I read your exchange on "Ambition and Greatness" with interest. Pound's argument that "the artist is not dependent on his audience" is obviously true for many artists who worked in relative isolation, but the specific context of Pound's remark ("I ask you, had Synge an audience in his lifetime?") pertains to the artist's lifetime, not to future generations. The context of Whitman's remark ("To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too") involves a relationship between the artist and the future. In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and in addressing his "Eleves"â€"his disciples, or studentsâ€"at the end of "Song of Myself," Whitman was already staking out (at a time when he was virtually unknown as a poet) a relationship to an American audience hundreds of years down the road. My guess is that Pound would agree that eventually, if not in his or her own lifetime then at some point afterward, in order to be considered "great" a poet must have gained what Whitman called "a hearing." Otherwise no one would know enough to assess the poet's worth.
At least until WWII, ambition and greatness in the arts involved the idea of continuity between the artist's own work/life and a future audience "great" enough (however diminutive in size) to perceive and re-articulate (however changed or misunderstood) the artist's vision. It is exactly this idea of intergenerational continuity between the artist and the future that has been undermined. Like most other people living in the current era, artists have good reason to feel a shaky sense of the relevance of the self to current and future generations.
Whitman defined the relevance of his poetry to the shared experience of future generations in many different waysâ€"through an experiential sense of a life-affirming presence of the divine, through the temporal love (sexual and otherwise) of his fellow man and woman, and through a common cultural/political bond with Americans of all generations. All of these bases for defining the commonality of human experience across generations have been substantially shaken by the diminution of the self in the wake of our contemporary technological prowess. The expansion of our knowledge of time and space, the nuclear genii run amok, and the assault of the media on the notion that any one artistic voice can speak for, much less define, an ever-more complex and constantly changing mass culture have all challenged the artist's ability to believe in the intergenerational reltionship between his or her own work and the future reader.
One reason why I would agree with David Wojahn ("Letters," April 2005) that Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" is among the greatest of post-WWII poems is that it not only tracks, at a crucial moment in American history, the contemporary presence of the past, but it also embodies powerfully a new and undying cultural presence, all in the context of the speaker's own personal experience. The idea that we may be living at the end of history could be even more deeply-seated in our own generation than in Lowell's, though it seems, on a conscious level, that the American culture, literary and otherwise, is almost numb to it. Maybe the nature of the greatness game has changed to such an extent that we have come full circle. Maybe ambition for artistic greatness resides, in our time, in the embodiment in art of the same life-giving spirit that Whitman had the courage both to celebrate and doubt. In the words of Whitman's most influential teacher, Emerson:
It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect heis capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself), by abandonment to the nature of things; that beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public poweron which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him....