Robert Frost’s “The Pasture”

  • September 28 2011: Be sure and read the comment section, especially the comments by Richard Lawrence, who shares with us a seemingly lost verse from the original version of this poem.
  • July 18, 2009: New PostRobert Frost’s “Out, Out”
  • June 6 2009: Tweaked and expanded.

About the Pasture

I’ve been following the lead of my readers, noting on the Stats page what searches you use to find my blog. The most popular poet remains Robert Frost. And I’ve noticed several searches for Frost’s “The Pasture”.

Robert Frost's: The Pasture

Robert Frost recites The Pasture

There are few poems in the English language that can compare. Right now? I can’t think of one. In terms of brevity and memorability, it’s unsurpassed. Why? Subject matter, rhyme and meter are perfectly suited to each other.

Frost-NewmanRobert Frost himself, according to Lea Newman (book at left), stated that it was “a poem about love that’s new in treatment and effect. You won’t find anything in the range of English poetry just like that.”

I have several books on Robert Frost and all of them only mention this poem in passing – giving it short shrift. Lea Newman’s book, in terms of the poems themselves, remains the best of any of them. Her opening paragraph describes some of the inspiration for the poem:

One spring evening in 1905, Frost took a walk over those fields with his wife, Elinor, and their six-year-old daughter, Lesley. According to the notebook Lesley kept as a child, she and her mother picked apple and strawberry blossoms while her father went down to the southwest corner of the big cow pasture to check on how much water was in the spring. In 1910, when Frost wrote “The Pasture” he used a walk to a spring in a cow pasture as its centerpiece. The experience was still a favorite memory thirty years after he wrote about it. In 1940 he reminisced, “I never had a greater pleasure that coming on a neglected spring in a pasture in the woods.

Newman’s introduction to the poem continues and I wholly recommend the book as a companion to his poems. But what does the poem mean? (It never seems enough to say that the poem means what it says.) It’s a poem of invitation first and foremost – Frost chose this poem as a sort of introduction and invitation to his collected poems.  More than that, the poem typifies what many readers love the most about Frost: his connectedness with nature and the everyday; his contemplative ease; and, above all, the approachable  content of his thought and poetry. Frost was a poet with whom most everyone felt a kinship and understanding. He was comprehensible during a time when poetry was becoming increasingly incomprehensible. Saying he won’t be gone long could summarize his craft. There are depths to his poetry, but they are such that the reader returns. He won’t go too far. He won’t be gone too long. You come too, he says to the reader and to anyone who wants to go with him.

Meter and Rhyme

The internal rhyme that contributes to the poems lyricism is the most important and also the most difficult to describe, but I’ll try. And it may seem like  I’m making too much of vowel sounds, but sound is everything in poetry. Consider the following anecdote which occurred between Keats and Wordsworth (from John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics and After-Fame by Sidney Colvin pp. 401-402):


And here is another sample about Keats’s as related by his friend, Benjamin Bailey:

…one of Keats’ favorite topics of conversation was the principle of melody of verse, which he believed to consist in the adroit management in verse, which he believed to consist in the adroit management of open and close vowels. He had a theory that vowels could be as skillfully combined and interchanged as as differing notes of music, and that all sense of monotony was to be avoided, except when expressive of a special purpose. (Richard H. Fogle – The Imagery of Keats and Shelley, p. 63)

In point of a fact, I write my own poetry with the vowel sounds in mind. I hear words as music and tones, which makes me an “ear reader” rather than an “eye reader”, as Frost put it, and a very slow reader.

Keats was conscious of his choices, and Frost was too. (However, it’s definitely possible to read too much into “word sounds”, vowel sounds, percussive consonants and the like  – I’ve seen it done by plenty of critics and analysts.)  Such analytic overreaches are called Enactment Fallacies – a term I first came across in one of David Orr’s New York Times reviews. He defines it:  in the following passage:

Basically, this is the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess. For example, in an otherwise excellent discussion of Yeats’s use of ottava rima (a type of eight-line stanza), Vendler attributes great effect to “the pacing” allegedly created by “a fierce set of enjambments” followed by a “violent drop” in the fourth stanza of the poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” Here’s the stanza in question:

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

“With each new verbal or participial theater of action of the stanza, there arrives a new agent,” Vendler writes, “making the clauses scramble helter-skelter, one after the other. The headlong pace is crucial.” Since the stanza involves words like “dragon,” “nightmare,” “murdered,” “blood” and “fighting,” it’s easy to see what she’s thinking here. But to make a more modest use of Vendler’s rewriting trick above, what if we kept the same enjambments, syntax, rhyme scheme and basic rhythm — yet changed some of the words? We might get this (my words, with apologies to I. A. Richards for adapting one of his tactics):

Now days are slow and easy, the summer
Sighs into fall: a purring bumble-bee
Can leave the flower, softened to a blur,
To soak in the noon sun, and fly carefree;
The night can breathe with pleasure as once more
We weave our visions into poetry
And seek to bring our thoughts under a rule,
Who are the mindful servants of the soul.

Not so “helter-skelter” now, is it? In a book review or essay, committing this particular fallacy is a minor error. Most critics do it regularly (I certainly have). In a book that sets out to explain why a poet makes particular formal choices, however, the mistake is more serious, because it replaces the complex relationships among a poem’s elements with just-so stories in which it always turns out — surprise! — that meaning has been mirrored by shape and sound. Think of it this way: we don’t enjoy a bowl of gumbo because it “feels” exactly the way it “tastes”; rather, we find the combination of “taste” and “feel” pleasing. Similarly, a particular stanza arrangement can reinforce our experience of a poem, but only because that arrangement is working in harmony with the poem’s other aspects.

I quote the better part of the passage because I think it’s something every novice in poetry and poetry criticism should be aware of. Read all criticism and analysis with skepticism. Including, obviously, mine; though I try to be reasonable in my assertions.

Anyway, back to Frost and The Pasture. Whether intentional or not, the first line’s variety of vowel sounds is lovely – no two are repeated.

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;

That in itself isn’t so remarkable, but what happens next, to me at least, beautifully sets off the first line.

I’ll only (stop) to rake the leaves (a) way
(And wait to (watch) the (wa)ter clear, I may) :

The two lines are rich with internal rhyme – the long A’s of rake, away, wait and may bracket the short, rhyming  vowel sounds of stop, away, watch and water. The Pasture - Manuscript Robert FrostThe effect of these internal rhymes (interlocking in the second line and bracketed in the third) will be different for different readers, though I think all readers, but those with tin ears, will register them. To me the internal rhyming creates a sort of sing-song effect in perfect keeping with the light-hearted, carefree, teasing tone of the poem. And, again for me, the “long A” vowel sound has a sort of easy-going and open feel to it. There’s no way to know whether Frost had this in mind, but I’m sure that the music in the lines, however he interpreted their effect, was intended.

I sha’n’t be gone long. (You) come (too).

Up to this point, the lines have been Iambic Pentameter. But the fourth line (repeated in the second stanza) is Iambic Tetrameter. The effect is lovely and though it can be imitated in free verse, it can’t be reproduced.

The first three lines could be spoken to an unnamed companion or to oneself. We read the poem in the same manner that we read first person narratives (where our presence is irrelevant to the narrator). But then Frost does something  magical. He talks explicitly to “you” and he does so in Iambic Tetrameter. “You come too”, he says, and the shortened tetrameter line has same effect as an aside in a play or drama – an effect of immediacy and personableness. Suddenly we find ourselves in the poem!

The internal rhyme of gone and long anticipate and are complimented by You and too. The musicality of the line heightens the feeling of intimacy, unselfconsciously inviting – the appeal of a close friend. And, as a final note, notice too how the Iambic pattern is broken in the last two feet (spondaic variant feet) of the Tetrameter line.

I sha’n’t |be gone |long. You |come too.

This too adds to the air of informality. The formal Iambic Pentameter is broken for the sake of a friendly aside. The ceasura (the break between the two sentences), occurs in the middle of the third foot, also disrupting the metrical pattern of the previous lines. It all contributes to the informal, intimate feel of the fourth line. Again, it’s an effect that free verse simply can’t equal.

Frost’s Colloquialisms

robert_frostOne of Robert Frost’s most powerful poetic figures (as in a rhetorical figure or figure of speech – also called figurative language) is anthimeria. It’s also one of my favorites and one of the truly beautiful ornaments in the toolbox of poetry – adding vitality and rigorousness when done well. (Shakespeare was one of the greatest users of this figure.) In short, anthimeria is the substitution of one part of speech for another – “when adjectives are used as adverbs, prepositions as adjectives, adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives” (Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 63) . Turning nouns into adjectives is Frost’s favorite substitution and he does this because, interestingly, this form of grammatical substitution is typical of New England dialects. (For a more thorough treatment of colloquialism in poetry, see my post Vernacular Colloquial Common Dialectal.)


Instead of saying “I’m going out to clean the spring in the pasture”, he says “pasture spring”. Pasture, normally a noun, becomes an adjective modifying spring. Et viola! Anthimeria! If you read enough of Frost’s poetry you will see this figurative language recur again and again. And if you hang about Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine, and hear some old-timers, you will hear this same grammatical short-cut. I don’t know why it’s more prevalent in New England (more so than in other regions of the United States) but it may be a hold over from the speech patterns of a much older generation.

Anyway, Frost always keenly observed, recorded and remembered the speech habits of New Englanders and deliberately infused his own poetry with the patterns he heard. Techniques like anthimeria, the substitution of a noun for an adjective, helps give his poetry a dailectal and colloquial feel. In a similar vein, the contraction sha’n’t, for shall not, adds to the colloquial informality and intimacy of the poem. “I sha’n’t be gone long” is a style of speech that’s almost gone. Probably more typical of what was heard among an older generation of New Englanders if only because the region is where American English is the oldest.

I’m going out to fetch the little (calf)
That’s (stand)ing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I (sha’n’t) be gone long. You come too.

Again, I’ve tried to emphasize the play of internal rhyme – to make it visible. The short i sound of little is bolded. The short a sound of calf is italicized and (bracketed). The short u sound of young is underlined. I won’t belabor the same points I’ve already made discussing the previous stanza. The effects are the same. There are no internal rhymes within the first line of the stanza, as in the first line of the first stanza. The sing-song informality and intimacy created by the internal rhymes that occur in the lines that follow, once again, find completion and resolution in the final invitation:

You come too.

If this post has been helpful to you; if you enjoyed; if you have suggestions or questions; please comment!

(G)reatness): Orr and his Respondents

It’s been about two and a half weeks since Orr’s article appeared.

The implicit question in Orr’s article remains: What’s (G)reatness?

But Orr studiously avoids answering the question and for obvious reason: It’s not for the critic to answer. It’s for the next Great Poet. And that leads to the next series of questions: Where’s the ambition? Where’s the Great Poetry? Where are the Great Poets?

My apologies to Bloggers if I haven’t picked your choice passage – it wasn’t intentional.

In no particular order (and not including my own responses), here are some of  Orr’s Respondents:

  • Click on the images to visit the blogs.

Collin Kelly on OrrCollin Kelly questions whether Orr’s article isn’t Word Vomit.

He writes: “If you haven’t read it and can manage to get through it without vomiting a little in your mouth… If you don’t feel like tasting your own bile, let me just boil it down for you: Orr contends that John Ashbery is the last “great” poet, then writes nearly 3,000 words wondering if any of today’s contemporary poets can be “great.” Collin then goes on to call it “introspective masturbation.”

HG Poetics & OrrHG Poetics tries to pick up where Orr left off, seeking to define Greatness.

It seems to me there are 3 characteristics, displayed by the great poet, which determine this unusual situation :

1) A powerful, synthetic intellect, able to grasp wide spheres of life & discourse, and translate them into a new, unique order.
2) A strong will, determined to engage with the world, with its most difficult practical, moral & theoretical cruxes, riddles, problems. A dramatically-engaged personality.
3) An original, masterful combination of artistic talent and sensibility.

digital-emunctionDigital Emunction offers up a youtube link with a clip from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006): “I wake up in the morning and piss excellence!” – as a way to satirize the kind of poet Orr is accused of looking for.

This clip is followed by seven good comments, including one by Robert P. Baird: I guess I should say, too, that I think it’s a splen­did thing for poets to have world-​eating ambi­tion–as Jack says, why not?–but I also think that Orr is flat wrong to follow Hall in blam­ing the lack of self-​consciously great work on a lack of ambi­tion. Sim­i­larly it seems pretty dumb to say that poetry can’t or won’t sur­vive with­out a ready font of great­ness in its midst. What Orr is really com­plain­ing about–and I can’t quite figure out if he rec­og­nizes it or not, though he prob­a­bly does–is not the absence of poetic great­ness but the gen­eral culture’s indif­fer­ence to poetic great­ness.

clusterflock Clusterflock.Org (I suppose [Orr] can’t imagine there’s another Dickinson lurking around right now who hasn’t been noticed.) Nor does he seem to acknowledge that Dickinson’s poems do not ‘look’ great–they’re short, personal and often obscure–nor that a poet like Sappho has endured more than 2000 years on likewise tiny poems. To me, Orr’s questions seem too utterly American and far too narrow, though I won’t deny that he makes some astute observations.

Career Limiting Moves & OrrZachariah Wells writes: Orr’s piece reminds me of another favourite poet of Ashbery’s–and of mine–John Clare, a poet in many ways similar in sensibility to Elizabeth Bishop: a poet who values a close look at a small thing more than the windy effusions of ego favoured by his elder contemporary, Wordsworth the Great. (Not that Clare couldn’t turn on the rhetoric when he wanted to.) The ambition is more humble, and for a long time Clare’s work was neglected and ignored, or dismissed as quirky.

html-giantHTMLGIANT writes: Anyway, despite the basic dopiness of claiming that poetry must at all times seek to obtain capital-i Immortality, and at that only by first obtaining to the status of High Art (whatever that is), Orr actually has some real points to make, and I can’t stay quite as annoyed as I’d like to. For one thing, he busts out this Donald Hall quote from 1983, where Hall, writing in the Kenyon Review, accused “contemporary American poetry” of being “afflicted by modesty of ambition.” I’m with Hall on this one, and with Orr for being with Hall–the fact that a full generation later (Taylor, Justin: b. 1982) nothing much has changed actually lends a lot of credence to Orr’s basic–yet still irritating–claim that perhaps the Poetical Climate Change is in fact irreversible…

amy-kingAmy King writes On Greatness and them that do it: There is no set goal in the “game” of poetry, though Orr’s comparison sets the terms as such (i.e. John Ashbery’s Library of America collection).  How do sports metaphors of the competitive masculine variety so often wiggle their way into measuring poetry and her cultural cache?   What team am I playing for again?  Where’s the goal line?  Who do I have to smear to get there?   Are my subjects suitably dainty as I take up the stick?

When Falls & OrrOn When Falls the Coliseum Christopher Guerin writes: David Orr’s recent New York Times Book Review essay on greatness in poetry is a bland bit of punting. I’ve read it twice and I still don’t understand what he’s trying to say. The main thesis, that defining greatness in poetry is very difficult to do, is obvious enough, but he never makes the attempt himself. Taking John Ashbery as his last great poet — apparently just because the Library of America has chosen to release his collected works — sets the essay off on the wrong course from the beginning. Richard Wilbur, anyone?

One Poet's Notes & OrrEdward Byrne at One Poet’s Notes writes: Much has been made this weekend on writers’ individual blogs or email literary lists about the content and tenor of David Orr’s valuable and thought-provoking article in the New York Times, “The Great(ness) Game.” Some of the online commentary has focused upon questioning ambiguous definitions of “greatness” or the accuracy in Orr’s portrait of contemporary poetry, particularly his perceptions of college writing programs and a tendency toward careerism evident among those in the current community of authors. As with Orr’s essay, all of the opinions I have seen online so far have been interesting and insightful, have engendered discussion or debate, and have initiated some serious reflection.

getting-something-readNeal Whitman at Getting Something Read writes:  Here at Getting Something Read, I am guessing that readers do not expect greatness in the short poems they find here. But, consider this: poetry is not in the words written, but in the mind of the poet. Donald Hall, who wowed a full house in Monterey, California, two evenings ago, challenged poets, in an essay that is at the center of Orr’s NYT article, to be ambitious, to reach for the stars. In the minds of the poets out there, are any of you aiming, to paraphrase (dare I say it?) a GREAT poet, Carl Sandburg, to write explanations of Life swiftly fading without explanation into the horizons?

compulsive-readerAt A Compulsive Reader an NYTBR Reader Responses to ‘Greatness’: A wide range of interesting responses, similar to the wide ranging immediate blog-responses.  These letters represent a markedly different response than it seemed many of the blog responses that I came across.  Reeve in particular I think hits on an interesting notion that has been danced around to some extent on this page.  The idea of the conglomeration-publishing-house not allowing interesting, unique voices to rise to the fore.  And I think it is a good point.  It is virtually impossible for one single voice to cause enough of a disruption to shake such the massive structures that these publishing companies have become.

best-american-poetryAt The Best American Poetry John Emil Vincent writes: Orr blames this on postmodernism’s questioning of “Truth, Beauty, [and] Justice.” But simple sense might tell us that as history progresses, we have fewer and fewer filters (years, critics, just plain old historic contingency) through which poetry must pass to get to us eager readers. Contemporary poetry is precisely that, contemporary, these poems haven’t been around long enough to have dependable gauges of “greatness”

IMHO: (G)reatness & the Language of Poetry

On Being Memorable

I’ve been scouring the net for other response’s to Orr’s New York Times Article, where he asks: Where is the ambition? Where are the Great poets?

Orr - On PoetryWhile pursuing discussion on Orr’s article over at A Compulsive Reader, another question occurred to me. Why is it that practically no poets after the moderns seem to be widely read, remembered or recognized by the general, non-poetry reading public. Almost everyone I ask (who maybe reads three or four poems a year) knows of Robert Frost, can name a poem by him and maybe even recite a line or two. No one, (during my unscientific survey), could do the same for any poet of the later generation.

The one clear difference between Frost, Cummings (and Eliot in some cases) is that they wrote Poetry that utilized meter and rhyme to varying degrees. There’s no dispute that meter and rhyme are mnemonic aids. The trick of rhythm and rhyme begins before writing, with the oral tradition. So, the fact of Frost’s popularity is, I think, indisputably linked (though not fully dependent on) his use of meter and rhyme.  His poems are memorable in ways that Ashbery’s poems simply are not.

The Marketplace

There aren’t a lot of Border bookstores or Barnes & Noble bookstores in the smaller malls of the Midwest. Instead, there are shops like Waldenbooks (now owned by Borders), that cater to the very general public. I used to shop at Waldenbooks – the only bookstore close by. I know all about their poetry section. It usually only had four or maybe five books in it. Waldenbooks, unlike Borders and Barnes & Noble (which are still primarily located in urban and metropolitan areas), only buy what they know they can sell.  That said, they are a top-notch barometer of what the wider population typically reads on a daily and weekly basis.

Here’s what I never found on any of their shelves: Language Poets, Avant Gard, Black Mountain Poets, Objectivists,  Beats, etc… none of the various “schools” after the moderns. If anyone reading this can tell me whether this has changed, let me  know. While I was shopping at Waldens, the only free verse poet they  stocked was Walt Whitman. Period. The other poets were Robert Frost, Christina Rosetti, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, his major plays, maybe Keats, maybe Tennyson.

What do all these poets have in common?

With the exception of Whitman, none of the poets are free verse poets.

Why has the generation of free verse poets that followed the moderns largely failed to appeal to the wider, non-poetry reading, public – why have they failed to capture their imagination and inspire them? Or let me put it another way: Why have they failed to be salable?

If popular appeal is a part of (G)reatness – then the last generation of poets have failed.

In reading the various responses to Orr’s article, almost every individual volunteered a list of poets who Orr could have or should have mentioned. But I can’t think of any two bloggers who agreed on a poet.

A Failure of Aesthetics? Poetry is more than content.

My hunch is that Orr is equating (G)reatness with popular recognition and appeal, which is why he passed over all the poets other bloggers have variously mentioned. That said, Orr studiously avoids defining much of anything –  asking more questions than he answers. He avoids defining what he believes to be (G)reatness in style which, it would seem, ought to be part of the equation. His description is artfully noncommittal:

Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.”

Ya think?

I’ll go a step a further.

AR Ammons Collected PoetryA poet can’t be (G)reat unless his or her poetry is stylistically (G)reat – and by stylistically (G)reat, his or her poetry must stand apart from prose. It’s not enough to have “great thoughts”. At least in the wider literary marketplace, poetry is judged in part by how and to what degree it differentiates itself from prose. AR Ammons’ poetry attains a level of complexity comparable to that of Stevens, but he lacks Stevens’ melodious line and flare for metaphor and imagery.  His poetry is more like a compressed prose. Meanwhile, the poems widely considered to be Stevens’ best are also, frequently, his most metrical and metaphorical- Sunday Morning and The Idea of Order at Key West.

Shakespeare’s ideas, as Robert Shaw pointed out, are frequently pedestrian, but his language could elevate proverb to profundity. Poetry is more than content. That’s the realm of the novel (which isn’t to say that some novelists aren’t better stylists than others) but that’s not why the broader public reads them. Poetry has to be more than content, or it places itself in direct competition with every other work of prose. What Do We KnowThe results are, simply put, obvious and indisputable. A store like Waldenbooks is stuffed with contemporary novels while its poetry section couldn’t stop a screen door.

When poets adopted free verse, they surrendered the one quality of poetry that, up until then, differentiated it from every other form of writing. And it’s not just rhythm and rhyme that were rejected, but rhetoric and the building of ideas out of metaphor. Walt Whitman, while he rejected rhyme and metrical pattern, remained an intensely rhetorical and figurative poet. In contemporary poetry there is frequently nothing that distinquishes a poem from any given prose paragraph.

Mary Oliver is perhaps among the most salable of modern poets. Her poetry is rich with figurative language, image and metaphor, all immediate and accessible. Her poetry uses language in a way that a novel doesn’t.

Who knows whether Oliver will be counted among the (G)reats?

Maybe her stature will be comparable to Andrew Wyeth, who was favored by the wider public while being largely rejected by art critics, curators and collectors who couldn’t help but interpret Wyeth’s popularity as a rejection of their own increasingly unpopular aesethetics. As it is, I have an uncertain sense of Oliver’s overall popularity.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, while it may be held in high regard by fellow poets, must be special-ordered in most smaller book stores while Robert Frost’s poetry can be found in any number of permutations, including children’s books.

Can the contemporary aesthetic of free verse be (G)reat?

Have the poets of the last hundred years legitimized their own aesthetics?

If wider public appeal is any indication, the answer is No. The poets of the last generation have failed to produce a genre that in any way  competes in the marketplace of modern literature. It has failed to inspire the wider public. Rather, the marketplace continues to favor a poetry that is not prose or “lineated prose” – but that is differentiated from prose in all the ways rejected by the generation following the moderns and contemporary poets.

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!