On Poetry, On Greatness

Indeed I too am interested in why so few poets seem to be taking on responding to this article in the NY Times: “On Poetry – The Great(ness) Game,” by David Orr.

So here is my dos centavos. I am and I am not a part of this petty American po-biz community, if it can be said to be a community. Much of what Orr says here is familiar, observations of how narrow, and petty, and ugly as fuck po-biz folks can be in this country. He holds a mirror up to our smug American MFA entitlement, little worlds full of little people who to me appear to working towards shrinking these already little worlds, denying that poetry can have audiences larger than our cliques,  colleagues, disciples, and disaffected scenesters.

Orr cites Donals Hall’s essay, “Poetry and Ambition,” which is an essay I’ve enjoyed very much, and which is the essay that introduced me to that useful term, “McPoem,” that assembly line, mass produced, generic product. And certainly, our having been churned out of MFA machines endangers us as poets, in our complicity in the McPoem’s production and reproduction as we assume various types of teaching and mentorship positions.

One question here: is it true that contemporary American poetry is trying to redefine “greatness” as “smallness”? Why would such a thing be desired?

Orr goes on to discuss the active distancing American poets assume by citing and salivating over the greatness of international poets who come from volatile places in the world. I’d like to add that Orr engages a kind of distancing himself, by not including any American writers of color in his discussion of Great American Poets.

Orr dismissively discusses the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, and I fucking hate Orr’s condescending tone here, and I hate his use of the term, “foreign.” Here is a section of Milosz’s poem Orr cites,  “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people? / A connivance with official lies, / A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment, / Readings for sophomore girls.” Maybe not the most poetically awesome lines in English, but perhaps they read much more profoundly in their original Polish? Maybe there’s some good music and wordplay to be had in its original language?

Still, even in his unnecessary belittling of Milosz and other international poets, Orr has made a very good point: in discussions of great living poets (by the way, Milosz is dead), why must folks always blindly default to writers who do not write about American historical, cultural, geographic contexts, the problems with being “here,” linking our homegrown cultural and political movements to those abroad. In discussing Latino poetry, for example, why always default to Neruda’s love poems (ignoring that he wrote political poetry) and Octavio Paz, both of whom are also dead, when we have living Chicano and Nuyorican poetry movements right here, in our American cities, writing about our American lives.

Many of us in the American poetry world have a habit of exalting foreign writers while turning them into cartoons. And we do so because their very foreignness implies a distance — a potentially “great” distance — that we no longer have from our own writers, most of whom make regular appearances on the reading circuit and have publicly available office phones.

In addition, non-American writers are the perfect surface upon which to project our desire for the style and persona we associate with old-fashioned greatness. One hesitates to invoke the dread word “colonialism” here, but sometimes you’ve got to call a Mayflower a May­flower.

Orr uses the term “colonialism” here; I didn’t bring it up, but of course I agree with him. There is something so exotic about a politically persecuted other, from that war-ravaged, underprivileged other place. As well, there is something sexy about being the savior and discoverer of this politically persecuted other, that war refugee other. Something about power dynamics, no? I believe members of these communities have the power to speak for themselves, or find collaborative, non-dominant-submissive ways of working with translators.

Certainly, as a poet who writes political poetry, and who aspires to write great poetry, I participate in my share of hugely admiring international writers such as Bei Dao, Mahmoud Darwish, Eduardo Galeano, reading their work, buying their books, learning much from them about the world and about literature. And I do believe they are great (or Great).

Let me be clear that it is not at the expense of reading, studying, teaching, supporting, and learning from the political poetry of living, contemporary American poets such as Juan Felipe Herrera, Suheir Hammad, Jack Agüeros, Harryette Mullen, Linda Hogan, Lawson Fusao Inada. I believe they have written great things. By great, I mean this: the poetry that tries its best to understand our place and condition in the world, spiritually, historically, culturally, politically. Poetry that seeks to connect with readers and audience, and in doing so, growing community. Poetry that grows larger than the individual I, taking on the beauty and the problem of we. Poetry that seeks to do all these things with a keen sense of music and a deep love of language.

There are poets in our midst, colleagues and those coming up around us, who do these things, who try to do these things, who aspire to write great things, who aspire to be great. Orr believes that American poetry will soon be running out of greatness because he is looking in the wrong fucking places.

29 thoughts on “On Poetry, On Greatness

  1. As per usual, there are smart things I should say (have smart things to add to our ongoing conversation in your Some Lines, Some Fragments post later tonight or tomorrow), but for now, I just have to toss this out there: Performed at my old high school just prior to AWP. Five periods of English students at all levels, from 50-150 students per period depending on how many teachers were able to bring their classes. In one period, totally off the cuff, I mentioned that Helen Keller became a socialist in later years. The reaction was more subtle than outcry, but you could just see gears turning in all these minds – “Wait, the blind/deaf lady we read about in grade school? Was political? Was radically political?” I don’t consider myself a socialist, but I think I should just start off all my public readings with that announcement.

    Sorry, that was tangentially related to your post (riffed off your observation about people knowing Neruda for the Veinte poemas but not the political stuff). Related to the related – do you find that people know, say, Langston Hughes for his generally-leftist politics, or just for his race politics (yes, I’m pretending these can be easily separated)? I’m wondering about the need to pin a poet to one ideal/concept/whatnot.

  2. Thanks Francisco, I could have been more succinct!

    JeFF, yes I see what you are saying about having to stick these people into manageable little cubbyholes.

    In the meantime, I’ve just seen some kind of (flippant) discussion happening on the Harriet blog re: this article. Whatever.

  3. barbara,

    many thanks for this post. i’d had a similar reaction, but was too lazy to articulate it. very glad you did the “non-succinct” version, though it’s great to have someone point to the heart/core of one’s writing, as francisco does for you! : )

    whiteness and american poetry. the volumes that could be written…


  4. i was gonna say that the only reason i keep reading the Harriet blog is to track how many times a Great poet fetishizes non-US persecuted poets!

    altho i love your definition of ‘great’, i still prefer to be ‘sublime’ than ‘great’. ‘sublime’ is just so much more citrusy!

    see you soon, xo, jk, cs

  5. Evie, always great to hear from you. Thanks for your response. Whiteness and American poetry is really a subset of American = white, I think. Oh, and “foreign,” as represented by Milosz, is European. Forget the rest of us; we don’t have literature.

    As for you, lemon-fresh c st p, I did miss (or ignore) the recent e-conversations regarding being sublime, didn’t I? As for myself, I take DJ Spooky’s lead here and like being subliminal, and Prof. Takaki’s lead about embracing my liminality.

  6. I’m really glad you responded to that article (and that you confirmed that someone is reading those weekly pieces I’m doing at The Rumpus). You did it far more eloquently and in far greater detail than I would have been capable of, and it was an article that, I feel, required a response.

    Like you (or so I gather from your post), I felt that Orr made a couple of good points, but by couching them in that condescending, and frankly, simple-minded notion that there are no great poets writing now other than Ashbery–who got the qualified seal of approval at best–he made it really difficult to take the rest of his piece seriously. I’m glad you were able to get past that. Terrific post.

  7. Hey there, you’ve got a wonderful site here. i learned about your site when someone posted a link of yours in my favorite tambayan the filipinowriter.com and true enough, babalik balikan ko ito to read more from you. keep up the good work!

  8. Barbara,

    Thanks for articulating so well the overall feelings of disappointment and malaise I felt after reading Orr’s piece, which failed to claim even one contemporary woman poet as worthy of “Greatness.” I’m so bored with a handful of elitist, all-white presses deciding what kind of writing is American or of canonical significance. And I’m so glad that online publications, micro-presses, pod services, and blogs such as yours are changing that.

    Best to you,

  9. He hasn’t read any Deleuze and Guattari, has he? I mean, “poetry needs greatness.” The greatest poetry, me humbly thinks, is in the minor poems, those usually overlooked by the establishment (like the NYT of all places) . “Greatness” in poetry might be as negative as “commercial success” in music: though some may manage to still make good music, most of the pathos is watered down. Give me minor poetry any time.

  10. If I may post another comment I also think this kind of posts reflect an agonizing world view. “Patadas de ahogado”, we’d say in Mexico. As you articulate perfectly in your post, it’s not that there are no more “Great” poets, but that poetry -the poetry establishment- is changing, and therefore concepts such as “Greatness” are being interrogated as well. Why is he looking in the wrong places? Because he is unable to see that poetry is also being made there. His definition of “Poetry” is so institutional, so old-school, hierarchical, colonial and retrograde that it’s only logical he is not able to see new forms of poetry and new forms of “greatness” (without the capital G). Because this “Greatness” Orr talks about is not necessarily poetic, but institutional, a cultural paradigm that has been deconstructed and has been proven wrong. If “Greatness” is measured by number of prizes, type and number of publications and overall subjective but generalized reputation, then it really has little to do with poetry itself. What Orr does not seem to have realised yet is that “Greatness” is not such a great concept anymore. Poetry as an institution cannot be any longer the realm of white oligarchs wearing the laurel handed down by emperors. Poetry as a profession, exercise, art form, industry and craft is being democratised, slowly but surely, and in some places faster than in other places, but it is indeed changing.

  11. Incredibly well articulated response to the article.

    “I believe they have written great things. By great, I mean this: the poetry that tries its best to understand our place and condition in the world, spiritually, historically, culturally, politically. Poetry that seeks to connect with readers and audience, and in doing so, growing community. Poetry that grows larger than the individual I, taking on the beauty and the problem of we. Poetry that seeks to do all these things with a keen sense of music and a deep love of language.”


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  13. Barbara,

    This was a beautifully articulated response to this article, which carried such a totally unconscious attitude of privilege and condescension that it left me gritting my teeth. No women, except Emily Dickinson, “The Only Woman Poet” ( a poem of mine), no Latinos, no African Americans, no Native Americans, no Asian Americans–need I go on? No one but upper-class white guys (and Emily, of course) qualify for “Greatness.” As you so perfectly put it, “…looking in the wrong fucking places.” And I hate to tell any of them this, but they don’t really get to decide who’s “Great.” That’s left to later generations looking back on this one, and yes, it will be academics but those academics will no longer be a completely monolithic group of oligarchs.

    Best wishes,


  14. //Indeed I too am interested in why so few poets seem to be taking on responding to this article in the NY Times//

    Me too, which is how I found your blog.

    I’ve been googling other poetry blogs, looking for responses but, so far, not much. You can read another blogger here:


    I’m going to work up a post this week listing all the responses that I can find.

    //One question here: is it true that contemporary American poetry is trying to redefine “greatness” as “smallness”? Why would such a thing be desired?//

    What Orr leaves out is that poets have tried to find greatness in small things. He offers Bishop as an example. The question he doesn’t really try to answer is whether they have succeeded and, if not, why. When I read a poet like Neruda (in translation) I have the feeling that he succeeded in writing about small things (G)reatly, but since I can only read the poetry in translation, there are aspects I can’t judge.

    //Certainly, as a poet who writes political poetry, and who aspires to write great poetry…//

    Orr’s question boils down *not* to: Where are the Great poets?
    But this: Where is the Great ambition?

    Even you can barely bring yourself to acknowledge your ambition. You meekly discuss yourself in (just about) the third person and ascribe to this aforementioned poet the “aspiration” to write great poetry. On the other hand, you are one of the few poets who have so much as hinted at such an ambition. Every other writer has referenced *other* poets.

    What about blah, blah, blah… they say. Well that’s missing the point. What about *YOU*?

    I appreciate the virtue of modesty, but virtue and vice have a lot in common, including the letter ‘v’.

    My thinking, though, is that many poets “aspire to” (G)reatness. (I could be wrong.) So, for Orr to accuse them of lacking ambition is just a round-about way of calling them and the present generation mediocre. He is talking around the subject just like the poets. (The poetry community’s mildly indignant and tepid response isn’t encouraging.)

    //Orr believes that American poetry will soon be running out of greatness because he is looking in the wrong fucking places.//

    So are poets.

    One last thought. I know it’s tempting to vilify MFA programs. I’ve never attended one. I don’t have an MFA. But I know people who have gone to them. Very few of them are smug elitists. They are people like you and me. They love poetry and want to write poetry. Just a small minority will achieve any sort of success by going to these programs. The programs generate more income (for colleges and universities) than great poetry. If anything, the instructors who teach at these programs mistake their “status” at these Colleges and Universities for “artistic” success (and pontificate on those grounds), when their status is really comparable to that of a fly on a fishhook – catching lots and lots of fish for the coffers of a given school.

    Write (G)reatly!

  15. Hey Barbara,

    Thanks for this great post – I too couldn’t believe the writers Orr singles out as ‘great’, and you know, why ‘great’ anyway? I mean, your (and Takaki’s) ’embracing liminality’ this, it seems, is real poetic work…

    Looking forward to seeing/meeting you in April.


  16. Hey folks, thanks all for the comments. A lot of newcomers here: welcome to this here blog.

    Wow, upinvermont, I’ve always been accused of the opposite of speaking of myself meekly. I actually don’t think I was being self-referentially meek. I am working at greatness. Overall though, I understand your point, and I agree. In response to where poetic greatness – great poems and great poets – is to be found: what about you. And by “you” I mean me and each one of us here.

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  18. “A keen sense of music and a love of language”. Perfect. It is a great joy to know there are people in the world like you.

  19. //In response to where poetic greatness – great poems and great poets – is to be found: what about you.//

    Poetry that is memorable – that’s like a song without the music.

    It’s not enough, in my view, to write lineated prose unless the imaginative conception of the poem is strong and powerful – like Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”.

    This imaginative power stirs in some translations – in many Haiku.

    That said, I ultimately don’t care what form the poem takes or who wrote it.


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  21. I think there is unknown great poetry -and therefore unknown great poets- everywhere. Before the 1960’s it was easier to become “Great” because “poetry” was still confined to a happy few. Not that there were other types of poetry being made- it’s just that the poetic canon was, and I think still is, predominantly male and white. In Mexico where I am from Orr’s article could be used to describe the contemporary writers’ obsession with becoming the new Octavio Paz. After Octavio Paz -who achieved greatness by writing good poems but above all by staying dear to the government and power elites and later winning the Nobel prize and getting his profile inscribed on a now-retired 20-peso coin- everyone, or almost everyone, defines poetry according to what he did or didn’t do. As if there hadn’t been any other poets, or as if there were no other way of achieving poetic “greatness”.

    Of course we all want to write “great” poetry, whatever it means for different people. We all want to write good, memorable poetry, poetry that moves, that says, et cetera. But this is so relative that I think we need to deconstruct this concept of “greatness”. No one should want to be the next Ashbery or the next whoever.

  22. Dear Ms. Reyes:

    I think the nearly universal disappointment in Orr’s piece indicates that he completely missed the mark.

    Greatness–or the retroactive assignment of a privileged critical regard for writers whose careers are well past their prime (or simply dead)–isn’t a quality that any writer deserves to claim for him/herself. One may take on large issues with a full awareness of their broad implications, summoning up a higher inspiration; on the other hand, a fake portentousness is probably the best recipe for pompous self-embarrassment.

    For my money, the best poems begin in modesty and isolation, and rise to importance through the ingenuity and careful attention. Mental brilliance and verbal dexterity may help, but are not necessarily crucial: Great poems have been written by ordinary talents.

    Anyone who mistakenly believes that there is a condition called, Greatness, to which they might aspire, is self-deluding. You simply do your best, and try not to be distracted by external priorities. Any writer committed to an intense personal vision, probably has a much likelier chance of writing interesting poetry, than one who always has one eye cocked at a public, or at ulterior opportunities. Like everything else, there are exceptions, but I think they prove the rule. The poets whose work I most admire–James Wright, Robert Creeley, Rae Armantrout, James Schuyler, Robert Grenier, Louis Zukofsky–write/wrote out of an intensely compelling private vision/obsession, which was also universal.

    By the way, I don’t find your use of the word “fucking”–as an adjective–to be of much value in refining sense. Unless, of course, what you intend, as in “the wrong fucking places,” is to say that fucking places actually refers to bedrooms and whorehouses.

  23. A great piece, BJR. Mine is much more angry and bitchy, but I agree that Orr’s tone drips with condescension and the bit about foreign is xenophobia. Orr is obviously not reading contemporary poetry or he would have never written this crap. Maybe the New York Times can trip some fat by trimming his salary.

  24. Um.

    So, like upinvermont, I found this blog while looking for responses to Orr’s essay. You’re right, the response has been extremely limited, not only in quantity… but, well, also because I’ve only read huffy indignance, name-dropping, and quotes referencing poetry/greatness as equally “vague” as a critical notion of greatness, all of which I feel miss the point.

    I think Orr was antagonistic, and appropriately (and purposefully) so! Geez people, don’t get your knickers in a twist, but anyone who’s gone through workshop/MFA programs has read tons of derivative tripe, which is the same for anyone who’s a regular reader of The New Yorker, or any of the thousand lit mags saturating our favorite, independent book stores today.

    I do think there are some great poets writing today, and I think Orr knows that. It may be unoriginal to criticize our current poetry culture, but that doesn’t make it unnecessary, and doesn’t make it innaccurate either… much like criticizing “white poets,” ahem.

    Anyway, I liked your response, because you’re pissed (without being self-righteous), and not just for yourself but for all of us writing out there today.

    And, please, never stop using the word “fucking.” Christ.

  25. I really like alot of the points you make here especially: “Poetry that seeks to connect with readers and audience, and in doing so, growing community. Poetry that grows larger than the individual I, taking on the beauty and the problem of we. Poetry that seeks to do all these things with a keen sense of music and a deep love of language.” Well said.

    But I don’t buy the concept of “Greatness” like you do. Or at least I see it as an exclusive or elusive thing. I think you can see it almost any night at an open mic.

    But at least I got a poem out of it. In case you are curious here is my blog response.

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