There's No Such Thing as a Great Poem

This blog has been full of discussion lately, and I love it — it gives me things to think about (and thus post about).  In a comment thread from last week, “G the Art Spy” argued that we publish too much poetry these days — that a journal that published infrequently and was “extremely choosy” would be most successful.   I replied that there’s no such thing as great poetry — only good poetry, and it’s hard to get people to agree even on that.  A hyperbolic statement, and the ever-engaging Cafais called me out: “Really? The great ones are rare, but they are still out there.”

Cafais is right, of course, but I do believe it’s practically true that there’s no such thing as great poetry, at least from the standpoint of a literary magazine.  Great poems exist, but they’re so rare that it’s most effective to operate under the premise that they don’t.

Like “God,” great poems are defined by consensus.  A great poem is any poem that a vast majority of poetry readers would acknowledge to be great.  I can only think of a handful written in the last 100 years.  “Howl” and “Prufrock” certainly — probably “The Wasteland,” too, although I know several people who seem to despise it.  Plath’s “Daddy.”  Levine’s “They Feed They Lion.”  Maybe Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man.”  Maybe something by Cummings, but I can’t decide which one.  The most recent I can think of are Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song” and (I would argue) Matthea Harvey’s “The Future of Terror / Terror of the Future” sequence.

It’s interesting to explore what these poems have in common — an epic harnessing of the contemporary zeitgeist, etc. — but that’s not the point.  The point is: look how few and far between.

As an editor, you can’t pretend that you’ll be able to publish one of these poems — you’d be publishing one poem every decade…and how would you find that one poem, if you’re not receiving any submissions or being active in the literary community?

While there are very few great poems, there are a great many good poems — poems with a strong voice and a resonant energy, that will connect with some in particular and, for them, rise to the level of greatness.  And that’s what you have to focus on.  Every issue of Rattle contains maybe a dozen poems that move me personally — the rest are poems that I think might move other readers, the goal being that no matter who reads, everyone will be able to find their dozen.  Poetry is subjective; that’s all you can hope for.

In the 15 years of Rattle, we’ve published one poem that I think has a strong case for being called great.  Donald Mace Williams’ “Wolfe” is a flawless epic, and in turning the legend of Beowulf into a critique of man’s encroachment on nature, it has a chance at ringing the bell of the current zeitgeist.  That’s why we took the unusual step of reprinting it as a chapbook.  Does it have the power to move enough people to call it great?  The odds are long, but only time will tell.

We’ve also published several poems that border on greatness.  Li-Young Lee’s “Seven Happy Endings.”  Lynn Shapiro’s “Sloan-Kettering.”  Sophia Rivkin’s “Conspiracy.”  Salah al Hamdani’ “Baghdad, Mon Amour.”  And there are others.  But I don’t think any of them have the  universality to be called truly great — they’re great for some readers, but merely good for others.  We all have different histories and proclivities.  And that‘s what’s really great.

What I want to do, though, is ask you:  What poems do you think are great?  List as many as you can think of, and maybe we’ll make a big list.  I’d love to find some that I haven’t read yet.

13 thoughts on “There's No Such Thing as a Great Poem

  1. “To Autumn” by Keats
    “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
    “The Blue Terrance” by Terrance Hayes

    I would say last year’s poetry prize winner, “Mahler in New York” by Joseph Fasano, borders on greatness, too.

  2. Great picks, all. It’s harder to find short poems that have enough impact, I think, but “Wild Geese” does the trick.

    Aren’t there like a half-dozen poems called “The Blue Terrance”? Do you mean one in particular, or all of them as a series?

    Funny thing, those Rattle Poetry Prize winners. “Barcelona” strikes me as the least “great” but it seems like the most readers responded to that one. “Mahler in NY” is probably the closest to being great, but it’s received the mildest reception. That kind of helps prove my point — you just never know what people will respond to.

  3. WCW’s The Red Wheelbarrow and Natasha Trethewey’s Flounder are two of my favorites.

    It seems the great/good distinction is as subjective as defining art in general.

  4. I believe that “Prufrock” is one of the greatest poems in the last 100 years (maybe the first great poem of the modern era). Other great poems would also include Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” and perhaps “Burnt Norton”. William Carlos Williams is a great poet. I think my favorite poem of his is “The Last Words of My English Grandmother”. Then there is Robert Lowell; his “Shunk Hour”, “For the Union Dead” and “Man and Wife” are all great. I like Sylvia Plath a lot, but for some reason I never really liked “Daddy”. My favorite poems by her are “Morning Song” and “Mirror”. Some of John Berryman’s Dream Songs are great poems. Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is a great anti-war poem. (It is also very short, which adds to its greatness.)

  5. I have a hard time believing that any list of “great” poems written in the last 100 years could leave out “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Eve” by Robert Frost. From the perspective a general audience rather than a literary audience, it might well be the only poem written in the last 100 years they could recall. In my opinion, in order for a poem to be truly great, it has to transcend the boundary between the critical/literary audience and appeal to a larger group of people for a longer period of time. Only time will tell which poems will manage to do that, but of those listed above, I think the only one that stands a good chance is Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” The rest will be studied, but not widely read.

  6. Here’s a few:

    “Being A Person” William Stafford
    “Clearances” Seamus Heaney
    “First Thanksgiving” Sharon Olds
    “Dinner at the Sea-View Inn” Louis Simpson
    “Keeping Track” Denise Levertov

  7. Ooh, lots to look up! Besides for Olds and Stafford, I’m not familiar with any of those.

    Cafais–I thought about listing Lowell, and “Skunk Hour” in particular, but every time I reread those poems I find that they sound better in my memory than on the page. Jarrell’s a good selection, and reminds me that I’d probably add something by Wilfred Owen, either “Dulce” or “Anthem”.

    Larina–I object to including “Stopping by Woods,” as much as I like Frost. That’s just such a lame poem — and yeah, it’s popular, but if we’re going there, we might as well just pick songs by Dylan and the Beatles. “To Earthward” and “Out, Out–” are my favorite, but both of them seem to me good but not great.

    I think we’re just done with poetry being widely read. There are just too many alternatives. Think about it: 100 years ago you couldn’t listen to music on the radio; 150 years ago not even a phonograph, it had to be live. Poetry had a huge niche to fill, and very little competition. Now we’ve got to compete with movies, music, video games, the internet. The only way poetry will ever become mainstream again, as a consumed medium, is if an apocalypse turns back the clock 300 years. And I don’t want that happening. So our only shot is to focus on that act of creation, rather than the act of consumption. But that’s the topic for a new post.

  8. I’m not a fan of much of D. H. Lawrence’s poetry, but “Snake” is one of those poems that captures something universal, and does so with a vivid imagery that is real. So much vivid imagery in poems these days smacks of contrivance, in my opinion. “Snake” transcends that.

    I’d pick Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” over “…Prufrock”, personally.

    Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard” is probably a touch long for its own good, but it also captures something universally felt, and does it deftly.

    How about “Ozymandias”?

    And my personal bias probably colors this selection, but Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” has everything I’d like to achieve in a poem. It captures a moment of apostasy even better than its visual art counterpart, Munch’s “The Scream.”

    Just a few that I think deserve the mantle of “greatness”!

  9. To some degree, I agree, Tim. “Stopping by Woods” isn’t my favorite Frost poem (“Mending Wall” is far superior, IMO), BUT it is the only poem in 100 years or so to be recognizable by both a literary and a general audience. Granted, this was published at the very beginning of the mass media era, but it continues to be read and known nearly 100 years later. I think that if we’re willing to recognize that there are preferences and tastes that don’t match our own, we also have to be willing to look at the facts surrounding poems as we assess them. We can say that it’s a lame poem (it is) and that we don’t like it (I don’t really), but that doesn’t change the fact that the majority would say it’s stood the test of time and is a great poem.

    My own list would include Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” Elizabet Bishops “One Art,” and William Stafford’s “Great Blue Heron.”

Leave a Reply to Tim Cancel reply