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« John Emil Vincent, Guest Blogger February 22-28 and other news | Main | Post-Oscar Ball, 2009 [John Emil Vincent] »

February 22, 2009


Hi there John.

First, I'll tell you that my oldest kid is called Emil! Second, that you are making me want to read more Ashbery. Third, also Jack Spicer - though I've already blogged on how flipping expensive his book is here in the UK. And fourth, hiya, great post. Or should I say, GRRRRRREAT post!

Oh and finally that my "blog name" is Ms Baroque, but that I blogged on here by my real name, Katy Evans-Bush.


Thanks, John, for this post. This piece really griped my gizzard, as the saying goes, when I read it in the Times. My response to it, after I simmered down, is - what a waste of time and energy to worry about relative greatness. Also - three observations: A) it was interesting that those who Orr cites as the arbiters of literary greatness are all middle-aged-to-old white men; B)the contemporary generation of any poem is notoriously bad at determining its quality; C)I have enough to do to keep my metaphors from jumping off the page and murdering me with my purple gel pen to worry about if the poem I'm writing is "great" or not. I just want to get to the last line with some semblance of sanity intact.

To Mr. Orr and those who ponder this question, I say: Get on with writing poems. Any greatness will rise to the surface, although most of us won't be around to know about it.

John--Consider yourself encouraged to write poems and proses! But then again, the parties I go to . . . And perhaps some writer's block is in order for the advocates of GREATNESS.

Great points, John. But I wonder if you ignore the appeal of greatness?

Or to put it another way, is this lack of greatness poetry's defining characteristic?

You can say there are great films, novels, songs, memoirs, TV shows, comedic acts, and so on, but if you can't say the same about poetry, whether you think this is positive or negative, it is worth noting.

Dear Steven Dube,

A lovely point. It is true that when I hear the word "great" in literary studies I reach for my shotgun (figuratively). Some major cultural trends have made that a knee jerk, or trigger finger jerk, response. I will put a couple names forward: E.D. Hirsch, Harold Bloom, Allan Bloom, William Bennet....These are just a few.

I believe that reading or listening or watching is a matter of pleasure, sometimes difficult as in the pleasure of a challenge, but I do not believe that judgment ought enter our readerly experience. It is everywhere, it saturates the market--what gets published what doesn't. I don't control that, never will, and wouldn't want to frankly. I believe the notions of "best" or "great" or "top 10" are ways to make our pleasure in approaching the technologies by which we touch each other (language, written or visual or spoken) instrumental to other forces. Of course there are always other forces, but at least for myself, I'm willing to decide what I love rather than I am to decide what is "great." What I might love, you might hate, and there is nothing objective about that. My job as a critic is to report things I think are worth giving a look--they might delight you, they might not, but I will have made my best argument and of course finally you will decide.

There is of course the BADLY MADE. That is a discussion for a different day. Or there are GENRES I don't prefer. Again, I am a filter, a limited consumer and commentator, and as a critic I can only convince my readers or listeners that I am a reasonable and working filter.

This is my idea of being a critic, born perhaps of my real devotion to poetry and literature in general.

thanks for commenting. jev

I think it's true of the visual arts, too. Look at how their contemporaries trashed the Impressionists. And historically, what is seen as "great" by the generation surrounding it often loses its appeal later. Then we snicker at those backwards old-schoolers who couldn't figure out what was good.

I don't think contemporary poetry "lacks" greatness. It's there, but it seems to me that the time spent searching for it or categorizing relative greatness could be better spent writing more poems.

Snark hunting rarely, so far as I've heard, turns up a snark. Or there'd be snarkskin jackets, and snarkskin boots with pointy toes.

Dear Katy Evans-Bush,

Thanks for comments and if you want to talk places to start or middle with either Ashbery or Spicer, I'm glad to give whatever thoughts I have based on approaching and reapproaching them. Especially with the approaching them, which I recall quite vividly, god bless me.

cheers john

Thank you, JEV, for this thoughtful post, which I caught up with only today. This business about American poets' refusal to be great, this worry about whether any of us is truly great (or truly modern or truly "yours"), is an evergreen thumb-sucker along the lines of "What is American about American poetry?" and "Literary Awards: Why We Hate Them." You find versions every few years. But "great" journalism isn't supposed to last, and "great" poetry may exist like a time-capsule or unexploded land mine. What people will remember after the rest of the NYTBR article is forgotten is probably the mushroom simile.

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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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