The four poets who participated in Poetry's colloquy on ambition and greatness said many good things but perhaps not the obvious thing: a poet's proper ambition is to astonish the reader, and great poets astonish readers again and again, and in every generation. Not that anyone sits down with pen and paper and thinks, “What shall I write that will astonish people?” Rather, something has astonished the writersomething that is mirabile dictuand this is the inspiration for the poem.
Often the inspiration is another poem or poetry itself. The former was the case with Keats when he wrote that astonishing poem about astonishment, “On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.” Or consider Milton's “On Shakespeare”: “Thou, in our wonder and astonishment,/Hast built thyself a livelong monument.” When poetry itself is the inspiration, the resulting poem is often charged with powerful linguistic effectsverbal pyrotechnicsthat may astonish the reader. In my experience, however, the astonishment wears off with repeated exposure unless the poem also offers psychological insights. I still love “Jabberwocky” but find it a charming rather than a great poem. (Charm is not negligible.)
Then there is the astonishment that the world and self supply“emotion recollected in tranquility,” perhaps. Whether the fact is small or greata moose emerging from an impenetrable wood or finding oneself in a dark wood in middle ageis not important; it matters only whether the poet's telling of it stabs us in the eye or ear.
I recall a conversation from twenty-five years ago (and the quotation that follows is therefore inexact) between Charles Wright and Howard Moss, in which Wright was extolling a younger poet, Sherod Santos, because he was ambitious: “not ambitious for himself but for his poems,” Wright explained. There is no need to apologize for ambition. The poet who is not ambitious for his or her poems is a dilettante.
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