Mar 4, 2009

Are There Any Greats Out There?

If there has been a more appropo article in a national publication for this Yvor Winters Blog, I haven't seen it. But there it was, a week ago, David Orr's meditation on poetic greatness in the New York Times Book Review. The article “On Poetry -- The Great(ness) Game” can be found at the Times's Books page:

I give Orr credit. He is in there pitching, considering big questions, some of which were central to the literary criticism of Yvor Winters -- and many of which Winters took a lot of heat for back in his day. But since the piece is no more than one of those short NYT Book Review articles, Orr can't explore any of the central issues of evaluation or greatness deeply enough, let alone resolve anything concerning the Canon. But the article does brush past many of the major issues of literary evaluation and canon-making that are germane to the work of Yvor Winters, even if David Orr doesn't fully understand or accept what's happening in literary culture.

Nonetheless, in the final paragraph of the short piece, Orr implies that he believes that the work of determining true "greatness" is important to the future of literature -- just as Yvor Winters once argued forcefully and I have contended time and again on this blog and in my book on Winters. The truly great poems give us models and standards, as well as enduring works of art that are important to personal and social development. Orr appears to agree strongly with this, though he can't quite figure out what makes for greatness beyond the acclaim of those who take unto themselves some sort of authority. The most disheartening, almost sickening, aspect of the essay is the claim that the only great poet we currently have on tap is... I can barely say the name... is... John Ashbery. Oh ugh!! I cannot think offhand of a worse poet to serve as a model and a standard. Ashbery is far from great. He is, indeed, nearly worthless as a literary artist and, further, a model of bad poetry and unconscionably shoddy writing. Ashbery is probably everything the classicist wishes to see wither away (though I have little doubt that his influence will remain strong for a good long time to come).

When such decisions are made, such as whether Ashbery is great (I wince at the thought), is the point at which canon-making becomes extremely important and what this blog is nearly all about. I am trying to get Yvor Winters's modern classicist views to receive an appreciative hearing among enough people that some sort of new enclave can develop in which modern classical poetry, fiction, and criticism will be written, appreciated, and furthered. If other people want to proclaim and follow the false "greatness" of John Ashbery, we classicists can only lament the inevitable loss of yet more talent and time and effort to the nearly worthless literature that the idea that a poet like Ashbery is great will surely help give rise to. But I can't worry about all that. And no other classicist should either, I believe. It's just the way things are and will remain for a long, long time to come, despite Winters's foolish yet confident predictions that soon all the errors of modernism would be recognized and pass away.

By the way, Orr speaks of poetry that takes a person's breath away as a measure of greatness, the truly great works that seem so vastly important in one sense or another. William Carlos Williams's enraptured comments on Eliot's "The Waste Land" came to Orr's mind. For the classicist there has been little of late that would even feign to take the breath away. But I am pondering whether Helken Pinkerton's superb blank-verse poems in Taken in Faith might some day, soon, become one of the models, a standard of modern classicism. They have been almost taking my breath away. Please, please, tell me about anything else out there that you think might achieve this kind of importance. I have been reading Pinkerton, Adam Kirsch, Bill Coyle, William Logan, David Yezzi, Kenneth Fields, the Australian Judith Wright, of course the very fine Dick Davis, and a few others. They are doing (or did do) some good work that really is poetry and very worthwhile. But I haven't yet read anything great. Does anyone have something that truly will take the breath away, will astound most anyone who reads it (or at least any classicist)? Please tell me -- tell us all!


RJ said...

You might be interested in this:

Also: K. A. Hays book Dear Apocalypse, while entirely in "free verse," is pretty darn good.

Robert McLean said...


Stephen Edgar, an Australian poet whose poems are often published in American magazines (there may be some online at Poetry Magazine - the one with LOTS of money in the bank -), is a poet on whom you ought to keep an eye; he gets a little Wilbury at times, but he does hit, too.

I've been enjoying the NBV posts.



Ben Kilpela said...

Thanks, Robert, for the note on Stephan Edgar. I had not heard of him. He has a very generous selection of his poetry at his personal web site:

I will be checking him out. Judith Wright is another Aussie whom I have read from time to time. She writes some strong formal verse, tbhough I haven't yet found more than one or two of her poems that deeply move me or approach greatness. Let me know what you think of her work if you know it.

Kippis, Ben Kilpela