Greatness is All Around Us

Tony Hoagland

I was walking down a street in New York a few years ago, with an older, wiser poet-friend who pronounced,“Philip Levine has written two great poems: ‘You Can Have It,’ and ‘They Feed They Lion.’” Though I didn’t automatically agree with his selections, or their number, I admired my friend’s certainty. It pleased me, and pleases me afresh to think that a great poem would definitively be recognized, confidently identified, and spoken of as such.

I grew up as a member of probably the last generation who heard other poets or scholars say things like, “His poems shall be remembered as long as the English language is spoken.” Then everyone in the audience would solemnly nod in agreement with what seems (now) like a preposterous grandiosity.

The last generation of poets who thought that way about themselves, in America, at least, was that of Robert Lowell, and Delmore Schwartz, and John Berryman. They had inherited a faith in the monumentality of culture, the vision that even if the world fell into nuclear ruin, great paintings and music and poetry, too, would still stand like marble statues in the desert, a testament to the ingenuity and beauty of the human mind.

And, somehow or other, they were endowed with the vanity or ambition to believe that their own poetry might stand in that elect rank.

We don’t talk like that anymore, and probably it is wise that we don’t, for a number of reasons, and yet I still very much care about that idea of measurable quality; the idea that a consensus can exist between serious readers about what is great and what is merely good. I have a belief that we can tell the gold from the silver, the copper from the lead.

But the transience of culture, the increased volume of info-stimulation, the disposability of culture, our ever more swiftly heightened awareness of issues of cultural and gender diversity, and its role in taste, calls that standard of inarguable greatness into question for many people. “There are many kinds of great,” they say; “there are different greats. You like old-white-man greats. I don’t like that kind of great so much.” I wonder how many of my peers, my generation, now-with their nervousness about elitism and canonicity-would actually even venture to declare this poet or poem Great? Is “great” a category now so problematical that we dare not risk using the word?

Still, I am loyal to the idea of greatness-the idea that there are ten poems I could take into a prison cell for ten years, or keep with me on a desert island, which would indefinitely nourish and amuse and inspire me. Other poems—most poems, I would say—are as good as Eveready batteries. They function well enough to keep your flashlight working. But a great poem is a like a solar panel—it will run and produce light for a very long time.

In an essay of 1923, “How It Strikes A Contemporary,” Virginia Woolf expressed agitation over the same question; why, she wondered, do there seem to be no contemporary masterpieces? Why, she asked, are contemporary critics so unable or reluctant to proclaim them? In large part, it was the critics of her era with whom she found fault, who—unlike Mathew Arnold or S.T. Coleridge—were apparently not courageous or brash enough to recognize and proclaim great works. As usual, Woolf (who has the credibility of being a great writer herself) is interesting on the subject.

If we make a century our test, and ask how much of the work produced in these days in England will be in existence then, we shall have to answer not merely that we cannot agree upon the same book, but that we are more than doubtful whether such a book there is. It is an age of fragments. A few stanzas, a few pages, a chapter here and there…

Thanks to media, and speed (thanks, Media!) we have a hundred, a hundred thousand times as much art to deal with as Woolf did in a year. We seem as baffled as she was about how to measure it. Nonetheless, I refuse the assumption that greatness is something that belongs to another era; that one more book must be written about Robert Lowell, because he was the last identifiably, consensus-approved, board-certified heroic-scale poet in our era. I want to make the case against the timidity of academics and canon-makers, who are too insecure in their own taste to freely declare a living writer’s poetry lastingly extraordinary. I equally wish to denounce the stinginess of the rest of us, who would rather not admit the definitive excellence of some work from our own generations, as equal to the great work of the past.

Who are some contemporary poets whom we would nominate as great? To mention just two American examples-potentially there are many others-W.S. Merwin and Louise Glück could be easily named as poets who have written large bodies of extraordinary work that qualify them as major poets, and whose collections contain many great individual poems.

What’s more, I will not say, “That’s just my opinion.” I believe that anyone smart, sensitive, and knowledgeable about poetry could look at twenty of the best poems by these two poets, and agree, “Yes, this is indelible and radiant work, that has lasting value and beauty, majesty and mastery of craft. These poems should and will join the permanent canon of poetry. They should be read and admired by poetry readers a hundred years from now.”

What’s more, I am certain that there are many, many other individual poems which are great—and many of them are by poets who are not and never will be famous, never be anointed with the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award. Yet these poems embody virtuosic levels of craft and powerful statements of the human condition which could easily be called great. In a Norton Anthology from which the names of all the authors had been redacted, these poems would stand out when encountered, and they would hold their own next to those of Larkin, or Bishop, or Eliot, or Frost.

But now I have assumed an obligation: I must produce an example of a great contemporary poem. To serve my purposes I want to offer the poem “Quarantine” by Eavan Boland.

Large in its themes, compressed in intensity, swift in development, and emotionally powerful in impact, Boland’s poem, in only twenty lines, recounts a story from the Irish Famine of the mid-19th century: the death by starvation of a husband and wife. Quarantine thus invokes the authority of history, the gravitas of tragedy, and approaches the mysteries of romantic love. In themselves, these are poetically ambitious premises. With its austere tone, it initially positions itself as a kind of objective witness to history, but the poem progressively escalates into a heroic and passionate mode:

In the worst hour of the worst season
          of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking-they were both walking-north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
         He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
         Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
         There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
         Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Quarantine is, in many ways, a quite old-fashioned poem; declarative and purposeful, it is a rhetorical vehicle which delivers a dramatic story from which it derives moral power.

One source of Quarantine’s force is in the half-hidden internal tension between romantic and anti-romantic energies; between restraint and expressiveness, between purpose and feeling. Boland’s is a didactic poem which warns against didacticism; a passionately personal poem that deceptively presents itself as chilly and tough-minded. It is also extraordinarily dynamic in its movement. In just twenty lines, its speaker’s voice rises from severe objectivity to a vulnerable, and passionately angry idealism, one which affirms one of the most fundamental human mysteries.

This paradoxical contradiction of anti-romantic and romantic elements is one secret of the poem’s great charisma. On the one hand the speaker refuses to “heroize” the forsaken woman and man-on the other hand, she tells us that they “died of the toxins of a whole history.” On the one hand, she insists this is no goddamn love poem; on the other, we are told that “The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.” Of such deep paradox, great art is made.

The turn in the poem occurs in its fourth, penultimate stanza, in which the speaker aims her emotional challenge towards her audience; towards the kind of facile sensibility that would in some way exploit the story of these poor human figures. That the speaker herself does no less, doesn’t matter. In the end perhaps, it may even be that these shadowy, partially-repressed aspects of the poem’s self-knowledge-its unconscious grievances and agendas-are what lend it the charged heat of greatness. The presence of these subliminal, not entirely understood emotions redeems the poem from being merely rhetorical:

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold. 
         There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body. 
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

These subliminal forces are especially resident in the poem’s tone: the aggrieved ire of the voice of the speaker, for example, suggests a history of personal woundedness. Similarly, what we hear in Quarantine’s general aggressiveness is the protective tone of a mother who is shielding her children—these small figures from history, long since dead, but still vulnerable—from the present that would exploit them into meaning. That scolding, yet honorific tone has a double effect: it marvelously chides and reduces the poem’s audience, and at the same time makes us feel that we are being sheltered by a powerful adult presence.

In this brilliant poem the old standards of greatness are hardly absent, or obsolete. It is firmly fixed to the tradition of great sermonic poetry, as heroic as that of Milton, Dante, or Yeats. In any case, Quarantine is a powerful work of art, which verifies, to me, the thesis of this essay. Read Boland’s poem out loud to willing friends—perhaps more than once—and they will have an experience which verifies the fundamental importance and reason for poetry.

This essay is not meant to canonize Glück, Merwin, Boland or anyone else in particular. I merely wish to assert, with conviction, that genuinely great poetry is being made among us now. We don’t need to be stingy with our praise, or unconfident in testifying to the quality, or the degree of pleasure and meaning we take from what we read now. Dozens and maybe hundreds of great poems are floating around us, poems as great in their way as anything that has been written. I believe that we should count ourselves lucky to be among these poets, and to read their poems. To confidently name them out loud to the world is not an act of charity, nor to compromise the standards of the past, but a matter of our own discriminating generosity, which does honor to others and ourselves and, most of all, to poetry itself.