Sunday 5 May 2013

PP Topic (5): What Makes a 'Great' Poet?

Editorial Note

Since the outset of this year, PP has posed a topic for its chatroom on a monthly basis. Newly switched into a quarterly publication, we now have to make some changes accordingly: for each issue/quarter rather than for each month, we will continue to pose a topic for discussion. At the same time, we invite all those readers/visitors interested to participate by offering feedback or simply dropping by. Also, we welcome you to raise topics for PP's chatroom, and will eagerly post/publish whatever might be interesting to our readers/visitors. Our observations may be too biased from time to time, but they are meant to be 'broken bricks thrown out to attract beautiful jade,' as a famous Chinese saying goes.

The Observation

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that when it comes to poetry reading, everything is highly subjective, personal and individualized. Indeed, since every reading is a new poem (even if it is exactly the 'same' piece), it seems, more often than not, 'poetic luck' rather than 'poetic quality' that contributes most significantly to the making of a great poet in today's world. While all 'MFA'-related personnel as a powerful interest group may have been playing a dominant role, let us just consider this process:

1) An 'emerging' (or never-previously-published) author begins by making a whole series of poetry submissions to all kinds of literary outlets. After certain period of time, the author has work eventually accepted by one or even more well-recognized magazines. With such credit(s), the author becomes more acceptable to other publications.
2) Then, at certain juncture, the same author, or even another never-published one, pays certain sum(s) of money to take part in one or more poetry contests. About half a year later, the author wins a prestigious prize and, with this record, the author's popularity grows among name-hunting editors/publishers.
3) Famous as the author has become, all kinds of honor start to pile up on him/her, sometimes for political reasons, other times for economic concerns and, most of the time, for the Matthew Effect, until the author is recognized as a poetry lord or 'great' poet of the day.

This may sound incredible, but it is highly probable. If the author is lucky enough, his/her poetic talent, if any at all, is discovered by a few editors/judges/publishers, or readers in power, who somehow love something about the author's poetic work that may or may not necessarily have anything to do with the intrinsic quality of great poetry in the first place. Otherwise, it is quite difficult, if not entirely impossible, to account for this paradoxical situation: many 'great' or famous award-winning poets have written few lines that are really interesting to the common reader, while those collections put out one after another by some highly honoured poets contain few stanzas that show fine quality. In more cases than one might think, the 'greater' the poet, the less 'good' the work really seems to be; or, the bigger the name (of a poet or literary magazine), the 'smaller' the content.

In the past, a poet was traditionally recognized as great because of the poet's great artwork, as in the cases of Homer, Li Bai, Su Dongpo, Milton and Keats; however, in today's world where there are numerous literary contests and endless economic concerns, a poetry author could grow 'great' simply as a result of good luck; put another way, a poet has gained a great reputation mainly because certain 'wordlords' with certain idiosyncracies happen to hand-pick his/her work at the right moments for the right events. This certainly should not be the case. If not, then:

The Question

What contributes most significantly to the making of a 'great' poet in today's world?

Your written comments on or response to the topic are more than welcome in the box below or at

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