Saturday, March 21, 2009

Some Questions about Major Poems

William Butler Yeats, originator of many 'major poems'

Not a military high-achiever, Major Poems, but a type of writing which seems to have eluded me to date. I have dreadful, unexplained upper back pain at the moment; having spent some hours today typing up recent poems from my notebook, it is now far worse. In this admittedly wretched mood, I find myself wondering - not for the first time, alas - why so many of my poems end up as minor notes instead of major chords.

I wonder whether a comparison of major poems of the twentieth-century might throw some light on this question. But whose poems would make the list? (One thinks instantly of Yeats and his numerous political masterpieces, of 'Easter, 1916', and that haunting opening line, 'I have met them at close of day'.) And what might these poems have in common to justify their greatness?

Among the various things to be considered, I list, somewhat arbitrarily:
time of writing
point of writing within a poet's career ...

For instance, is it only older poets, in general, rather than younger poets, who write major poems?

And does any particular style of writing preclude the writing of a major poem? One might say, for instance, comic. Yet we have comic masterpieces too. Stevie Smith's 'Not Waving but Drowning' is one example. But again, is that major or merely memorable?

If so, what are the criteria for a poem becoming major rather than 'merely memorable' or striking enough to have stood the test of time? Do we say 'This is a major poem' straightaway, or do we wait for anthologists and critics to tell us which poems are major?

Bloom would include 'influence' on my list, no doubt. The influence of a precursor. But influence means nothing without an accompanying act of rebellion to spark originality.

The only thing I return to here, again and again, is that a major poem must possess, or represent in itself, an important idea. Yet clearly it is not the idea which makes it important, or one could simply state an idea in prose and it would qualify as a major poem. So the important idea or ideas would be accompanied by ...

Or are such questions ultimately pointless?

I don't believe, like Keats, that poems should come naturally or not at all. Art is about making it look natural, hiding the brushstrokes. But they are always there, nonetheless.


Bo said...

I think this is a good question - sorry to hear about the back though. Somatised tension, that is.
i think another aspect of it might be capturing the Zeitgeist: 'The Second Coming', going back to Yeats, is such a masterpiece because it addresses world events, a convulsion in the collective psyche, through extremely powerful imagery, and without being merely incidental or topical. It is a metaphysical burning glass. It is (I've always throught) profoundly plutonian, though Pluto wasn't disovered till a decade after its publication. (Poets as weathervanes for the collective again.)

BarbaraS said...

Get the back checked out -I have a similar thing, recently diagnosed as arthritis... although I think it's just workitis, or kiditis, depending on the day.

Here's a thing I've been thinking about, 'Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,' which sort of ties into that last para of 'art making it look natural.'

'No ideas but in things,' says WCW. What he says sounds limiting until you liberate the ideas. To do that, you must... wait. It's all about time.

Jane Holland said...

Interesting. And it's not possible to write in a way that captures the Zeitgeist by design, through deliberative thought; it's an instinctive, internally absorbed reaction to and comprehension of the times in which one lives. The poet as weathervane, as you say.

So difficult, being a poet. I don't believe in poetry that 'appears' unworked out of the ether. Yet conversely, I don't believe you can approach a poem like a spread-sheet. You can't plan a poem the way you might plan a novel, for instance. The more cold-blooded one is, the harder it becomes to write freely and with the authority of truth.

The back and neck pain, I now suspect, was due to furious, all-day note-taking in the Bodleian on Thursday. Though also some unresolved tension over personal goals not achieved. I got up early this morning - Mother's Day - and have been working on my novel ever since, preparing it to go off speculatively to some more agents, something I've been putting off for weeks. And now the back pain has almost gone.

Mairi said...

Sometimes I think there's too much going on in our zeit to be able to catch the geist of it at all and so minor poems are what we need. Poets like Eamon Grennan, Anne Michaels or Jane Kenyon, for example, keep us rooted in the everyday, which we at least have a hope of getting a handle on. As for the major poems, I think maybe there's something in your idea about older poets. Seamus Heaney talks about poetic authority in an essay he wrote about Auden. (any major poems there?) He says "By poetic authority I mean the rights and weight which accrue to a voice not only because of a sustained history of truth-telling but by virtue also of its tonality, the sway it gains over the deep ear and, through that, over the other parts of our mind and nature." Surely this poetic authority is required to make what you're calling a major poem, and surely it would take considerable experience to gain it.

BarbaraS said...

Ah! Tensions resolved then - all good!

Steven Waling said...

Are such questions ultimately pointless? seems to me to be the best comment on this question, because that's basically what it is. If you spend your life worrying about whether your writing is "important" enough, you'll send yourself to an early grave. Write the poems that seem important enough to you to write, and leave the rest to history.

Jane Holland said...

I know where you're coming from with that, Steven, and I asked it myself, but at the same time, if no poet ever asked those questions or was interested in exploring how great poems are written, we wouldn't have some of the wonderful critical writing left behind as a legacy by questioning poets like Coleridge, Keats, Eliot, etc.

Mairi said...

Jane, I just stopped by again to say that I read Ben Wilkinson's review of Maura Dooley in the TLS and when I went looking for his poems the search engine sent me back here. So thanks for the glimpse at an interesting writer.
For my future reference, was there something wrong with my comment on major poems or did I make a mistake in submitting it? I enjoyed your posting on the subject and the comments that have followed.

Jane Holland said...

For some reason your previous comment didn't come up in my email inbox, Mairi, that's all. When I logged in and spotted it, I put it through at once. Some glitch in the Blogger system, I guess. Doesn't happen often, luckily. Sorry about that. :)