“On Poetry: The Great(ness) Game”


“STILL, however blurry ‘greatness’ may be, it’s clear that segments of the poetry world have been fretting over its potential loss since at least 1983. That’s the year in which an essay by Donald Hall, the United States poet laureate from 2006 to 2007, appeared in The Kenyon Review bearing the title ‘Poetry and Ambition.’ Hall got right to the point: ‘It seems to me that contemporary American poetry is afflicted by modesty of ambition–a modesty, alas, genuine. . . if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense.’ What poets should be trying to do, according to Hall, was ‘to make words that live forever’ and ‘to be as good as Dante.’ They probably would fail, of course, but even so, ‘the only way we are likely to be any good is to try to be as great as the best.’ Pretty strong stuff–and one wonders how many plays Shakespeare would have managed to write had he subjected every line to the merciless scrutiny Hall recommends.” [. . .]    –David Orr, The New York Times, February 19, 2009