Hey, David Orr!

self-portraitFrom the time that I was a child, I have wanted to do something spectacular.

When I was in grade school and watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, I wanted to be a great astro-physicist. As a young teenager I wanted to be like Bach and Mozart. Then, when I was a sophomore in High School,  I saw a video of Robert Frost reading. From that day on, I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be a great poet. In fact, I wanted to be among the very greatest.

I’ve never thought small.

I wasn’t good with numbers. I wasn’t a good composer. I’m a good carpenter. But poetry…

Orr writes:

“In 2005, Poetry magazine published a round-table discussion entitled (naturally) “Ambition and Greatness,” in which participants were alternately put off by the entire idea of “capital-G Great”

I remember reading the round table discussion Orr describes. I remember wanting to write to the magazine but deciding the frustration would only be compounded by being ignored (or so I decided rightly or wrongly). Orr writes that  no one questioned “the im­plicit premise that greatness isn’t something American poets can take for granted”. And this was the very last thought that occurred to me. As everyone politely corresponded, my very first thought was this:  Why in the hell doesn’t anybody just say: ME! I want to be Great! I am a Great Poet!

As far as I recall, no one (not even respondents in later issues) claimed those laurels. So far, though I’ve searched the Internet, there is still no one who has said, in defiance: Me! I want to be a Great Poet! I remain dumbfounded.

But I understand.

In college, many years ago, I wandered outside with another poet. Just the two of us. It was midwinter. We leaned into a recess of a stone facade. He was a kind of rival-poet. In the dark, the two of us alone, I wanted to confess. I shared with him something I’ve never shared with anyone else since then – until this post.  I said to him:

“I want to be a Great Poet.”

“Not me,” he said. “I just want to be recognized. A professorship in Chicago would be nice.”

I felt like a fool.

I once asked a Chinese co-worker what the Chinese equivalent of Red Riding Hood was. What was their most popular folk tale? There was a tree full of monkeys, she said. One day one of the monkeys decided to see the world. He climbed to the topmost branch and slowly, carefully, poked his head through the canopy. And then she said to me: That was the monkey shot by the hunter.

I get it.

Today, I’m that monkey.

Since nobody at Poetry Magazine had the nerve, desire or arrogance, I’ll be the one.

I’ll not only climb to the top of the tree but I’ll take a flying leap.

I am going to be among the greatest of English Language Poets.

Orr quotes poet David Wojahn as noting that Lowell was “probably the last American poet to aspire to Greatness in the old-­fashioned, capital-G sense.”

He was. (Past Tense.)

And Orr quotes Donald Hall as writing: “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.”

I’ve met Donald Hall. I’m not afflicted by a modesty of ambition. I have been afflicted by an absence of opportunity and a slow, methodical creativity. I don’t write quickly. I write each word and line as though it were my last. I can’t fathom how other poets can produce book after book (though I don’t slight them for it). I don’t write quickly.

I know that there will be many who read my poems and dismiss them. I respect that and expect it.

Orr writes: “[A Great Poet] is somebody who takes himself very seriously and demands that we do so as well. Greatness implies scale, and a great poet is a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way.”

Yes. And that’s exactly what I do.

I want to produce work that is “exquisite in its kind”. I want to write poetry that is memorable and that, once heard, is hard to shake loose.

And to all this I add one more thought:

I don’t want to be the “best poet” or the “greatest American poet”. If you are a poet and are reading this: I want you to be a Great Poet too. I’m not out to be a better poet than you or any other poet. No. I am out to be better than myself. And that’s going to take a lifetime…


And I’ve said as much in my Poetry.

Just to be clear. To David Orr, to Poetry Magazine, and to any and all:

I am going to be among the greatest of English Language Poets.

And to any and all: Write (G)reatly!

8 responses

  1. An excellent read – or should I say a Great read. I can imagine the rush of blood as you wrote that last line.

    To hell with it – I’ll join you:

    I am going to be among the greatest of English Language Novelists.

    Wow that felt good!


  2. Maybe we need different schools. I would like to be a Pretty Damn Good poet and perhaps consider upping my ambitions as time passes, or downgrading them to Reasonably Decent Poet if the publications don’t come.


  3. //Maybe we need different schools.//

    Maybe so…

    My wife just bought a sticker for the back of her car:

    Uppity Women, Unite!

    Maybe we need a sticker for poets too:

    Uppity Poets, Unite!

    I’m all for upping ambition. Pretty Damn Good Poet… I like that.


  4. Eh, I’m willing to settle for being the greatest Chilean poet in the English language, but I do like the idea of a bumpersticker:

    “I may be poor, but one day I’ll be anthologised.”

    “I write, therefore I starve.”

    “Yes, I write. No, you’ve never heard of me,
    But I’ll still do autographs for a fee.”

    I hope you appreciate the meter on the last one.


    • Ha! I’ve got to find out how to make some of these into real bumper stickers. And, yes, meter, a bumper sticker for the ages.

      “If you think I’m famous now, just wait til I’m posthumous.”


  5. Pingback: free verse done right « PoemShape

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