Who Are the Great Poets? Why Do We Care?
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.