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.