In the February 22, 2009 New York Times, poet David Orr wrote a long and thoughtful essay titled “The Great(ness) Game” about poetry. Quoting from diverse sources, Mr. Orr sounds the alarm that with the passing of John Ashbery and his generation, “American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.”

“The problem is,” Orr continues, “that over the course of the 20th century, greatness has turned out to be an increasingly blurry business.” To put a date on it, he quotes from Donald Hall’s 1983 essay “Poetry and Ambition,” in which the poet accused American poets of playing small ball, when they should be trying to “make words that live forever…to be as good as Dante.”

Actually, I think poetry became especially blurry after the death of W.H. Auden in 1973, (see my Auden essay) the last of the Big Three in English-speaking literature, including Eliot and Yeats, and maybe also Robert Frost, to make it the Big Four. Roughly speaking, that was the end of the Shakespeare Standard and the rise of factionalism: postmodernism, political correctness/diversity/multiculturalism, anti-poetry, the triumph of the rock lyricist over the lyric poet and consequent retreat of official poetry into the university. Murky business, indeed.

Some of these trends, such as the rise of the rock lyricist—Bob Dylan over Dylan Thomas—began earlier in the 1960s; while political correctness didn’t gain steam until the 1980s. But it all started to hit the fan in a big way in the 1973-1984 era.

So, what to make of all of this?

First, I would say that we are now living in historical times, when the forces of anti-poetry are in retreat. I would include Mr. Ashbery in this crew, so, rest assured, poetry will not run out of greatness with his passing. It is now fashionable in some quarters to write rhyme and reason, that is, verse that resembles, to the eye and ear, historically great poetry. Whether any of the poets now writing in this vein will attain the exalted rank of Great Poet remains to be seen.

Mr. Orr asks the question: “Is being a ‘great’ poet the same as being a ‘major’ poet?” Good question. Which of the factions would give up literary turf to acknowledge a Great Poet? How many women poets and critics would acknowledge a Not Boring Live White Male genius? How many newly minted establishment minority writers would yield market share to same? Or are we all one big, happy family?

Without historical guidelines and references to historical standards, what we have is the dominion of politics. And politics we have aplenty today. But the times keep a-changing, and, as I say, we are now living more with traditional standards. This includes oral poetry, an ancient practice, which today is reinvented in the open mic and collaborations between poets and musicians. Slam poetry, which is hugely popular in live performances and on the Web, ultimately fails John Keats’ Truth & Beauty test. Slam poetry is energy added to art minus beauty. Just as there were rock lyricists who were giants on stage, and great hell raisers, who looked puny in print. Jim Morrison belonged to this category.

It is not easy to do away with the book standard augmented by spoken word performance. One cannot ignore the popularity of poet-performers such as Billy Collins, a middle weight with a gift for phrase making, who make big bucks from readings. Ultimately, we will all be subject to the book standard for quality. Whatever their personal weaknesses, keepers of books, of the written word, will have the last say on great vs. non-great, even as books become digitalized.

David Orr mentions Samuel Johnson’s phrase “exquisite in its kind” as one of poetry’s enduring legacies. He is right in this. Being best in show is what we poets can aspire to today and in the foreseeable future, if we get noticed at all in this new Web-based universe of millions of artists and writers, blogs and workshops. This means a new intellectual honesty is required.

You gatekeepers and empowerers, stop giving the prize for the Shelley Award, say, to someone who in no way resembles Percy Bysh Shelley. We’ve had enough of this 60s-era contrarianism already, this favor- giving based on race, gender and political affiliation. We have plenty of poets, be-ribboned like Soviet generals, who have never written a line that will live on the lips of the common reader. It won’t end, I know, favoritism. We could do with less of it. And less of the cult of ugliness that Modernism has fostered.

We don’t need new definitions and new categories except as they arise naturally in the culture. What we need is new readers with open hearts and minds eager for what smells and sounds and looks like a great poem. You might agree on that.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

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