David Orr writing in the Feb 22 N.Y. Times piece titled "The Great(ness) Game" asks what we do when John Ashbery and his generation are gone?
The assumption made in the article is that there are no great poets living, outside of that generation and I don't know myself if there are or there aren't. This is precisely because I'm not privy to what constitutes greatness in a poet. Orr himself acknowledges the illusiveness of such a definitive yardstick. What is a great ice cream flavor? We all have opinions but can I sell Black Walnut to the public at large a the great ice cream Flavor?
We can look at an Emily Dickinson and perhaps agree on a designation of greatness, but how long did it take for that to become common knowledge. She was dead before it was ever widely accepted, and by quite a few years I believe. So really, we could have great poets among us and not yet be aware of the fact.
Orr asks if great poets are one and the same as "major" poets? What do you think on that point? I'm inclined to think you have to be a major poet to be a great one, but the reverse. Still that isn't releasing the secret ingredient in the recipe.
Digging deeper still, Orr looks at a 1983 essay by Donald Hall in which Hall said it seemed to him that contemporary American poetry was afflicted by modesty of ambition. Going further, the test according to Hall is to write words that live on. To aspire to be as good as Dante.
Donald Hall is among the living poets whose work I respect and with whom I connect with more often then not. Is he a great poet? I don't think all his work would meet the Dante test. So can a poet be great if hits that high mark on occasion or must he have to be consistent? Was Dante himself consistent?
Then I'm hung up on the lament that there isn't enough ambition going on. Are we really wanting hungry ambition from our poets. I know the monetary climate for poets certainly supports the hungry aspect, but ambition is such a sleazy word when it snuggles up next to an art. Maybe dedicated, focused, serious. Perhaps we are really splitting hairs.
David Orr's article is a critical look; not quite so much at the state of contemporary poetry as it is what we internally expect from poetry. What we are willing to settle for. No art is static an neither are its consumers.