Friday, July 08, 2005

excerpt from Other Traditions by John Ashbery

To this question, "Who is a major, who is a minor poet?" [Auden] replies, One is sometimes tempted to think it nothing but a matter of academic fashion: a poet is major if, in the curriculum of the average college English department, there is a course devoted solely to the study of his work, and a minor if there is not." He continues:

One cannot say that a major poet writes better poems than a minor; on the contrary, the chances are that, in the course of his lifetime, the major poet will write more bad poems than the minor. Nor, equally obviously, is is a matter of the pleasure the poet gives an individual reader: I cannot enjoy one poem by Shelley and am delighted by every line of William Barnes, but I know perfectly well that Shelley is a major poet, and Barnes a minor one. To qualify as a major, a poet, it seems to me, must satisfy about three and a half of the following conditions.

1. He must write a lot.

2. His poems must show a wide range of subject matter and treatment.

3. He must exhibit an unmistakable originality of vision and style.

4. In the case of all poets, we distinguish between their juvenilia and their mature work but, in the case of the major poet, the process of maturing continues until he dies so that, if confronted by two poems of his of equal merit but written at different times, the reader can immediately say which was written first. In the case of a minor poet, on the other hand, however excellent the two poems may be, the reader cannot settle the chronology on the basis of the poems themselves.

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