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But they are usually brief, they resemble each other, they are anecdotal, they do not extend themselves, they make no great claims, they connect small things to other small things.Ambitious poems usually require a certain length for magnitude; one need not mention monuments like The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queen, Paradise Lost, or The Prelude.
"I would sooner fail," said Keats at twenty-two, "than not be among the greatest." When he died three years later he believed in his despair that he had done nothing, the poet of "Ode to a Nightingale" convinced that his name was "writ in water." But he was mistaken, he was mistaken. If I praise the ambition that drove Keats, I do not mean to suggest that it will ever be rewarded.
We never know the value of our own work, and everything reasonable leads us to doubt it: for we can be certain that few contemporaries will be read in a hundred years.
To desire to write poems that endure—we undertake such a goal certain of two things: that in all likelihood we will fail, and that if we succeed we will never know it. If our goal in life is to remain content, no ambition is sensible. If our goal is to write poetry, the only way we are likely to be any good is to try to be as great as the best.3.
Every now and then I meet someone certain of personal greatness. But for some people it seems ambitious merely to set up as a poet, merely to write and to publish.
"Epithalamion," "Lycidas," and "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" are sufficiently extended, not to mention "The Garden" or "Out of the Cradle." Not to mention the poet like Yeats whose briefer works make great connections.
I do not complain that we find ourselves incapable of such achievement; I complain that we seem not even to entertain the desire.4.Then the poem lives at some distance from its creator's little daily emotions; it can take on its own character in the mysterious place of satisfying shapes and shapely utterance. Sometimes the poet who has passed this developmental stage will forget duty to the art of poetry and again serve the petty egotism of the self. But if everyone suffers from interest, everyone may pursue disinterest.The poem freed from its precarious utility as ego's appendage may possibly fly into the sky and become a star permanent in the night air. Then there is a possible further stage: when the poet becomes an instrument or agency of art, the poem freed from the poet's ego may entertain the possibility of grandeur.Thus the puniness of our unambitious syntax and limited vocabulary.When we have read the great poems we can study as well the lives of the poets.For us, fame tends to mean Johnny Carson and People magazine. We have a culture crowded with people who are famous for being famous.5. At twelve, say, the American poet-to-be is afflicted with generalized ambition. There is an early stage when the poem becomes more important than the poet; one can see it as a transition from the lesser egotism to the greater.For Keats as for Milton, for Hector as for Gilgamesh, it meant something like universal and enduring love for the deed done or the song sung. True ambition in a poet seeks fame in the old sense, to make words that live forever. (Robert Frost wanted to be a baseball pitcher and a United States senator: Oliver Wendell Holmes said that nothing was so commonplace as the desire to appear remarkable; the desire may be common but it is at least essential.) At sixteen the poet reads Whitman and Homer and wants to be immortal. At the stage of lesser egotism, the poet keeps a bad line or an inferior word or image because that's the way it was: that's what really happened.It is useful, in the pursuit of models, to read the lives and letters of the poets whose work we love. In all societies there is a template to which its institutions conform, whether or not the institutions instigate products or activities that suit such a pattern.In the Middle Ages the Church provided the model, and guilds and secret societies erected their colleges of cardinals.Yet, alas, when the poet tastes a little fame, a little praise. And this grandeur, by a familiar paradox, may turn itself an apparent 180 degrees to tell the truth.Only when the poem turns wholly away from the petty ego, only when its internal structure fully serves art's delicious purposes, may it serve to reveal and envision.