Discussion Question

Answer in the comments section, if you like, or just let it be rhetorical…

How many truly “great” poems would you guess are written in the English language in a typical calendar year?

Note: I understand that “great” is an indefinable word. So, for the purpose of this question, let’s just settle on a temporary partial definition, and to eliminate arguments let’s make it as quantitative and reader-defined as possible. Let’s use this: A great poem is one that, at the time and place of its introduction, inspires an exceptionally intense or vivid reaction on the part of a few readers, while simultaneously inspiring a significant general reaction on the part of many of its readers, and that can continue to inspire these two forms of reaction across large enough distances of time and/or space (between the poet and the reader) that the poem is forced to communicate without the aid of what we could reasonably call “a shared culture.”

As follow-up questions to #1 then, I’d suggest the following:
1b. Is this above definition close enough to valid to allow an answer?
1c. Is your estimation trending up or down? In other words, would you guess more or less great poems came from 2009 than 1999, or 1909, or 1609?
1d. How does this annual number of great poems compare to the annual number of great works in other art forms, like fiction, theatre, film, or the visual arts?
1e. Is the number of great poems produced in a given year correlated in any way (either positively or negatively) with the number of “good” poems produced, or the number of “bad” poems, or the number of poems alltogether?

If I get some interested responses I might weigh in myself a little later.

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19 Comments on “Discussion Question”

  1. Stephen Rowe Says:

    This is a hard question to answer and, for that matter, the criteria mentioned in the post above assume that it’s possible to know the answers to considerations like a) how many people actually read a poem, b) how many people are affected by it, and c) that the nature of that effect (whatever it is in whatever amount) is consistent and able to be assessed by contemporaries in a neat-and-tidy way. Do we mean great poems by poets’ standards, by the standards of academics, or the standards of the average reader who may dabble in the odd volume of poetry? This can get tricky and, no doubt, will.

    I think the number of good poems written in a year can be quite high, depending on the number of published books and the poets involved. Great poems are, in my opinion, those that will stand the test of time and this, as a function of the temporal, is nearly impossible to narrow down in recent work. Poems by Milton are still read and acknowledged as being great (though it must be said he wrote much which does not garner this acclaim). Some of these other poems are good in their use of craft, skill, and insight, but don’t compare to his better works. The same is true of every poet who wrote in the past and every one writing today.

    We may also be comparing apples and oranges. Styles, craft and societal values change with time and so what is considered good or great in the 2000s may fall short of what subsequant generations will consider great.


  2. $20 says it’s under the middle shell.

  3. voxpopulism Says:

    You kids have no respect for the unanswerable.

  4. LH Says:

    This is the kind of question an engineer would ask and then Poetry would have to shrivel up and squirm out of the room after several attempts to make the logic of poetry fit into the logic of equation. Unless the poet was Christian Bok and then he might be able to make the Engineer suddenly feel as noodley as a poet and perhaps want to squirm under the table or ooze itself into the rim like so many unwanted mushy peas.

  5. jeff Says:

    A great poem kind of squashes all attempts to define what is great about it in some universal sense. Which makes this enterprise difficult and chaotic.

    Having said that, I do like Jake’s definition because it isn’t aesthetically prescriptive. The other way to measure “greatness” is just to ask will it last? But that’s not satisfying: surely, great poems are lost.

    My analysis of great is that it is very rare. It has to be. And there is a lot that is good, exceptional even, and that it isn’t “great” is no charge against it.

  6. voxpopulism Says:

    Hound,

    I’m surprised to see you so willing to dismiss the dexterity and willingness of poetry to move into new epistimological areas, and be changed by them.

    What exactly makes us noodly about the question? Besides its impossibility, which has historically been a source of excitement to poets, not trepidation.

    I’d argue that there’s a necessity here, we should be engaging with these kinds of questions, and we do, whenever we challenge our aesthetics or the aesthetics of our generation. There’s nothing prescriptive or essentialist about the question, and there is about most other ways we’ve developped to track and influence the proliferation of good poetry (“theory” being a catch-all for these ways).

    I’m not sure what everyone’s scared of, exactly. It’s only a “mugs game”, as my film-noir influenced friend suggested, if you put your dollar on the table. And I ain’t chargin…

  7. jeff Says:

    Jake, I think by this definition there would be quite a few poems considered great, or, there would be some conversation about what “vivid and intense” means.

    I like your definition of great, but if by great you mean superlative work, a definition that generates many examples does have a kind of self-defeating effect. Such is the problem with talking about this principle down and not poem up.

    I don’t like to be the one who quibbles about with the definition — maybe the easiest position, critically, to assume. So I’m interested in what you have to say.


  8. I dunno. I always think of Tony when I see the word “great”:

    “A beautiful bowl / to get lost in” indeed.

  9. LH Says:

    “I’m surprised to see you so willing to dismiss the dexterity and willingness of poetry to move into new epistimological areas, and be changed by them….”

    Well, I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve sat through hours of squirming in all manner of ways. No, I wouldn’t say no to an engineer entering into poetry, and you’re right, I have a thing for talking to people who aren’t into poetry…but as my recent post on Harriet attests, it’s an ongoing challenge to simply define, let alone judge the bestness of poetry. Not quite how I want to spend my time thinking, that’s all. My choice.

  10. voxpopulism Says:

    That’s all fair. And I’m not suggesting otherwise, I’m not trying to “judge bestness” in any sort of, “Poem X is 130% greater than Poem Y” sense. All I’m saying is, on a quantitative, if not qualitative, level: How great is great? How rare is it?

    I’m not asking anyone to consider what makes up greatness, or how to achieve it (though, if you figure that out, I’m all ears). I hear “this poem/book/poet is really great” a lot in both casual conversation and critical review. And I wonder if we take it seriously enough, as an adjective.

  11. LH Says:

    I hear “this poem/book/poet is really great” a lot in both casual conversation and critical review. And I wonder if we take it seriously enough, as an adjective.

    >>These things have a way of working themselves out. Go back over the list of GGs in this country. Look at an old issue of Malahat, or Prism from 1969, for example. This will give you a sense of what is great and not great.

    What’s great is what remains, in short, what calls us back to it over and over again. The dog-eared look of the book tells the story.

  12. voxpopulism Says:

    I guess I’m not asking about why a book is great, or what makes it great, or how to tell if it’s great. Those answers are as constant as dirt and half as useful. My question is more: How common is greatness?

  13. voxpopulism Says:

    And I suppose I should actually take a wild stab at an answer myself (knowing that this is an impossible question, and more brain-game than anything else).

    I’d be surprised if, by the definition above, the world sees any more than 1 great poem a year. Happily surprised, sure, but surprised.

  14. voxpopulism Says:

    And I say this fully aware that I, as much as anybody, am prone to throwing the word “great” around like it’s a free Tshirt. It’s that hyperbolic strain of critical readership that inspired the question.

  15. LH Says:

    That’s what I was trying to say–poetry is like a windstorm, much of it is gone before you’ve felt it. But every once in a while you actually feel one. It stops you. Demands to be read at its own pace. It’s a great moment. Love it when this happens–particularly with a poem by a poet I have never heard of before. I tend to blog those ones. It’s easy to think a poem is great when it comes from someone everyone thinks is great…try assessing poetry with no bio and publishers hysteria attached. Instructive.

    Again, look back through the old journals. Very instructive.

  16. Stephen Rowe Says:

    We also want to be aware of the fact that no one is going to read all poems written/published in the English language in a given year. There are too many. There are, doubtless, great poems written in the last decade that I haven’t heard of. It’s just the nature of reading in a world that produces so much “stuff”.

    Perhaps we can think about how many great poems (newly published) we each find in a given year. This will likely be different for each of us, but perhaps this is an easier way to deal with the question.

    I don’t imagine there are too many. I’m not struck by a great poem in every book I read. Maybe a few a year? I’m debating whether that’s even right.


  17. […] a recent post at Vox Populism, Jake asked the following: How many truly “great” poems would you guess are written in the […]

  18. voxpopulism Says:

    Well, thing-that-might-be-a-spambot, it’s called “Sapphire”.


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