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.