book Review, February 22, 2009, p. 14.

**And as recently as the Conference in Chicago.


Blogger The Weaver of Grass said...

Well said, Greg.
I think the whole idea of poetry is a complex issue. So many people - particularly these days - have no knowledge of poetry at all. In my father's day (early 1900's) he learned reams of poetry at school. I don't think this was a bad thing at all - it gave hima huge sense of the rhythm of words and also it gave hima lifelong love of poetry which he passed on to me - together with a huge stock of poetry books when he died.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Nic Sebastian said...

Amen to that. It's like trying to write history while living it.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Leslie said...

Ack. I've been told that AWP is like that for EVERYONE except maybe the 'rockstars' like Heather McHugh.

I don't understand the whole obsession with ranking—even in the wider culture. People are always getting voted off the island or some other stupid TV show, we rank cars and places to live and income levels and, yes, capacity to write quote unquote great poems.

We never get this right, still we persist in trying. History will treat none of us kindly. Why worry?

7:53 AM  
Blogger Tania Rochelle said...

That certainly summed up my one and only AWP experience.

8:37 AM  

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