So careerism and po-mo skepticism have combined to make the poet's quest for greatness seem quaint ("Ambition and Greatness: An Exchange," March 05"). This has of course been the conventional wisdom for quite some time. Donald Hall made the point in his "Poetry and Ambition" essay twenty-odd years ago, when he told us we had entered the age of the "McPoem." Clearly the poets who contributed to your discussion have thought long and hard about the matter of greatness and ambition, and it is encouraging to know that none of them think like McPoets. But I found myself more than a little depressed by their comments, because the one thing the participants seem to agree upon is that the claims that can be made for poetry in our century have to be small. They valorize the small, and the poets they toutBishop, O'Hara, Dugan, Larkin, even Amichai and Walcottmuch as I love their work, are small, at least when you compare their ambitions to those of the principal modernists, or even several of the poets of the middle generation. Sure, the
triumphalism of the modernists seems a bit silly now, and the climate of Modernism made for a fair number of monstrosities, not the least of which is The Cantos. But these poets wanted to change the world, andquixotic as that project may have beenI mourn the loss of that aspiration, and I am distressed that the poets who participated in your exchange did not explore the ramifications of this loss.
Last year I dutifully made my way through that behemoth Collected of Robert Lowell, who was probably the last American poet to aspire to Greatness in the old fashioned, capital-G sense. There's an undercurrent of pathos in the book: for reasons having to do with character and brain chemistry, Lowell failed at his goal, however mightily he strove for it. Yet Lowell represents everything we miss in our Era of Downsize: scrupulous, merciless self-appraisal; an astonishing understanding of the tradition that didn't preclude the desire to reconfigure that tradition; and finallyand this is the aspect of Lowell which after November second of last year I miss the mostan abiding sense of the poet's civic responsibilities. While Frank O'Hara was mentioning Khrushchev in an otherwise standard-issue New York School doodle, Lowell was writing "For the Union Dead," which seems to me the most enduring American political poem of the last half-century, a lyric which elegantly and convincingly fuses social protest with the personal. And you see this quality even in lesser Lowell poems such as "Inauguration Day: January 1953." Imagine how confidently Lowell would have cut the administration of George Dubyah down to size! But of course in our Era of Downsize poets seem more inclined to wring their hands about the NEA's recent coziness with the Department of Defense (doing so in earnest and carefully composed letters to the editor in Poetry), than they are to study the formidable example of "For the Union Dead." The old belief in great poets may well have perished, but great poems are still there, and some of them matter more than they ever have.