ARE GREAT POETS DEAD?
I can recall long Friday afternoons, my English teacher in a shaft of chalk-dust reciting verses that were, he said, "Great". The authors were all dead. Shakespeare. Shelley. Rossetti. Come to think of it, they were long dead. Ever since, I've wondered what makes one poet merely talented, the next Great. And why was clog-popping so useful in acquiring the latter status? Now I'm a writer, it's personal.
I suppose a first step is to examine what Greatness actually means. Indicators range from a poet's contribution to common speech (Shakespeare scores heavily there) to their effect on a critic's gut. One reviewer I know puts not inconsiderable faith in the ear-prickings of her dog. T.S. Eliot rates uniqueness and closure. "When a great poet has lived," he maintains, "certain things have been done once for all, and cannot be achieved again." Robert Frost, on the other hand, believes we seek "the shock of recognition". The two views aren't mutually exclusive. Alexander Pope combines them well in his praise for "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed".
But definitions are only signposts. Greatness is an immense, fugitive landscape. We hanker for some kind of map to guide us in who to revere, identity with, or teach. We apply critical judgement, and with it a bias against the present. After all, doesn't it take time - perhaps generations - to debate and confirm an author's quality? Isn't their Greatness, whether achieved or thrust upon them, something accumulated? It's safer by far to let posterity measure living giants, particularly when they might tomorrow pen something to pull us up disappointingly and embarrassingly short. More a case, then, that 'dead poets may be great', than 'great poets may be dead'. What's more, with time, dead poets can acquire an attractive patina of myth or nostalgia. This constitutes a far greater fillip to a reputation than the reality of the author, spot-lit on stage in flaccid jeans on a bad hair day. Indeed, I wish I had a sorcerer's ability to make everyone forget, for just a week, one of the arguably great poets - like Kipling, or Eliot - and then take If or The Waste Land round the modern workshop circuit to see how it really fared.
Bear in mind that living poets do have a lot to live up to. "Make it new!" commanded Ezra Pound, and ever since there's been a mad rush to refurbish threadbare traditional forms. So much so that Free Verse is now a dominant part of the poetic furniture. Frost described it as "playing tennis with the net down"; and not having a net can make it fiendishly difficult to get a Great tennis game going in words. Many poets, for instance, now shun rhyme, and with it an ancient and proven means for making poems memorable, for shoe-horning them into the buzzing brains of modern readers. Our current preoccupations with Style and the poetic Sound-bite don't help. They have a built-in shelf-life. How can someone be Great for Warhol's fifteen minutes? Poems on the Underground and a few column inches of the daily press aren't likely to accumulate any significant individual force, the kind of force required, perhaps, of Greatness.
Meanwhile, the culture accelerates into territory characterised (arguably) more by its technologies than by its art. Did Heidegger read the signs, as far back as 1966, in his interview with Der Spiegel (conducted, one might add, beneath the cloud of various accusations concerning his conduct during the Third Reich)? While Britain bathed in the after-flushes of World Cup ecstasy, Heidegger was pointing to our embroilment in a technological era for which thought (and, by extension, art?) had been ousted by science as the means of providing the culture with its processes and its 'answers'. For Heidegger, "the only thing we have left is purely technological relationships", with the philosopher (and the artist?) unable to help. "For us contemporaries" he claimed, "the greatness of what is [i.e. needs] to be thought is [now] too great" [my insertions]. The implication of Heidegger's views is that the contemporary artist, like the philosopher, cannot rise to the challenges of our age, can now no longer represent our culture or thereby achieve a prime guiding position within it. If this parity between an age and its best artists constitutes a prerequisite for the greatness of their art, it follows that we will have few, if any, great artists. I would counter that art is - in my opinion - far from unambiguously dead, and that many people now suspect science rather than look to it for answers. However, it is true that knowledge - or rather, the transfer of information - is expanding at an exponential rate. Whether or not Heidegger was right, it is probably the case that the poet, like the scientist, is finding it increasingly difficult in the mêlée to make an enduring individual mark on the collective consciousness.
Is there any way, then, a potentially Great artist can rise above this? Here's an excised passage from 'The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge':
"For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities... one must know the animals... feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open in the morning... But one must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not yet enough to have memories... Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them."
Rilke is linking the quality of the creative act to the quality of the creative life and its struggle. Oscar Wilde adds to this his own idiosyncratic weight: "I've put my genius into my life" he said; "I've only put my talent into my works". Rilke's vision of the universal individual has little to do with the narrow, personal individualism promoted by commercialists. One wonders where, in our universities and shopping malls and televisioned living rooms, we can find the modern equivalents of the Castle Duino where Rilke first heard the call of the angels. Given all the aforementioned problems of universality within a fragmented technological age, can Great poetry still be written in a society obsessed with turnover and marketting, where even the so-called subversive poets have begun to smell a bit like Body Shop?
I believe it can. We have poets of directness, subtlety and feeling. And however shattered our traditions and perceptions, there remain constants (or near-constants) such as suffering and war, the struggle for meaning. Whether as mirror or lamp, poetry is equal to the challenge of expressing modern concerns. But for the general public, it still smacks of something old and scholarly. In spite of updated school syllabuses, the society of Great poets is still very much a dead one. And in our increasingly visual culture, poetry has to compete with film, the visual arts and television for adult attention. Poetry's occasional sorties into the 'televisual' suffer from all the contaminations of a medium whose primary aim is to gratify the brain's optic centres. I cringe at TV screenings of poets stumbling across wasteland, or dubbed over a vine-leaf seductively drip-dripping in late afternoon drizzle. The Auden poem in Four Weddings and A Funeral worked - I was less convinced by the parade of celebs and professional readers annually whipped up by TV's circus-master of National Poetry Day, Griff-Rhys Jones, affable as he is.
Such forays are understandable though. Unlike the novel, poetry's evaporating from distributors' lists faster than the foggy foggy dew. The performance boom in poetry has its merits, but is it selling out to a culture ravenous for entertainment? Popularity and accessibility, alone, aren't a recipe for Great poetry. E.B. White warns us that "A poet utterly clear is a trifle glaring". For the mediaevals, a work had to be fully 'digested'. The world of poetry workshops and competitions bears greater metaphorical resemblance to the cookery show and fast-food chain. Gore Vidal seals the point: "You can't have great literature," he claims, "without great readers".
Poetry anthologies, however, seem to be doing better. They can also provide a glimpse of what our poetic age considers to be 'Great'. One such, Emergency Kit, attempts to capture the variety and strangeness of our poetry - it also presents itself as an anthology of poems, not poets. For me, this is evidence of a current trend in poetry towards what may be called 'Poeclectics'. Poeclectics isn't a movement as such, but a loose term encompassing the various ways a growing number of poets are contributing to a body of work of enormous range. As opposed to having a voice, more poets are shifting voice according to the emotional and functional requirements of the work at hand. In short, Poeclectics has something for everyone - but each 'something' isn't necessarily represented by any particular poet. The Poeclectic tendency to avoid the monostylism of authors such as Housman or Dickinson could be depriving modern poets of the unity and familiarity many feel are essential ingredients of Greatness. It could also go some way towards explaining why dust-jackets extolling the unique merits of a given poet have begun to sound increasingly hysterical.
Postmodern approaches to poetry such as irony, pastiche and self-reference also tend to evade and undermine conventional conceptions of Greatness. For decades avant-garde writers have subverted the very notion of authorship, introducing 'The Third Mind' and various elements of chance. There have been moves towards combinative and polyphonic poetry where no individual can claim complete credit. The ShadoWork project, for example, challenges the concept of 'one poet, one voice', interweaving a 'co-vocal' performance which transcends the individual. Such approaches aren't geared to promoting a Great person; their emphasis is on Great work. Which leaves us with the intriguing thought that our conception of Greatness may have to turn from particular poets towards the collective and interactive effect of our creative output.
So, a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, many poets feel compelled to ride the accelerating surf of their times; on the other, If remains poetry's Stairway to Heaven. And all the while, the very concept of Greatness itself may be curling at the edges. But I won't concede, just yet, that Great individualism - or Great individuals - can be no more. As Wordsworth said - "Every great and original writer... must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished". That may be a taller order for the modern poet, but it's also a deeper opportunity. Some Seamus Heaney, Medbh McGuckian or Mark Doty might still just pull it off. And dare I suggest that at least one facet of great writing is that it reflects a great individual soul? That sounds awfully close to a definition, or something you could read on a dust-jacket. Then again, it could be a great way to finish.
© Mario Petrucci 2001
Word count: 1550 words. Ref: <ART97-99/Radidea2.3>