Dear Editor,

Ranking runs deep. For any foraging or hunting animal, to be able to weigh ripeness against inaccessibility, serving size against fleetness, is an essential part of survival. For any social animal, the discernment of relative standing counts the same. How could we, whose aesthetic sensibilities were surely grafted onto the rootstocks of courtship and hunger, not bring these talents to bear when we think about art?

Why aim for less than greatness, whatever that means? Yet the discussion in your March issue, fascinating and eloquent, also somehow discomforts. We want to make a difference, to contribute something that matters. We want the recognition of our companions. Go even deeper, earlier—we want love, we want the life-enabling breast. But inception is not fruition, and perhaps the discomfort is this: breast milk, love, esteem are not art. And while awareness of greatness, and even ambition toward it, may often (though certainly not always) be part of the generative process, they become soul-constrictions and a guarantee of failure if made its end. To treat artmaking as ego-salve would be to miss the true and at times disruptive role of art in our lives. This is why those who seek greatness have provided the material for tragedies (and comedies) from the time of Gilgamesh on—a man who failed to parry death with immortality and settled for building a wall.

Assessments of greatness in poetry, as is clear from March's exchange, arise from a work's effects on a given reader. The only objectivity is the arbitration of time, which means, simply, the accumulation of subjective judgments, and the hope that what's worth saving will have been saved. That Dickinson's sewn pages will not be lost, that those reciting the Odyssey will not all die of plague or famine, some bad year. Is a vanished masterpiece still a masterpiece, if remembered? If not?

Czeslaw Milosz—and I vote with those convinced of his contribution—meditated upon greatness all his life. I find nothing particularly chastened in his relationship to that idea. Milosz knew both his own worth and the sense of a fate that had spared him to witness and speak for the fates of others. His judgments (of others, of self) were rigorous, plentiful, and swift. Yet the most telling and beautiful of his thoughts on the subject was this: "Great was the chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning of the world." In such a statement, the energies move not toward ego and self but outward, accompanied by archetypal hounds. Leaping not after worldly success, but for what cannot be achieved—the only goal that holds its interest.

Originally Published: October 30th, 2005

Award-winning poet, essayist, and translator Jane Hirshfield is the author of several collections of verse, including The Beauty (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award, Come, Thief (2011), After (2006), shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize, and Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001), a finalist for the National Book Critics...

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