Having spent, now, some forty years seriously assaying not so much the possibilities of poetry as the pragmatics of my own residence in that particular wilderness, I have wondered continually just what it is that keeps poets going. This week's New York Times Book Review features a piece on poetry and greatness, "The Greatness Game" by David Orr, that seems to me quite beside the point.
The poetry "game" and the greatness "game" can never be the same; even if we have moved on, culturally, from an era in which "greatness" in poetry, however defined, was possible to one in which it is not, the fact remains that if we define "greatness" as that which poets seek, or ought to seek, then we are left with a hopeless realm of continual failure. Why would anyone subject himself or herself to such torture? Doesn't it make more sense to define "greatness" as an accident, a cultural side effect that has little or nothing to do with the real work of poets? If Eliot was "great," why wasn't Vachel Lindsay? The answer to that question may seem obvious: Eliot's poetry is great, we may say, and Lindsay's is not; we know that because in our canon Eliot is a great poet, and Lindsay nowhere to be found.
At this point, our tautology alarm ought to be ringing like mad. It is quite true that in the present, we define Eliot as a great poet. In 1925, Lindsay was so defined. Greatness, then, is a slippery slope. Any practicing poet who cares about "greatness" is playing a fool's game (though careers have imploded for that very reason). Philip Levine once observed to me that if you marched all the most "famous" poets on the planet down Broadway on a Friday afternoon, no one would know who the hell any of them were. That's "greatness" for you.
Meanwhile, poets go on doing what they do: writing the best poems they know how to write, when they can write them. I don't think it's the chimera of greatness that drives them most of the time.
A longish career in the classroom working with young writers interested (sometimes) in writing poems has taught me the unpredictability of the profession and the vagaries of the word talent (which I'd say belongs in roughly the same trash bin as greatness). Many times I have encountered young "poets" of genuine promise who write with wonderful facility (in the best sense of the word), or have a splendid innate linguistic grace, or an instinct for form, or . . . extend this list wherever you want: young writers who seem ready to take the art somewhere. They appear in the classroom, do what they do, and depart. Very often, if such "talented" folk reappear ten years down the road, they are lawyers or chemists or businessfolk; they have left poetry behind with their youth and gone on to other things. Another student may write more awkwardly but seems undiscourageable, rewriting the same hopeless poem forty times trying to improve it, and reads his or her way through piles of books with only flickering comprehension of the subtleties of what he or she is reading -- many times such people reappear years later as "real" poets, writing wonderfully.
What's the difference? The best word I know for it is obsession. For whatever reason, poetry has got under this person's skin, but not under that person's. It may be that the writer for whom the task comes easiest is the least likely to stick with it (though that is certainly not a law; it just happens that way sometimes) and the one who has to stretch for the gold ring--the one who has to transform to make it happen--is the one who stays in what Orr calls the "game."
This morning on the ever-pneumatic web site Boing Boing a piece called "The Neuroscience of Gambling" caught my attention; some of its findings go farther, I think, toward explaining the motivation of poets than Orr's misguided meditation. "One of the mysteries of gambling," we are told,
is that even when we should know we're going to lose, we somehow think we're going to win. Dr. Luke Clark, from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, may have discovered one of the reasons why. Using MRI, he studied brain activity in people gambling, looking particularly at "near misses" in which a loss seems close to a win. He found that the brain activated the same reward system that is activated in a real win, despite the fact that people report that these near misses are unpleasant.
Bingo. Some chemistry in the brain--call it the Muse Neurotransmitter--is capable of turning continual failure into the perception of success. If this is not a good description of poesis, I don't know what is; it seems to me, at least, a better explanation for the obsession that drives most of the poets I know than the quest for a nonexistent "greatness."
I realize there is a paradox built into this scenario--though it's a paradox built on actual human behavior. Personally--perhaps because I am a victim of that particular vortex myself--I would take a paradox over a tautology any day.