In my last entry, I articulated something I hope is not heresy: we're not all great poets, and it's hard to agree what "great" is. Just last month, in a poetry forum I follow, a couple of the poets were wondering what people found so great about Robert Frost. Personally, I think that's a silly question (there are those who think Frost wasn't a great poet? Really?), but I'll entertain the argument. There are, however, poets who can claim to be competent, good even, without a compelling argument available to promote them as great.
Like me, for example.
Now be advised this is not a hook dropped into the community pool in search of praise. But there are a few things I think are necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) conditions for greatness; let me present them along with why I say, with comfort and self-respect, that I don't meet them.
Great artists expand the art. The great poets add new things to their form or bring their form to new applications. They integrate other fields and disciplines and create links among their art and other areas of knowledge not obviously connected. This can be in an individual poem or artwork, a particular body of work, or a career of artistic reaching. Frost added conversational language; Williams added minimalist jazz; etc.
Great poets push an envelope. There's great safety in operating where other artists operate and where opinion of one's work is fairly well assured. Most sitcoms come to the air because of this principle. However, the most interesting and memorable work is that which surprises us, which takes us away from the safe and the known and still entertains us. Of course, there is risk there, because sometimes you stray so far from the known that you lose the audience you are trying to bring. And to know where you start to lose people, to know where that limit is you have to accept that you will breach that line sometimes. My favorite examples here are Family Guy and Pearls Before Swine. Both show great awareness of their forms and history and challenge that form and history all the time. They both are occasionally offensive and frequently brilliant.
Great poets create audiences. I expect some challenge on this one, but I'm not necessarily talking about popularity here. Many artists believe that they create for creation's sake, and are not concerned with reaching an audience. I think that's bunk. While an artist may not be concerned about the quantity of fellow appreciators of that art, they surely believe that fellow appreciators exist and that their artistic wants are not met through conventional artistry. When Pound integrated Chinese characters into the cantos, it wasn't to convince people to study Chinese, or as some sort of barrier to force the casual reader away, it was with the expectation that some readers would want to and be able to "get it", either through prior knowledge or understanding from within the poem, and would appreciate the poems more for it. While this work may not satisfy the conventional fan, these artists make fans of people who weren't fans before - fans of work that may not have existed before. The avant (post-avant?) of any art form operates with the confidence that there is an avant audience waiting for their output.
I think one needs to meet at least two of these criteria to even be considered for greatness. As for my small contributions to the universe of poetry? Well, I dabble in expanding the art sometimes through incorporation of concepts and language from the world of science and engineering. Maybe one day one or two of my poems in that vein will be thought of as great. But I don't live in that space, nor do I seek to bring people into it with me. As for the other two? Not really. My internal editor is set in a very consciously limiting way; there are boundaries I do not care to flirt with except in my journal and writing exercises. More on the what and why of my self-limitation another time.
Again - you don't need to be great to be good, to have an audience, to contribute to the art. We on the B-list can actually better appreciate who we are and what we offer by understanding the A-list and what the members of that list do that we don't. This helps us stay centered on what we can do well without deluding ourselves about things we can't. It helps us focus on connecting with our audience without the false impression that we're blazing new trails for them. I think this is a good thing.
Are we all striving for greatness? Maybe. But being a serious student of the art requires one to know where greatness begins, and where you're standing at the moment.