As a card carrying music nerd, I’ve engaged in tedious late night conversations centered around burning issues such as “The Stones vs. The Beatles, (the true hipster aims off center, perhaps the Kinks),”analog vs. digital, (explaining why I collect so much vinyl, most of which was recorded digitally anyhow), and “the single vs. the album.” Okay, this last one may appeal only to my brother and me, but there was a clear shift in American popular music from recording and releasing great songs to recording and releasing great albums. This division has some correspondence in the modern poetry world as well, with a growing division between artists who can put together good poems and those who can put together good books of poems. I was starting to hash all this out when I read David Orr’s New York Times polemic on the dearth of the “great” poet. The article offers few insights on the tired trope of “greatness” in poetry—is it just me or does the Times publish a different version of this same article annually?—but it did help me connect a few dots regarding “singles” poets and “album” poets, so here goes.
Orr explains that, to most, Greatness “implies scale, and a great poet is a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way.” He concludes, in an allusion to Elizabeth Bishop; “It’s risky, then, to write poems about the tiny objects on your desk.” And this caught my eye because, of course, most poets write about these “tiny objects—“ and understandably so. For the most part, the only people who read poetry are poets; consequently, modern poetry gets written to a smaller scale, aiming to master small elegances and stressing the perfection of craft. This same attention to elegance and craft may have lead poets to find new ways of “writing about big things in a big way” which could explain why emphasis has shifted from writing great books to putting together great books of poems. After all, a poet’s gotta eat, and poets eat by working as teachers. And University hiring committees want to see publications, and the potential for future publications—in other words, books.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing just that it marks a shift in how we create and receive poetry (and if you have to go there, how we might measure “Greatness”). In fact, I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. Looking at my disparate poems and finding ways to structure them into a coherent whole has become one of my favorite parts of “writing” poetry. I gravitate to books like Catherine Barnett’s Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced, where the brief lyrics are strung together into a powerful narrative on loss and mourning that eclipses any of the individual poems, and these books are more and more often the norm.
I do wonder what happens to others, though, to poets who can write good poems but can’t put them together into good manuscripts. Are they lesser poets? What’s their place in, as I’ve heard Marilyn Chin call it, “the Po-Biz?” I think of Barry Ballard. If you own a literary magazine, any one, from any time in the last ten years, there’s a 50% chance a Barry Ballard poem is in there. The man’s that prolific, and he’s often quite good. I don’t mean to imply that he hasn’t published books either because he has: numerous chapbooks and one full-length book, Green Tombs to Jupiter. Still, he’s known more for his poems than his books, especially his work with the sonnet, and there are plenty more like him. Should this poet be nudged to the back of the stage? Should all poets be nudged to the back of the stage? All right. That’s more than enough.
by Martin Woodside.
Here’s a Barry Ballard poem, from Poetry International #11 which you can find here.
Six Thousand Prayers
In another solar system, there’s an unknown
family burying one of its children,
in a ritual of sky-like halftones
we can only imagine. And the end
of their light, their sorrow, only reaches
us after their grieving has already
taken place, a star of prayers among the speechless
dying six thousand they say we can see
with our naked eye. And even the parents
dead before they could plead with us that their
child deserved a life, already their words
nothing but the soft bleeding dust of red
hydrogen, their fear not even creasing
our rituals of despair, our blue atmosphere.