Great Poems

My friend and fellow poet Jake Mooney has been posing some questions about poetry that, though difficult to answer, lead to valuable discussion about the art form.

In a recent post at Vox Populism, Jake asked the following:

How many truly “great” poems would you guess are written in the English language in a typical calendar year?

This is, without a doubt, a loaded question. Nearly every part of this sentence can be broken down and analysed to determine what, if any, criteria should be used to answer the question. At least we know we are dealing with poems in the English language, that’s the only certainty (but then again, are we including poems translated into English? Ok, Ok, I’ll be good). I’ll see what I can come up with while attempting to ignore the easy criticisms and uncertainty related to the topic.

Great poems, in my experience, seem to be those that endure for one reason or another. Maybe they are brilliantly original in form or in the way poetic techniques are employed. Maybe they provide many levels of interpretation surrounding issues and experiences that are important to us as humans, but also as individuals. Is there an element of challenge involved? Do these poems turn our understanding of some minute part of the world upside down? I would argue that great poems do all of these things, perhaps more. On the most basic level, a poem is communicating something important to the reader. Great poems communicate ideas of terrible significance, things we hadn’t noticed before (but wish we had), but also things we wish we may not have known. There is, above all, an honesty in such discourse, something that strikes us as true; not only true, but something able to change our understanding of the nature of truth.

Of course, any of these above mentioned points can be relayed through a medium other than poetry. One might argue that Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strip shares some of these. A photograph can achieve much the same, as can a novel. The difference is in the mode of expression. In poetry the minutia of word, sound and syllable combine with metaphor and other techniques to present a thought or idea in a powerful way; one that strikes the reader upon hearing or reading; the ability to imprint an idea on the mind in a sonic or visual way that makes that idea at once prominent and revolutionary. Auden suggested at one point that “poems make nothing happen”, but this needs qualifying. A poem cannot perform an act as it is a stationary piece of art on a page. The ideas, those impressions that form in the mind from the act of reading a poem, are also unable to make anything happen, but the person who has experienced the poem, its significance, the skill and craft that reinforces the thought behind it, that person can respond to it and in doing so can then act. The responsibility is placed directly on the individual who is engaging with the poem to achieve some change, either in philosophy or understanding.

The poet and the reader of poetry are both crucial to making a poem great. The greatness of the work may, in fact, be more in the discussion between the reader and the those doing the reading, that communication of ideas from one person to another reinforced in an awe-inspiring way. The poem itself is neither good nor bad, great or terrible (it is a simple object created), but it is the interpretation of the poem and the significance placed on it by the critic and reader in the turning of the gears of the mind that is worthy of such a value judgement. A great poem is one that is held in esteem by a large number of rational individuals with critical, questioning minds. It is able to transcend or appeal to a wide readership ascribing to a variety of critical approaches. I do not mean the lowest common denominator, but the other spectrum where the appeal is common in the highest order: that of the individual and the community.

I really can’t say how common this is, especially when one is looking at an entire calendar year. Recognition of poems as great takes time and a chance for exposure. I think the actual number of great poems being written every year is less important than the discussion such a topic generates among those who value poetry as a medium for thought and cultural development. This, I think, is above all Mooney’s goal in asking such a question. Critical discourse in most cases certainly will not hurt poetry, but rather advance it and to this end asking how many great poems are written in a year is just as important as asking any other question.

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