On Greatness

There seems to be an anxiety felt by the Baby Boomer generation that the world, when they have gone, will cease to be.  It must be a consequence of their belief that the world, before they entered it, didn’t exist.  Or, if it did, existed in some corrupt and unhappy form, which thankfully they righted and redeemed.  Largely, they achieved this monumental task by virtue of their insights and their actions, all which occurred between the years of 1965-1969.  In 1970, Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise and disco was invented.  Drugs became dangerous, and anonymous sex with many strangers deadly.  It was for these reasons that the Baby Boomers took jobs they didn’t want, stopped smoking pot, moved to the suburbs and toyed with the idea of becoming Scientologists.

Of course, I’m kidding.  Sort of.

Obviously, the passage above comes from a long-held resentment of having to live in the shadow of a generation, whose values seem to have created the culture in which I live.  Their agendas, for good and for ill, have dominated the world stage for the last forty plus years.  They have chosen not only the debates but the language of those debates.  And still, just when their influence ought to be retreating, they seem to want a re-dawning.  Their insistence, for instance, that sixty is the new forty, or whatever the fuzzy math concludes, suggests a great deal about them, which isn’t flattering.  The first and most damaging is they they never want to grow up.  This Peter Panism isn’t even denied usually.  Rather, it is embraced.  After all, who wants to grow crotchety?

But what they call crotchety might also be considered wisdom.  And the beginning of wisdom, as Solomon says, is fear of the lord.  I have an Emersonian take on this, I think, and think of his Lords of Life.  Those principles upon which we rely, whether we like it or not, and which in the end must triumph.  In some ways, the BB’s are as much an embodiment of Emersonian principles as any other before or since.  The worship of “now,” which is the only eternity any of us will ever know, has been so deeply accepted that it hardly seems worth my while to illustrate the ways in which our culture values the moment.  But this cult-like worship of now has led to a kind of apocalyptic resignation.  A good friend and teacher once described the two guiding poems of his generation as Arnold’s Dover Beach, on the one hand, and Yeats’ The Second Coming, on the other.  The resulting life’s philosophy resembles a logic which goes something like this: a terrible beauty is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, so let’s do it, baby.

I am generalizing and this means many – I suspect anyone born between the years 1945 and 1960 – will find fault with what I’m saying.  I’m certain many educated by the BB’s will also find fault because generalizing is a taboo.  We don’t speak in generalizations.  Rather, we have been taught to speak in moving anecdotes followed by impressive statistics.  The truth seems then beside the point.  I guess my argument would be this: one might get as close to the truth by generalizing as one might by the formula cited above.  The advantage of generalization is an expedience, which mimics clarity more closely than anecdote or statistics.  And it is clarity I am after.

Recently, I read an essay in the NY Times on greatness.  David Orr examines the idea of greatness in poetry, especially contemporary American poetry, and suggests that “American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.”  The reason I say suggests instead of states is that I sense a kind of irony in his tone, and I hope that, considering the rest of his essay, he both means this and doesn’t.  Or that he senses that this is the fear of poets in the poetry world and yet hopes it isn’t true.  Perhaps, he is even suggesting that one must redefine greatness in poetry, or that the job of the great poet is to redefine it for us.  As, inevitably, great poets do.  In fact, it seems to me that this is the indisputable effect of greatness.  Before there was that and now there is this.

When one thinks of great poets certain names rise to the surface.  Mostly, these names don’t differ that much from poet to poet (or even from non-poet to non-poet).  Where they do differ, there is room for debate.  But where there is overlap, there is none.  I don’t mean greatness is consensus.  What I mean is that greatness removes the opportunity for debate about greatness.  I suspect that the twentieth century will produce, perhaps, a single great poet.  Perhaps it will allow room for two.  The two great poets of the nineteenth century are clear to us: Dickinson and Whitman.  One might debate which is greater, but not that one is and one isn’t great.  The twentieth century is a little harder to be definitive about, but for me two names emerge: Stevens and Ammons.

For us, the mountain any poet must climb is Stevens.  One might begin judging Ammons by substituting in all of his mountain poems, of which there are many, Stevens’ name.  Whether Ammons traversed that rocky terrain or died along the way remains to be seen.  His footprints, however, are there.  They are clear imprints in the snow.  And how we might know his fate is by taking the pass ourselves or finding our own way.  Either we’ll find Ammons’ bones littering the face or, cresting the peak, find another mountain beyond gleaming with snow.  Greatness means climbing the mountain and becoming a mountain.  Then our shadows might stretch all the way to the sea.

One of the less charming traits implied by my perhaps unfair assessment of the BB’s is that they can’t conceive a greatness beyond their own.  The risks they have taken are all the risks there are.  And, however well they have prepared the next generation, our generation, we might never do as much as they.  They underestimate, and encourage us to doubt, our ripeness.  It is we who are now in full flower, and not they.  If the world dims now, it dims for them.  For us, it is all shine.  It is noon.  There is no better time to set out.  There is no better time to risk than when one’s sight is as large as the sun’s.  Let them enjoy their illusions in crepuscularity, while we dawn for ourselves.

To be great is to be misunderstood, Emerson says.  If there is to be great poetry for us we must exercise virtues and principles, which have been considered dubious by our teachers.  Once their assessments mattered, but now, in this eternity which is ours, they don’t.  There is a reason Obama’s rhetoric of hope resounds for so many.  He aims for greatness.  He desires to be the poem that took the place of a mountain.  It is for this reason his challengers, Baby Boomer’s all, underestimated him.  It was this underestimation, which we might substitute for Emerson’s “misunderstood.”  Still, his greatness isn’t assured.  But it is more assured today than it was yesterday.  And tomorrow, when he wakes to open his curtain and recognizes his image lighting the grass and all the empty trees, he will have come another step closer.  Until we can posses, as poets, a spirit like this, we will start at shadows and cast none of our own.

Great poetry, as I have suggested in other posts, must be a poetry which matches the vitality, the attractiveness and the relentlessness of life.  The great poets of the twenty-first century will find exactly the right words to match this world, this now.  And it will seem, after all the dust settles, that the words they found were the right ones, the eternal ones.  Perhaps, the great poet will come from the established poetry world, and perhaps she is writing her poems in secret to an audience of one.  It doesn’t matter.  Greatness isn’t necessarily what one aims to do, it is what one does, even as life isn’t what you hope it would be but what it is.  A great poetry reconciles us to the fact and becomes a fact itself.  The way is fraught with uncertainty and danger.  The qualities necessary to meet the challenge have been etched in stone for anyone to read but only the few, the elect to live.

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6 Responses to On Greatness

  1. upinvermont says:

    Enjoyed reading your post.

    (I’ve been scouring the Internet for responses to Orr’s article.) I wonder why you framed the debate, at the outset, as a generational one? I don’t think Orr is a baby boomer but perhaps you weren’t necessarily responding to Orr.

    I appreciated your thoughts on Stevens and Ammons. I personally don’t see Ammons as being a (G)reat. There are some elements missing (to me). I would group him with many of the century’s minor masters. I would go along with Stevens, adding Frost, Yeats, & flashes of Eliot.

    Just today, I asked everyone I work with if they could name one 20th Century poet after the moderns. They struggled to think of Pinsky & Collins (they couldn’t recall Collins name without some help). I then asked them if they knew of any lines from these poets. None.

    What about the “moderns” I asked?

    Robert Frost & E.E. Cummings. They all knew or could recognize lines by Robert Frost.

    None of them, by the way, mentioned Stevens. Stevens is definitely more of a poet’s poet I suppose.

    //Until we can posses, as poets, a spirit like this, we will start at shadows and cast none of our own.//

    I’ve been possessed by that spirit for years and I’m not going to be shy about saying so – not any more. I’m out to be among the greats. So, at least in terms of ambition, Orr can put that assertion to rest. Refer him (and those like him) to me.


    Looks like you just started your blog. Your post is beautifully written. I’ll add you to my blog roll and look forward to checking in.


  2. Hello! Canadian poet, author, relatively new blogger here. I am thrilled to have “found” you, all because I typed in “Obama and poetry,” wondering what other poems about Obama exist online. (Mine, “One hand,” was published the day after his inauguration, on my blog).

    To be great is to be misunderstood, indeed – but I think, from what I’ve read of you so far, I understand you. I’m an old soul born in 72 :)

    Cheers, let’s stay in touch,

  3. Adam Penna says:

    Thanks, Patrick.

    My wife made the same argument over dinner last night regarding Frost. He is certainly the most popular of all 20th century poets. No doubt about that. And he is great. For me, however, he lacks the texture and necessary difficulty which I think greatness with a capital G requires.

    Not that Frost is a simple poet. He isn’t. But when placed alongside Dante, Shakespeare, and Whitman, Frost doesn’t quite measure up. The more I read Stevens, the more I see, indeed, he does. I’m not sure we’ve enough distance from Stevens yet. It has been just over fifty years since his death. His greatness may be a phenomenon like Dickinson’s. The farther we get from him, the closer to us he’ll be. This may be another quality of greatness.

    My argument for Ammons is this: of all late 20th century poets, only his poems achieve the kind of richness, texture and scope I think great poetry needs to be called great. Collins, while popular, can’t pull off the full range of human emotion. He is glib, ironic and funny. But serious he can’t be. Ammons is inventive, wild, prophetic, humorous, etc. He attempts, in his work, to include the all of everything, as I keep calling it. Pinsky, what little I’ve read of him, doesn’t move me.

    The whole Baby Boomer thing, well, that’s kind of a little bit of fun for me. Orr’s not a BB, as far as I know. I’ve seen his pic, and he looks about my age (36). Pics can be deceiving, but what isn’t is the attitude I describe, which frets in the particular way I associate with the BB’s. Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism really takes the BB’s to task. I am much kinder, I think.

    I read your blog post regarding Orr’s article. Good for you, I say. Boldness, frankness are necessary for greatness. And I like your poems very much. I love the idea of you joining by day and joining, in another way, by night.

    Thanks for the close read and the kind words. I will add your blog to my roll.


  4. Adam Penna says:

    Hello, Heather,

    I know what you mean about old soul ’72. That’s what they’ve been calling me for as long as I can remember. I don’t know what to think of it half the time.


  5. upinvermont says:

    Music is the same way. Some listeners find Mozart facile (though you didn’t call Frost facile) while preferring more “difficult” composers – like Beethoven or Stockhausen. Debussy considered Beethoven’s musical thought predictable and facile. Berlioz thought Bach was a relic.

    Frost was a (G)reat Poet, and so was Stevens. I prefer Frost for one kind of Poetry, Stevens for another.

    Tell me the poems that you like by Stevens and Ammons. I’m not out to critique your choices. I’m just curious to better know what you enjoy.

  6. Adam Penna says:

    It’s not so much a matter of individual poems or even books of poems that separates Stevens and Ammons from other poets. Rather, it is a matter of their development over the course of their careers–particularly the development of consciousness.

    This is especially true of Stevens, I think. The poet of Sunday Morning becomes the poet of Postcards from the Volcano becomes the poet who ends up concluding, “We say God and the imagination are one…” This is an achievement worth noting.

    But to answer your question more directly, I like the longer poems of Stevens and Ammons. The best of the best is Stevens’ The Auorras of Autumn. There is much to be said for Ammons’ long poems, too. I like his first book-length poem, which he self-published, called Ommateum.

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