New York Times writer David Orr begins a recent article with a great hook for poetry readers, that Library of America has issued a volume of poems by John Ashbery. Terrific enough, we think, but this a segue for what he really wishes to talk about, that the publication of this particular volume of Ashbery's poems signals that soon we will be without a Great American Poet once Ashbery, now 83, passes on. He writes What will we do when Ashbery and his generation are gone? Because for the first time since the early 19th century, American poetry may be about to run out of greatness. The entire piece can be read here.
A decent read, as far as it goes, but there's something that sounds much too ginned up about Orr's assessment. The sudden obsession with greatness in American poetry seems a phony crisis amid a plentitude of real ones. Greatness in a poet is not at once obvious, and in fact one must confess the great reputations of Whitman, Stevens, Williams and even Ashbery himself are socially constructed. It has everything to do with an accumulation of critical opinion, a subjective lagoon if one ever existed in nature; Ashbery, great as I think he is, didn't come by his greatness over night, and I think the best way he got his current stature is the fact that he didn't die , he didn't quit writing, and he kept publishing. I doubt there's anyone we'd consider a Great American Poet who didn't come by their standing as Great much the same way. One might also remember that our great poets in their day became great over turning previous standards and establishing their own, signature innovations that, in turn, became the standard for generations afterwards. Ashbery is the last great American Poet of his generation, perhaps, but he isn't the last great poet this country will ever have.
Saying so falls into the fretting, hang wringing sub-Spenglerites who want to predict the death of various arts and institution--the novel, painting, theatre, whatever is old, venerated and in need of a bullet to the head. It's a straw man argument; what we'll have is a new standard, introduced by a generation interrogating an critiquing the previous efforts and ideas of the older avant gard, poems and ideas most of us will no doubt be disgusted by, but new ideas that, with time and new distribution technology, will become a new standard, an addition to the canon, until such time their sons and daughters figure it’s time to knock the current crop of musty posers from their pedastals.