David Orr on "greatness" in poetry.
Orr regularly comes up with interesting insights. But don't we already know what greatness in poetry involves? Where's the mystery, here?
The in-house poetry scene is like a 24/7 Academy Awards show, everybody wondering who's on top, who (if anybody) is any good this year.
But literary force & greatness do not depend on the scene, the status quo, current opinion. Greatness shifts all the markers.
Orr glances toward this, but not very decisively. & surprisingly he quotes Samuel Johnson, equating greatness with "exquisiteness in its kind" - which seems pretty limited as a defining characteristic.
As I see it, the great poets command a kind of cultural-artistic force field, a magnetic power - which intrudes upon and fuses with the history of their people in toto. With them, biography becomes fate. Suddenly events are no longer ruled by chance, but are transformed into a drama (of mind, art, originality). Reality is personalized through the medium of the work.
This may sound Romantic. It's not. It applies in every era. Poetry doesn't depend on philosophy or criticism; the poet's critical faculties (along with the imaginative) are fully deployed in the creative process, making possible an artistic microcosm, within which everything is filtered & shaded by the poet's vision. As Nicholas Cusanus wrote, with regard to the creative human personality : "The world giulianizes in you, Giuliano."
It seems to me there are 3 characteristics, displayed by the great poet, which determine this unusual situation :
1) A powerful, synthetic intellect, able to grasp wide spheres of life & discourse, and translate them into a new, unique order.
2) A strong will, determined to engage with the world, with its most difficult practical, moral & theoretical cruxes, riddles, problems. A dramatically-engaged personality.
3) An original, masterful combination of artistic talent and sensibility.
Such people don't come along every day.
p.s. but let me be clear : I'm not a believer in Supermen, Ubermensch (literary or otherwise). I'm pretty much with TS Eliot on Tradition (& Individual Talent). A poet becomes great through a sense of allegiance & service to a larger, older world (of art, of history). "The greatest among you shall be your servant."